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Hydroponic Growing

Fortunately, we live in a tropical climate and have always been interested in maintaining an attractive garden that is pleasing to all the senses. Indeed, the climate is so suited to luxurious plant growth, that if you are not interested in maintaining the garden, the garden will soon demand such attention by reverting to jungle!

Aside from the aesthetics of a 'garden' it is always pleasing to be able to eat fresh harvested vegetables and fruits. Cooking with fresh herbs just picked from the plant cannot be surpassed for taste (and likely nutrition benefits). Over the years we have been moving away from having a 'garden' in terms of shrubs, flowers, a 'lawn' and tending towards if you cannot eat the 'plant' (or at least consume it in some fashion) the inputs in terms of time, labour, water and other resources are not being used to the best effect.

Even though we live in a climate with a relatively plentiful rainfall, the rain is seasonal and considerable expense (i.e. energy and other resouces in collecting, treating and distribution) is incurred which impacts the environment. So, 'just' pouring this water onto the ground to grow a leafy shrub (even though such a shrub can be attractive and add aesthetic value) is likely not the best use of this resource.

Further, by growing and consuming your own vegetables and fruit, this negates the energy (diesel, petroleum etc for vehicle engines) used to transport such produce from farms to your supermarket and eventually to your table. Of course, you need the land and climate (and personel time) and so will unlikely to be able to produce sufficient food, or the variety of food, to satisfy all your needs.

However, turning whatever land/area you have available (even if just growing some basil in a planter pot on a balcony, to add that extra zest when making pasta) can make a difference. Particularly, when the farms from which your food is grown can be literally half a world away. It seems 'crazy' but 'economics' can apparently make it 'cheaper' to have your oranges grown in California, transported across the Pacific Ocean, and sold cheaper in Australia than a locally grown orange!

This desire to most effectively use limited resouces available to an individual, which in terms of food production in our urbanised society generally means a lack of land, leads directly to the benefits of using hydroponic growing techniques. Further, hydroponics means growing plants can be done indoors, which means adverse climates (or seasonal changes) can also be overcome. The 'automation' that is associated with hydroponics, by which I mean the use of various pumping systems, also minimises the time involved in tending crops (once the initial setup is completed).

One additional benefit, which was particularly relevant to our own situation, is that hydroponic growing generally involves being 'indoors' (either a greenhouse, netting over some sort of framework, a 'shed' or actually inside the house) which makes insect control much easier. It seems that all the time and effort we put into our 'traditional' vegetable garden is simply for the benefit of every grasshopper, caterpillar and other six-legged varmint for miles and miles!

So hydroponics has myriad practical benefits, but it also seems that hydroponics as a form of 'gardening' can also have psychological, and therefore physiocological, benefits (1). We can attest to this as 'pottering' around with the hydroponics definitely relieves the stress of normal 'office hours' working life. This is summarised nicely by 'Costa' (a personality on a locally broadcast gardening television programme (2):

“Gardens are sanctuaries for sustenance, beauty and tranquility. They harmonise and heal us. They build connections and community. Not only plants grow, people do to! Gardening the soil and your soul.” (Costa, ABC Gardening Australia).

The actual equipment required for a hydroponic setup generally involves the following standard items:

  • Container(s) that hold a growth medium in which plants are actually grown
  • A piping system (assuming a 'raft' type system isn't being used) which transports nutrient to the growing containers, and collects leachate
  • A nutrient solution reservior or tank
  • A pump (in the simplest possible case, this can be a reservior that 'gravity feeds' the system)

In addition to the above 'standard components' hydroponic systems can be catergorised in terms of how the nutrient solution is applied and interacts with the growing plants. Such hydroponic systems include sack culture systems, water culture ('raft') systems, nutrient film technique (NFT) systems, ebb and flow (flood and drain) systems, drip irrigation, and aeroponic systems (3).

There are many factors that will influence the type of hydroponic system suitable for a particular situation, and assuming a DIY hobby scenario, the most influential factors are likely the amount of physical space available (indoor or outdoor), type of plants to be grown, and what materials an individual may have available and/or can be easily purchased. Again this is assuming a DIY system, as opposed to some sort of commerically available 'store bought' set-up.

