A Brief History of Hydroponics

Our ideas of modern hydroponics vary greatly, depending on how you ask. For a lot of people however, they’re thinking of hydroponics as a modern technology (likely thanks in part, to NASA’s use of it to test growing in space). The truth of the matter is though, that hydroponics is no new player to the game. Yes, we’ve done a lot of innovating since the very beginnings of hydroponics, but that tends to happen over thousands of years. To really appreciate the legacy that our modern hydroponics come from, we should look at the history of hydroponics. At least, briefly.

It’s got roots in ancient legends

The legendary hanging gardens of Babylon were said to have existed around 500 B.C.E. Created by King Nebuchadnezzar II as a gift to his wife Amyitis, the hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Scholars and archaeologists have long studied the intricate watering systems that supported the massive gardens. With elaborately tiered stones holding the plants, water was delivered through a consistent flow from central water reservoirs. The plants were kept fed and supplied with plenty of aeration through the consistent flow of water to their roots.

Greek historians have described the legendary gardens saying:

Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow on inclined channels. These waters irrigate the whole garden saturating the roots of the plants, keeping all the area wet. Thus, the grass is permanently green and the leaves of the trees grow firmly attached to flexible branches.”

While we ought to put in the disclaimer that these hanging gardens are, as of yet, the stuff of legends without a solid archaeological discovery, they’ve been well documented by historians. And to even the novice hydroponic gardener, the quote above is a pretty obvious description of hydroponic methods.   

The Ancient Far East

For nearly as long as rice has been a harvested crop in Asia, it has been growing hydroponically. The image you’re probably conjuring in your mind is of the massive rice paddies that are concentrated around China. To be fair, that’s a pretty accurate assessment. While things like scale, spacing, harvesting, and other lesser details may have changed, it’s not by much. The main process for growing the rice remains the same.

At the very onset of rice farming, there were attempts the grow rice in soil. While this was more difficult, rice as a crop showed itself to be a valid investment. After significant seasonal flooding, many other sustenance crops were destroyed. Rice, however not only withstood the watery conditions, it thrived. This was the spark that lit the fire that blazes in hydroponic rice farming to this day.  After this revelation, rice was intentionally grown in organized water systems. Not only did the rice grow better, it resisted more disease and pests than other crops, as an added benefit to its hydroponic placement.

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We have further documentation that the use of hydroponics continued, and further developed in China. When Marco Polo recorded his travels in the 13th century, China had taken hydroponics from being used for rice farming only to being used for aesthetic pleasure too. Polo described ‘floating gardens’ that floated in water on platforms. 

It’s also worth mentioning that while rice fields were used for hydroponic harvests, they actually ended up providing more diverse food sources as well. Today, we use the term ‘aquaponics’ to refer to hydroponic systems wherein fish are also held, sometimes in commercial settings for fish farming. In Indochina and China, a similar system was established. Fish were raised and farmed in the flooded rice paddies already in use for crop production.

Related: How does aquaponics work?

Modern aquaponics operates with the same similar principles historically used in the rice fields, but with a bit more nuance, and a lot more technology. Basically, where a typical hydroponic system has a reservoir to hold nutrient solution, an aquaponic system has a fish tank. A pump moves the water up to the grow tray, or plant bed. Excess water is filtered through by the plant roots (making it safe for fish again) and returned to the tank. The fish waste then provides nutrients to the water, which is then delivered back to the plants above.

Hydroponics in the pyramids?

It’s not as well known, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The ancient Egyptians used hydroponic methods to grow crops as early as several hundred years B.C.E. Archaeologists have found documented proof of this in records detailing the methods and uses of these early hydroponic methods relying on the Nile.

So sadly, our visions of hydroponic pyramids aren’t accurate. But hieroglyphs have been found that tell us the story of an innovative people using the flooding Nile River to grow crops without soil.


Archaeologists can confirmed that hydroponics have been used in Rome as early as the first century C.E. The Roman Emperor Tiberius, for all his other transgressions, was the first (that we’re aware of) to successfully use more complex hydroponics in this part of the world. And while it wasn’t used widely to grow crops, he did get to enjoy some cucumbers out of season.

The Romans described the plants as growing through ‘clear stone’ and being watered for sustenance. While we may not know exactly what this ‘clear stone’ was, it was certainly their form of a growing aid. While it’s been debated what the translucent stone actually was, some people think it was a form of growing medium.

The reality is (as strange as it is to think about) that this translucent stone was mostly likely an early form of a greenhouse. By using a clear material (like stone or glass), the off season cucumbers would have gotten ample sunlight, heat, and retained humidity.

The Aztecs

Another notable civilization that employed the use of hydroponics was the Aztecs. They developed an impressively well designed hydroponic system that successfully provided their people with plentiful crop harvests. Their use of hydroponics was developed out of necessity due to their nomadic culture and their situation within swampy, marshy lands. In these regions, it simply wasn’t possible to farm traditionally because there was very little, if any suitable land.

The Aztec hydroponic system is akin to what we might picture as a floating raft farm. By creating dense rafts from reeds and rushes secured with tough dried roots, they were able to float crops in the canals around their settlements. Rather than fields, they had canals full of thriving crops and gardens. To secure plants to the rafts they dredged up nutrient rich silt from the river or canal’s bottom, while plant roots pushed through the bottom of the rafts to reach the water below.

