How Does Your Garden Grow
By Trevor Shields
When the question “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…how does your garden grow?” was first asked, Mother Nature didn’t have a whole lot of competition. Over the last 20 years though, advances in hydroponic gardening have unleashed a multitude of new indoor gardening solutions. Hydroponics is the ultimate biological erector set: You can allow your budget and space restrictions to dictate your grow area. Starting small allows you to make small mistakes, and not empty your pocket book before you jump head long into setting up your own personal Eden.
When deciding what garden solution is perfect for you, there are many considerations that come into play. Ask yourself these questions.
- How much space do I have for my garden?
- How much money do I have budgeted for set-up?
- Would I prefer to build my system or buy it already fabricated?
Take a look at the room you are planning on using for your grow area while answering these questions. As far as space goes, determine the maximum useable floor area and ceiling height. Take considerations such as location of power outlets, type of floor covering (Hydroponics is a wet business – carpet and porous materials on your floor may see damage from your garden over time), access to fresh water, and ventilation. Most of these concerns will not come into play until you decide on your lighting, nutrient system and other concerns, but you should try to ask yourself as many “What ifs?” as you can before you get started. In this article, we will focus on the “bedding” of your garden only. The friendly professional at your local hydroponics store, or other informative articles in this magazine can answer any other concerns.
Okay, you have done the initial brainwork and are ready to move ahead. Questions two and three can determine each other. For any available garden option, there is a commercially assembled model available, and in most instances, a gamut of options to choose from. However, if you want to satisfy your inner Tim Taylor, you can always buy the raw materials and make your garden from scratch. Balance the money you can invest against the time and talent you are willing to commit to decide whether to strap on the tool belt or not.
What follows is a breakdown of most garden options available to you, with some information to help you decide which is the right choice.
PRICE reflects the average cost of a professionally assembled system. If you don’t want to miss a single episode of Friends and just want to jump headlong into a system with minimal construction time, this is how much it will cost. Keep in mind all prices listed are in US dollars.
SPACE lists the minimum floor space needed to house such a garden. As the very nature of hydroponics is so adaptable, I will not list a maximum size as that is dictated by the scope of your dreams, or the depth of your bank account.
MAINTENANCE is a brief overview of what practices need to be kept up to maintain your garden’s healthy, happy attitude.
McGYVER QUOTIENT pertains to the ease of assembling your own garden. Rated on a scale of 1 to 10.
POS lists any beneficial properties attributed to the garden, while NEG lists any possible downfalls.
NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) GROWING SYSTEM
The NFT is a simple solution that puts the power of gravity to work for you. Think of a slow moving graduated waterfall. It pumps nutrient enriched solution from a centrally located reservoir up to the top of the garden, then allows the gentle slopes of the grow basins to trickle the solution over the roots of your plants and back to the reservoir where it can be recycled indefinitely. (Unlike Pauly Shore’s career.)
PRICE: Approximately $100 to $150 for a 12 plant system.
SPACE: Allow a minimum space of eight feet by three feet. This should allow you to house at least one level of grow basin and your reservoir. Get Lego crazy if you need to…and expand from there.
MAINTENANCE: Not a lot of upkeep needed here. The constantly moving nutrient supply hinders growth of most harmful fungi. Simply plug it in and watch it grow. Normal monitoring of your reservoir does apply though. Keep an eye on the PH level, and the actual fluid level…. allowing the reservoir to run dry will burn out your pump. Also, you may routinely have to disassemble any small fittings and unclog nutrient build-up.
McGYVER QUOTIENT: Mostly basic plumbing supplies are needed…the easiest basins are made by using a hole-saw on PVC pipe. Just cut the holes to match the diameter of your pots. There are some tools needed, and depending on the size of your garden, some form of graduated support so this one rates a six.
POS: Makes economical use of space (and is a good wall mounted unit) while cost to set up or build is reasonable; this method can grow as your need for a garden grows. Simply add more tiers to your garden and possibly a more powerful pump to defeat gravity and send that nutrient a couple feet higher.
NEG: The delivery system may clog over time depending on the size of your fittings. Getting just the right angle to deliver nutrient evenly and at desired rate might take a little trial and error.
EBB & FLOW TABLE
The Ebb & Flow table works on the same principle as the NFT delivery system. The only difference being the arrangement of your plants in one large “Table” as opposed to being divided among different tiers. The Ebb & Flow table differs in one other respect as well. Instead of your nutrient being constantly filtered through the system, most growers set a “flood period” with an electronic timer. Setting the timer to pump nutrient through the grow medium for the desired amount of time simulates the rising and lowering of the tides, hence the name Ebb & Flow.
