Having a year-round vegetable garden can seem like a fairytale, even though there are plenty of books out there about it. What if you could have a full vegetable garden, right now, in any room of your house, any time of year, growing faster, better, and bigger than a traditional garden — and you could have everything you needed to do it year after year for about $350? Enter the small hydroponics system.

Getting Started

Hydroponics, of course, grows plants in a medium, instead of soil. At specific intervals, nutrient-laden water flows through the system, then drains back out, exposing the plant roots to food, water, and air. There are no weeds to pull, and aside from ensuring the right balance of nutrients, the system is fairly hands-off. Certainly, you can get into some pretty advanced concepts and tools, making your own nutrient solutions and whatnot, but this article is designed to show you a setup that will get you started without being overwhelmed, and knowing absolutely nothing when you start. For many people, this system will be all they need. Others will want to expand and do more, or get more advanced.

This system will get you through many winters with fresh veggies, if that’s all you want. You could also use it to grow chamomile, lavender, and other plants so that you can have a fresh supply of medicinals on hand. I have a spillanthes plant in my system, also known as a toothache plant; chewing a leaf makes those teeth go numb. I also grow a yarrow plant (while it grows wild and abundant here, it doesn’t grow in the winter; having a plant of my own means having poultice material available year-round).

The Materials

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Grow Kit $115.99 – This kit has 72 spaces for plants and is made out of PVC pipe. It includes growing sponges (throw those out, they’re worthless), a pump, tubing, and 72 little cups that basically serve as medium holders.

Nutrient Solutions $20.99 – We’ve tried several types. This, by far, is the best. Least amount of maintenance needed, with the highest amount of nutrients delivered and best resulting plants.

Rapid Rooter Plugs $23.99 – These are what the seeds are started in, and what they end up growing in while in the system. You cannot have too many of these. This price is for 100 plugs.

Germination Station $28.99 – 72-cell seed starter with heat mat. I use this one because it fits the rapid rooter plugs. I go from seeds to sprouts in 1-3 days, and into the medium in 2-5 days.

Adjustable Grow Lights $45.99 – You need three of these.

10-gallon Rubbermaid Tub $28.99 – Most people already have one laying around.

Timer $8.99 – All you need is something that can turn the pump on and off every 3 hours for 15 mins at a time.

Heirloom Seeds – One of my favorite, tried-and-trusted sites is Baker Seeds.

Total cost before seeds? $350, give or take — and that assumes you want to use all 72 spots out of the gate. We started with one light, and  only used about 4 rows of the grow kit, so our initial cost was about $100 cheaper.

Putting it Together

It’s pretty simple; follow the assembly instructions for the grow kit, set up the Rubbermaid tub underneath it as the reservoir, and run the tubing from the pump to the kit. You’ll need between 8-10 gallons of water for it. Follow the directions for adding the nutrients as well.

A few tips we learned from studying, common sense, and just doing/screwing up:

  • If you plan to grow a round of tomatoes in this system, then ONLY grow tomatoes, and plant them every other or even every third hole. They are nutrient hogs, and their root systems will not only choke out any other plants, but they’ll steal most of the nutrients and starve your other plants.
  • If you are growing plants that ‘bush out’ a bit, like peppers, plant accordingly. Don’t smash them together and make them compete. Lettuce and kale, on the other hand, can pretty much be planted next to each other; just keep the plants from going crazy.
  • This system works excellently for peas, beans, and other vine plants; simply put it against a wall, make a quick net with 550 cord, and attach the net to the PVC pipes. The plants will climb right up it; just make sure to keep them from attaching to your other plants.
  • Think about purpose when planting; don’t get carried away planting Bee Balm flowers “to attract pollinators” …to your living room.
  • We add nutrient once per week, and change out the water completely every three weeks.
  • Make sure you adjust the lighting according to plant height. Seedlings need light about 2 inches away. We generally keep the lights about 2-4 inches from the top of the plants. That’s also why we have multiple lights; we can have new baby plants in one row with low hanging lights, and taller plants further down with higher-set light.
  • For us, the optimal on/off ratio was 15 minutes of the pump on, 3 hours off. Our timer does this part for us, and automatically floods nutrient in. For lights, we simply turn them on when we get up, and turn them off before bed.

Obviously this type of system isn’t for growing carrots, potatoes, or other root vegetables, although you can certainly grow those in other containers; I do. I wouldn’t use it for pumpkins or squash either, although with the 550 net attached to it you could get away with growing cucumbers or other lighter-fruit vines. Here are a few things that we’ve successfully grown in our system:

  • Many varieties of lettuce
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lavender
  • Spillanthes
  • Many kinds of peppers
  • Chamomile
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Tomatoes (shorter varieties as opposed to 6′ tall monster plants)
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Parsley, Basil, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Sage
  • Cucumbers
  • Beans
  • Peas

We have fresh greens every day; enough for ourselves and to offer the chickens a bit of a green treat. I am currently waiting on my peas to fill their early pods, and for the ghost peppers to be ready.

You might end up “pruning” some of the plants; I go in and remove sucker shoots from the peppers and tomatoes just like I would in the garden, or cut back plants that are getting super leafy without much bloom. Overall, however, this system has served very well, with the worst part of the whole experience being learning a few things the hard way (such as how tomatoes literally suck up every scrap of nutrient around them).

If you want to get deep into hydroponics, you can certainly do so; there are nearly unlimited resources, books, websites, and forums on the subject. If, however, you just want to get started in a quick, easy way that will offer something in return, check out the small system above. You might decide it’ll be a springboard into more intense study…and you might just end up eating the fresh food every year and calling it good.