It’s winter in Colorado, and with temperatures dropping well into the single-digits, outside gardening is no longer possible. If one wants to continue gardening, there are two options. A well-insulated, heated, and durable greenhouse that can withstand the blizzard winds, or a hydroponic system. The former is very expensive while the latter is much cheaper.
This article is not going to describe hydroponics. There are plenty of websites that can provide great explanations. A couple of good ones can be found here and here. What I do plan to show is that with a short list of fairly inexpensive supplies, it is possible to easily grow vegetables inside your home. There are also starter kits you can buy if you’re not a DYI’er.
Pretty much any vegetable can be grown using hydroponic techniques, but I’m going to use cucumbers and zucchini this time. A few years ago, I grew a zucchini plant inside and it produced a ton of fruit. I’ve read online that cucumbers are one of the easier vegetables to grow hydroponically, and they are a high yielding plant. I also happen to like them!
Remember, this is just a small hobby of mine (one of many). And as this case with any hobby, you can make it as expensive and elaborate as you want. My interest is to grow just a couple plants indoors and eat the vegetables it produces. So my methods may not be the “right” way, but I’m hoping they work for the level of interest and time I’m willing to initially invest in this hobby.
I’ll post updates to this page as the project progresses.
Supplies and Materials Needed to Start
These are the basic supplies I purchased to start my simple hydroponic garden:
- Fish pump (not the submersible kind)
- 7 gallon plastic tote or bucket and lid (make sure it is LDPE, HDPE or PP only!)
- Round clay stones
- Plastic net basket
- pH Up and Down
- Soluble fertilizer for cucumbers (8-16-36 with micro-nutrients)
- Grow cube seedling starter
- pH Meter
- ppm Meter
The end solution is shown in the video below. I cut holes in the top of the plastic bucket using a small jigsaw. Don’t cut the hole too big or the plastic basket will fall through.
I’ve read that 5 to 7 gallons should be fine. But most importantly, you must use a plastic container that is made of Polypropylene (PP), Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or High-density polyethylene (HDPE) if you plan on eating anything you grow. All three are BPA free, food safe and do not leach chemicals according to the FDA. Never use a plastic container that has ever stored chemicals. Both of these things are important because water with fertilizer is going to be within the container for the life of the plant and you don’t want it leaching chemicals from the plastic. If you don’t plan to eat anything you grow, then it doesn’t matter what plastic is used.
Location and Lighting
I’m taking advantage of the breakfast nook area in our kitchen that is south facing. This will provide a ton of light in the winter months and I don’t suspect I’ll need any grow lights (I haven’t yet). If anything, I may be getting too much light and may have to put the blinds down so that that plants get diffused lighting instead.
Once the cucumber plant starts growing, it’ll become impossible to move. So I picked a place that will be suitable long-term and won’t get in the way. The cucumber plant will take up a lot of space and I wanted to make sure I had a plan on how I was going to manage the vines. I’m hoping I’ll be able to route the vines up a lattice structure I’ll put in my window. Or, I’ll route the vines around the windows. Since I’ve never grown cucumbers before, I’m really not sure how they will grow.
Starting the Seeds
I inserted a few seeds inside one of the grow cube holes, and not just one. Germination rates aren’t always 100% and I didn’t want to wait a week to find out it didn’t take. In my case, more than one seed germinated so I just trimmed the one I didn’t want anymore.
The grow cubes with the seeds were placed a heating pad that moderated the temperature to around 85F. I soaked them soaked in water and placed a plastic cup over the top to retain heat and moisture. Within 4 days, the cucumber germinated and the zucchini popped up a day or so later.
I didn’t add any fertilizer when starting the seeds. I just used tap water. Our water has a pH level around 7.9 out of the faucet which seemed to work well.
Transitioning to Fertilizer Solution
Once seeds sprouted, I waited a few more days before moving them to the plastic pots with the clay stones. I wanted to see roots growing out from the grow cube.
I filled my bucket with water and added the fertilizer until the ppm count was around 1,400. This dropped the pH level from about 7.9 to 6.7 which still wasn’t low enough, so I added some pH Down until I got it to 5.5 for the cucumber and 6.5 for the zucchini.
After the first week in the plastic container, I could see tiny little white roots growing out of the plastic basket with the clay stones. So it appears to be working.
The pH level hasn’t changed nor have I had to add water as of the fourth week. Doesn’t surprise me because they still aren’t using much nutrients at this point. However, once they start fruiting, I suspect I’ll be checking water levels every couple days as well as pH levels. I may even have to change the water out and mix new solution.