How to Make a DIY Hydroponic System
Get growing with your own DIY hydroponic garden system. We've got everything you need to know for getting started in hydroponic gardening.
It doesn't take much to build an effective DIY hydroponic garden, which nourishes plants with nutrient-rich water rather than soil.
Hydroponic gardening is a great way for those with limited space to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and even ornamental plants. While it sounds intense and complicated, hydroponic gardening is a simple concept. And, with so many different types of hydroponic gardens, each with different pros and cons as well as a wide range of price points, there are options for gardeners of all levels of experience and growing budgets.
So, whether you decide to purchase a hydroponic growing system or opt to build a DIY hydroponic garden, such as the DIY deep water culture system outlined in the steps below, anyone can become a hydroponic gardening pro.
What Is Hydroponics?
Hydroponic gardening forgoes soil, instead utilizing nutrient-rich water to nourish the plants. The lack of soil keeps maintenance down to a minimum, while the constant access to nutrients in the water keeps the plants fed and thriving with little effort.
Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics
Sometimes hydroponics is confused with aquaponics. While the terms sound similar, there is a difference. Aquaponics is like hydroponics but with fish. Instead of adding nutrients to the water as you would with a hydroponics system, the fish waste feeds the plants.
Types of Hydroponic Growing Systems
Each type of hydroponic growing system has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most common varieties of hydroponic gardens:
- Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System. This hydroponic method consists of suspending the roots of the plants into a container of water that is nutrient-rich and actively oxygenated by a pump with an airstone (an aquarium bubbler).
- Wick Hydroponic System. A wick hydroponic system utilizes a wick, typically made of cotton or nylon, to draw the nutrient-rich water to the plants, which are housed in absorbent materials like vermiculite and perlite.
- Drip Hydroponic System. A drip system is a hydroponic setup that pumps the nutrient-rich, oxygenated water through a series of tubes, then drips it on top of the plants. The solution flows through the roots and drains back into the reservoir below.
- Ebb-and-Flow Hydroponic System. An ebb-and-flow hydroponic system is a flood-and-drain hydroponic method that utilizes a separate reservoir and grow tray. A pump moves the nutrient solution to the grow tray, while an overflow drain allows the solution to return to the reservoir.
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Hydroponic System. NFT hydroponics is similar to an ebb-and-flow system, as it moves the solution to the grow tray. However, unlike an ebb-and-flow system that floods the grow tray, then totally drains it, NFT systems have a constant flow of a thin layer, or film, of nutrient solution. This means the roots are in constant contact with the water.
- Aeroponic Hydroponic System. In an aeroponic system, the roots of the plants aren't ever suspended in water. Instead, the nutrient solution is misted on the plants. Because the plants are suspended in air rather than water, the nutrient solution doesn't have to be oxygenated, as the roots are simply oxygenated from exposure to the open-air.
This pantry includes a hydroponic garden with smart grow lighting that makes it easy to grow produce at home year-round.
So, how do you decide which type of hydroponic system is best for you? Andrea Rzad, owner of Innovative Garden and Hydroponic Supply, suggests beginners who are looking to build a homemade hydroponic system start with a deep water culture system, as it's DIY-friendly and has a gentle learning curve. Plus, a deep water culture hydroponic system allows you to grow a wide array of plants, large or small. We've outlined how to build this system in the steps below.
The Best Plants for Hydroponics
Some plants perform better in a hydroponic garden system than others. Andrea recommends quick-turn crops for beginners. "Quick-turn crops, which are harvested in four to six weeks, are the best for beginners. You can quickly see results and gain confidence before trying longer maturing and more nutrient-demanding crops," she says. "Lettuce is the easiest because it does not take long to mature and also does not require a complex feeding schedule."
While you can grow many plants in a hydroponic system, here are some common plants that thrive:
- Lettuce and other greens
- Basil and other herbs
No garden? No problem. Try growing your own food right on your kitchen countertop with systems that require little space, time or maintenance.
How to Build a Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System
1. Arrange Your Net Cups
Space the net cups according to the mature size of the plants you intend to grow (Images 1 & 2). Mark the position using a pencil (Image 3).
2. Drill Holes in the Lid
Slide a scrap piece of wood beneath the lid and use a drill fitted with a hole saw to carefully drill out the holes for the net cups (Images 1 - 3).
Pro Safety Tip: When drilling plastic with a hole saw bit, the slower the bit speed the better. Drilling too fast can cause the bit to snag and fly out of control, which can cause serious injury to the user.
3. Clean Up the Holes
Use a utility knife to carefully cut away any stray plastic pieces, then sand away the remainder (Images 1 & 2).
4. Install Air Pump
Drill a hole in the top of the lid with a bit that matches the size of your air pump’s hose (Image 1). Slide the hose through the hole and attach the airstone on the other side (Images 2 & 3). Attach the other side of the air hose to the pump, then adjust the slack until the stone sits on the bottom of the container (Images 4 & 5).
5. Fill Container With Nutrient-Rich Water
Fill the container with water and add the nutrients to the water following the manufacturer’s instructions on your choice of nutrients to determine the proper amount and percentage (Image 1). Turn the pump on to begin oxygenating the water (Image 2)
6. Add Plants
Place your plants in the net cups and slide them into the holes cut in the lid.
How to Build a DIY Deep Water Culture Hydroponics System
It doesn't take much to build an effective DIY hydroponic garden. In fact, you can use an ordinary five gallon plastic tote from the hardware store, drill some holes in the lid and fill it with water. Once fitted with a pump to oxygenate the water, you have a hydroponic system. Just add nutrients to the water and place you plants in the holes using net cups.
Tips for Successful Hydroponic Gardening
As you progress on your hydroponic gardening journey, you’ll learn plenty of tricks for getting the most out of your hydroponic growing system. Here are a few tips and tricks for successful hydroponic gardening:
- Maintain the proper pH. The water's pH is essential to maintaining your plant's health in a hydroponic system. Andrea says, "It should be kept between 5.5 and 6.5 for plants to have access to the nutrients they need." Check the pH regularly and change up your nutrient percentages to fall within the recommended window.
- Use empty water. "Hydroponic nutrients are designed to be used in empty water — meaning water containing very little other minerals close to 0ppm (parts per million)," says Andrea. "We recommend using distilled, reverse osmosis, or my favorite, captured rainwater because it's free."
- Regularly change the nutrient solution. Andrea advocates changing the nutrient solution out on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. When doing so, drain the water and clean the reservoir rather than just adding more nutrients to the existing solution.
- Give your plants plenty of light. Just like in a traditional garden, hydroponic gardens need access to plenty of light, whether it be natural light or a grow light.
- Tailor your nutrients to your plants. Different plants require different nutrients. While researching your specific plant's needs will help you tailor the nutrients to it, Andrea laid out some basic guidelines: "In general we like to use more nitrogen in the mix in the vegetative stages. Once a plant is ready to fruit and flower, our nutrient mix will include more phosphorus and potassium," she says. "Large fruiting plants such as tomatoes, melons and eggplants can require additional calcium and magnesium to prevent blossom end rot."
As far as which nutrients to buy for your hydroponics system, she says, "There are a multitude of good brands available on the market. The gold standard is General Hydroponics 3-part Flora System. General Hydroponics was the pioneer of hydroponic nutrients decades ago and is still tried and true. They also make a dry soluble Maxi series that is very cost effective."