Hydroponics

Hydroponics can be a method for some people to grow fresh vegetables or strawberries year-round. It is not necessarily cheap to do, and it does require quite a bit of maintenance. Seems to be a better option for people with special dietary needs, or who live in a climate challenged area, where produce prices are pushed out of the range of the norm anyway.

We created a hydroponics system from PVC. We used 1" PVC to create a framework, which supported sets of two, or four 3" pipes, angled down by about a 1" difference between left and right sides. The 3" pipes had 2" holes along the top for the net pots to set in. We put a layer of perlite in the bottom of the pipes - it was tricky getting the right amount. Enough to bring the moisture up to the bottom of the pots, but not so much that it caused the water to back up. We used a perforated pipe cap on the end to hold the perlite in while the water drained out, and a circle of screening on the lower end under the cap (to keep the cap from clogging).

We put a bin under one side of the framework, and four rows of larger pipe - each angled a different direction. The larger pipes had elbows pointing up on the top end. Our solution was in the bin, with a pump, attached to a garden hose. The hose ran up to the top of the unit, where it met a hose expander - expanded into four hose attachments. Short segments of hose then came off each attachment, and one went into each of the large pipe elbows. Gravity did the rest - the water solution ran from the top layer, through the pipe, and flowed out the end and dropped into the pipe elbows on the next layer. Each layer just ran by gravity into the next, with the bottom layer (shorter pipes) positioned over four holes in the top of the solution bin, which caught the solution to recycle it.

A variation on the PVC pipe, is to use gutter downspout pieces, and caps. This costs about the same, but the advantage is that the bottom is flat, so no perlite is necessary. I started partly with what I had, and what I had access to out here.

We tried several types of pumps. The ones we bought locally either lacked sufficient power to pump the water up to the top of the system, or they just could not handle continuous operation. We finally bought a $90 pump from a hydroponics supply place, and that seemed to be the best.

We had to add water sometimes twice daily, and that was in the winter. We live in a dry climate, so we lost a lot to evaporation, but it consumed anywhere between 4 and 8 gallons of water a day.

Even if you do it on the cheap, getting a system built is costly. And then there is the lighting... Costly to buy, even if you use cheap options, and then costly to operate, because high amounts of lighting just suck electricity. It was the electricity that made hydroponics an unviable solution for us. That, combined with the fact that about the time we got it working well, I stopped being able to EAT the things we could GROW in it. So our system was relegated to the corner of the garage until we were able to liquidate the parts. The lights were later repurposed for brooder lamps.

Remember, with hydroponics, you are looking at a system with a finite number of plant holes. Sometimes you can put more than one plant per hole, but generally not. So if you are growing lettuce (one of the easiest things to grow), you need to figure out whether you have enough holes to grow enough lettuce to actually make a difference. For our family, since we use an entire large head at a time, if we wanted one head every other day, we needed a system that would handle about 45 heads (taking into account the growing time of each head). Most systems don't even come close to that.

You can purchase hydroponic systems also. They tend to be small and costly, but may prove less fussy. Hydroponics are not to be taken on by the fainthearted, they require weekly cleaning, and regular addition of water and nutrients. But many people swear by it as a good means of producing for yourself what you cannot otherwise do.

 

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