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These rafts were called Chinampas. These Chinampas were so well developed that they never sank despite heavy crop growth (and even growing trees hydroponically on the rafts). 

The best comparison we can make between the Chinampas and the hydroponic systems we’re familiar with today is DWC, or deep water culture, systems.

Related: How do Deep Water Culture systems work?

Deep water culture systems keep plants in growing trays or platforms that allow the roots the hang beneath and into a nutrient solution below. To maintain adequate aeration, DWC systems often use an additional air pump or airstone. Typically roots are held in netted pots that are submerged in the nutrient solution.

Onset of modern hydroponic development

The long used hydroponic systems among other civilizations didn’t go without notice from foreign explorers. From Spanish Conquistadors in Mesoamerica, to Christopher Columbus’ recollections of his visits to China, the use of hydroponic systems were well documented.

What we may consider more modern hydroponics really began with the first attempts to understand hydroponics in an analytical, scientific manner. While we can debate what constitutes ‘modern hydroponics’ for days, let’s err on the side of simplicity. So, in the interested of avoiding a wormhole debate, we’ll say ancient hydroponics was achieved and used, but not analyzed on a quantifiable, scientific method. Likewise, we’ll say modern hydroponics began as we began to measure, analyze, and modify existing hydroponic systems. 

It’s worth noting that often various scientists, agriculturists, and other innovators came to similar revelations about plant growth, physiology, and hydroponics, although at different times and to varying specifications. Keeping that in mind, note that mentions of discoveries that were repeated or ‘rediscovered’ aren’t in error, they’re simply a result of our ebbing and flowing development.

Early ideas that supported hydroponics

The master inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci, like many of his innovations, was ahead of his time in his revelations about plant growth. While the French king Francis I had da Vinci in his employment, the inventor progressed his studies in agriculture. Ultimately he determined that plants need minerals to grow, which they absorb from the soil. Notably, he realized that this occurs only with the help of water, the absence of which prevented any nutrient absorption.

While it was another couple hundred years before more modern scientists picked up on his discoveries, we’d be remiss to neglect giving him credit. He detailed the strong importance of irrigation, and effectively laid out some of the very basic principles that govern hydroponics today. Mineral absorption through water, the importance of irrigation, and the idea of doing away with soil and delivering minerals through water, are just some of the things we can credit to him. 

Main developments in hydroponics 1600’s to 1800 C.E.

Starting in the 1600’s, people began to attempt to create methods of protecting crops from weather and increase their harvesting capabilities. While these developing techniques weren’t strictly hydroponic, they did signal the beginning of an increasing interest in developing more advanced methods of harvesting crops.

Sir Francis Bacon takes the title for the first ‘modern’ published book concerning growing plants in a soilless environment. The book itself was Sylva Sylvarum and sadly wasn’t published until the year following his death, 1627. We can rightfully thank Sir Francis Bacon for the growing popularity of hydroponic research that began thereafter. So, thank you Sir Francis Bacon.

The next major revelation of hydroponics didn’t happen again until 1699. At this point John Woodward had been experimenting with growing spearmint in soilless culture. When he published his experiments, he noted that the plants grew better in less pure water (rather than the distilled water he also attempted to use).

The next century passed without much innovation specific to hydroponics. That being said, the 1700’s did bring the invention of manure heated greenhouses, which helped push along the influx of heated greenhouses (which can be compared to the heated hydroponic systems commonly seen today).

19th century developments

After a couple centuries of what we can call ‘simple’ attempts to understand different aspects of hydroponics, scientists were starting to get it (or at least they were on to something). We can credit the 1800’s with a lot of discoveries that led the way to further developing hydroponics.

By about 1842 they had created a list of 9 nutrients that they believed were necessary to sustain plant life. While it wasn’t perfect by any means, they weren’t too far off. Having realized that by adding minerals and nutrients (in this case they simply said ‘elements’), they could add these to the plants’ water supplies and progress to soilless crop growth.

By 1851, this list of 9 elements essential to plant growth had been more or less confirmed by Jean Baptiste Boussingault. We can also attribute much of the development of what we call ‘growing mediums’ to his research. He used inert, soil-like materials to place plants in, such as charcoal, pure sand, and quartz. Boussingault then nourished the plants with chemical solutions he recorded. Water was needed, that was a given. But in his work he was pretty close to the mark with the other nutrients needed: namely, Nitrogen.

He then started work on the ratios of the minerals needed. If you’ve ever had to purchase nutrient solutions for your hydroponic system, this should sound very familiar (think of the N-P-K ratios on every container).

Beyond the realization that nutrients needed to be added, there weren’t a whole lot of other leaps in the study of hydroponics (at least as far as the 1800s are concerned). However, this revelation was a critical foundation for the continued development of better plant food, much like the hydroponic fertilizers we use today.  

Early 20th century developments

While ‘hydroponics’ is a household term today, it was only relatively recently that this ‘soilless culture’ got the title it uses now. In the 1920’s William Gericke, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley began promoting soilless crop growth and later coined the term ‘hydroponic.’ While he initially tried calling it ‘aquaculture,’ he soon discovered that the term was already being used to refer to the culture of aquatic creatures and organisms. Thus, he settled on hydroponic.

The term comes from Greek roots:

Hydro: “water”


Ponos: “labor”

Gericke created something of an early PR opportunity for hydroponics when he appeared with vertically grown tomato plants in his new nutrient solution culture. Here’s the real kicker:

His tomato plants grew a whopping 25 feet tall.

