Hydroponic growing is a form of growing plants in water rather than soil. The word literally means “water-toil” implying the water does the work that the soil would normally do. Hydroponic growing can be done exclusively in water or with plants supported by an aggregate such as gravel or pebbles. Both methods require a special type of hydroponic fertilizer be added to the water to provide nutrients the dirt would have otherwise.
Hydroponics have become popular today for a number of reasons though the concept itself is hundreds of years old. First, hydroponic growing requires less space and maintenance, and is less prone to pests and certain diseases while producing a larger quantity of tomatoes bigger in size that come to maturity faster. It also is seen as a modern and environmentally friendly choice due to the act of using recycled water and nutrients. There are few arguments against the technique, though setting up can be costly in some cases, requires a bit of knowledge and without proper care can be a disaster.
The first step in to be taken to grow hydroponic plants is to plan out the system you wish to use and build it.
Hydroponic systems come in seven basic different types of set ups. Here is a brief look at each:
Hand Watered System:
This is the most basic form of hydroponics. Plants are simply placed in pots without soil but with an aggregate mix instead, such as a mix of perlite, vermiculite, and nutrient free coconut coir. The vermiculite and cocoanut core hold water for several days so the user only comes along every few days and feeds the plants with a mixture of hydroponic plant food and water.
Reservoir Method System:
Also called the deep water culture or DWC method, it is regarded as the second easiest method of growing hydroponic. This method entails placing plant pots filled with an aggregate in a deep basin of nutrient enriched water. A bubbler is placed in the water to oxygenate the plants and hole is cut in the bottom of the pots to allow rots to extend into the water. The water must be kept from the light or it will grow algae and attracts gnats. Styrofoam is often used to hold plants and block light from the water tray.
Ebb and Flow System:
Also known as the flood and drain method. This method is some what of a less manual form of the hand water system. Plant pots filled with an aggregate sit in a tray which is connected by a pump to a separate water nutrient reservoir. The water is periodically pumped into the tray feeding the plants. This is usually done on a plant timer and varies in increment by the type of aggregate used. This method is considered rather hands free but prone to power-outages and pump failure. When roots become dry hydroponic grow systems due rather quickly.
There are actually two slight variations of this method. Both begin similar to the ebb and flow system in that the plants are in a separate tub than the water mixture within an aggregate. In the drip system small tubes are run to each plant and the water is pumped through them to drip onto the plants. In one version the water is recycled and returns to the separate basin, in the other the water is not recovered and the basin must be refilled periodically. Both systems are used on a timer. This is thought to be the most widely used hydroponic system, however tubing is prone to clogs and the system faces the same power supply and pump failure issues as the ebb and flow.
Nutrient Film Technique of NFT System:
This technique is the first that offers a no aggregate option. In a NFT system plants are suspended above a growing tray which is most commonly a tube. They can be within a aggregate mix with roots hanging into the tube or simply suspended roots within the tray plant exposed above. A water pump constantly pushes a mixture of water and nutrients through-out the tray. This system is popular because it is easy to make and maintain as they require no timer. The pump of course would be prone to power outages however and allowing the roots to dry will quickly kill plants. Plants grown in this matter must also be started another way until root systems are large enough to reach the water flow.
A non-powered version of the reservoir method so to speak the wick system also has plants suspended in an aggregate above a basin of nutrient water. A type of absorbent material such as nylon is suspended into the water reservoir and is planted in the bottom of the plants pot. Similar to the wick of an oil lantern the water is absorbed into the material and drawn up into the plant. This method is one of the few not dependent on power, but wicks sometimes need to be replaced and proper moisture levels can be difficult to maintain.
Considered the most difficult but high-tech method of hydroponic growing aeroponic systems do not use an aggregate. Plants are placed suspended in a deep basin which has a water nutrient in the bottom. A high pressure pump pushes the water through spray emitters which mist the roots with the solution. These systems are set up on a timer. They are said to be for the more advanced hydroponic grower as if can be hard to get ph and nutrient balances correct.
Setting up your hydroponic system:
Once you have determined the type of hydroponic grow system you wish to use the second step is to set it up. Clearly for each seven methods this would require a different process. You can buy ready made kits at locations such as Bed Bath and Beyond for several methods though they can be expensive, or you can make your own.
Existing plans of many systems can be found online rather easily or in hydroponic grow books. However even with the brief explanations above it should be easy to dream up your own system if you like. Before setting up your system be sure to purchase and research the proper nutrient mixtures for tomato plants. Naturally without food your plants will die no matter how good of a system you have acquired.
A list of things you’ll likely need in any system chosen:
*Hydroponic nutrient mix
*Tomato Plants or seeds
*A basin, tub or tube of some sort
In most systems:
*A water pump
*A plant timer
*A power source
In some systems:
*A bubbler such as the ones used in fish tanks
*Nylon or another absorbent material
The final step is to put your tomato plants in your system and grow hydroponic.
Germinate your seeds and then plant them into root cubes, or if using seedlings allow to grow for about 2 weeks so that roots are well established. Using the hand watered system of hydroponic growing is a good way to help smaller seedlings transmission from seedling starter cubes to a full hydroponic system.
Before actually placing the plants in your system it is best to fill your water nutrient mixture, ensure you have the proper pH and balance for the plants your are growing and test the system to be sure it works properly. You may want to let it run plant-less for abou 24-48 hours to fully test the system.
Once plants have an adequate root ball and the system is set up and tested you can re-pot plants into your chosen system. If you choose to go aggregate-less to obtain simply plants and roots soak them about an hour and then gentle wash away to the bare roots.
How a hydroponic growing system is maintained will vary by your system. Most require little more than re-filling and/or replacing the water mixture and maintaining the pumps and plant timer. Hydroponic systems do require light. This does not need to be any special system individual to hydroponic growing. A window with sufficient sunlight or plant grow lights/ bulbs is fine, just be sure you are providing adequate light for the plants you have chosen to grow.
You may also enjoy:
How to Make Upside Down Planters
Recyclables in the Garden