My initial thoughts were to constructed a NFT or ebb and flow type system using PVC piping with a half 'A-frame' type approach, as this would allow utilisation of the property fence as growing area. PVC piping is available in standard 6m lengths and 100mm diameter (for home plumbing applications). Our property fence is a standard 6' (~1.8m) high. Therefore, using 6 x lengths of PVC in a half 'A-frame' type arrangement, with 10cm centres for support medium 'cups', this would enable in the order of 360 plants to be produced. This plan would require a considerable amount of construction, and involve experimenting with water pumping/metering, collection and delivery systems before growing any plants could begin. Additionally, a relatively large expenditure for materials (PVC piping, attachements, pumps, valves etc) would be necessary.

However, I had a large quantity of timber available from a recent replacement of the wood paling fence. Therefore, initially a simpler system was designed to utilise this 'free' material, that would enable me to more quickly begin growing plants, and focus on the 'hydroponics' (i.e., the delivery of nutrient solution to a 'soil-less' system) rather than on the 'hydraulics'. This initial system would enable gaining experience with the actual 'hydroponic growing' (type of nutrient solutions, maintaining nutrient solution concentrations, pest control, types of plants being grown, etc) which at a later date would then hopefully feed into a more robust design/setup when going 'full scale'.

The initial testing system (see following photograph and or the Photographs Section for more complete details) consists of a wooden framework (the 'table') which holds a water tight 'tub' (made from black plastic sheeting) above which is a removable 'greenhouse' made from screens of shade cloth material (to provide shade during the hot summer months and protection from insects).

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The water tight 'tub' (the black plastic portion) is constructed from a wooden lattice and plastic sheeting glued together (see the Photographs Section for individual photographs of the various components being described). Suspended above this water tight 'tub' is another wooden lattice sized to hold disposable plastic drink cups. These drink cups hold the growth medium (a mixture of vermiculite and perlite) in which the plants are grown.

A 'drip' system feed by a small submersible pump dispenses nutrient solution into the growth medium, which drains through the perforated cups into the water tight 'tub' below (and then drains back to the nutrient reservior). Once the plants are sufficiently mature (for crops such as tomatoes which have extensive root systems) the roots grow through the perforated cups holding the growth medium and into the 'tub' below. This tub then forms a type of NFT system for the mature plants, as nutrient solution pools (1-2cm deep) within the 'tub' portion of the hydroponics table.

The main benefits of this 'test' system is that a simple pump/timer with a drain-back to the nutrient reservior is all that is required in terms of the hydraulics. There is minimum hydraulic head (i.e. cheap pump will do) and no need to balance flows and or presssures, valving etc. Additionally, I had all the materials on hand from 'scrap' other than the 2' PVC tubing and dripper/trickle irrigation parts (I used Pope brand garden irrigation parts from local hardware supplier).

The pump used is a 12V 2" submersible model designed for a maximum head of 2m generally meant for small garden water features (fountains etc). I made a DIY pump controller/timer which in conjunction with a solar charger regulator, solar cell and 12V vehicle battery powered the system.

The relatively simple construction and necessary materials being largely on-hand allowed me to have the system up and running after a week's worth of afternoon's. The pump controller took a further week's worth of afternoon's, to be ready just in time after the germination of the first test crop of pechay (Brassica rapa L. cv group Pak Choi , Bok Choy).

When growing plants 'traditionally' considerable effort is expended in trying to maintain a 'fertile' soil such as adding mulch and other additives over time, and alternating types of crops such as legumes versus non-legumes for example. The hydroponic approach removes some of this complexity (i.e knowing your soil type in relation to nutrient status and availability and consequent effect on plant growth and how this changes with time/season).

However, it is then essential to know which nutrients and of what concentration are necessary in the hydroponic solution, and how these change with time and plant growth. Notionally, once this information is known, it is relatively easy to mix the required chemicals and then add this to the mix circulating within the hydroponic system. As usual, in practice 'things' are not quite so simple.

The simplest approach would perhaps be to just use commerically available hydroponic nutrient solutions. However, perusal of hydroponic literature shows that there is a wide range of recommenedations for the concentration of each individual plant nutrient, which depends upon individual plant/crop and also the stage of plant growth (vegetative, flowering etc). So 'just' choicing a commerical solution, aimed at being a 'one size fits all' is likely not to be optimal.

Further, the commerical solutions are relatively expensive when compared to buying the basic chemicals and preparing DIY nutrient solutions. This is particularly the case considering that nutrient solutions need to discarded/replenished frequently (2-4 weeks depending upon circumstances) and unless dealing with small 'window box' setups, even relatively modest hydroponic systems required considerable quantities of nutrient solution to be in circulation. Finally, experimenting with the concentrations and consitutents of the hydroponic nutrient solution is one of the "fun" aspects of DIY hydroponics.

