Two easy ways you can incorporate hydroponics into your gardening

No fancy pumps or flood tables required!

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A large-scale NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) system. Photo by Harits Mustya Pratama on Unsplash

If you’ve ever tried sprouting an avocado pit in a glass of water or appreciated the beauty of water lilies in a pond, you’ve seen the magic of hydroponics in action. Hydroponics is rapidly gaining popularity as an alternative growing method that works wonders, particularly in food and herb production. But despite the technical-sounding name, hydroponics is a sustainable (and manageable) form of gardening, no matter what your experience level is.

The basic components of any hydroponics system are water, nutrients, and air (typically circulated via a water pump or bubbler). Of course, like any garden, the environment needs to be conducive to plant growth. That means plenty of light, protection from the elements, and a plant-friendly temperature (usually between 70–80 degrees Fahrenheit). One of the best parts of hydroponics is the ability to grow year-round, but in order to do that, the temperature and light may need to be manually controlled via grow lights, heat lamps, insulated grow chambers or temperature-controlled greenhouses.

While large-scale hydroponics systems can be complicated and expensive to maintain, a hydroponic setup for the home gardener is easily attainable. In fact, the majority of the tools required to get started are common household items.

Whether you’re living in a small apartment with no room for a soil garden, or you’re just interested in trying something new, hydroponics can change the way you garden. Just follow these simple steps and you’ll be on your way to soilless growing in no time!

Propagation in a bottle

Do you have a favorite house plant you’d like to clone? Or maybe you’ve run out of garden space for all those tomato cuttings you wanted to start? You can easily propagate cuttings hydroponically. All you need is a glass jar, some clean water (filtered is nice but not necessary), and some rooting hormone (available at any plant nursery, usually in powder form).

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Photo by June Liu on Unsplash

If you don’t have glass bottles, you can use plastic containers, just make sure they are food-grade to avoid any unwanted chemicals leaching into your plant. Before you take a cutting of the plant you’d like to propagate, start by sanitizing the knife or set of clippers you’re planning to use. Fungal and bacterial infections spread quickly within hydroponic systems, so make sure to always use clean containers and utensils.

The location and type of cutting you make will depend on the plant variety. Some plants propagate better from nodal cuttings, others prefer leaf bud cuttings, etc. Do your research first to guarantee maximum success. It’s best to take your cutting during a cool part of the day, after the plant has received a watering. If you’re taking a cutting from a plant that produces fruit, select a branch that has vegetative buds, not flowers.

Once you’ve got your cutting, remove the lower leaves (if there are any). The more leaves there are on the cutting, the more energy the plant is going to expend trying to feed them. During propagation, you want the plant to be solely focused on growing roots, not leaves. Use a knife to slightly wound the bottom of the cutting before dipping it into the rooting hormone. This will ensure the plant takes up more of the hormone.

Place the cutting in a clean jar filled with enough water to submerge about 40–50 percent of the cutting. If there are already roots on your cutting, make sure those are fully submerged, but don’t submerge too much of the stalk. Keep the leaf-growing section of the plant above water, or it won’t be able to produce leaves and fruit (plants can drown, too!).

Place the jar on a sunlit windowsill or kitchen counter — anywhere it will receive at least 6–8 hours of sunshine and stay between 70–80 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep an eye on the water level, and if it starts to drop below the root line, top it off. You should change the water out every 7–10 days to prevent any sort of bacteria growing.

Within a month (or more, depending on the plant), you will begin to see roots sprouting. Keep the plant in the jar until the roots have grown to be a couple inches long, or the new plant has produced four new leaves. Once this has occurred, you’re ready to transplant!

The plant may take a few days to adjust to living in soil, so be sure to monitor the temperature and soil dryness carefully to mitigate any other stress factors on the plant. And if you don’t have a soil garden to transplant to, you can keep on growing in the jar! Mix your plant a little cocktail of fertilizer every couple months and it will be perfectly fine.

Cup o’ clay pebbles

You’ve heard of Fruity Pebbles, but have you tried growing in clay pebbles? Expanded clay pebbles are a great growing medium to use in a hydroponic garden. Not only are they reusable and organic, they’re also pH-neutral, which means they won’t affect the acidity of your water. And there’s just something so fun about growing plants in “soil” that looks like Cocoa Puffs.

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Clay pebbles are essentially just clay that has been heated until it expands, much like bread dough in the oven. The pebbles are extremely porous, which provides plenty of aeration for plant roots. The only thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need to rinse the clay pebbles very well before using them, to remove the red dust and dirt they easily collect. It’s also helpful to soak the pebbles in water for a few hours before using them, as this will provide the plant with a moist environment right away.

To get started on your own clay pebble garden, you’ll want to pick a plant that already has some well-established roots and stems. This is not the best growing medium for starting small shoots or propagating young cuttings, as the clay pebbles are quite large and don’t provide quite enough support for tender plants. However, you can always crush the clay pebbles to create a friendlier environment for younger plants.

For this system (known as the Kratky method), you’ll need some sort of a large container with a lid. Five-gallon buckets work really well, but if you’re looking for a smaller setup, even a standard kitchen pot will do. You can use Styrofoam, plastic or another material of choice for the lid; it just needs to be pliable enough for you to be able to cut a hole in the center, and sturdy enough to support the weight of the growing plant.

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Once you’ve got the container and the lid, you’ll need a net pot (not to be confused with a neti pot, which is very different). This is a webbed plastic pot which allows the plant to easily access water and nutrients. Net pots come in a variety of sizes, so pick the one that will fit in the hole of the lid you’ve chosen for your container.

Fill half of the net pot with rinsed and soaked clay pebbles, place your plant inside, and then cover the remaining space with more pebbles, taking care to avoid covering above the root line.

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Place the net pot in the hole of the container lid, with the plant roots dangling through the bottom of the pot and into the container. Fill the container with just enough water so that about half of the plant’s roots are submerged, and the remaining half has access to oxygen. Add some nutrients to the water every few weeks, especially if your plant is going to produce fruit or heavy foliage. An all-in-one hydroponic mix will contain all the micronutrients and macronutrients your plants need.

Keep the container in a well-lighted area with a steady, hospitable temperature. As the plant continues to grow, it will naturally take up more water, keeping the pocket of air between the water line and the lid of the container. Add more water if the water line drops too low or the clay pebbles start to dry out.

After three to four weeks, you should begin to see some serious results. This system works best for growing greens such as lettuce or kale, and herbs like sage or basil.

That’s all there is to it! No need to mess around with weeding, tilling, or keeping the rabbits out. Hydroponic gardening provides faster yields and healthier, nutrient-rich produce. Whether you’re living in a skyrise apartment or a log cabin, gardening is always within your reach.

Freelancer from Arizona, USA. I write about health and wellness, agriculture, science, travel, and lifestyle.

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