From 1925 to 1935 there was an increased interest in plant physiology and enhancing techniques for crop growth. While greenhouses were established (and even experienced an early introduction to hydroponics with the use of gravel culture over soil culture), they were just plain expensive and didn’t catch on much. That’s because the growing beds were still being constructed of concrete, and that got costly.

However, expenses of food production also nudged hydroponics onto the world stage. Transporting food to troops overseas during the second World War was also a financial burden. Rather than creating a shift away from hydroponics, it actually prompted the widespread use of hydroponics throughout the Pacific and South Atlantic. This in turn increased hydroponics’ overall popularity, and created a solution that provided economically grown crops to the troops stationed there.

In 1938, Gericke’s work on soilless culture was expanded by two scientists also hailing from the UC Berkeley. Daniel Arnon and Dennis Hoagland were the two to take up the cause, and they ended up publishing one of the cornerstone documents of hydroponics. Their work, The Water Culture Method for Growing Plants Without Soil, is generally considered one of the most important publications to the development of hydroponics. They detailed the process and included formulations for nutrient solutions, now called Hoagland solutions, that are still widely used today.

This ultimately resulted in one of the first major commercial hydroponic operations. Wake Island, a typical stopover and refueling point for Pan-Am Airways, was used as the staging area for this operation. They were able to successfully grow vegetable hydroponically, which in turn was used to feed the Pan-Am airline workers.

Growing into greenhouses

Greenhouses experienced a significant boost in the 1950’s thanks to the developing proliferation of plastic and all its uses. Just like you see in greenhouses, plant factories, and home hydroponic systems today, plastic became a staple material in constructing these plant habitats.

Previously the heavy, expensive materials used like glass in concrete prevented much development in greenhouses, and as a result, the hydroponic systems housed therein. This newer, cheaper material (plastic, of course) made way for a lot of innovation to come. Because of the dynamic uses of plastic, new and essential components for hydroponic systems. This allowed for drip systems, improved irrigation, filters, water reservoirs, among other innovations to be introduced.

Thanks to this new accessibility and reduced cost, there was a sort of boom in hydroponics’ popularity. Ultimately, this ended up with an influx of investment into large, commercial hydroponic systems. 

As it happened, the influx of plastic and greenhouse systems also cleared the way for drip irrigation. Today, drip systems are still a common type of hydroponic set up because of their ease of use, effectiveness, and inexpensive needs.

Related: What exactly is drip irrigation, and what is a hydroponic drip system?

Drip irrigation isn’t limited to hydroponics. In fact, it’s a common method of irrigating soil grown crops too. Basically, tubes or pipes deliver smaller amounts of water and nutrients (or ‘drips’) to plants close to their roots. The delivery tubes usually have small holes placed at specific intervals to reach each individual plant. In hydroponic drip systems, it works exactly the same way, although the placement of drips and plants may be slightly different.

Later 20th century developments

In the 1960’s, we finally see the development of more specific hydroponic system types. The first that appeared was the Nutrient Film Technique, developed in England by Allan Cooper.

Related: What is Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)?

Briefly, Nutrient Film Technique type systems use a growing tray with channels where the roots of plants sit. The tray is placed at a slight angle while water saturated with nutrient solution flows across the roots continuously, providing both nutrition and aeration. The excess runoff water is then deposited back into the reservoir where it is pumped back into the root channels.

By 1978 the public had a resource to understand and implement hydroponic systems of their own: the book Hydroponics Food Production was published by Dr. Howard Resh, an early hydroponics pioneer. Thanks to this publication, we can credit the use of the staple 3 ratio nutrient solution (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-K potassium) that we still use today.

By the 1990’s NASA started research using aeroponics as a more efficient method of growing plants in space. By 1996 a researched by the name of Richard Stoner began getting funding from NASA to further continue his research of aeroponics in pursuit of crop production in space. In the following years, 1998 and 1999, their research focused tightly on developing an effective aeroponic system that would work with zero gravity. They ended up designing a functioning, self contained aeroponic system that could be used in colonizing space. 

Related: What is aeroponics?

Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics, although sometimes people mistakenly refer to them as entirely different things. Aeroponics still relies on the use of water only to deliver nutrients. The difference from other hydroponic systems is that aeroponics delivers water in very fine mist droplets that spray more frequently (or constantly in some systems), and no growing medium is ever used. The fine mist reaches roots and provides an efficient delivery of nutrients without the need to worry about extra aeration.

Contemporary hydroponics

All of the history that built hydroponics into various civilizations is the foundation of our contemporary hydroponics today. Hydroponics began as a simplified process compared to what it can be today. That being said, the main functions of hydroponics aren’t so very different from their ancient origins. The founding principle of hydroponics, using water rather than soil to grow plants, hasn’t changed. No matter the system used, it all depends on water and the movement thereof.

Contemporary hydroponics does offer a lot of upgrades compared to the systems used over the past thousand years, though. And it’s not just technique and equipment upgrades either. Now we have advanced techniques for monitoring water and nutrient levels, intricate calculations for plant and tower spacing, man-made growth mediums, and so much more.

We now have the capacity to create huge, eco friendly and energy efficient greenhouses so massive that they’re referred to as ‘plant factories.’ Likewise, we can create home hydroponic systems that can grow anything from strawberries to miniature fruit trees.

