If you missed my first post about hydroponics, be sure to read Hydroponics: Hassle-Free Gardening.
To get my feet wet and learn about hydroponic gardening, I purchased the Aerogarden Extra LED, which is a complete aeroponic system for growing hydroponic crops. The Aerogarden circulates drops of water on each plant and the water level in the reservoir sits a couple inches below the plants to allow for air.
I purchased the Aerogarden because it came with a powerful LED light, liquid fertilizer, an automated timer and seed pods ready to grow. Essentially, it’s the total package. Then I ordered additional “salad greens” seed pods and even an additional “grow anything” package to use my own seeds. I purchased all of this for less than $200.
The first Aerogarden grew lettuce so fast and effortlessly that I bought a second Aerogarden, the Aerogarden Classic 7, an older, outdated model that is not as good of a design. This model uses a hybrid kratky/airstone method where the plants sit a few inches above the water, which receives air from an airstone. It still works fine, but seems to grow a bit slower in comparison and needs more attention as the airstone in this model keeps intermittently non-functioning. (Note: Aerogarden’s customer service told me they would replace the entire unit for free.) Instead, I open up the tray every few days and make sure I see little bubbles coming out of the airstone, and if not, I punch the reservoir until it starts working again. No biggie. In our Aerogardens, we grow Kale, Black Seeded Simpson, Deer Tongue, Marvel of 4 Seasons, Rouge d’Hiver, Red Sail and Parris Island.
The coolest thing about Aerogarden is the company has several models to choose from–all of various sizes and budgets. The largest system is its Aerogarden Farm Plus for extremely large growing. Of course, you can always just build your own system like I did and save some cash.
My Home-Built Hydroponics System
The goal was to design a very large system that is cheap and effortless to grow lettuces. Since our family eats a lot of lettuce and we like a nice variety in our salads, I wanted to build a system that accommodates several varietals in a small space.
Our lettuce variety includes Spinach, Arugula, Black Seeded Simpson, Red Leaf/Lolla Rosa, Swiss Chard and my favorite Buttercrunch.
I found large storage containers at Walmart for $9 each, painted them black ($9) to keep out light so algae won’t grow, drilled holes in the tops, dropped in 2-inch net baskets ($10), filled them with coco-can croutons ($25), added a $16 airstone into each, then purchased a LED light for $30, and the absolute best fertilizer, MaxiGro, for $15. Total out-of-pocket expense was roughly $125 and I’ll use this setup for years.
But wait. I don’t want to go down into our basement and worry about my plants every day. I just want them to grow! So I added a timer that runs the airstone and LED light 14 hours on and 10 hours off.
We ended up with 42 plants pods, which will feed my family salad every night and maybe twice a day continuously for the foreseeable future with almost zero effort. In the future, I’m going to design a light reflector to keep 100% of the LED light focused on our plants. From seeds, we have a 90% germination rate and they’re growing very rapidly. Adding an additional LED light would encourage faster growth.
Seedling Starting Process
I didn’t follow the conventional wisdom of starting seedlings in a rockwool block and then dropping them into my baskets. Instead, I bought a $2 car wash sponge, cut it into strips, cut a small tear into each strip, then placed the seed into that tear. I put each sponge strip into the net basket, then filled in the remaining area with my coco croutons. Every day for seven days, I dropped a little water on each sponge to keep it moist and the seeds germinated quickly and are growing rapidly. Now I can start the next batch of seedlings in six months while these plants are still producing lettuce!
Advantages of Hydroponic Lettuce
One thing most people don’t realize is that lettuce re-grows quickly. So your lettuce plants can be continually harvested every 3-4 days. Our original lettuce plants from December are still producing lettuce! We simply pinch a few leaves off from the bottom of each plant. Since lettuce grows from inside out, the leaves continually re-grow from the center pushing older leaves outward.
And one last note about fungus, bacteria, mold and pests: We don’t have them. Spider mites are your biggest pest and we don’t have them. If we do get spider mites, it’s neem oil to the rescue! And if we have any mold or fungus problems, I’ll add a few tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide and that takes care of that!
If you want to copy the setup I have or build your own similar system, you won’t find better products than what I bought. Check out the links below:
Survival Garden Heirloom Seeds (15,000 seeds)