The starting point for a DIY nutrient solution is recognising that plants have concentration limits for each chemical element which can be classified as 'deficient' if too low, 'just adequate' and if the concentration is to high, can become 'toxic'. However, the available information for toxicity concentration ranges appears to be in terms of mg/kg in soil (particularly in terms of 'metals'). Whereas, 'deficiency' and 'adequacy' concentration ranges appear to derived from mg/kg in dried plant material. That is, the plant material has been sampled, dried and analysed to determine what concentrations of chemical elements are present. These concentrations are then compared to physical observations of the plant growth which shown if the plant was healthy, low/high productivity etc. Therefore, such information is not directly applicable to determining concentrations of nutrients in the hydroponic solution.

The alternative is to use the experience of other practitioners, who have dealt with this issue over time. Hydroponics is a widely and well know subject and 'mature' endeavour (over a hundred years of practical application) - particularly with information widely available on the Internet). Consequently, there is an huge variety of recommended nutrient solution compositions which reflect the myriad types of hydroponic approach, crop type, local environmental conditions and other various factors.

The following table, sourced from (4), (5), (6) shows the generally accepted concentrations for essential elements for plant growth, and the concentrations recommended by a variety of authors for a number of plant crops:

Conc. in mg/L Ca N K P S Mg
"General" Range in Nutrient Solutions
Typical Ranges mg/L200-300100-200100-20030-17570-15030-80
Recommendation by Crop
"Commerical Greenhouse Vegetable Production Solutions
Uni/Gov. Recommendations by Crop
UA CEAC - leafy greens89106210313224
UA CEAC - tomato etc1691153413911948
DPI NSW Asian Leafy70116201222620
"Common" Recommended Nutrient Solution Formulations
Average of all Above References

While this information is obviously helpful, it doesn't really help with a 'recipe' as such. The elements/components listed in the above table are available from a variety of chemicals, and more over, different plants will require potentially different concentrations, which also potentially changes depending upon growth stage (vegetative, flowering, fruiting etc).

A number of books give potentially useful hydroponic 'recipes', however, an excellent online source is an article by Mattson and Peters (5). In addition to providing 'recipes' for hydroponic solutions, this reference points out the importance of testing the quality of the water with which the hydroponic solutions are to made. If your water quality has high levels of hardness, alkalinity or other consitutents, this will need to be taken into account when calculating nutrient solution makeup. My local water supply is high quality (electrical conductivity <100 uS/cm, pH ~7) so 'background' chemical concentration within the actual water was not a concern.

For vegetative crops (e.g. lettuce, herbs), most nutrient-solution recipes are not adjusted to change nutrient concentrations while they grow; whereas, in fruiting crops the ratio may be adjusted to alter when plant growth changes from vegetative, to flowering and then fruiting. As pointed out in the article by Mattson and Peters "for a new grower, a good starting point is to simply develop one recipe that works decently well for a range of crop growth stages and conditions. Later, you can work on honing the recipe, optimizing it for different growth stages or based on your current growing conditions".

That was the approach that I took, focusing on growing pechay (Brassica rapa L. cv group Pak Choi) as an easy initial crop/plant (see the Photographs Section). We grow a lot of pechay normally within our vegetable gardens, and it is easy to grow, forgiving on conditions and provides tasty leaves useful in soups and stir-fry's through to just salad.

Nutrient Solution Formulation/Calculation - Pechay (Pak Choi)

Following recommendations cited in the previous section for 'green leafy crops' gives an approximate agreement for phosphorus (22-50 mg/L), sulfur (26-32 mg/L) and magnesium (20-65 mg/L). Whereas, for calcium, nitrogen and potassium two likely authoritative references list 70-89 mg/L Ca, 106-116 mg/L N, and 201-210 mg/L K, compared to that listed in (4) of 200 mg/L for calcium and nitrogen with 300 mg/L potassium. Opting fof the higher concentrations for Ca, N and K enables the solution to approximate concentrations recommended for tomato crops. Therefore, these higher concentrations for Ca, N and K (over that strictly recommended for green leafy crops) would also allow some earlier experimentation with tomatoes.