Because of our technological advancements, we’ve been able to further increase the efficiency of hydroponic systems and create new techniques like aeroponics and fogponics.  Innovators across the globe are sharing knowledge and contributing to the growth of hydroponics as a field of its own.

A brief look toward the future of hydroponics

In the history of hydroponics we find millennia of innovations and developments. Though slow going at first, hydroponics has literally revolutionized cultures throughout history and brought prosperity as a result.

It’s worth noting the exponential development of hydroponics within the past century especially. As with any other technological development, we’re in an age of rapid growth. Hydroponics systems can be expected to accompany any space colonization, as we’ve seen through aerospace research.

We’ll surely see an influx of newer, more accessible hydroponic methods. Because of hydroponics’ high efficiency and environmental benefits, it’s already being looked at to solve issues with traditional soil agriculture. It’s not a far leap to expect to see hydroponic overtaking field farming, especially considering the ‘plant factories’ we already see popping up across the globe.

No matter what, we can look at the history of hydroponics and see that it’s been a staple of human innovation. That will always continue, as will the drive of human nature to improve, innovate, and find new ways to bring prosperity to our societies.

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How To Germinate Seeds For Hydroponics: Step-By-Step

One of the most crucial steps in a hydroponic garden that is often overlooked is getting the plants in the first place. There is lots of talk on pH levels and nutrients, but these are only suitable for existing gardens.

An up and running system is very different from a germination area, and with the speed that some plants will be growing, you will need to be continually germinating your seeds to keep your garden stocked with new plants to grow.

There are lots of people who skip this step and purchase seedlings that they can drop right into their system. Although this is more convenient, it does mean you might be limited to what you can grow.

When growing from seeds, your plants will bypass any trauma, damage or passing on disease like they would as if they were raised in soil, or other mediums and then transplanted from an outdoor environment into your system.

One other aspect many growers forget is, they can get many more seeds for the price it costs for seedlings.

Although germination of seeds and seedlings can be pretty straightforward, and nature will do some of the hard work for you, there are some bits of equipment you need, terms you need to know, and some specific steps you need to follow to get the best germination rates.

When first starting to germinate from your own seeds, it will be a little more expensive because of the equipment you need to purchase, however, once you are on your way, this cost will be easily absorbed by the number of plants you can grow from seeds.

Hydroponic Germination Basics

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One thing to note right at the start is, seeds can be germinated in soil, but it is advised against doing so. This is for a couple of reasons.

Bacteria can be passed over from the soil to your hydroponic system, and second, it can damage your seedlings roots because they will need washing before they are transplanted. It is far better to use a dedicated growing medium for this such as Rockwool or Coco coir/ Coco peat.

One other thing which is worth mentioning is, there are a lot of places that classify seeds as Hydroponic Seeds, there is no reason to search for this because any seeds are suitable for use in a hydroponic system.

Steps of Seed Germination

When seeds begin to germinate, they start in a dormant state, and then as they grow, they reach an active growing state.

There are 5 parts in this phase and can be seen here:

  • Seed coat – this is the hard outer shell of the seed
  • Plumule – these are the first shoots or stems of an embryo plant
  • Hypocotyl – this is the part beneath the stalks of the seed leaves which sits directly above the root system
  • Radicle – this develops into the first root
  • Cotyledon – these are the embryonic leaves which develop in seed-bearing plants. There will be one or more of these first leaves that you will see from germinating seeds. These help retain nutrients until more dominant leaves start to grow.

When the dormant state comes to an end, the Radicle will crack, and from this, there will be an early shoot. For this to happen, the seeds need to be in warm moist conditions. It is the function of the Cotyledon to provide the seeds with its first nutrients, this they would traditionally get from the soil, but in hydroponic systems, there is no chance for them to do this.

Propagation is the name given to the phase where seedlings start to become stronger, and when they develop stronger roots and their first real leaves. This phase of growth begins as plants emerge from the seed, and ends as they develop roots that have taken hold inside the germination plug.

When plants have developed two or three sets of real leaves, this is the stage when they can be transplanted into the system.

Equipment Needed For Hydroponic Seed Germination

Although there are a few types of growing medium you can use for germinating seeds, it is worth running through them so you can see how they work in your hydroponic garden.

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Coco Peat

This growing medium is a byproduct of the coco growing industry. It comes from the coir fibers and is washed and heat treated before it is made into coco peat products. Most often you find this in the form of large bricks.

The properties that are unique with this medium are, it is sterile, and has natural rooting hormones. It also possesses antifungal properties while being 100% organic. Coco peat can be used anywhere where you would previously use peat moss. Other properties are that it is capable of holding 8-9 times its own weight in water.

Coco peat can store and release nutrients for extended periods to plants, and it delivers fantastic oxygenation properties. Natural pH levels of coco peat are 5.0 – 6.8, so it is bordering neutral and slightly acidic. The one downside of using Coco Peat is some of the loose particles can be washed around your system. This can lead to pump blockages and reservoir sludge.

Coco Coir

This growing medium comes from the same processes as coco peat, but it isn’t ground into fine powder. It differs because it is the hairs that are found on coconut husks. It is most often used in passive hydroponic systems, but it can also come in the form of starter cubes or larger cubes for use later in your system.

Coco coir comes with all of the same properties as coco peat and is an excellent growing medium all around, but it can suffer from the same downside. Coco coir is not clean, and sediment can be washed off leading to the same pump clogs and reservoir sludge buildup. It can be rinsed before use to remove any of these loose particles.


