DIY Hydroponic System – We did not have any garden space or soil for planting in our yard. But that didn’t let that stop us from starting a vegetable garden. Here’s how we went about building a hydroponic garden.
How to Build a DIY Hydroponic Garden
If you haven’t considered setting up a DIY Hydroponic Garden you’re really missing out. These gardens are the wave of the future, and just about anyone can set them up.
The best part is, they can fit into just about any space, so even those in the smallest apartment can have the garden of their dreams. Most systems are set up vertically. Sometimes they are called vertical gardens.
I live in a climate which is very hot and dry throughout nine months of the year. While I have a small yard, there isn’t usable soil for growing a garden.I don’t know much about gardening, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to try. I realize it will be a greater challenge with the hot climate.
My goal is to have a year round system to produce herbs, lettuce and other greens without needing to bring in dirt or compost. Building a DIY hydroponic system was one of the first things I did.
Why Should I Build a DIY Hydroponic Garden?
Setting up your very own DIY hydroponic garden comes with a whole plethora of advantages. It doesn’t matter how big or small your space is, you can set up your garden and watch it flourish. These gardens also use far less water than traditional gardens and are less vulnerable to harmful pesticides.
Since these types of gardens conserve water and don’t erode the soil, they are environmentally friendly. Plus, they produce the same delicious crops that you would find in traditional gardens.
How Do I Get Started on My Hydroponic Garden?
If you’re ready to build a DIY hydroponic garden, there are several things that you will want to take into consideration. Making sure that you give the following steps the due diligence they deserve will help you maximize your garden and get the best returns on what you plant.
How I Built My Hydroponic System
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My DIY Hydroponic Setup
My setup is a free standing, recirculating pump based hydroponic system. It has a reservoir full of nutrient solution which is pumped through 3/4” PVC tubes up to system of four 4” PVC grow pipes.
The 170-200 GPH fountain pump can push water up to about 7 feet. Pumping about 170 gallons per hour through the system, it makes for lots of circulation.
The reservoir is a standard plastic storage container with a lid. I keep the reservoir covered to avoid evaporation and prevent debris and critters from entering. In addition, I put reflective insulation around the reservoir to help deflect direct sun, as that raised the temperature of the water considerably.
Even with the reservoir covered, I have to replenish the system roughly once every two weeks. A lot of water is lost through the plants themselves and their pots.
Hydroponic Grow Pipes
Each of the 48” grow pipes has four grow sites, spaced about a foot apart. Each grow site has a net pot filled with clay pellets.
I used standard 4″ pipe caps. (They were only about $2 each). I didn’t cement the ends because I wanted to disassemble and clean the unit as needed.
The pipe ends have a snug fit, but not enough to prevent water leaking, so I wrapped the ends with black PVC pipe tape. That took care of the remaining leaks.
Each end of the horizontal PVC hydroponics pipe
At each end of each horizontal pipe, I drilled a 3/4″ hole in the PVC for intake or outlet. You can see that the intake ports are positioned high on the end caps, and the outlets are low. I did tests during construction to get the position just right.
If it drained too fast, then the standing water level would be too low, and conversely, if the outlet was too high, the pipe would fill up and overflow. It was a bit of a balancing act there.
In each hole, I put a 3/4″ steel pipe plug with outside threads as a thread tap. It ended up working pretty well and didn’t cost nearly as much as a real 3/4″ tap and die set.
Hydroponic Water Pumped
The water is pumped from the reservoir up to the top grow pipe. Then it flows through the top grow pipe, down to the next pipe below, and so on. Finally it drains back into the reservoir. I try to keep 2″ to 3″ of water in the tubes.
The nice part about keeping it so deep is that if there is a pump failure or other issue with the water supply, there will be some standing water that keeps the plant roots wet and fed for a while. This happened to me once when the tomato plant roots blocked one of the pipes, causing the tube above to overflow and eventually drain the reservoir.
