Beginner’s Guide to Hydroponic Gardening

By: Chris | Last Updated: November 17, 2020

So you’ve decided all this hydroponic gardening stuff sounds pretty cool? I agree; it is awesome!

If this is your first adventure into hydroponics, the topic can seem really complicated. You have tons of questions, and indecision is probably high. I understand that. I was faced with the same challenges when I first dove into hydroponics.

This article will not only provide you with a basic understanding of the hydroponic concept; it will also provide you with some great starting points. No matter how lost you think you are, you’ll be a hydro pro in no time!

What is hydroponics and how does it work?

The simplest explanation: soilless gardening. 

In conventional farming, plants draw nutrients from the soil. The soil itself is useful only as a substrate or support system for plants and root systems.

Hydroponic gardening uses soilless support mediums and provides nutrients directly to the plant root systems via nutrient solutions. Nutrient solution is a fancy way of saying water-soluble fertilizers mixed with good ole water.

A hydroponic garden can be either indoors or outdoors. I prefer indoor systems because they are easier to manage, and pests don’t pose much of a threat. If you are planning an outdoor system, make sure you account for weather, pests, and natural plant diseases.

What can be grown hydroponically?

Virtually any plant can be grown hydroponically. Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, arugula, and bok choy grow exceptionally well in soilless systems. Herbs love it too!

Understanding the support and growing requirements of a plant can help you plan the best way to grow it in a soilless environment. You are not limited to leafy greens and can use soilless systems to produce anything from potatoes to peppers if you provide for the plant’s needs correctly.

Want more information on growing specific plants in a soilless setting?

Check out the Growing section of the website for step-by-step guides that will help you become a hydroponic hero!

Hydroponic System
Hydroponic Butter Lettuce

What are the Benefits of Hydroponic Gardening?

There are endless benefits to hydroponic gardening ranging from the tangible to the intangible. In addition to providing wonderfully high-quality produce, my indoor garden has been a therapeutic adventure. I love walking into the kitchen and seeing plants growing. Plants that I brought into existence from dormant seeds. 

Beyond the philosophical, there are many other benefits to soilless gardening compared to conventional gardening. Here are a few!

Conservation of Water
I know that sounds crazy at first, but hydroponic gardening is an efficient and effective way to grow plants with minimal amounts of water. 

If hydroponic plants rely on a steady supply of water, how do they conserve water? That’s simple. In most systems, the nutrient solution provided to plants recirculates continuously. Water and nutrients can be added to top off the reservoir as plants absorb the nutrient solution, resulting in almost zero water waste.

Environmental Control
Controlling the environment plants grow in is a cool, sciency way to grow things. There is no need to hope for rain, sun, clouds, or any other natural environmental factor. With a hydroponic garden, you create the environment most optimal for the plant you’re growing.


Controlled Nutrient Delivery to Plants
When planting in soil, gardeners have less control over the nutrient profile offered to plants. Many external factors affect the food a plant depends on for proper health and growth. These factors include soil conditions, rainfall, drought, and other organic interactions. Hydroponic gardening allows for providing plants with the specific nutrients they need to thrive.

Lower Levels of Pests & Disease
Conventional gardeners are always fighting against plant disease and pests. As long as the equipment is cleaned and maintained, indoor hydroponic gardens benefit from a low risk of disease and pest problems. It is essential to keep equipment clean to limit the growth of UV light-loving mildew.

No Seasonal Limitations
Outdoor vegetable gardens have specific growing seasons relative to temperature and daily light/dark intervals. Indoor gardens allow you to produce your favorite foods regardless of the time of year. Fresh garden-grown salad greens in December? No problem!

Limited Space Requirements/Scaleable
You can make your hydroponic garden as large or small as you want. Transform a sunny window sill into a lettuce, spinach, or herb garden using Kratky Method mason jars. Have a little more space? A small deep water culture (DWC) system will easily fit on a countertop. There are tons of options available!

Save Money, Grow Your Food
Produce is expensive; good produce is really expensive. Trendy produce, such as microgreens, is ridiculously expensive. Save money and grow your own! An indoor garden is an excellent way to save money and always have your favorite produce in stock. You might even be able to start an indoor soilless garden with some containers or jars you already have sitting around the house!

What are the components of a hydroponic system?

