Edible Gardening

Gardening Without Soil

hydroponic gardening

During the cold winter months, many of us can only dream of spring gardening. But I found an alternative that lets me garden during the winter — in my kitchen.


photo by Sharon Settlage

Hydroponics gardening is an excellent option for anyone who would like to grow healthy vegetables, herbs and flowers any time of the year. It is water friendly, compact, and provides for healthy plant growth. Once the system is installed, the grower needs only to stand back and marvel at the happy, productive plants. An added plus is the lighting illuminates my kitchen like a summer day.

This method of growing plants without soil was used by the Egyptians thousands of years ago. Today, NASA is experimenting with hydroponics to grow food crops for long-term space missions.

Hydroponics is ideal for tinkerers and experimentalists, and for apartment and condo dwellers or homeowners with intractable clay soil. The logic is not only in the space saved, but also in the results: hydroponics grown plants are more vigorous and can produce up to six times the yield in a third of the space of a traditional vegetable garden.

The popularity of hydroponics is growing as fast as its vegetables. Equipment and advice are accessible through local stores and online sites. Complete hydroponics sets for indoors are available for about $100.


photo by Sharon Settlage

However, if you’re even slightly handy you can make your own system. The following project is a great way to interest children in gardening, too.

You will need the following items to build your own system. The items with an * need to be purchased at a local hydroponics store or online.

1 – Hanging shop light, stand, and plant light (24-48 inches)
1 – 10-gallon Rubbermaid type container or 6 empty cat liter containers
6 – Mesh pots 3-½ inch *
6 – Rockwool 1-½ inch cubes *
6 – Wicks (store bought or tee-shirt material) *
1 – Aquarium pump with tubing and bubbler
Hydroponics nutrients *
Clay aggregate pellets *

Once you have the supplies, you can assemble the system following these steps. First, make holes in the lid of the container using a hole saw that fits the 3-½ inch mesh pots.

Next, provide an entry hole for aquarium tubing. Drill a hole about 2 inches from the top of the container large enough to fit the tubing. Thread the aquarium tubing through the drilled hole, add an air bubbler to the inside end and connect the other end to a small aquarium pump on the outside of the container. This will keep the nutrient solution aerated.

Following the instructions on the hydroponics nutrients, mix about 5 gallons of nutrient solution. The amount needed will vary depending on the container size. Replace the lid on the container and add the mesh pots with wicks reaching down into the nutrient solution. Place the unit under the plant light with a timer set for about 10 to 12 hours of light per day.



Now the system is ready for seedlings. I grow Black Seeded Simpson leaf lettuce from seed in 1½-inch rockwool cubes. Rockwool is made from molten rock spun into thread and compressed into a cube shape.  It gives seeds a moist place to root before transplanting into your hydroponic system.

Once roots emerge from the cubes (about one week for lettuce) it is time to transplant the seedlings into the containers you have prepared.

Add clay pellets in the mesh pots and place the cube in the center so that the top of the cube is flush with the top of the pot. Lettuce will be ready to harvest in 4 to 6 weeks. Starting new seedlings every two weeks ensures a steady supply of salad greens all winter.

photo by Sharon Settlage

photo by Sharon Settlage

Larger vegetable plants grow well in buckets like a cat litter container with hinged lid and sturdy handle.  Prepare the system the same as you would for lettuce.

Occasionally, a complete nutrient solution change is a good idea. The rockwool and clay pellets can be reused many times.

Hydroponics also has a place in outdoor vegetable gardening during summer as it can use 20 times less water than conventionally grown vegetables. Hydroponics expert Peyam Barghassa with the Grodan Company, a leading manufacturer of rockwool, estimates that a tomato plant requires five gallons or less water per week when grown by hydroponics. By contrast, a soil grown plant requires about 30 gallons of water.

For more detailed information about hydroponics growing, check out www.explainthatstuff.com/hydroponics.

Featured image by Sharon Settlage.

Sharon Settlage credits her mother for her love of plants. A native of Georgia, Sharon studied botany and crop science at NC State. Her favorite plants are cacti and other succulents. Sharon can be reached at sharonsettlage@gmail.com.

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