Do you dream about saving money on produce by growing your own fresh vegetables for yourself and your family? How about helping to save the environment while you’re at it?
The great thing is, it doesn’t need to be a dream. You can actually grow your own produce at home, and you don’t even need to bring dirt, insects, or germs into your home.
For some people, the thought of growing plants indoors can bring nightmares of dirt and bugs, but there are some really great ways to grow plants indoors without soil.
This is sounding pretty good, right?
Once you know how it all works, you can get to work starting your own produce garden indoors. You could even add some delicious fruits to your indoor garden!
Before you know it you’ll be skipping trips to the grocery store and grabbing lunch from your garden without ever stepping foot out the door.
How can plants grow without soil?
When it comes to gardening, we generally picture plants growing directly in the ground or in a planter with soil. These plants are then watered and fertilized on a regular basis.
However, gardening doesn’t actually require soil.
Many people even consider soil-less gardening as the best way to grow herbs, vegetables, and fruits.
Plants need five simple things to survive and thrive.
- Air (oxygen)
“As long as the plants have nutrients, they can grow and can even be healthier plants.” – Frank McDonough, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens’ plant information consultant.
If you’re wondering how exactly you can go about growing your favorite produce indoors and without soil, the answer is Hydroponics.
Side note: Some plants can be grown in water without a hydroponic system. If you are more interested in that, see my article on 29 Plants that Grow in Water Only.
All about Hydroponics
Hydroponics is a system that allows you to grow plants without soil. The plant’s roots are soaked in nutrient rich water to keep them fed.
Growing food via hydroponics can be a great option if you’d like to grow it where you wouldn’t normally have the space or proper growing condition, including the comfort of your own home.
The term ‘Hydroponics’ was introduced by a California scientist in 1936 after he grew a tomato plant in a tub that grew to be an incredible 25 feet tall.
When done correctly, hydroponics can produce food that’s free from bacteria, viruses, soil-born pests, and weeds. This gives you healthier food and less waste.
By carefully controlling the nutrient intake of the plants, Farmers can even engineer plants to contain specific levels of certain nutrients. So for example, a person with kidney disease could eat lettuce with low levels of potassium.
There are different ways to use hydroponics. Below are a couple of those hydroponic techniques.
The process of Aeroponics uses an air chamber where plants (such as these) grow using a system that sprays the roots of the plants with a light nutrient-rich mist. This process was developed by Dr. Franco Massantini, professor of Ecology, at the University of Pisa in Italy in the 1970s.
The downside of aeroponics is that it is one of the more expensive options for indoor gardening. In fact, the Tennessee based company Juice Plus offerss an Aeroponic Tower Garden that’s 5 feet tall and can accommodate up to 20 plants and it sells for right around $500.
While it can be expensive, it is an excellent alternative to traditional farming and is on par with organic farming.
A University of Mississippi study found that Aeroponic farming produces 30 percent higher yield than other forms of farming and the nutritional values of aeroponic grown foods were comparable to organic and superior to traditional farming.
Film farming is a soil-free farming system that employs a thin, transparent polymer film made of hydrogel, a super absorbent material.
Yuichi Mori, a chemical physicist, founded Mebiol Research and Development Center near Tokyo, Japan.
While at Mebiol Research and Development Center, Mori and several colleagues experimented for a decade to develop the concept of film farming.
This system develops seedlings on top of the film, while the roots spread across the under-surface of the membrane in wispy formations.
In film farming, the polymer membrane absorbs nutrient-rich water into its microscopic pores. The plant then soaks up these nutrients. The microscopic pores also block bacteria and viruses, creating healthy and safe food.
An interesting development from film farming is that it can create foods with better taste and higher nutritional value.
The way it works is by forcing the plants to work harder to absorb the nutrients and water, which puts the plants under stress. This stress causes the plants to have higher levels of phytochemicals, amino acids, and sugars, which results in the better nutrients and taste.