Once the pump shut off from lack of water, the tubes still had enough water in them to keep the plants alive until I noticed several days later.
Before Planting the Homemade Hydroponics
Before planting anything in the hydroponic system, I had started some beans, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and peas indoors in a growth medium that I could easily transfer to the net pots.
Not all of my starts took off. My beans did not survive at all, and all but one lettuce plant died. I attribute this to planting too soon, before the starts had developed good roots.
In the photo here, you can see the tomato plants are taking off, peas are doing okay and the onions and lettuce are still slow to get going.
Think About Where You Want to Put Hydroponic Garden
Location is everything! Although these gardens can thrive and exist in all sorts of different sized spaces, where size doesn’t matter location does. Make sure that the garden is located in a spot where it will not be disturbed.
You will want to find a place that is fully enclosed, private and temperature controlled. Greenhouses are great options, as are basements. Simply make sure that your space is safe from the elements, dry, and easily accessible.
If you put your garden in a darker space, like a basement, you’ll want to add lights to it to ensure that the plants are able to grow properly.
I put a “green closet” small greenhouse around the structure to help control temperature and filter out some of the intense sun. The greenhouse is made out of PVC pipe, made rigid with wood bracing and covered in 7 mil painters plastic. When this greenhouse photo was taken, the tomato plants had grown the most by far.
So much, that I had to remove a few plants due to their roots blocking up the pipes, and to allow for the other plants to get more light.
Later, I added string support for the plants to cling on to. I should have added this support much earlier on. Learn about hydroponic greenhouse systems.
Set Up Your Hydroponic System
There are several different types of hydroponic systems and gardens. The hydroponic system or hydroponic garden that’s best for you will largely depend on your skill level, space restrictions, or the amount of time that you are willing to devote to the garden.
Ultimately, most gardens are built out of PVC pipe, which is readily available at any home improvement store.
You just need some standard pipe, a trellis for the plants to latch on to as they grow, and a pump inside of the pipes to distribute nutrients to your new plants.
Remember, these systems recycle water and nutrients, so the pump system is absolutely imperative to the growth of your brand new crop.
You need to cut holes at the top of the pipes and place the plants inside of them. That will allow the nutrient and water mixture to wash over the roots, fortifying the plants and helping them grow properly.
If you are growing fewer plants, you can always use buckets with holes punched at the bottom. The nutrients will snake up into the roots.
You can either set up a pump or water the bucket manually. This s a great option for people who want to grow a few large plants and don’t have a lot of skills when it comes to the mechanics of setting up a PVC pipe hydroponic garden.
Mix the Nutrients and Add the Plants
The nutrients are what will really get the party started in your DIY hydroponic garden. The general rule is to add one cup of nutrients per 25 gallons of water. Don’t pop your plants in just yet. Let the pump mix up the nutrients and water so everything is fully integrated before you add the plants.
Then it’s time to add the plants. If you are using seedlings, remember to wash all of the soil off their roots before integrating them into your garden.
It’s important to make sure that you do this very gently because water that is too hot or cold could damage the fragile root system of the plant.
You can buy seedlings at just about any store that sells plants. Once your roots are nice and clean, you can put them in your PVC pipe or bucket. Make sure that the roots are firmly encased in clay pellets and accessible to the nutrient and water mixture that is flowing through the pipe or into the bucket.
That way, they will have the best chance to get all of the important nutrients that they need to thrive.
I was very surprised by the root systems. Below is a photo of the root system of one of the tomato plants.
These roots actually started to become an issue. They started to grow so much that they would block the pipes and cause water to back up in the system.
A little bit of a “hair cut” fixed that for a little while. This is a pot I removed to thin out the garden.
Support the Plants
Here is where your trellis comes in. Once the plants are securely fixed in your pipe or buckets, it’s time to make sure that they are growing upright properly. The best way to do that is to tie them to the support system and guide them in their growth. You want to be very careful with this step.
Seedlings and smaller plants are very vulnerable to shock and breakage. Think about tying them to the trellis as a way to simply guide their process, not affix them like glue to the support structure.
