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CULTIVATING SUCCESS IN THE FARM & GARDEN: Small-scale hydroponics

Hydroponic gardening allows you to grow greens and herbs all winter long indoors, and can be done easily and affordably.

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Although almost anything can be grown hydroponically, short-season crops or crops that do not produce fruit, such as herbs and leafy greens, are great choices for indoor production in the winter.
Contributed/ Hubbard County University of Minnesota Extension
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Are you looking for a new winter hobby? Access to fresh greens or herbs throughout the winter? A fun project for kids, or a unique holiday gift idea?

Hydroponic gardening checks all of these boxes!

Hydroponic gardening allows you to grow greens and herbs all winter long indoors, and can be done easily and affordably.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Usually, hydroponic production is done indoors, but it is also an excellent method for gardeners with a balcony or limited access to gardening space outdoors.

This method uses less water than soil-based gardening, allows for faster growth and often higher yields, and requires few materials.

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Growing in water also means no weeds.

With artificial lighting, you can grow hydroponically all year long, even in Minnesota.

Although almost anything can be grown hydroponically, short-season crops or crops that do not produce fruit, such as herbs and leafy greens, are great choices for indoor production in the winter.

Growing systems

The simplest hydroponic systems to use at home fall into a category of hydroponics called “deep water culture.”

Plants are suspended above a tank of water and the roots hang into the container where they absorb water and nutrients.

This is the most common type of hydroponic system for small-scale growers, such as people growing for their own use and school demonstration gardens.

It is also the least expensive and easiest to maintain and expand.

You can buy premade deep water culture hydroponic systems, but it is more affordable and nearly as easy to build your own.

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For this type of system, your container for holding water and plants can be as simple as a 5-gallon bucket or a plastic storage bin. Any kind of container that holds water will do for hydroponics, as long as it is clean and made of a material that is safe for food (a material that will not leach harmful chemicals into the water).

Plant supports

The container in your hydroponic system will hold the water and nutrients, but something needs to support the plant.

When using a bucket, the most common support structure for plants is simply the lid of the bucket with holes drilled through it for the plants.

Another common support system for do-it-yourself hydroponics is the combination of net pots and a substrate.

A net pot is simply a pot with holes or slits in the sides to allow the root system to reach the nutrient solution below. The net pot should only be partially submerged to allow the developing plant roots to get oxygen.

Net pots come in a variety of sizes and styles to suit a diverse range of systems. Rather than filling the net pots with soil, common substrates include perlite, hydroton, pumice, gravel, coconut coir and Rockwool.

Fertilizing

There are 17 nutrients that plants require to grow and develop properly.

Only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are naturally available to plants in a hydroponic system. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are considered macronutrients because plants use them in large quantities. If you have gardened outdoors, you are likely familiar with adding these nutrients to your garden via commercial fertilizer or compost.

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Other nutrients are often not a concern in traditional soil-based gardening systems because the soil naturally contains many of these essential nutrients. However, in hydroponics, you need to supply not just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but also calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, iron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, boron, chlorine and nickel.

The good news is, there are many pre-made fertilizers available that have been specially designed for hydroponics.

Determining the correct balance for each crop

The simplest solution to making sure you have the correct balance of nutrients for your specific crop is to purchase a hydroponic fertilizer solution tailored to your crop. For example, you can purchase fertilizer specifically designed for hydroponic lettuce, or for hydroponic tomatoes.

This information covers the basics of hydroponics. To learn more in-depth information about other hydroponic practices, visit z.umn.edu/hydroponics.

Tarah Young is Hubbard County University of Minnesota Extension educator in agriculture, food and natural resources. If you have any questions about this topic or any others, contact her at 732-3391. If information about agriculture, gardening and natural resources interests you, consider signing up for the Hubbard County UMN Extension Agriculture, Gardening and Natural Resources E-newsletter at z.umn.edu/HCExtensionNewsletter.

MORE GARDENING NEWS:
This week, gardening columnist Don Kinzler fields questions on hibiscus plants, beating apple trees and how long grass seeds will last.

Tarah Young is an interim Hubbard County University of Minnesota Extension educator in agriculture, food and natural resources.
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