Welcome to the wonderful world of DIY hydroponics for beginners. You are in for a real treat!
Hydroponics is defined as the “process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil” by Oxford Languages .
We focus on the liquid part of the definition and use water and liquid nutrients.
And you are going to love it.
Hydroponics can be just as simple or complicated as you want.
You can spend your days measuring EC and pH levels or choose to just get started.
The choice is yours, and you will find articles for both options here at Nordic Lavender.
But regardless of where your journey with hydroponics will take you, I advise you to keep it simple at first.
There is no reason to spend a lot of money on equipment and supplies when you start.
My first DIY Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic grow system was built for less than $14 (12EUR). It looked almost exactly like the image above.
You can do a lot with just a few household items and then add equipment and tools when and as needed.
This is how to get started.
- How I got started with my first DIY hydroponic system
- Your DIY Hydroponic system and what plants need
- So what is then so special about hydroponic gardening?
- Build your own hydroponic system
- Summary: DWC hydroponic is ideal for beginners
- FAQ: DIY hydroponics for beginners
- Can I use Rockwool plugs or grow cubes instead of LECA?
- What is the Kratky method?
- Can I grow strawberries with hydroponics?
- Can I grow tomatoes using hydroponics?
- Can I use regular tap water?
- Can I grow root vegetables with hydroponic systems?
How I got started with my first DIY hydroponic system
Hydroponics made it possible for me, living in hardiness zone 7, to grow herbs and my favorite garden vegetables year-round.
Suddenly I could take climate, light, and temperature out of the equation.
I remember sitting in the classroom on my first hydroponics course and smiling.
I got it.
My first installation was a classic DWC (Deep Water Culture) hydroponics system, where I used a storage container, water-soluble hydroponic fertilizer, and a regular table lamp for lighting.
No extra aeration. I made holes in plastic starter pots to serve as my net pots. Leftover LECA pellets were used as a growing medium for my basil seedlings.
It worked. I was able to grow basil mid-winter, and I was thrilled.
Now fresh herbs like basil need a lot of light to grow and develop into strong and healthy plants. My table lamp did not give sufficient light and the seedlings did grow leggy and the plants were truth to be told not the most impressive basil plants I have grown. But most importantly, it worked.
And I did not have to spend much money to get my first DIY hydroponic system up and running.
As it happened, I had all the items needed already. But still, had I bought everything at our local hardware store, it would have cost me less than a family-sized pizza!
I was hooked; this was the first step to creating my hydroponic garden.
Your DIY Hydroponic system and what plants need
Hydroponic gardening is not that different from growing herbs, plants, and vegetables using mediums like, for example, potting soil mixes.
A medium or substrate is simply anything that plants can grow in or on.
And it does not have to be soil. It can be anything offering structure and support for root development and delivering what the plant needs to grow.
If we keep it simple, plants need the following to grow and develop:
- Medium (or substrate)
- Heat (correct temperature interval)
If we can provide our plants with these components, we will have healthy plants with strong roots.
So what is then so special about hydroponic gardening?
The basics are the same whether you grow using potting soil mixes or hydroponic grow systems.
But when you grow plants using a hydroponic system, you use water as the growing medium.
And as water does not have a nutrient buffer, you add hydroponic fertilizers designer to give your plants all the macro- and micronutrients they need.
We plant our seedings in net pots filled with a medium (like Leca) for support, but we depend on the water to deliver the nutrition and, in a sense, give the roots access to oxygen.
When we buy potting soil, it is full of organic matter that slowly releases nutrition over time.
Water does not hold any nutrients.
You must add liquid nutrients to your water in hydroponic grow systems.
Another difference is access to light when you grow indoors.
There will most likely not be enough natural light in your house to grow plants using hydroponic grow systems.
When you grow indoors, you should invest in grow lights. And this is the main expense you will incur. And the price varies depending on what you buy.
There are good, inexpensive alternatives, and I will show you great budget alternatives in my guides. But as a general rule, you want a light that delivers 100 Lumen per Watt.
Lumen per Watt is a good way to measure the efficiency of your light source. Watt measures your electricity consumption where Lumen measures the amount of visible light (brightness).
Build your own hydroponic system
You can, of course, buy some nice turnkey hydroponic systems. This is the fastest way to create your own hydroponic gardens at home. It looks nicer and is less work but also costs more.
Another option is to start your hydroponics garden the same way I once started. Use what you already have at home and go for it.
Building your own DIY hydroponic garden is inexpensive, and it works. But truth be told, your results will vary, unless you are prepared to spend a bit of money. Poorly lit systems are also more likely to experience smaller harvests (poor yield) and problems like root rot.
But then there is the middle ground—my favorite way of gardening.
Spend a little bit of money where it matters. And then you build your very own high-yielding DIY hydroponic garden.
Next, we will look at 5 different DIY hydroponic systems you can build at home.
The DIY DWC hydroponic grow system
The DWC hydroponic grow system is the easiest system to build as a beginner.
Read our guide on how to build your own DWC system and then choose whether you want to add aeration or not.
The building blocks are basically the same though there is a difference in the setup and technique we use to grow and plant our seedlings.