Supporting the plants is very important if you are operating in a small space, or dealing with multiple plants.
You need to maximize the area while still giving these plants ample room to flourish.
Start Up the Pump and Watch Your Plants Grow
Now it’s time for the fun part. Start up the pump and let the garden do the rest. You can be assured that you’re doing something awesome for the environment, and also creating a garden full of delicious fruits and vegetables that you can enjoy without having to worry about pesticides.
Remember to keep an eye on your plants. There are times when these plants need to be cut back, so trim them regularly and make sure that they are growing in a straight line.
If you have multiple plants in a single pipe, it’s important to ensure that dominant or aggressive species are not taking over. Ultimately, have fun on your gardening adventure!
Enjoying the Harvest of Your Hydroponics Setup
We used the green onions and lettuce from the setup to make a lot of salads for six (two adults and 4 kids). Here is a photo of one of those plants. We just kept cutting leaves off for salads, and they just kept growing back.
DIY Hydroponics Cost
Overall, the bill of materials cost on the entire unit is well under $100. I also bought some tools that I didn’t already own, including a 4″ hole saw for $20.
Materials I Used to Build DIY Hydroponic System
- 170-200 GPH fountain pump
- 27-gallon plastic storage container with lid
- 4” PVC pipe: [email protected]”
- 3/4” PVC pipe
- 4” PVC end caps: 8
- 3/4” PVC elbows: 8
- 3/4” steel pipe plugs: 8
- Flexible PVC fountain tubing
- Black PVC pipe tape
- Wood for support frame
You can buy these supplies at stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, and many local nurseries and garden centers. There are also hydroponics stores online which you can checkout for the pumps, etc.
- Standard garden seeds and plant starts
- Standard seed starting medium and starter cells
- 4” hydroponic net pots: 16
- Hydroponic clay pellets
- Hydroponic nutrient solution formulated for growth; I like FoxFarm.
- Hacksaw and guide for cutting pipe
- 3/4” drill bit
- 4” hole saw
If you don’t already own the proper tools, there are several options. You can ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to borrow them. Oftentimes, you can rent them from a local hardware store. And of course, you can buy the tools you need and then use them for future projects.
All in all, my DIY hydroponics setup has been a good experiment, and we’ve grown a lot of produce.
What Can You Grow in a Hydroponic Garden
You can grow everything from root vegetables to melons in a hydroponic garden.
There are some best plants for hydroponics that usually grow well. These are fruits and vegetables that grow quickly and are easier for beginners. After all, we all want success with our hydroponics.
Lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, and Swiss chard all do well. These grow especially well and are among the easiest to grow. In addition, they grow fast.
These are ideal for hydroponic gardens because they don’t need additional ground space as they grow. Learn how to grow hydroponic tomatoes.
Strawberries excel in wet conditions making them ideal for hydroponics.
In general, herbs are fairly easy to grow. They do well in hydroponic gardens. Consider starting with basil and cilantro.
With enough light, cucumbers do well in these gardens. It’s also important to know what cannot be grown hydroponically or plants that aren’t as practical to grow, such as corn.
Advantages to Hydroponic Gardening
In addition to being able to grow all of this produce in a space space, there are several benefits to growing with hydroponics. According to many university and Government studies, under the same conditions, the rate of growth for plants in water is 30-50% faster than when they grow in dirt.
They also yield more fruit. There is less chance for bug infestations and diseases. Because there is more oxygen, it stimulates the roots better. You won’t need to contend with topsoil erosion, and generally, you won’t need to use pesticides.
When considering planting in hydroponics vs soil, an advantage of hydroponics is that hydroponic gardens enable you to grow in colder climates with a short growing season. Also, it was fairly easy to set up, and it worked well in my small space. I can’t wait to build my next hydroponic system, refining my ideas with these tips from what I learned.
We’d love to hear what you’ve been successful with in your hydroponics system. Please share in the Comments.