While basic systems, such as the Kratky Method, require minimal components you’ll eventually want to upgrade to something more robust. Why? If you have space, there are more efficient ways to grow plants.

Planning your hydroponic system is a lot easier if you have a little knowledge about the essential components that make up most hydroponic systems. In general, a system needs to be able to support/hold a plant, deliver the nutrient solution to the plant, and provide UV light. 

Metering Tools
This type of gardening requires a slightly more scientific approach than more conventional methods. Don’t let that scare you away. It’s part of the fun! You don’t need a ton of advanced tools. All you need is a pH meter and an electrical conductivity (EC) meter. 

VIVOSUN pH and TDS/EC Meter Combo
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This cheap pH & EC/TDS meter kit will get you started.

A pH meter helps you balance the pH of your nutrient solution (fertilizer & water). The EC meter enables you to make sure you’re providing the right amount of nutrients for the amount of water available to the plants. By using these tools you will be able to quickly learn the best pH & EC combinations for your specific plant needs.

Basic Chemicals
You only really need two “chemicals” to get started. You’ll need one chemical to lower pH levels, and one chemical to raise pH levels. These two chemicals will be used to pH balance the water/nutrient solution you provide your plants.

General Hydroponics pH Control Kit
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The most commonly used pH balancing chemicals are known as pH UP and pH DOWN by General Hydroponics. I use this in all my systems and highly recommend it.

Growing Medium
In traditional gardening, soil provides support for a plant and its root structure. Support needs to be replicated in hydroponic gardening as well. Grow mediums also perform the ever-important task of holding moisture. There are many choices when it comes to hydroponic growing mediums.

Popular grow mediums include; coco coir, expanded clay pellets (hydroton), rockwool starter cubes, vermiculite, perlite, sand, and wood chips. I use expanded clay pellets and rockwool starter cubes in most of my systems.

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Tip: If you plan to use hydroton, buy it from a local hydroponics shop if you can. You’ll save a lot of money compared to buying online.

Grow Tray or Chamber
A grow tray is simply the tray or tube that a plant sits on/in. Grow trays can come in all sorts of shapes and configurations, usually determined somewhat by the hydroponic system you decide to use. 

Don’t let the names fool you, this doesn’t have to be a tray or “chamber”. You can use anything from a gutter to PVC pipe to create a growing environment for your plants. In my ebb & flow systems, I use mortar mixing tubs from Lowes. They’re tough and they’re cheap.

Nutrient Reservoir
The nutrient reservoir holds the nutrient solution that is provided to the plants. Delivery to the plants is based on the type of hydroponic system. For instance, in a deep water culture (DWC) system the grow tray mounts directly on top of the nutrient reservoir, and the plant roots are always in contact with the nutrient solution. 

In ebb & flow systems, an electric pump moves nutrient solution from the reservoir to the grow tray. Systems like this use a timer to control when the pump is on or off. Once the pump shuts off, the nutrient solution drains back into the reservoir.

Cheap Hydroponic Reservoir

I use cheap plastic totes for nutrient reservoirs. You can buy them at Lowes, Home Depot, and other big box stores.

Pro Tip: Don’t buy these totes online unless you have to. They are WAY over-priced.

Tubing
In most hydroponic systems, tubing delivers nutrient solution to and from the reservoir and grow tray. In my ebb & flow systems, I use ½” tubing for pumping solution and ¾” tubing for overflow drains. The size and type of tubing needed will be based on the system you select.

Black tubing works best because it helps block UV light, but go with what you can get.

Pumps & Aerators
Hydroponic systems rely on nutrient solution being supplied to the root systems of plants. Water pumps are used to accomplish this. Pumps deliver water from the nutrient reservoir to the grow tray or trays. 

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Aerators are useful in all systems and are vital to deep water culture (DWC) systems. By oxygenating liquid in the nutrient reservoir, aerators keep the solution fresh and discourage bacteria and mildew growth. This oxygen also helps plants absorb nutrients more efficiently.

Size pumps and aerators according to your specific hydroponic system specifications. These specs don’t have to be super scientific, but you don’t want to put an 800gph pump in a 5-gallon ebb and flow system. You’d end up with nutrient solution all over the floor. 

