How to Assemble a Homemade Hydroponic System
Learn how to grow plants year-round by using a soil-less hydroponic system.
Locate the hydroponic system in an enclosed structure, such as a greenhouse or the basement of your house, or on an outdoor patio or deck. The floor should be level to ensure even coverage of water and nutrients to the plants in the system. If placing the system outdoors, protect the system from the elements, such as providing a wind barrier, and check the water levels more often due to water loss from evaporation. During cold temperatures, bring the hydroponic system indoors. If placing the system in an interior room of your house, add grow lights to provide supplemental lighting to the plants.
This is a flood-and-drain, or ebb-and-flow, system. The pump is set on a timer that comes on every few hours or minutes, depending on the type of plants and the humidity. Nutrients and water flood the tray and submerge the roots; then the tray drains so air can circulate around the roots.
Place the bottom part of the frame on a level floor or patio and fit the legs into the frame by sliding them into the holes provided in each corner (Image 1). Place the 40-gallon reservoir tank into the frame and place the lid on the tank (Image 2).
Place the upper platform on top of the legs and press downward to secure it in place (Image 1). Set the growing tray on top of the upper platform, making sure it fits snugly into the frame (Image 2).
Slide two tubes (Image 1) from the tray down to the reservoir tank (Image 2). The upper tube is for overflow, and the lower tube is for filling and draining the growing tray (Image 3). Attach the pump to the flood-and-drain tube and run the cord out the side of the tank.
The reservoir water should be changed every two to four weeks to rebalance the nutrient levels and clean the water.
Fill the planting cups half full of expanded clay pebbles. Remove each plant from its container and submerge the root ball in a bucket of lukewarm water, washing off as much soil from the root ball as you can (Image 1). Then place the plant in the new planting cup, finish filling it with pebbles and add the plants to the growing tray (Image 2).
Water quality is a factor in hydroponics, so the pH level is important. You can buy an inexpensive test kit for about $5 to keep the water at the right level, which is 6.0 to 6.5 pH. To test the pH, add three to five drops of pH testing fluid to a tube full of reservoir water and shake the tube; within a minute, the water will change color. Check the color with the chart on the bottle to find out what the pH level is. You may need to bring pH level up or down based on the test results; use pH buffer solutions from an aquarium supply store to bring the pH up or down to the right level.
There are two different fertilizer concentrates especially made for hydroponic gardens that work together to make the nutrient blend. Depending on what stage of growth your plants are in, you'll need more or less of each one. One formula promotes plant growth while the other promotes flower and fruit growth. In the beginning, plants need more of the growth formula to build strong stems and leaves. As they fill out and get large enough to produce fruits and vegetables, they need less of the growth formula and more of the fruit-and-flower mixture. The key is to look at the plants for blooms; when you see them, add more fruit-and-flower concentrate so the energy goes into fruit and not into more leaves and stems. Follow the directions on the fertilizer labels for recommended application rates.
Lighting kits, or grow lights, keep indoor gardens growing when the plants don't get the sunlight they need (Image 1). A good lighting kit can help a gardener have tomatoes, peppers and herbs year-round. The plants you start outside can come indoors, or the seedlings you start inside can go to an outdoor system when it warms up. Use a metal halide bulb instead of fluorescent lights because fluorescents are not strong enough to grow fruiting plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Metal halide bulbs put out a wide spectrum of light and colors needed for good plant growth (Image 2). Follow the kit's instructions for setting up the lighting system and place the grow lights over the plants in the growing tray.
Set the 24-hour timer to come on every 60 minutes and plug in the system to a GFCI plug.
Check the water levels daily; in some regions, it may be necessary to check it twice a day, depending on water loss due to excessive heat and evaporation. Check the pH and nutrient levels every few days. Adjust the timer settings as needed based on plant growth.