If you’re not yet convinced that film farming is a great solution, consider that it uses 90 percent less water than traditional or organic farming.
Even better, you can use this type of farming nearly anywhere, such as:
- In the desert
- On a city rooftop
- A winter wonderland
- In locations with contaminated soil
Large Companies Utilizing Hydroponics
Hydroponics has become popular all across the world. Australians especially love to grow hydroponic strawberries, while the United States prefers tomatoes and cucumbers.
As hydroponics continues to grow in popularity, several well known companies have set forth to lead the world into hydroponic farming.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
The pioneers over at NASA have been using hydroponics for years to provide fresh food to their astronauts.
They have even been testing hydroponics techniques as a “bioregenerative life support system” for future colonization on Mars and the Moon. This technique can provide much needed oxygen, a healthy diet, and remove toxins from the air all at once.
Disney’s EPCOT attraction showcases freshly grown lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes straight from their own hydroponic gardens. EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
These hydroponic foods are used to serve Disney customers in its various eateries.
Over at Fujitsu, a factory that previously manufactured semicondutors and microchips was converted into a tightly sealed indoor cultivation area.
Using their engineering skills, Fujitsu keeps a close eye on plant growth with an array of sensors. The plant growth data is stored in a cloud-based program.
The engineers can make adjustments to the light levels and nutrients based off of this system, which allows for the best plant growth and development.
Smaller Companies Making Big Impacts
As these large companies move forward with their work in hydroponics, there follows smaller companies doing large things.
AeroFarms based out of New Jersey (United States) uses hydroponics vertically. They claim to produce 390 times greater yields per square foot than traditional farming.
In Japan, a company called Spread also utilizes vertical farming, which allows them to produce 30,000 heads of lettuce daily, in much less space than traditional farming would require.
If all this talk of companies using hydroponics makes you think you need to own a large building or understand engineering to benefit from this, keep reading.
“Hydroponics uses easily accessible materials: plastic tubs, net pots, aquarium stones, and air pumps.” – Frank McDonough
If you’d like to buy a complete hydroponics systems, they are available for several hundred dollars.
On the other hand, you can easily make your own hydroponic system at home with just a few items needed.
How to Build Your Own Hydroponic Garden
There are a number of reasons why many of us regular people want to produce our own food at home. Whether it be mistrust of commercially produced food, pesticides, rising prices, or anything else – something has sparked us to follow this journey of growing our own food.
But we don’t all want to grow a traditional farm. The dirt, the diseases, the bugs, the need for land, the local environment, any of these things can stop us in our tracks.
This is where hydroponics comes in. With it, we can grow our own food, indoors, without soil, no matter what climate we live in.
The work done by some of the people mentioned above has led to full at home hydroponic systems available for purchase. If you can afford it, they provide a quick and easy setup process.
But, you don’t really need to spend all that money on a pre-designed system.
With the right parts, anybody can put together their own DIY hydroponic setup at home. You can even create an entire indoor garden using hydroponics!
What You’ll Need to Make Your Own System
There are many different options when it comes to DIY hydroponics systems. For this setup, we are going with the standard 18 gallon black storage container.
- Seedlings – choose any veggies, fruits, or herbs you want to grow.
- An 18 gallon storage container with lid. This container needs to be black to prevent algae growth.
- OR you can spray paint it black if needed.
- An aquarium air pump, like this one on Amazon, to aerate the water properly.
- An airstone to aerate the water. This provides oxygen to the plant’s root zones. This is usually a chunk of porous stone or limewood which is attached to an air pump via a small tube. Larger airstones produce bigger bubbles and release more oxygen into the water.
- Enough 3-inch Net pots to hold your plants.
- A medium such as “coir” (coconut fibers), rockwool, aquarium stones, gravel, clay balls, organic cotton batting, etc. Certain media will work better for some plants than others.
- Tubing to attach your air pump to your airstone.
- A drill.
- A 3” hole saw bit to bore holes in your lid.