Once the concentrations of the various elements in the nutrient solution have been chosen, the next issue is to select which base chemicals will be used in the actual formulation, and how to calculate actual quantities of individual chemicals required. During this initial testing phase, I have choosen to ignore 'micro nutrient' constituents (iron, copper, manganese etc) as the commerical chemicals used for the macro-nutrients (Ca, Mg, N, K etc) have sufficient impurities that addition of specific micro-nutrients is likely not necessary. Particularly considering the small scale, DIY nature of the current exercise.

The 'base' chemicals from which to produce the nutrient solution that are available from local agricultural and horticultural suppliers include the following in my local area:

  • calcium nitrate
  • sodium nitrate
  • potassium sulphate
  • superphosphate
  • magnesium sulphate
  • ammonium dihydrogen orthophosphate
  • ammonium sulphate
  • mono-potassium phosphate
  • potassium nitrate

Note that calcium can be included in the nutrient solution by using an amount of calcium nitrate (which then also introduces some nitrogen via the nitrate counter-ion in the compound). Whereas, an element such as phosphate could be sourced from a number of the compounds available (and consequently also then introduce a range of elements from the counter-ions, e.g. if using potassium phosphate as the source of phosphorus in the nutrient solution, this would also unavoidably introduce an amount of potassium. Consequently, there is some 'mixing and matching' required in order to select which actual chemicals (and physical amounts) will be used to supply the concentrations of individual elements needed in the nutrient solution.

An Excel spreadsheet was developed to help with this chemical selection and the necessary calculations (see screen-shot below as an example).

  • nutrient solution calculatornutrient solution calculator

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    nutrient solution calculator - screen shot

The total volume of nutrient solution desired is entered into cell D1 (in litres). The desired concentration (mg/L) of each element (Ca, N, P, K and Mg) in the nutrient solution is entered in column B, rows 4 to 8.

I only had calcium nitrate available, so all the calcium in the nutrient solution will come from this compound. The cell D4 calculates the necessary amount of calcium nitrate (in gms) to give the desired concentration of calcium (in mg/L) in the nutrient solution, which in this case is 50.1 gm calcium nitrate to give 170 mg/L. However, 50.1 gm of calcium nitrate will also contribute nitrogen to the nutrient solution (from the nitrate counter-ion to calcium in the compound). Cell D11 calculates the amount of nitrogen added in gms, and cell B11 calculates this amount as mg/L in the nutrient solution. In this case this equates to a total of 137 mg/L nitrogen, compared to the desired range of 70-89 mg/L for green leafy crops recommended in the references above. While this is greater than necessary for green leafy crops, the additional nitrogen allows this same nutrient solution (in terms of nitrogen) to be also used for tomatoes.

The next element selected is magnesium, as this element again can only be sourced from a single available compound, magnesium sulfate. Cell H8 calculates the necessary amount of magnesium sulfate in gms to produce the desired concentration of 39.5 mg/L in the nutrient solution. Similarily, since magnesium sulfate is a compound, sulfate will also be added to the nutrient solution. Cell H12 calculates the amount of sulfate added in gms (as a consequence of adding the required amount of magnesium) and cell B12 gives this value in mg/L in the nutrient solution.

Similar calculation is performed for potassium, using potassium sulphate as the source.

Phosphorous could be added from a variety of compounds available, with ammonium dihydrogen phosphate being selected. This is because adding the necessary amount of this compound to give the desired concentration of phosphate will also contribute ammonium to the nutrient solution. This ammonium adds to the total nitrogen concentration, but, importantly, gives nitrogen in the form of ammonium, in conjunction with the other nitrogen in solution in the form of nitrate (from the calcium nitrate added for the calcium component).

This example shows that a nutrient solution with a set of desired concentrations for individual macro-nutrients can be formulated from a variety of actual chemical compounds. Further, an iterative approach is required to the calculations as each compound is formed from a cation (positive charged part) and a anion (negative charge part). Chlorides are usually not used as chloride is only generally required by plants in small quantities, all nitrate compounds are readily soluble (and add nitrogen), sulfates used appropriately (e.g usually only source of magnesium).

Once the calculations have been performed, the necessary amount of each individual chemical is weighed and dissolved in a seperate one litre quantity of water. The nutrient reservior of the hydroponic system (total volume of 50L in my case) is then filled with approximately 40L of water. Starting with the 'nitrate' containing compounds (except those that contain calcium), the prior dissolved chemicals (1L quantities) are added seperately to the nutrient reservior, mixing well between each addition. Then the other dissolved compounds are added individual, with stirring between each addition, but calcium is added last. The prior dissolution, and adding of the dissolved compounds individually to the bulk solution is to avoid precipitation within the nutrient solution.