This growing medium isn’t natural and is made by the heating and spinning of specific silica-based materials into thin threads. This is the same process that roof insulation is made with, and should be treated with the same precautions during use.

Rockwool delivers an ideal material which when used, has an almost perfect oxygen to water ratio while being pH neutral. Most often it comes in the form of cubes or plugs at around 1-inch square that are ideal for starting your seeds.

Once these are on their way with germinating, they are easily transplanted into larger cubes that have a hole precut to accommodate the plug. The smaller plugs are also ideal for transplanting into other growing mediums and are suitable for NFT, drip, and deep water culture systems.

Rockwool grow cubes have a pH of around 7.8 which is a little on the alkaline side.

These three mediums can be interchangeable, but for the remainder of this article, we will use Rockwool as the point of reference.

It needs noting, that because Rockwool is like insulation materials, it can make you itch, or breathing the fibers can be harmful. You only need to handle this material as much as required without any unnecessary touching. 

Other items needed

  • Containers that are capable of holding water, Germination tray with dome
  • Chemicals for raising or lowering pH levels
  • Seeds of choice
  • Grow lights if germinating indoors
  • Heating pad if temperatures are lower than required

Germinating Seeds Using Rockwool

Step 1: Hydrating and Stabilizing

Depending on the number of seeds you are looking to germinate, you might need one or more containers. These need to be big enough to hold your Rockwool cubes once they have been soaked in water.

If water levels are too high, the seeds can drown because of the excess water. The seed needs to be at a height where the water can wick up the cube to the seed, but also, there is air available for the seed from above.

At this early stage, you can use distilled water or regular faucet water. Both will work equally as well as each other. Once you have the water in your container, you need to test the pH levels. There are a few growers who recommend adding a half strength or lower nutrient solution, but at this stage, it isn’t necessary, and the seeds won’t benefit that much, and in some cases, once nutrients are added to sprouting seeds, they have died.

Using either a pH test kit or a pH testing meter take a reading. Depending on the type of water you use, it might read up or down, but you might find the water gives a reading of 7.4. This means you will need to lower the pH by using your pH down solution.

The pH you need to aim for is as close to 5.5 – 6 as you can get. At no point should you let the pH drop to below 5.5. The fibers of the Rockwool can become damaged when this happens.

Insert your starter cubes and let them soak for around an hour. By this time, they will have swollen by soaking up the water from the container.

Rockwool cubes have the ability to hold the perfect balance of air to water ratio. If there is unnecessary squeezing, this will change this ratio and can cause deformation of the cube. The cubes are capable of remaining wet for a few days without any additional watering.

If you are presoaking your cubes in pH balanced water before moving them to another tray. Don’t discard the water, and keep it in a sealed bucket for later.

Step 2: Planting Seeds into the Cubes

Depending on the supplier of your Rockwool cubes, you might have the ones which come without holes already in the cubes. If this is the case, all you need to do is make a hole in the top which is to a depth of no more than a quarter of an inch deep.

Now, all you have to do is take a couple of seeds and carefully place them into the hole. They won’t fall to the bottom so you will need a small device to gently push them to the bottom of the hole. Once done, you can gently push another little piece of Rockwool into the hole to cover the seeds. Make sure this is only tight enough to block light from entering.

It might seem backward, but what you do now is cover the container. This will leave the seeds in darkness, but it will also retain moisture and prevent evaporation. It is this environment which is critical for seeds to germinate correctly.

You can purchase dedicated germination trays that come with plastic domes, this isn’t necessary. Other growers also slide their trays inside a Ziploc bag to retain moisture, this though does mean your trays will be much smaller. All you need is an upturned tray of the same size or something that can sit across the tray without pushing on the Rockwool cubes.

No matter what you use to cover your tray, be it a Ziploc, or a plastic dome, your trays need to sit in darkness throughout the germination period. The area where you have your seed trays laying should be around 68F, if your growing/ nursery area is less than this, then this is where the heating pad comes into use. A few degrees above will be fine, but it is below which really causes the problems.

Step 3: Let Nature Take its Course

While the seeds are germinating in this phase, you do need to check water levels on a daily basis depending on how warm your environment. This is one of the advantages of using Rockwool because you might find they don’t require any, or minimal watering during this time.

This is where you can use the reserved water from the first step, simply add enough to keep the blocks moist as water levels drop.

This is also why it is advisable not to add any nutrients at this stage. Sprouts are becoming stronger, and only really need nutrients once they are in your system.

As you added more than one seed to each hole (there will be mortality rates or slow growers), you might find that both have sprouted. It will be tempting to try and remove the one and replant, but you should avoid doing this. It can cause damage to the other sprouts rooting system.

This stage is usually reached in around 3 – 4 days depending on the growing conditions. When you see the first true leaves emerging, it is time to select the smaller of the two shoots and cut off the more minor one’s level with the top of the cube. It is a sacrifice you need to make, unfortunately.

Once plants have reached this stage, it is time for them to start receiving light to help them grow. Many people use sun-facing windows to deliver this light, and although ideal for the first introduction to light, it can cause problems later.

If you use the sun or grow lights, it is the red-light frequency that will accelerate seedlings growth. When using the sun, three hours per day is enough, and the times that contain most of the red light is between 6.00 am, and 9.00 am or later in the early evening from around 4.00pm until 6.00 pm.

