If traditional indoor gardening seems daunting, try going soil-less. Lettuce, spinach, cilantro and other leafy vegetables will grow just fine in water, always available for picking, for a gratifying farm-to-table experience. Set up a hydroponic system in a kitchen corner or on the window sill; as long as there's water, light and nutrients, you'll enjoy fresh ingredients all year round.
Why should I invest in hydroponics?
Hydroponic farming replaces soil as the medium and focuses on growing greens in nutrient-rich water. Interestingly, aquaculture uses less water than soil-based systems. For home gardeners, hydroponics gives them the opportunity to grow a vegetable bed, without a balcony or an outdoor space.
"In soil cultivation, you need land, an irrigation system, manure, compost, and other essentials. With this new technology, you can grow food in a very small space. Hydroponics is also very mobile in nature. If you're moving, you can easily reinstall the system in your new apartment," said Harish Hebbale, a horticulturist with Souq Garden, a plant retailer and landscaping service provider in the UAE.
There are fewer incidences of soil-borne diseases and pests, too, which may make traditional gardening stressful. Plus, with children around, Hebbale considers this form of gardening to be a fun, learning activity at home: "We're approaching summer, and this is a good way to involve the kids, where they'll learn about Nature firsthand. They'll get to see the growth stages clearly - lettuce and spinach are usually ready to harvest in 45 to 50 days."
What plants can be grown hydroponically?
Hebbale tells us that hydroponics initially dabbled with leafy vegetables and herbs. Now, thanks to advancements, "we can grow broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and more in water; almost all plants can be grown hydroponically".
Even root vegetables with a shallow root system, like radish and beetroot, grow well in water. However, our plant expert does add that tree species and big plants that bear fruit require a large growing area and, currently, can't be cultivated using hydroponics.
What do I need for plants to grow in water?
Readily available hydroponic kits in the market cover most of the basics. But, before you shop, consider the space you'll be dedicating to your water vegetable garden. Hebbale suggests clearing an area of at least two to three square metres.
Next, the water quality is of utmost importance. Your plants will be as good as the water they're growing in, after all. "Our tapwater is already of decent quality, but get a pH meter to measure the acidity or alkalinity levels, and a TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter for salt and mineral concentrations in the water," advised Hebbale.
Both tools will dictate how and when you feed your plants. If the pH levels fall below or above the normal range of 5.5 to 6.5, then it's your cue to adjust the nutrient solution with baking soda or white vinegar, respectively, to avoid nutrient deficiencies. As for TDS, optimal numbers differ from crop to crop, but 800 ppm (parts per million) is a happy medium, which can be adjusted with more nutrient solution or water. Remember, every plant variety has its own optimal pH and TDS values, so test accordingly.
Also, allow the seeds to germinate in a damp medium first - this can be coco peat, perlite or simply sponge. Once the seedlings make an appearance, roughly after three to five days, transplant them to the hydroponic system.
We've covered everything, from kits to meters, below. Curate your own hydroponics starter pack from Amazon with this list. Make sure you're a Prime member to get free, fast delivery.
1. Best Hydroponics Kit: iDOO 20-Pods Hydroponics Growing System
- Can grow 20 plants at the same time
- Grows tall varieties up to 26.77 inches
- Comes with nutrition solution, domes, sponges and other accessories
- Four modules can be used as pots on their own
- Lighting timer on the LED grow lights
- Water has to be refreshed manually every week
Indoor garden kits, like the iDOO countertop system, provide growing lights, water tanks and growing media in one cost-effective setup. While you could customise your own draining and pumping system, kits are far more beginner-friendly and do the work for you. Reviews say this 20-pod modular kit comes with sponges, domes, trays, nutrients and grow lights. Because it's a manual setup, you will have to refresh the 4.5-litre water tank weekly. Even though there's no pump to aerate the water, buyers have still successfully grown tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions and cilantro. Each of the four containers can be removed and taken around the house, either for natural sunshine or decor purposes. Its LED lighting runs two smart growing modes: one for vegetables and the other for fruit. You can set the lighting timer for however many hours you want, after which the lights will turn off on their own.
