In the previous post we learned that the number of lights and dimensions of your available growth area will determine the number of plants you can grow. Finding the right balance of plant count vs available light energy is important for a successful harvest. The method in which you grow your plants is equally as important and will determine how many plants you grow as well as how large they can become.
Thousands of years ago humans began cultivating plants in soil to produce food and medicine. Soils are made up of different minerals that are both living and dead organic matter that vary in texture. Ideal soils are made of different sized particles that are not too small and not too large so that oxygen flows freely through the root zone and water is allowed to drain. Small particles pack together tightly (think clay) while particles that are too large will require watering too frequently because the mix will not hold onto moisture (think sand).
Some of the minerals in your soil are nutrients that the plant will uptake and use for energy which is used for plant growth. pH is a measurement of the acidity of solutions like liquids or soil mixtures. The pH of your soil will determine the availability of nutrients for your plant. The ideal range is roughly 5.5 to 6.5. We’ll discuss pH in depth in a later section of this guide. Most potting soil fresh out of the bag will have a proper pH and provide the proper amount of aeration, nutrition and water retention to grow a bumper crop.
Premium soils will not break down quickly and will offer proper drainage which helps life giving oxygen access to the root zone. Stay away from low quality or discount soils which can break down quickly and will not maintain a balanced pH level. Erratic pH can cause nutrient overdoses and deficiencies which can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Some lower quality soils can even contain pests and miscellaneous seeds that will sprout and become a nuisance in your garden. Bringing dirt indoors from the yard should not even be considered for these reasons. There are also ‘soilless’ mixes available which are often made out of organic materials such as coco husk, peat, vermiculite and perlite. These soilless mixes are usually lighter in weight and often have added fertilizers, since by themselves they don’t contain any nutrients. Worm castings and other organic soil amendments are a great way to add nutrients and moisture to the soil or soilless mixes.
- Growing in soil is more forgiving than in hydroponic systems. Diseases typically spring up slowly so the grower has time to investigate various remedies.
- It’s quite simple, you put the plants in the soil and water them every couple of days. Growing in soil requires less care than a hydroponic garden.
- The pH levels will remain relatively stable even if fed with nutrient mixture that is too high or too low since the soil will act as a buffer.
- Potted plants can be easily moved and relocated.
- Plants in soil will grow slower in comparison to hydroponic methods.
- Soil plants will also produce less of a yield than hydroponically grown plants in the same timespan.
- Plants that are in containers can become root bound overtime if they are not transplanted into a larger pot which can stunt or stop growth altogether.
- Some pests prefer living in soils so extra care in the garden is required. Keep things clean and tidy.
Hydroponic gardening is a method of growing a plant without the use of soil. Planting a seed in a rockwool cube or root cube made of coco coir is growing hydroponically. These soilless substrates contain no nutrients which allow the gardener to control exactly what the plant receives and in what doses. In a hydroponic system growing mediums are used to give roots stability and airflow rather than nutrients. Growstones or clay pebbles are a common choice for hydroponic growers that need to plant a clone or seedling into a net pot or grow tray. Other growing mediums such as coco, rockwool, perlite, vermiculite, hydroton, peat moss and gravel could also be used. Hydroponic systems are designed to bring the plant as much oxygen and nutrient rich water as possible. When done properly this creates faster growth with higher yields. Common hydroponics systems are Deep Water Culture (DWC), Drip Feed or Top Feed irrigation, Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), Ebb-And-Flow systems and Aeroponics.
Gardeners who choose to grow hydroponically need to be much more aware of the pH, parts per million (ppm) or total dissolved solids and the temperature of their nutrient solution. Failing to get these three components dialed will result in slow, sickly growth or possibly the loss of the entire crop. pH should be kept between 5.5 and 5.9 for optimal growth while the temperature of your nutrient system should be kept below 70F to prevent unwanted algae and pathogen buildup which can be harmful. We’ll touch more on this topic later in the series.
- Diseases and nutrition failures can be easily spotted and quickly remedied - typically within a matter of hours if the gardener is able to catch them in time.
- Plants grow faster which can cut down on vegetative growth time which allows you to flip the plants into the flowering stage more quickly. Depending on the garden this can net you an extra harvest every year.
- Hyper control over nutrient levels will typically result in a much larger yield than in soil grows.
- Depending on the hydroponic system, the entire growth could be almost 100% automated.
- More equipment is needed to grow hydroponically. You need to maintain proper pH, water temperature and nutrient levels by getting the proper measurement tools. (More on this subject will be discussed later)
- Advanced hydroponic gardening technique requires a solid amount of knowledge and diligence. The amount of water provided needs to be completely controlled -- if the roots don’t get the oxygen they require, they will shrivel and die. If an air pump fails and your roots are sitting in stagnant water the entire crop will be lost in matter of hours.
- Diseases can be easily spotted, but also take over fast if not controlled.
- If not installed properly an indoor grower may flood his entire room, house or basement. This can cause problems for those of us trying to remain ‘stealth.’
- Typically hydroponics systems will cost more to setup than a container garden filled with soil.
- Cleaning the hydro equipment can be exhausting. It needs to be clean at all times, so that the system doesn’t get clogged and the plants don’t absorb any bacteria or pathogens.
Hydroponics System Types
The deep water culture bucket system (like those from Current Culture) utilizes a system of buckets connected to a main reservoir. Roots can be submerged underwater as long as the water is highly oxygenated. Each plant has its own bucket or "growth module" full of nutrient solution. An inner container in the bucket contains a non-soil growing medium and allows the roots to hang down into the nutrient solution.
This type of bucket system is inexpensive and easy to set up. The plants exhibit fast growth and high yields. Additionally, plants grown in this system tend to have fewer pest problems. The bucket system does have some downfalls, however. There is a higher chance of leaks and system failures as tubing may fail or become plugged. Each bucket needs to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each grow and the growing medium needs to be replaced regularly.
Continuous flow systems provide a constant supply of nutrient solution to the roots in a flow. Drip irrigation systems are the most popular continuous flow systems. A highly efficient and simple system, the drip irrigation system can be used with soil and hydroponic mediums. A flow of nutrient solution is fed to the plants from the top and works its way down.
Drip irrigation systems allow for more plants to be grown in less space and efficiently uses water and nutrients. While the system is easy to use, it can be time consuming to set up and can use a significant amount of growing medium. Drip emitters need to be regularly checked for blockages.
Another continuous flow system is the nutrient film technique (NFT) that is commonly used in large commercial operations. Plant root tips are submerged in the nutrient solution while the majority of the root mass is left exposed to the air. Plants are grown in long channels with netted pots to hold them in place. A collar holds the plant in place and protects the roots from light. A film of nutrient solution constantly runs through the bottom of the channel.
Growers using NFT have experienced triple the yields than crops grown in soil. This system typically exhibits faster growth due to accurate feeding. The growing medium free system eliminates most pest problems.
The NFT system is a carefully balanced system or nutrients, water, and air. There is a small margin for error in this system and is only recommended for advanced growers.
If you’re looking for a cost & time effective way to begin growing and do not require the highest of possible yields then you’ll likely want to begin your indoor garden with soil. Soil gardens require less maintenance and equipment but will still produce a decent crop. For those of us who prefer to be on the cutting edge of technology and demand the highest, most potent yields a hydroponics system with all of the available components is the best option to achieve the maximum results.