PRICE: Approximately $160 to $200 for a three foot by four foot model.
SPACE: Allow about four foot by six foot for your garden…unless you are tabling the system high enough to tuck your reservoir underneath. That way, you can reclaim some more floor space.
MAINTENANCE: As with the NFT method, you must keep a wary eye on your PH and fluid level. Also, depending on the efficiency of your lighting system, it may be beneficial to shift plants within your lighting radius to keep growth even. If you are using an aggregate based medium for your garden (ie. lava rock, pea gravel, etc.) it may be beneficial to flush the system between harvests to remove any nutrient build-up.
McGYVER QUOTIENT: The prime component of this system is the table itself. Buying a moulded plastic shell is the quickest and easiest way to accomplish this, but with a little effort and materials you can frame in and seal a table of your own. Just be wary of any sealants or adhesives that you use in your construction, as they may prove to be toxic. Break out the hammer Tim, this one rates a three …unless you decide to build your own table…that may kick it up a notch.
POS: Probably the easiest system to build, and a good kit for beginners. Once you set up your system once, it will cost you very little every time you start a brand new garden in your table.
NEG: Since the main purpose of this system is to flood your table, at times your grow medium may become over-saturated, and without proper ventilation, you may begin to develop fungus or rot problems around your roots.
The Aeroponic Garden explains itself with its name. Its origins are in hydroponics, but its roots exist suspended in air. Most other hydroponic gardens share one unique characteristic: the roots are supported in a soil or nutrient bath. Aeroponics however leaves the roots suspended in air. Aeroponic cultivation provides the most optimized environment for the exchange of CO2, Oxygen, water and nutrients.
PRICE: Approximately $350 to $450 for a 20 plant system.
SPACE: Allow about four feet by eight feet of space for a 20 plant system.
MAINTENANCE: Keep an eye on PH and nutrient levels, as is the norm. Misters are the standard form of delivery for your nutrient, and are prone to clogging, so the small fittings may need to be taken apart and flushed in hot water or given a shot of compressed air through the system to unclog them.
McGYVER QUOTIENT: This is the granddaddy of all home construction. It is not impossible, just make sure the terrorists aren’t screaming straight at you brandishing their rifles while you try to make a bomb out of chewing gum. It takes a little work and precision to successfully set up your misters, and keeping your psi high enough to deliver your nutrients equally and efficiently may take some fine-tuning. This one rates a nine on the meter unless you happen to have a NASA technician in your back pocket. And if you do, please don’t sit down.
POS: This is hands down the best system available to make your roots rock like they were at a concert. Since your plant’s roots are not encumbered by soil or a nutrient bath, they breathe deep and show their appreciation by growing well.
NEG: There are three downfalls to this system: Price, price and price. It will cost you more than any of your other options to set up, but you do get what you pay for.
The Pod System is a component-based garden. Each plant has its own pot with an intake and outlet for nutrient and is connected to a central reservoir. The nutrient can be delivered in a variety of ways, depending on the configuration you choose: you can use mist or drip irrigation, or flood with a timer.
PRICE: Approximately $160 to $180 for a four pod system.
SPACE: Allow for at least six feet by four feet of floor space for a system this size.
MAINTENANCE: Monitor your PH and nutrient levels to keep everything running smoothly. If you choose misting or dripping as your delivery system, you will need to flush your fittings periodically to remove nutrient build up.
McGYVER QUOTIENT: This system can take a little work to get it to function to your satisfaction, but all in all it is not too hard to piece together. If you decide to use buckets for your pods that were not purchased from a gardening or hydroponic supply store, make sure that their original use was to store items that were not toxic. Residue left in the pails is almost impossible to remove completely and can prove harmful to your plants. Discarded pails from restaurants are a possible alternative, as anything that was once used to hold food should be safe for your plants. This system would rate a six in difficulty.
POS: Highly customizable. This system can be built to fit almost any space available. Also, since each pot is separate, you can turn or place your plants as they grow if your light source isn’t providing equal light to the entire garden.
NEG: This is not a self-contained unit, and as your fittings age and wear, you may develop leaks, which may contribute to damage to your floor or danger to yourself. Also, being a component based system, the connecting hoses may present a tripping problem. And, to top it all off, you will have to put up with cheesy 1960s Sci-Fi references from your friends, Pod-Man.
Whatever your choice, as long as you take care in the maintenance of your garden, you will be delighted by the results of your labours. Building your first hydroponic garden is like buying your first car. Do your research and kick the tires. Now get out there and get your feet wet.