Using the window method will require the trays to be turned so the seedlings won’t lean toward the light. Additionally, once your seedlings are getting bigger, they will need up to 15 hours of light per day.

This is where a sun-facing window leads to problems, there might not be enough sun. When this happens, and seedlings don’t receive enough light, they grow weakly and leggy. Once this happens, they begin falling over, and in many cases, it is something they are unable to recover from.

Overhead grow lights solve this problem because you can set the timer for 15 hours per day, and because the lights are overhead, the seedlings won’t lean to the side. Additionally, as they are receiving a full quota of light, they will grow much stronger and healthier.

One other thing to note is that seedlings need time to rest from light, so when they have had their quota, the nursery area should have sufficient darkness.

One final caution is to make sure any grow lights are positioned far enough away from the top of the seedlings so as to not scorch them (depending on light type). As they grow, the lights will need raising. Watering might become more frequent as the seedlings begin taking on more fluids, and if there is heat from your lighting fixtures.

Step 4: Transplanting

The first steps of germination to when you can transplant into your system can take between 2-3 weeks.

Rather than waiting for this time limit, you can check the bottoms of your Rockwool cubes, and when you see the roots are starting to protrude from the bottom, then you can transplant. This can be a good indication because if you leave them too long, they can begin to get root bound in the cube as this will be their only source of moisture.

Once you have reached this stage, you can clear a space in your system for your new young plants. You can transfer the whole plant along with the Rockwool cube into your growing media where you should cover the top lightly.

Because the plants rooting system has been focused on the cube for moisture, it needs a chance to naturally seek out another water source, so, to enable them to do this, you can top water them for the first few days.

Why Haven’t all My Seedlings Survived?

There are numerous reasons why not all seedlings will survive, and not all can be explained. But, depending on plants being grown, there are temperature differences that must be accounted for. if you have cool weather plants, and warm weather plants as seedlings in the same environment, then this could be too much of a temperature swing for either type of plant.

Other things you need to be wary of are as follows:

  • Media drying out – seeds need to be in a warm moist environment to germinate. If they dry in between watering, this can kill them or prevent them from sprouting.
  • Retain high humidity – this is essential to retain moisture. Humidity domes or an upturned tray on top of your grow tray can help maintain moisture and humidity. A transparent dome while under lights will also be beneficial.
  • Too wet – if you over water, or your Rockwool cubes become too wet, this can lead to seeds rotting before they have a chance to germinate properly. To make sure you don’t over water, you can spray inside your grow tray rather than pouring water. Many grow trays have ridged bottoms so the grow cubes won’t be standing in pooled water. If a too wet situation happens, you can have what is called damping off. Here, some molds and fungi form during the propagation phase and cause your seedlings to lose the structure of their stems and lay flat.
  • Don’t overfeed – when you start feeding with nutrients, this should only be when you see the first sets of true leaves. The EC of your water should be at a maximum of 0.8 – 1.2. During the early stages of life, plants will obtain all their nutrients from the cotyledons, and it is only when these first true leaves show they become dependent on external sources of nutrients or fertilizers.

Transplanting Tips

This might appear a simple exercise, but at this stage, plants will be susceptible to transplant shock. This isn’t only from the pressures of being removed from the grow tray, but also from being placed into a new environment. This initial shock can take them a few hours to recover from.

Seedlings are heat sensitive, and even more so when being transplanted. This will include their new life under stronger lighting, but also the temperature of your nutrient mix.

The ideal time to transplant is when your seedlings are ready to be watered. The grow cubes will be slightly moist and will have shrunk back a little in your grow tray. This will make them easier to remove, and when they should be placed into a system that has running water.

Seed Tips

Although there are lots of seeds that are suitable for germination, some more exotic plant seeds do have special requirements. Here is a brief overview of what you might find when looking for seeds.

Pre-soak seeds – some growers advise to presoak seeds before germination. This would allow the seed coat to become saturated and break open easier. However, because hydroponic germination methods are in the mid 90%’s compared to soil, this is not recommended unless the speeds specifically require soaking.

Scarification – many fruit plant seeds might require their exterior to be weakened before germination. In nature, this is the function of animals or birds. To mimic this in hydroponics, this type of seed will require some form of scarification. This might include the seeds being run along a metal file, rubbed across sandpaper, cracked lightly with a hammer or even cut with a knife. If you have any seeds of this nature, be sure to only carry out this process on the seeds you will be using. Once they have been scarified, they will not store very well.

Seed inhibitors – because some seeds expect to lay dormant over the winter period, they have built-in inhibitors that prevent them from germinating too soon. Some of the inhibitors can be found in the way of Abscisic acid. This would decrease in the seeds as winter comes to an end, so the seeds are ready to sprout. To overcome this, you can place this type of seed in a moist growing medium and placed in a refrigerator for four weeks. This process is called stratification, and it is by doing this that enzymes break down and mimic what happens in the wild. Temperate native plants that require this winter season will need this process. It might be uncommon, but it is useful knowing how you can work around it.

One other inhibitor which can be found in desert plants is phenolic compounds. This prevents the seeds from germinating until there is sufficient moisture, This inhibitor is water soluble, and once it has been broken down, then the seed is able to sprout. All it requires for these to sprout is sufficient moisture.