- A drill bit the size of your tubing.
- A pH level tester kit.
- A nutrient solution to feed your plants. These are easily found either online or at your local greenhouse or nurseries.
How to Start the Seeds
If you are not using starter seedlings, then you will need to start off by growing from seed.
When starting seeds, you always want to use more than you need as they won’t all germinate.
First, you will want to start your seeds in a growing medium such as perlite, rockwool, or seed starter pods.
If you end up buying starter pods, follow the directions that come with them to get them ready for seeds.
Next, place your medium in a small container with one inch of water at the bottom. This will keep the seeds moist and encourage sprouting.
Make sure to refill the water at the bottom as needed so that they do not dry out.
Once your seedlings have grown to two or three inches tall, they are ready to transplant.
Making the Hydroponic Reservoir
At this point you can focus on getting your hydroponic system setup. You want this to be all ready to go by the time your seedlings reach that 2 to 3 inch size.
The first part of setting up your hydroponic garden is turning your 18 gallon bin into a hydroponic reservoir.
First, turn your net pots upside down and trace the circles on the storage container lid.
Next, use your hole saw on your drill to cut out the holes for the pots.
If you don’t have a drill, you can use a different method, such as cutting the circle (inside the lines) with scissors or a saw. If the edges are rough, you can use a file to smooth them out.
If your storage container is not already black, then the next step is to paint it black. Use your black spray paint to paint the outside of the container, using several layers to make sure it’s properly blacked out.
Follow the instructions on your paint can for dry times in between coats.
This step is important, because any amount of sunlight that gets inside can encourage algae to grow in the nutrient solution. This can inhibit root growth and even clog up the hydroponic system.
Give Your Garden a Home
With your reservoir ready, you can move onto the next step which is finding a place for your indoor garden.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
Ideally, you would want to have your garden in a place which gets a lot of natural light, that doesn’t get in your way, but is also easy for you to get to, and has electrical outlets for you to use.
Of course, if you don’t have the space available with the natural light, you can opt for using grow lights in a more convenient location in your home.
Now, make sure that you are working with a level ground, and if not, then consider using a stand that will make your reservoir level.
Bring Your Garden to Life
With your new reservoir tub in its place, you can fill your tub with water until the net pots are about a quarter inch below the water surface.
Now that there is water in the tub, you can move onto the next step, which is aeration.
Start out by drilling a small hole through the top of the reservoir. Now, thread the air tube through the hole and connect it to the air stone and place it in the center of your tub.
A smaller air stone may need to be weighed down to keep it at the bottom.
Before you attach the air pump to the container, go ahead and attach the tubing to the pump and plug the pump in to make sure that it creates the bubbles you’ll need.
Assuming the air pump is working like it’s supposed to, screw it to the tub as high as possible without getting in the way of the lid. Make sure that it is high enough that water doesn’t leak through the screw holes.
Congratulations, you have your hydroponic garden setup! At this point, you can dump the water until your seedlings are ready to transplant.
Transplanting the Seedlings
Once your seedlings are big enough, you can add water back to your tub to the same height. Follow the instructions on the nutrient solution as you add it to the water.
Wait 30 minutes, then test the water’s pH balance. Make adjustments as needed until it is right for your seedlings.
Now it’s time to plant your seedlings!
Add your growing medium to the bottom of each net pot you’ll be using, then place the seedling in its starter pod on top of that.
Do your best to thread any roots sticking out the bottom straight through the bottom of the net pot.
Stabilize the seedling in the net pot by filling in more growing medium around the starter pod.
Place all of your net pots in the lid of your reservoir and turn on your grow lights (if you don’t have natural sunlight).
Wrapping It Up
Now that you have your indoor hydroponic system up and running, you can maintain your plants by following the instructions that came with the nutrient solution.
You will also want to test and adjust the pH balance each time as well.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different plants in your hydroponic system. Feel free to expand beyond vegetables and herbs.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.