There are 3 main variations of the DWC hydroponic system.
1. Non-aerated DWC hydroponic system
You do not need an air pump to build a DWC system.
Instead, you can leave a space in between the water level and the top of the reservoir. This setup will allow the roots to partly hang free in the air, giving the root system access to oxygen.
This setup without an air pump works well if you allow the water level to decrease to help aerate the plants’ roots. Still, this system does leave the roots more vulnerable to root rot.
2. Aerated DWC hydroponics (using air pumps)
The DWC hydro system is created by adding an air pump and an air stone to our base DWC system.
We simply aerate our DWC by using an air pump and adding an oxygen stone to our water container. The oxygen added to the water gives the plant’s root system access to oxygen.
This setup also allows us to fill our reservoir with water and nutrients all the way to the top.
Using this setup we are less likely to suffer from lack of oxygen and root systems suffering from root rot.
Root rot is easy to spot as root systems should be white and pleasant to touch. Roots suffering from root rot will be brown or dark and feel slimy to the touch.
3. DWC hydroponic float systems using a Styrofoam float
DWC float systems are merely an adaptation of the aerated DWC systems.
Instead of using a lid, we float a raft on the surface of the water nutrient reservoir solution.
The raft is typically made from a Styrofoam type material cut to fit the inside measurements of the reservoir. The DWC float system setup needs an air pump and an airstone to work.
Build a DIY Ebb and Flow hydroponic system
Ebb and Flow systems sound a lot more complicated than they are.
An Ebb and Flow hydroponic system is an ideal system for an indoor hydroponic garden and a good alternative for beginners.
Ebb and Flow hydroponics are ideal if you want to grow different types of plants in one and the same hydroponic grow system.
We need two containers and a water pump to move water between the containers using PVC pipes.
One container is placed on top and will serve as our hydroponic garden bed.
The other container will be placed underneath and serve as our reservoir holding fresh water mixed with nutrients. The water pump will only run at certain intervals which also consumes less energy.
Again, it may sound complicated. But when you read our guides you will see that it is very straightforward.
Ebb and Flow are very efficient and easy-to-use hydroponic growing systems. The only disadvantage that I am aware of is that it is more complicated to clean compared to the DWC.
Build your own RGGS (Rain Gutter Growing System)
The RGGS can be used for hydroponic growth. And I do.
It is, however, also a self-watering system. You collect the rainwater in a container and use a valve to add water to your RGGS as and when needed.
I chose to focus on using the RGGS as a hydroponic growing system. But the system is ingenious and fits beautifully in any garden.
RGGS is, however, not well suited for indoor growing.
Still, I will show you how I build my RGGS to grow anything from tomatoes and chillies to herbs and leafy greens.
Summary: DWC hydroponic is ideal for beginners
DWC systems are inexpensive and easy to set up and clean. And a DIY hydroponic system for beginners almost always starts with a DWC system.
This is for a good reason. There is, however, one limitation you should be aware of.
The main disadvantage of DWC is that you have to grow plants that follow the same growth cycle in each DWC container.
Even when seedlings are placed in separate net pots you still need to be mindful of the growth cycles.
For example, you should not grow basil and oregano in the same DWC container. The basil seedlings would grow much faster than the oregano seedlings.
The basil plant would consume the water and nutrients before the oregano seedling developed a large root system to reach the water and nutrients.
FAQ: DIY hydroponics for beginners
Can I use Rockwool plugs or grow cubes instead of LECA?
Rockwool cubes or plugs, coco coir, pumice, perlite, and vermiculite are examples of good alternatives to LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate) pellets.
We prefer LECA but also use Rockwool cubes when we grow in small spaces.
What is the Kratky method?
The Kratky method can be described as a DWC – but with two main differences:
1. do not add oxygen to a Kratky system
2. do not top up the water/nutrient solution as plants grow and consume the liquid
Kratky is meant to be a low-maintenance and hands-off method of growing. As the water/nutrient solution is consumed, a gap with oxygen is created to help aerate the roots.
Can I grow strawberries with hydroponics?
You can absolutely grow high-yielding strawberry plants in hydroponic gardens.
I recommend using a nutrient solution specific to strawberries and making sure you provide enough light.
Can I grow tomatoes using hydroponics?
Tomatoes are well suited for hydroponics. You can more than double the harvest compared to growing tomatoes in an outdoor vegetable garden.
Space can, however, become an issue why smaller determinate tomato varieties are most popular.
Can I use regular tap water?
Yes, if you live where tap water is safe to drink, you can also use it for your plants.
If you are just starting with hydroponic gardening, I would use tap water as it is easy and will get you started.
When you are up and running, there are inexpensive pH testing kits to measure the pH level of your tap water.
I also recommend an EC (Electric Conductivity) meter that will help you measure the amount of available nutrients in your container solution by measuring the salt concentration.
Can I grow root vegetables with hydroponic systems?
Root crops grow well in hydroponic grow systems.
Use a lighter medium like perlite and a container that is deep enough to hold your harvest.
But, if you ask me, start with herbs and leafy greens. You can always introduce root vegetables later.