When I started researching hydroponics, I was thrilled to find such an active community online! Hydroponics allows gardeners to extend their growing season by growing vegetables indoors. I live in Michigan, so the extended growing season sounded awesome to me. I got to work building my first DIY hydroponics system.
I’m a college student, so you know my budget is tight. I’ve had to figure out inexpensive solutions to several aspects of my hydroponics system. The goal of this blog is to help you explore the wonderful field of hydroponics without breaking the bank.
Selecting a Hydroponic Method
Kratky Hydroponics Indoors
I know what you’re thinking. “Dr. Kratky’s Method is a tried and true method – it’s cost-effective and requires minimal effort!” And it’s true! In fact, the Kratky Method is the most frequently experimented method by beginners for these reasons. I think it is a fantastic method if your goal is a proof of concept, because of how cost-effective and low-risk it is. However, Kratky is prone to diseases, low yields, and generally sick plants – especially indoors, or as your plants get mature.
Nutrient-Film Technique (NFT) Indoors
The nutrient film technique is a great way to grow leafy greens, herbs, and other things. If you are just starting to experiment with hydroponics and desire minimal investment, or if you want a fun science project to do with the kids, an outdoor NFT system could be a great investment. With just a few pieces of PVC and some net cups, you’re on your way to growing your first hydroponic salad!
But if you ask me, a salad isn’t a salad without tomatoes and cucumbers – neither of which may be grown in a standard NFT rail.
Deep Water Culture (DWC) Indoors
My first purchase, like so many others, was a DWC (Deep Water Culture) bucket system. My first kit contained four buckets, four large net pot lids, and a 4-line aerating pump specially made for those buckets. This Deep Water Culture kit cost me around $150 (which is pretty costly for plastic buckets and a tiny pump.) While it functioned okay, having to keep my system outside meant buckets overflowed in the rain, pests invaded my squash, and the lighting was inconsistent. I knew I wanted to move my garden indoors, but there is so much to plan! So how did I find materials to DIY my indoor hydroponics system?
H4 1 – Advantages of Recirculating Deep Water Culture (RDWC) Indoors
Instead of trying to aerate each bucket with bubbles, I’m recirculating my nutrient solution with a PVC pipe. This ensures constant oxygenation of the water, and means I don’t have to buy a new pump every time I want to expand my system! I still need a pump for the main reservoir, but I got one for pretty cheap at my local aquarium store. In my eyes, water pumps are cheaper and more adaptable than air pumps.
How to DIY a Hydroponics System
DIY (RDWC) Recirculating Deep Water Culture System
Hint: I’m talking about PVC piping, old pickle buckets, and aquarium equipment!
Instead of buying buckets in a kit, I learned that Firehouse Subs sells their used pickle buckets for $3 a piece. I picked up 8, giving me a total of 12 buckets. The smell cleaned off with bleach, and the cost savings made it worthwhile for me. When it came time to buy two pumps for the recirculating system, $70 at the pet store got me both of the pumps I needed!
My design was inspired by Bob Grows on Youtube. His design was linear, which worked great outdoors. In my case, I’m indoors, so I added corners to my design to fit it into my lighting area. You can find his video here. Below is a preliminary sketch of my design.
Lighting is an Investment You Can’t DIY
If you want to reap the benefits of hydroponics (year-round production, pest control, and disease control), you will likely need to move your garden inside. If you’re a little bit nervous about spending hundreds of dollars on lighting, it’s totally understandable. I was too. What I had to do is look at it as an investment.
Yes, the lights will cost a few hundred dollars upfront, but how much do you spend on takeout and produce each month? If you had a personal garden in your side room, closet, basement, etc., would you spend less, eat in more, and have a better idea of what is in your food? Oh yeah, and the vegetables grown in your own garden are always picked at their peak freshness. Eating healthy is easier when you’re connected to your food.
Anyhow, the best place to buy high-quality grow lights is direct from the manufacturer. Brands like Spider Farmer are excellent, but in my opinion, overpriced. I bought my lights from KingBrite. They produce a large amount of the hydroponic world’s lighting – and buying through them directly gives you a much more affordable lighting system. Just look at that lighting!
H2 2 – Nutrients and Meters
H3 1 – Balanced Nutrients on a Budget
Many sources will try to convince you to buy some nutrients individually, instead of in a well-rounded formula. I say don’t listen to their nasty sales tactics! In reality, it costs a LOT more to buy every nutrient separately – with minimal results for the beginning gardener. And, if your garden develops a deficiency, you can always get nutrients in time (provided you are checking up on your garden frequently.) For beginning home gardeners, complete nutrient formulas allow us to experiment with all kinds of plants.
A standard NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) fertilizer solution like Buddha Bloom that contains other micronutrients, will provide a healthy nutrient base for most garden plants. In addition, your plants need CalMag (Calcium and Magnesium)
H3 2 – How to Check Nutrients Without Buying Expensive Meters
The pH of your water will have a direct impact on how well your plants grow, so it is important to check and balance your pH levels. Some people opt to go all-in and install a combination pH + PPM tester in line with their nutrient solution, so they know the exact nutrient level their plants are at without having to test. In a recirculating system like my own, this would effectively mean that the garden runs itself. This is an appealing concept – and I’m looking forward to experimenting with it soon. For now, the cost is too high for me. So how do I check my nutrients?
H4 1 – How to Check pH
I heavily debated getting a pH meter. The instant-read feature and accuracy are incomparable. However, a good meter can cost hundreds of dollars, which was out of the picture for my budget. Plus, you still need to raise and lower your pH; the meter is just a meter. Knowing that pH is so important, I couldn’t just skip it. What is a good middle-ground for pH?
General Hydroponics is a well-trusted company that has been in the game for over 45 years. They make a pH Up and Down kit that includes a testing liquid, which allows you to test, raise, and lower your pH as needed. I got mine from the hydroponics store, but you can find it here.
H4 1 – Inexpensive PPM Meter
Parts Per Million, or PPM, is another important metric to keep in mind. This lets you know how much nutrient is actually dissolved in your water. This will always be within a range, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. Still, a reliable PPM Tester is an inexpensive and useful investment.
In a field like hydroponics, there is never a point where you have “learned enough.” Please comment if you have any questions, or if you think I’ve missed something important!