Temperature – We have spoken about temperature, but it is worth mentioning the upper heat limits because this can prevent seeds from germinating, or even killing them. If the growing media rises above 90F, then you will unlikely see any action. You can check this with a hydroponic thermometer quite easily. In many cases, this happens in greenhouses where growers germinate, but having the ideal temperature is crucial.


There can seem to be a lot of information to take in when it comes to hydroponic seed germination, but in practice, it is quite straightforward when you follow the requirements. The amount of equipment is minimal, and the only things are to make sure you have an area that you can use as a nursery.

In many cases, it can be something as simple as a shelf racking system where you can store your trays and is away from your system grow lights. If you use this, you can easily keep your seeds covered until they are ready to be introduced to grow lights, and the amount of shock they will face during transplanting can be reduced.

With the length of time required before transplanting, you can have seedlings at various stages and always have a continual supply of plants that you can add to your system. This makes the system more efficient overall.

Growers also find that growing their own plants from seeds, is not only cost effective, but it is also gratifying to complete every single stage of their plant’s growth.

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How hydroponics Can Solve World Hunger

Our current global situation is quickly emphasizing the vast issues of food shortages around the world, especially in impoverished areas. We’re more connected than ever due to technology, and with the influx of media and social groups focusing on the issues surrounding these areas, scientists and philosophers alike are looking for new solutions. Currently, at least 1 in 7 people aren’t getting the sustenance they need. This food shortage is only expected to increase as the global population continues to grow exponentially. Everywhere, we’re looking for solutions; from our own backyards to labs overseas, the crisis is demanding attention.

The dream of solving world hunger is by no means a new one. The difference is that now we have practical methods of implementing a solution. A developing solution that’s been proposed is the use of hydroponic systems. Hydroponic gardening offers increased crop yields, while using less of the traditional resources used in soil grown crops.

What factors contribute to the hunger crisis?

There are a lot of reasons that the global hunger crisis continues to grow. Remember, hunger is affecting people everywhere. Not just the arid countries you’ve never visited, not just the community you saw on the news; hunger exists everywhere and it comes in many forms. From impoverished countries where citizens may go hungry for days to cities in developed countries where school children don’t have access to fresh produce, to rural areas where food is scarce, all these forms of hunger are prevalent. It would be a monumental undertaking to list every single factor that contributes to global hunger. However, to really grasp the problem and thereby understand the facets of hydroponics that create a solution, we need to look at some of the most basic, common factors of global hunger:

Climate and environmental factors

Climate change is a huge factor contributing to food shortages, and it isn’t expected to let up. Flooding, irregular weather patterns, drought, the changing of conditions during traditional growing seasons, they all make growing food harder. Where weather patterns and average temperatures used to be predictable and reliable, farming could be put on a regular schedule, and crop yields were more or less predictable. That’s no longer as stable and as a result, crop yields are in flux globally.


Poverty shouldn’t affect whether or not people can get reliable sources of food, but it sadly almost always does. Everyone has heard (or very likely uttered) the phrase, “but healthy food is SO much more expensive.” And that’s a pretty fair statement. For the price of a spaghetti squash weighing about 2.5 lbs, just about any fast food meal can be had instead and for even less money. Unfortunately, the human body wasn’t meant to exist by depending on empty calories. Even in areas where food is accessible, it still might not meet nutritional needs. In impoverished areas, there isn’t even this less nutritious but still edible alternative.

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Transport and Access

Access to food isn’t always as easy as going to the grocery store or food pantry. Sometimes people suffer from food insecurity as a result of their own lack of transportation to food sources. That’s a problem that can be mitigated by an in home hydroponic system. However, we need to recognize the source of the majority of our crops as well. About 70% of our crops are grown in remote or rural locations. That means they require transportation to reach most people. Which in turn means a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, creating more expense involved in food transport. 

Why should we stop looking for answers in traditional soil farming?

To be fair, traditional farming is an important staple to many people worldwide, and they rely on it to produce the crops they buy in the supermarket or eat in restaurants. Likewise soil farmers rely on soil grown crops to provide their livelihood. But in terms of helping to provide a solution to the global hunger pandemic? Maybe not so much. So, let’s briefly look at the reasons soil farming isn’t the ideal, or most efficient solution:

First, a lot of impoverished areas don’t have the resources to support much traditional farming, nor the economy to support farming that would grow enough crops to provide sustenance. When it’s used in desperate regions, there’s often an issue of unregulated pesticides and chemicals, which then run off into natural water supplies. That means main sources of water are no longer safe to drink. Not only that, most farming uses sprinkler irrigation which actually lose about 60% of the water used. In countries where water is as inaccessible, or more so than food, that presents a pretty big problem.

Then, you have the issue of cost. Traditional farming costs far outweigh those of hydroponic farming, and it produces less crop yield versus that of a hydroponic system. The last big point to make is that farming is seasonal. At least in the vast majority of cases. That takes a big chunk out of the usability of the land for food production, and essentially leaves land unused despite the scarcity of arable land.

What makes hydroponics an ideal solution?

Hydroponics has been the hot word in a lot of conversations lately, but it seems like the discussions are taking place primarily in more affluent, developed regions. We know it excels as a method of gardening (at least in our homes and hobbies) but what makes hydroponics such a good solution for ending world hunger?

It answers the problem of land shortages

In many areas, arable land isn’t available or if it is, it’s very sparse. That means a lot of people don’t have the means to produce their own food, much less the money to purchase it. Hydroponic systems don’t require acres of land to produce significant crop yields. They require very little space for the amount of crops that can be produced in a single system. Because of this, individual or shared systems can produce food in any community.

