How to Build a Hydroponic Garden? – Complete DIY Guide (With Pictures)
Building a garden at home can take an immeasurable amount of time and effort. The process is messy, requires tons of care, and often doesn’t work as desired. That’s why hydroponics is among the most popular alternatives nowadays.
A DIY hydroponics garden can take away all the disadvantages of typical gardens and add the chance to enjoy an utterly soil-less experience. No more mess, effort, or time wasted in a garden.
If you’re looking for an efficient, practical, and affordable way to grow plants indoors – then you’ll love this DIY guide.
Want to know more about this? Then take a look down. You won’t regret it.
What is a Hydroponic Garden?
In definition, hydroponics refers to growing plants without soil. As a type of hydroculture, it uses water combined with nutrients to nurture the plants directly.
Growing hydroponics usually means using Rockwool, peat moss, gravel, clay pellets, vermiculite, or perlite as soil. These materials allow the seedlings and roots to come in direct content with the nutrient-rich water, without dampening their growth.
This type of plant-growing system also makes it possible for growing plants to absorb as much oxygen as possible without being in danger of damaging microorganisms.
In short, hydroponics is using water and substrates instead of soil to grow plants.
Benefits of Building a DIY Hydroponic system
So, are you thinking of getting one of these systems? You won’t regret it for sure. Here are a few reasons why:
A hydroponic garden can go almost anywhere. In fact, this is the type of garden the NASA is trying to develop well enough so astronauts can grow them in space. That’s how versatile a hydroponic system can be.
Uses less Water
Because it doesn’t contain any soil and the water is usually flowing back and forth through the system, a hydroponic system is amazingly water-efficient.
Because you won’t have to use any type of soil, sand, or similar material, hydroponic gardens end up being much more environmentally friendly than normal ones.
Grows No Weeds
One of the most annoying parts of growing a regular garden is weeding it out. Getting rid of those unwanted sprouts can take tons of time and effort. Luckily, hydroponics gardens don’t produce weeds.
Produces Quality Plants
You may think plants will grow weak and fragile with a hydroponics system. But they don’t. It’s actually the other way around – plants usually grow healthier, more delicious, and more nutritious.
Less Effort & Time
Last but not least, the hydroponic growing process takes a lot less time and effort than a standard garden. Why? Because you won’t have to water the plants manually, you won’t have to use pesticides or herbicides, and you won’t have to take care of usual soil issues like pests and diseases.
Types of Hydroponic Gardens
Now that you have an idea of how a hydroponic system work, let’s go deep into the different kinds of hydroponics you’ll find:
Probably the most common and easiest to make – the wick system is a basic alternative that delivers decent results.
This type of hydroponics is somewhat limited in size and scope. But it is an efficient way to make a small yet efficient indoor garden for small herbs, microgreens, and other leafy veggies.
It is based on connecting a wick to a container and a water reservoir. The wick makes sure the water in the reservoir goes directly into the container with the plants. The process is simple and requires no more than a few tubes and plastic containers or media (like Styrofoam).
Ebb and flow (Flood & Drain)
This is the one we’re going to help you build. It is also a piece of cake to make yet it delivers some of the best results.
The hydroponics consists of a shallow tray or table with water, with a floating platform like Styrofoam. This platform contains the plants, and the table or tray contains the water with nutrients. The difference with a wick system is that you don’t use wicks to keep the tray with water, but a pump.
This pump goes inside a reservoir with the water and nutrients for the plants. And it pumps water into the tray consistently. After a set amount of time, the water goes back into the reservoir to prevent excessive flooding.
Flood & Drain system
Another similar hydroponics is water culture. This one also uses a platform like Styrofoam that floats over a tank or tray filled with water. The difference is that water culture doesn’t move the water around. Plants will be consistently floating over the nutrient-rich water.
This system uses a bubbler to give oxygen to the water (as it doesn’t move), preventing the water from stagnating. It is a pretty efficient way to grow small and large greens like herbs, lettuce, and light crops. Yet, it needs a little more maintenance than the previous ones.
You could say a drip system is like an ebb and flow, but instead of overflowing the tray with water, this one drops water from above.
The process consists of a water reservoir with the nutrients, connected to an array of tubes and a pump that consistently release water over the plants. Similarly, the tray has a drip system that gets the water back to the reservoir after it reaches the bottom.