Bonus: Buy with zero per cent instalments and pay Dh66.58 for 12 months with select banks.
2. Best Submersible Air Pump: BARST 1500L/H Submersible Water Pump
- Powerful air pump
- Compact in size, can be easily hidden
- Submerges in water
- Quiet performance
- Needs a flat surface to stick on
If you've invested in a stagnant hydroponic system, it doesn't hurt to add an air pump. Your plants' roots will benefit from the circulation of oxygen in the water. Submersible water pumps can be plopped into the water, worry-free. This unit by Barst is 100mm tall and has a long 1.83m power cord. Reviewers have used it to mix nutrients in large tanks, impressed by the compact pump's power. It also performs quietly under water.
3. Best Kit for Kitchen Herbs: LetPot LPH-SE Hydroponics Growing System, 12 Pods
- Contains 12 pods
- App tells you when to add nutrients
- Has two grow light modes for vegetables and fruit
- Pump quietly aerates and mixes the water
- Sponges are prone to mould
Smaller than our iDOO pick, this 12-pod kit is perfect for your kitchen countertop. It's smarter, too, with a 5.5-litre water tank that allows for up to three weeks of growth without watering, and an intuitive app alerts you when it's time to add the nutrient solution. Its grow lights support vegetable and fruit growth at the touch of a button. Reviewers mention growing tomatoes, basil, cilantro, parsley, lettuce and more. They find it a better kit than similar variations by AeroGarden, and say that the lights can be adjusted at a higher height for taller plants, and that the pump is quieter. Some have noticed mould growth on the sponges after a while, so we've added organic alternatives for you below.
Bonus: Buy with 0% installments and pay Dh65.17 for 12 months with select banks.
4. Best Growing Media: Gardenz Premium Potting Mix (Pack of 3)
Coco peat, vermiculite and horticultural perlite are all organic growing media for seedlings. Any hydroponic system that germinates using budget-friendly sponges can be replaced with these alternatives to prevent moulding. In this set of three by Gardenz, you're getting 70 litres of coco peat and 15 litres of vermiculite and perlite each. They come in the form of compressed blocks, which need to be soaked in water for three to four hours before use.
5. Best TDS Meter: HM Digital TDS-EZ Water Quality TDS Tester
Take the guesswork out of feeding your plants, with a reliable TDS meter. This pen-like digital meter has a broad measurement range, from zero to 9,990 ppm. You'll find a TDS chart on the back of the meter to help you crack the water purity values. For instance, 100 to 200 ppm is classified as hard tapwater. Reviewers with hydroponic systems leave five-star ratings, using the meter once or twice a week to feed the plants. Since the values represent the concentration of dissolved substances in water, the higher the number, the more water the solution will warrant. If the numbers are lower than a required range, like 800 ppm, then adjust by adding nutrients to the water.
6. Best pH Meter: Bluelab BLU8000 PENGTB Grower's Toolbox with pH
Optimise nutrient uptake by frequently monitoring the pH levels of your nutrient solution. Bluelab's pH pen is another compact meter to test the water quickly and accurately. It's essential for ensuring that the plants will be able to absorb the nutrients you're adding. The pen needs to be calibrated with the included accessories before use. Buyers say it's simple to use and has noticeably improved their garden.
Warranty: The manufacturer offers a one-year guarantee.
7. Best Nutrient Solution: Katyayani Hydroponic Nutrients, Blossom (A+B)
Hebbale prefers the Katyayani hydroponic nutrient solution. Like all solutions, it carries complete macro- and micro-nutrients, such as nitrogen, calcium, iron and magnesium. Add 5ml of each bottle (A and B) to one litre of water, and then adjust the pH levels between 5.5 to 6.5. This set promotes fruiting plants, so it's ideal for varieties like tomatoes, strawberries and peppers. For leafy vegetables, try the brand's Leafy (A+B) solution.
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