An alternative approach is to form concentrated 'two part' solutions, which can be diluted as necessary. However, I favoured weighing seperate quantities as and when required, which avoids having to store the concentrated solutions, and possible adverse reactions wasting or deteriorating the solutions over time.

The final stage before the nutrient solution is ready for application is to check the pH and then adjust to the range of pH 6 - 6.5 using caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).


Description Downloads
Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to calculate nutrient solution formulation Spreadsheet Download

Nutrient Solution Replenishment/Testing

The nutrient solution concentration will change over time due to uptake by the growing plants, or other processes that generally decrease the concencentration of individual nutrients. This will require the nutrient solution to be periodically replaced.

Without having the equipment to perform analytical testing or the scale of hydroponic production to warrant testing by a laboratory, I simply discard the hydroponic solution every 2-3 weeks during the early growth stage, and then weekly during flowering/fruiting.

This is an advantage of the DIY nutrient solution approach, as the amount of chemical required (a few ten's of grams per 50L batch) is relatively inexpensive, and discarding the solution is much cheaper than having chemical analysis performed. Although, DIY chemical analysis is a further topic that can be explored when time permits.

Currently, I have only experimented with growing pechay (Pak Choi), a green leafy 'lettuce' type crop, and tomatoes of a couple of varieties. The results are summarised below, nutrient solutions and hydroponic hardware is detailed in the other sections on this page.

Pechay (Brassica rapa L. cv group Pak Choi)

The Photographs Section (album 2) shows the results of growing pechay (Pak Choi) directly from seed within the hydroponic system described in the Hydroponic Hardware and Systems Section.

Two pechay seeds where sowed ~10mm deep within each 'growth medium cup', which contained a 50:50 mixture of perlite and vermiculite.

The nutrient solution detailed in the Hydroponic Nutrient Solutions Section, was applied automatically via the pump/dripper system for 5 minutes every 30 minutes.

Germination was observed initially after ~5days, with the majority of seeds germinating within 7 days. There was approximately 95% germination.

The pechay were ready for harvest ~6 weeks as a 'full plant'. However, prior to that time, individual leaves were harvested from individual plants for consumption. These plants subsequently grew further leaves. This means that the pechay could be 'grazed' over time, without removing whole plants, which in effect increased production.


Initially, Grosse Lisse tomatoes were attempted (see the Photographs Section). This was due to the seeds being available and were being planted in the traditional "soil" garden at the time. This would enable a comparison of the tomato growth between the tradition "soil" and hydroponic approach.

While vigorous growth was achieved, few actual tomatoes were produced by the hydroponic attempt. This could possibly be due to the nutrient solution being targeted at 'green leafy crops', but more likely was that the Grosse Lisse variety is too large (typically 1.5m high) for the experimental/testing hydroponic setup being used.

A further crop of tomatoes where grown using the Tom Thumb (Solanum lycopersicum) variety.

This variety only grows ~30cm high typically. As the Photographs Section shows, vigorous growth and a good setting of fruit was achieved with the same setup/nutrient solution as used for the Grosse Lisse variety.

The 'growth medium cups' are perforated to enable nutrient solution to leach and be collected for return to the nutrient reservior. This means once the tomatoes are mature, the roots exit these perforations and dangle down into the 'tub' that forms the base of the hydroponics table that collects the draining nutrient solution. Therefore, the small size of the 'growth medium cup' does not restrict the growth of the tomato, which in effect once mature is growing in a NFT/ebb-and-flow type arrangement. The 'growth medium cup' providing water/nutrient storage only during the germination/seedling stage.

Note: Image loading can be slow depending on server load.

Album 1: Hydroponic Hardware

Album 2: Hydroponic Crops/Growing

No video's available for this topic.

ref001: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/urban-mindfulness/200903/plants-make-you-feel-better

ref002: http://www.nwds.org.au/Our-Services/Service-Provided/NEW-Secret-Garden/Horticultural-Therapy

ref003: Resh, H.M., 'Hydroponics for the Home Grower', pp.63-132, 2015.

ref004: Benton Jones, J., 'Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower', pp.95-100, 2nd, 2005.

ref005: http://www.greenhouse.cornell.edu/crops/factsheets/hydroponic-recipes.pdf

ref006: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/385576/Leafy-Asian-veg-final-Low-Res.pdf


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