The past couple of years I have been thinking more about how frosts tend to wipe out my garden early, and how short our growing season really is, so this year I decided to do something about it.
I have been reading up on hydroponics systems for awhile and decided I would try it over the winter. For those that are unfamiliar, hydroponics means growing plants in water, or more precisely in a nutrient solution (water that has dissolved nutrients in it). There is no soil involved.
I built this system in a spare bedroom. It stands against a wall, is about 4 feet wide and less than 2 feet deep. The nutrient is in the tote at the bottom of the picture. It gets pumped to the top of each tube were it trickles down, feeding the roots of each plant.
The lights are 4ft LED shop lights. There are 4 fixtures with 2 bulbs each. I built swinging brackets so they can be swiveled and moved out of the way. The are on a timer and run about 15 hours per day.
I have been experimenting with a variety of plants, mostly leafy greens like lettuce, kale, swiss chard, bok choy. Herbs include basil, parsley, cilantro, lemon basil and oregano. Lettuce varieties include butterhead, buttercrunch, romaine, oakleaf and tree lettuce. I even have a few strawberry plants.
So far I am amazed at how well everything is growing. Without the harsh outdoor elements (wind, sun, bugs, etc..) leaves are nearly perfect and the taste is awesome. We had a big mixed green salad as part of our Christmas dinner, all grown right here in the house.
Hi Jeff, The blog on hydroponics is very interesting! Tell us more about the lights you use. What kind, how many lumens and do you have a commercial set up or something you constructed?
The lights are 40 watt, 4100 lumen, 5000k daylight 4 ft fixtures. They are nothing more than LED shop lights. They don't have any kind of special grow light spectrum, but they do have a higher intensity than a fluorescent bulb. You could use fluorescent fixtures but they use twice as much energy. I am using 4 two bulb fixtures.
I calculated my light costs as follows:
160 watts x 15 hours per day = 2400 watts per day.2400 watts x 30.4 average days per month = 72,960 watts per month divided by 1000 = 72.96 KW72.96 KW x 10 cents per kilowatt hour = $7.30 per month to run the lights. The lights cover an area of 5ft x 5ft.
The lights are on a timer so I don't have to turn them off and on everyday. I used a smart plug with Alexa to set a schedule. You could also use a simple mechanical timer.
Everything you see is made from scratch. I used a 27 Gal tote from Bomgaars. The plumbing fittings are all pvc and came from Ace Hardware and Bomgaars. I couldn't find the right kind of pump locally so that I ordered it online. It's just an aquarium pump, impeller type, with enough flow to push the water several feet up the pipe. The pump runs 15 minutes on / 15 minutes off twenty fours a day. It is controlled with a mechanical timer.
It's a really simple setup. The water gets pumped into the top of each stack where it trickles down through the roots of each plant and back to the reservoir. Once a week I check the water level, test the PH and nutrient level and adjust as needed. When the system is full of large plants I am adding about 5 gallons a week.
Here is a head of butterhead I just harvested. 56 days from seed to harvest. 13" across.
Tell us more about the nutrients you are using for the hydroponic set up. Is this a commercial formula or one you produced? Where did you get the ingredients? Have you figured the cost?
Much like soil, hydroponics nutrients can be a complicated topic, but I'll try to keep it as simple as possible. One of the advantages of hydroponics is that you have more control over which nutrients the plants receive and in what proportions. Amending soil can be a years long process and you really never know what you have. If plants do well you know you have moved in the right direction, but it's a difficult thing to measure.
With hydroponics you can measure a precise amount of nutrient blend that is formulated for optimum plant growth. There are many different products available. I use a product called Masterblend. I chose that brand only because there was a great deal of information out there from others that use it. It is widely accepted as a high quality, reliable product.
All plants need Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) to thrive. Hydroponics fertilizers tend to be much higher in potassium than what you would put on your lawn or garden. The product I use has a NPK ratio of 20-18-38. It also contains a number of trace minerals. I have had really good results with Masterblend so I will stay with it, but there are plenty of other good products out there as well. A youtube search for the word "masterblend" will keep you busy for awhile learning about hydrponic nutrients.
The hydroponic formula I use is made up of 3 parts - Masterblend, Calcium Nitrate and Epsom Salt. I measure out each one with a postal scale, mix it in a warm glass of water and then add it to 5 gallons of fresh water. My system with 49 grow sites uses roughly 5 gallons of water per week. You can buy a kit of all 3 products on Amazon or Ebay. The kit I bought was 2.5 lbs total and cost me about $25.00. It should last at least 6 months.
The cost of nutrients is difficult to measure until you have some history and experience to look back on. My initial estimates are that it costs about 10 cents in nutrient to grow a head of lettuce. I could significantly reduce the cost by buying the individual nutrients in larger quantities but I consider a dime pretty inexpensive.
You also need a way to measure and adjust PH and TDS (total dissolved solids) in the water. I'll save that for another post.
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