This system is ideal for medium plants, yet it works for almost everything. It is one of the most efficient hydroponics systems out there.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
An NFT system is a seemingly more complicated mode that’s actually pretty simple. It consists of a continuous flow of nutrients into plants by tilting the tray or container. Similar to previous methods, this one uses a pump from a nutrient reservoir to push water into the tilted platform.
This process is one of the most efficient out there. It’s also a favorite of many gardeners due to oxygen-rich nutrient delivery. Yet, the real advantage is that you won’t need as much water, and makes maintenance a lot easier than other methods.
Still, the NFT system promotes fast growth and requires little to no upfront investment.
When it comes to technologically-advanced hydroponics, nothing compares to the aero system. It consists of a material bed (usually standard soil or alternatives) where the plants grow. Instead of dripping water over the plants, aeroponics sprays a mist of nutrient-rich water under them.
There’s evidence of aeroponics being the most efficient of all hydroponics. Yet, it requires a lot of work and engineering skills to create a misting system. But it’s totally worth trying.
Step-by-Step Hydroponic Garden Guide
So, you already know about the most typical hydroponic garden methods. It’s time to learn how to make one.
Here, you’ll learn about an ebb and flow (flood and drain) system. This guide will be comprehensive yet to-the-point, so you can make it happen within a few hours or two days max.
Follow these steps to make it happen:
1. Gather the Equipment & Materials
Before you start setting up the garden, you need to gather all the hydroponics equipments and materials you’re using. Here’s a list of the most important things you’ll need:
- A large table frame
- A large tray to hold the water
- Water pump (configurable)
- Two or more pressure compensated drippers
- Tubing for the pump (large enough to reach the table)
- A bucket, fish tank, or waterproof bin (shorter than the tray/table)
- A large-enough Styrofoam piece (at least half of the tray but not bigger)
- As many mesh/netted pots as plants you want to grow
- Seeds or seedlings (ideal for hydroponics)
- A soil alternative (Rockwool, gravel, perlite, vermiculite, grow rocks, or whatever works with the plants you’re growing)
- Nutrients for the water (hydroponic food, fertilizers, supplements, pH balancers)
These are all the things you’ll need to get the hydroponic garden going. Make sure to have all of them before proceeding.
2. Determine the Ideal Location
The second step is to find somewhere stable, dry, but fresh enough to place the hydroponic garden. Of course, it has to be indoors. Here are a few criteria to consider:
- The level should be level and as flat as possible for the nutrients to spread properly
- Protect the garden from elements (drain, dirt, dust, wind, heat, etc.)
- It should be fresh but not too hot or cold (should be warm in winter)
- Add growth lights if sun rays don’t reach it (more on growth lights below)
For us, indoors is always the best place to locate a hydroponic garden. We also recommend placing it somewhere with tons of space (like a garage or shack).
3. Get Proper Growth Lights
While this is a part of the first step – we had to explain it deeply. Growth lights are essential for a hydroponic garden to grow. But they are not as easy as they seem to pick – so you must be sure before making a purchase.
There are tons of different types to consider. Some of them are large and powerful, so they work from a few feet away. Others are small and not so powerful, and make it easy to direct the light from close.
At the same time, you may not even need to buy a light system altogether. A simple growth bulb with a lamp base can be enough. As long as it is indeed a growth light, then it should work.
The best type of growth lights, however, are LED ones. Another excellent choice is HID (high-intensity discharge) lights, separated between HPS (High-Pressure Sodium) and MHS (Metal Halide).
Whatever you go for, make sure it is something perfect for your garden that also matches your budget.
4. Find the Ideal Seeds/Seedlings
Before you can get the garden going, you’ll have to go for the right seeds. The easiest way to do this is to pick seedlings. They’re easier to maintain and will be grown enough, so it doesn’t take too long for them to sprout further.
If you have the time, however, seeds can always be an excellent idea. Just be sure they take a lot of time and effort before they start sprouting (anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks).
Here’s a list of extra factors to consider before picking the ideal plants to grow in your hydroponic garden:
- If you’re choosing seedlings, make sure they’re healthy and clean. Otherwise, clean them thoroughly and check for any sign of disease before planting them.
- Use plants that have similar needs. Leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, cabbage, etc.) all need identical care. Similarly, berries (strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc.) can grow together, but not with leafy greens. Choose accordingly.