Light Source
Outdoor plants need varied amounts and intensities of sunlight to thrive. Indoor plants need light as well. This need for UV light can be satisfied with sunlight if you have a sunny room or windowsill, but the best way to manage indoor plants is with electronic grow lights. You don’t need super expensive grow lights to make your indoor plants happy. 

If you’re just getting started and want to try LED lighting, the Mars Hydro TS 600 is a super affordable yet effective grow light. It will easily support a 2ft x 2ft hydroponic garden. If you’re planning to start with leafy greens, it can support a garden close to 3ft x 3ft in size. I’ve been running 2 TS 600 grow lights every day for almost a year with no issues at all. I even dropped one, and it held up just fine.

MARS HYDRO TS 600W LED Grow Light
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Check out this guide to indoor grow lights for more information on sizing and selecting grow lights based on your needs.

Seeds
Obviously, you’re going to need seeds to grow plants in your hydroponic garden! 

The seed planted in your garden is the foundation for growth and quality. Do yourself a favor and source high-quality seed from a reputable company. Big box stores sell mass-produced seed that is often subpar quality. 

Great sources for quality seed include local farm stores, and online seed growers. I purchase seed from both. My local farm supply store carries a wide variety of high-quality seed that grows well in the local climate. Alternatively, I also diversify my plant selection with seed from my favorite online source: True Leaf Market. They have a great selection of Non-GMO heirloom seeds, plus they’re a super cool company to do business with.

Note: Retail chain stores, like Tractor Supply Company, are not farm stores. Instead, look for a local CO-OP or legitimate feed & seed store to source high quality seed.

Electricity
Most hydroponic systems include pumps or aerators, or both. More advanced systems will make use of timers, meters, and other cool gadgets. All of these require electricity in order to operate.

When planning your system, ensure you have adequate access to stable electricity so you can power the devices that keep your plants healthy. This isn’t a problem in a house but is worth more planning if your system will be outdoors or in a greenhouse.

How Much Space Do I need?

Wondering if you have enough space for a hydroponic garden? The short answer, yes. You can build or buy a system suited to a counter-top, or expand all the way out to massive greenhouse growing systems. This scalability is what I fell in love with. Truly anyone can do it!

Have a spare closet? You can turn that into a small garden. I built my first system in a spare room in the house, which was a luxury. This extra room allowed me to experiment with several systems to quickly find a favorite.

How Much Does a Hydroponic System Cost?

I don’t want to keep going back to the “well it depends” line, but it really does depend on the size and complexity of the system you decide to build or buy. 

Prefer that I throw out some actual dollar amounts to help you get an idea of a basic starting cost for a couple systems? You got it!

First up, the Kratky Method. This method requires a container, a plant, grow medium, a net cup or pool noodle, light source, seed, and nutrient solution. A single Kratky container will grow 1 plant. The container or mason jar is one of the cheaper components.

Kratky Method Cost Planning

Total Initial Cost: $95.81
Total Per Plant: $4.17
Learn how to make a DIY Kratky Mason Jar System.

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Basic Ebb & Flow (Flood & Drain) Cost Planning

Total Initial Cost: $196.92
Total Per Plant: $0.40

It’s important to look at the total cost per plant when estimating costs. Kratky Method is a very inexpensive way to get into hydroponics, but it is not the most cost effective or efficient way to grow plants at scale. On the other hand, the basic Ebb & Flow System has an initial cost twice that of a Kratky System, but has a 400% lower cost per plant. 

When considering how much to spend on a system, keep cost per plant in mind. In the long run, this is what will save money and provide you with a more beneficial system.

Lettuce Seedlings in Ebb & Flow Hydroponic System
Basic Ebb & Flow Hydroponic System

Happy Hydroponic Farming

My biggest hope with this article is that it helps you identify something that sparks your interest. I hope that spark is enough to ignite your passion for hydroponic gardening! 

The world of hydroponic gardening can seem overwhelming at first. Don’t worry about picking the “perfect” setup. Instead, choose something that you think will fit your needs (space, budget, etc.) and stick with it. Build or buy the system, learn it, and then progress from that point. Don’t fall prey to analysis paralysis!

Get started today! You’ll be so glad you did.

Chris Cook started Happy Hydro Farm to share his passion for hydroponic gardening! Growing your own food is incredibly rewarding both physically and mentally. His mantra - "Take excellent care of your plants, and your plants will take excellent care of you."