Low-Rent Indoor Hydroponics
by Wyzyrd – Editor-at-Large
A lot of gardeners have told me that they’d like to try indoor hydroponics, but don’t have the hundreds or thousands of dollars required for they initial setup. If you’d just like to ‘get your feet wet’ (pun intended) you can probably get started with less than a $20 investment (especially if you have abandoned aquarium equipment laying around)
a cheap aquarium air pump and tubing (I had this in a closet, collecting dust)
a large-ish airstone – mine was $2.95 at a chain pet store
a container ( I was given a 1.5 gallon hex aquarium as a gift, years ago – too small for fish)
A plastic net bag – the kind onions and potatoes are sold in at grocery stores
A pack of plastic “wiffle” plastic practice golfballs from a megamart (think mine were $2.18)
some polyethylene cord (Dollar Store special)
(optional) some lava rock (the kind sold for gas grills – very light weight – about $3 a big bag as I remember)
fertilizer (organic compost tea would be great, I’m lazy and use a little Miracle-Gro)
plants (start out w/herbs or lettuce or spinach, not tomatoes, cool as that may sound)
If you don’t have access to an old aquarium tank, don’t worry. A small plastic bucket or small office-type trashcan will probably work even better. I like to check the air flow, but the less light that hits the fertilized water, the fewer problems you will have with unwanted algae in the water. Pick a container that you can easily stick your onion bag inside. Pick something about 9-10 inch diameter and around a foot tall.
If you so choose, thread some of the poly cord through the net bag as reinforcement. This is mostly a hangover from earlier attempts to use pea gravel as a growing medium, but backup never hurts.
Place your airstone into empty tank, finagle and tape down the air tubing to keep it ‘right-side up’ (this can bite you later if you don’t)
Place your onion bag into tank, with a couple inches overlap on the outside of the tank. Tape around it to hold the bag in place (Note: I removed outer tape wrap layer so pic would be more self-explanatory). Leave an inch or 2 free space above the airstone to let bubbles spread.
Set the tank someplace warm with good light. (I use a shelf with a clamp-lamp and a daylight CFL bulb) Pour in your bag of wiffle golf balls – this is your growing medium. Very light weight, full of holes to allow air flow. Plug in the air pump, fill “most of the way” with water and your choice of fertilizer.
Let it run without plants a day or 2, just to drive off and chlorine, etc. as needed, where you are. If you can’t find wiffle practice golfballs, check your closest Dollar Store for the funny-looking hard pink plastic hair curlers. I used these once in a koi-pond as biofilter-medium instead of $30/lb “BioBalls” and they ought to work here too. All they do is support the roots and stems.
Being lazy, as I said, I plant sweet basil, because I can get it pre-started in hydroponic medium from a local organic hydroponic farm at my favorite supermarket. (rich yuppies DO have their uses..) To use other plants, start with a “2-inch pot size” plant, with good root systems, and gently wash off ALL the soil from the roots. PLEASE do this outside, not in your kitchen sink, or I promise, you will regret it while snaking and plunging the drainpipes. Shove the roots down inside the golfballs by hand. If the plant tends to be too floppy or too ‘floaty” just stick in a lava rock or 2 to brace up the structure.
Keep the airpump running all the time – you dont want the roots to ‘drown’. Don’t worry as water evaporates- let it get down to about 50% full before refilling with water – free air for the roots. Don’t over-fertilize- if you start seeing green algae, use a LOT less for the next month. If you use artificial light, make sure your plants get 6-8 hours a day of dark time, or they will turn yellow. Trim the leaves and make pesto, if you grow basil – it grows like a ‘bat outta..”
This particular tank has been going for about 5 months (and recently cut back for a batch of pesto) :
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