- Be sure to pick short-root plants first. Plants like spinach, kale, and lettuce are excellent for a first-time hydroponics gardener. But species like cucumbers, squash, beets, and potatoes need a lot of depth. Leave depth-demanding kinds of plants for when you’re more experienced.
If you need more help with this, don’t hesitate to consult someone with more experience. There’s probably nothing more important than picking the right seeds – so do it properly to prevent any problems later on.
5. Choose the Right Medium (Soil Alternative)
Once you have the seedlings/seeds – you can proceed to pick the medium. This is what goes on the mesh pots that will act as the soil replacement.
The sole focus of the medium is to optimize proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the seedlings. At the same time, it should allow adequate water access as well as work as support so the plant can grow safely.
There are various types of mediums you can go for, here are some of them:
- Coco fiber
If you want our recommendation, we think Rockwool is your best bet. It is the most popular option because it provides incredible nutrient and water delivery while reducing diseases. Yet, each type of medium has its own advantages and disadvantages, so choose wisely here.
6. Build a Flood Table
The flood table is where the Styrofoam platform will float over (more on that later). So it is an essential part of the entire system.
In contrast with a vertical hydroponic garden, a flood table places the garden in a horizontal position. So you’ll have to build a flood table accordingly.
Here’s a small guide to follow:
- The best material for the flood table frame you can use is wood (durability & price). But a metal flood table can also get the job done. Plastic is not the best decision unless it is temporary (1 year or less).
- The tray material is also essential. We recommend plastic or metal for their waterproof capacity. It should hold no less than 1 gallon of water per every 0.5-feet of length. That means at least 8 gallons of water for a 4-feet table.
- The width and length depending on the location you chose in the first step. A small garden can handle a 4-feet long and 2-feet wide. But a large garden can be up to 8-feet long and 4-feet wide. Measure the location correctly and plan accordingly.
- The most space-efficient shape for a hydroponic garden of this kind is rectangular. But the shape doesn’t matter much, so you can build a rounded or squared flood table if desired.
You can always hire a carpenter or furniture maker to build the frame for you. But be sure to make it around the tray you want to use (length & width).
7. Install the Drippers
The pressure-compensated drippers go on the table and tray. You should make some holes, so the drippers fit inside (they’re usually 1-inch diameter).
Then, you should place the drippers in the holes. They should fit snuggly.
The whole purpose of these drippers is to flow water away from the tray once it fills up enough. These drippers activate with water pressure (some models are configurable).
You can usually find drippers on nature and garden shops. Otherwise, you can always buy them online.
8. Place the Water Reservoir
This is the bucket, fish tank, or waterproof bin. Here’s where you’re pouring the plant food filled with nutrients. And sure enough, this is where the pump also goes.
The water reservoir goes just below the drippers on the table. It will receive all the water that drips from the tray.
9. Install the Pump
Then, you need to install the pump. It will pump the water upwards at specific times. This is what will keep the tray filled with enough water and help it move to prevent stagnation.
Some pumps run full time, so be sure to configure it to the right flow of water. Also, check that it doesn’t overflow the tray. The pump usually works at a similar rate as the drippers.
10. Make a Floating Platform
The floating platform goes on the water in the flood table. So it needs to be of a material that floats but also keeps the plants safe. And for that, nothing compares to Styrofoam.
The Styrofoam needs to fit inside the tray, of course. You’ll have to cut it accordingly or at least use several ones (in case the Styrofoam is too small).
An ideal Styrofoam platform will be only a few inches smaller in length and width. And it should have no less than 1.5 inches of thickness. That would be enough to make a perfect platform for the platforms – so make it accordingly.
11. Cut Holes on the Platform (Styrofoam)
The holes on the Styrofoam are where you’ll place the mesh pots with the seeds. These holes should be big enough for the mesh pots to fit inside. We recommend about 2 or 3 inches for the best results.
Otherwise, you can always measure the mesh pots first. They should fit snuggly on the Styrofoam, so the plants don’t fall into the water but still go deep enough.
Some people prefer cutting the Styrofoam to a specific depth without reaching the bottom end. This way, the water can get into the platform still without the plants falling into the water.
12. Fill the Table
Now you’re almost done with the whole hydroponic garden. It’s now time to fill the table and tray with water.
Here, remember to fill according to the size of the tray. Overall, we recommend no less than 5 gallons. However, a large tray may need up to 20 gallons or more.
In case the water is not enough, you can always add more later – so fill it up gently at first. If the water drains out or evaporates over time, you can pour more as needed.
13. Pour the Plant Food
The plant food goes on the water reservoir below the table. This is where you should pour it – but be sure to do it properly.
- First, you need to get nutrient-rich plant food. Then, get fertilizer and a similar nurturing product for the plants.
- We recommend plant foods rich in magnesium, calcium, and similar nutrients. If they are plant foods made for hydroponic gardens, then they’re likely to be ideal for the job.
- Lastly, be sure to calculate how much you really need. If you pour too much, the system is likely to clog. And if you use too little, the plants may not grow as expected.
14. Prepare the Medium (Soil Alternative)
This is what goes in the mesh pots and contains the seeds/seedlings. Instead of using soil (which is not ideal for hydroponics system), you will use a medium.
As explained before, you should use an ideal medium. Coco fiber and perlite are suitable for cold climates. If you’re in a warm place, then clay pebbles and Rockwool are better.
Add enough medium so the mesh pots fill up to the middle. Don’t add too much as you may end up suffocating the seeds and restricting access to the water and nutrients.
15. Plant the Seeds/Seedlings
Once you have the mesh pots filled with the medium, then it’s time to add the seeds/seedlings.
Every hydroponics setup should have the seedlings inside the medium in the planting pots (meshed or netted).
If they are seedlings with small roots, be sure the roots can reach the bottom of the pot (where it touches the water).
The seedlings/seeds should be snuggly inside the medium. Still, the medium should be around the pot, so it manages to spread the nutrient-rich water around the plant while protecting it from the exterior.
You should only add one seed/seedling per pot. Otherwise, the seeds may not grow as expected or eventually break the platform.
16. Install the Crops
Now that you have the planting pots with the medium and seeds ready, you can start placing them on the Styrofoam.
- The pots should go in the floating platform. Be sure they fit snuggly and don’t fall.
- The seedlings with roots should be submerged in the water. This helps them thrive and grow healthier over time.
Flood and Drain Hydroponics with grown plants (without mesh pots)
17. Start the Pump
Now that the system is ready, you can start the pump. It will begin to pump the water back from the reservoir to the tray.
Then, the drippers will release the water back to the reservoir, and thus the process will keep on.
Check to see whether the drippers are draining enough water from the tray. Also, check that the pump is working at the right flow rate (not too much to overflow the tray or too little to let it dry).
If everything works correctly, then you’ve successfully built a hydroponic flood and drain system.
How to Take Care of Your DIY Hydroponic System?
After building the hydroponic garden, you should be careful when maintaining it and making sure it’s working correctly.
Here are a few tips you should take into account:
Only Use Filtered Water
For the best results and prevent diseases, try to only use filtered water. There’s nothing more harmful than tap water with microorganisms or toxic chemicals for your growing plants.
Maintain Proper Temperature
A hydroponic garden shouldn’t be warmer than 75-degrees or colder than 65-degrees Fahrenheit. Keep the temperature at the right level with growth lights.
Pump the Water
Make sure the water is always moving. Check the pump and its tubing consistently to prevent any type of clogging as well.
Clean & Refill
To prevent the water from stagnating or the nutrients from growing bacteria, you should clean the indoor hydroponic garden at least once every month. You should clean the water reservoir every two weeks as well.
Ensure Proper Light
There’s nothing like growth lights and ideal sun exposure for the plants to thrive. So you must ensure no less than 15 hours of total growth light exposure. If they’re exposed to the sun, 15 hours will be the maximum.
Last but not least, make sure to inspect your hydroponic grow system in search of pests, diseases, and any sign of problems. A small insect can quickly infest an entire hydroponic garden. Similarly, diseases travel rapidly in these settings. So check consistently in search of them to prevent any damage.
If you’ve reached this far, it means you’re genuinely interested in what a hydroponic garden has to offer. Well, don’t hesitate and put your hands into work.
We’re sure a hydroponic system can take your gardening skills to a whole new level. And if you put enough effort, then you may end up with a fantastic garden to sustain a lifestyle.
Follow our advice and recommendations. Be sure to read the guide entirely and re-read if necessary. Then setting up that DIY hydroponics garden will be a piece of cake and a total pleasure.