It answers the problem of limited resources in growing crops

Traditional farming and gardening isn’t always readily accessible and oftentimes that is, in part, due to a lack of resources. The traditional methods require much to produce a successful crop. That means a lot of water, land, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor. Hydroponics uses significantly less of these, and none of some of them (pesticides are rarely if ever used). In fact, hydroponic systems can use up to 90% less water than soil farming. This knocks down several barriers for individuals faced with hunger and a lack of resources.

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It can be used worldwide, regardless of climate or situation

One of the great things about hydroponics is that it can be used just about anywhere. Regardless of climate, hydroponic systems can be used in conjunction with greenhouses and heaters to ensure crop growth. Likewise, whether located in a rural or urban environment hydroponic systems thrive.

Materials for systems can easily be acquired

While there is a cost associated with any system start up, many of the components needed for a hydroponic system can be found or acquired easily. That means that items like an old fish tank (so long as it doesn’t leak), spare gardening pots, barrels, old trays, and so much more can go into the creation of a hydroponic system, without the need to have money to purchase many components.

Can a hydroponic system provide enough nutritional content?

This is a common question, especially in more westernized countries. Oftentimes we greatly overestimate the amount of protein required in our diets. Likewise, we also tend to greatly underestimate the protein that can be provided in a vegetable and fruit based diet. People need about 10-35% of their daily caloric intake to come from protein, which means about 50 grams daily (depending on age and weight). A hydroponic system is capable of providing significantly more than that. For example, the protein content of one cup of green peas is 9 grams. A hydroponic garden with about 30 plants per person (assuming this was the only protein source) can yield up to 6 lbs per harvest. With the ability to grow up to 5 harvests yearly, there’s enough protein to support the needs of most individuals.

Note: this is just an example to show how even the daily nutrition we think can’t come from produce, in fact can and does. It’s still important to diversify our nutrition sources.

What about our other nutritional requirements?

That’s pretty much a non issue. Since hydroponic systems can be used to grow just about any plant, that means we can use them to provide all our daily requirements. Nutrients like calcium, potassium, and vitamins can be found in many fruits and vegetables, and in more than sufficient quantities. The best way to ensure all our daily nutritional needs are met is through diversity. By setting up a hydroponic garden with various plants, a single system has the potential to provide all the nutrients people need. Alternatively, individuals can grow specific crops and trade or barter with neighbors to help meet each other’s needs.

Where can hydroponics be used?

Anywhere. Yes, hydroponics can be used to grow plants just about anywhere, so long as considerations such as temperature, light, and ventilation are also modified to fit the climate. The plus side to adding in considerations to mitigate otherwise harsh environments is that hydroponic systems still remain accessible, and pretty easily modified to the grower’s needs.

Nasa began hydroponic research and development to provide a way to grow plants in space. So, if we can achieve a healthy hydroponic harvest in space, it’s more than safe to say we can do it anywhere on earth. That means from the Arctic circle to desert climates, to areas that poverty stricken and lack verdant land. Hydroponic systems can be put into huge warehouse sized greenhouses, or tiny unused spaces in already cramped apartments. So, when you hear ‘hydroponic crops can be grown anywhere,’ believe it.

How does it help?

It provides food that people need. Obviously, that’s far too simple an answer when you look at all the benefits hydroponic growing provides to individuals and communities. The neat thing about it is that hydroponics really can help people in large variety of ways, and those ways change depending on their needs.

For impoverished areas where food is scarce, it’s a much more affordable, more sustainable option. Not only that, it can be done by the individuals in need rather than requiring money to purchase sustenance. Plus, it provides a valid source of income to many families in these areas. It’s been shown that a single hydroponic garden can provide upwards of $90 to around $250 every couple of months in impoverished areas in places like South America and Asia. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot to those of us that live in first world countries, but for the vast number of people that have to survive on less than $1 daily (and would be lucky to earn as much), that’s literally a life changing garden. That’s a livelihood.

Hydroponics even benefits those who are not food insecure like in developing countries, but that struggle to get enough nutrition even in the first world. Low income families can take advantage of hydroponic gardening as a means to supplement their diet with wholesome food that they may otherwise struggle to obtain. Even food secure individuals can use a hydroponic garden to eat healthier and put a dent in their grocery bill.

In many developing countries, there’s less regulation regarding the use of chemicals and pesticides in crops for consumption. This puts vulnerable populations at even more risk, as there often aren’t alternative food sources. Hydroponic gardens don’t require the chemical elements of traditional farming, nor do they produce harmful runoff or cause undrinkable water and harmful algae blooms. So, it helps us maintain our environmental health too.

What resources are needed?

A lot of the uninitiated picture hydroponic gardens as the commercial scale greenhouses that appear so frequently in images. The truth is, any hydroponic method of growing is scalable, and therefore doesn’t require a huge greenhouse setup. The essential elements to construct a hydroponic system consist of:

  • A tank or water reservoir
  • Growing medium
  • Trays or towers to secure plants
  • Nutrients (aka plant food or hydroponic fertilizers)
  • Supplemental lighting
  • A water pump (for many types of systems, but it is not required for all)
  • Ventilation
  • Heating (in some systems this may or may not be required)
  • Water
  • Suitable seeds, seedlings, or transplantable plants

Some of these essential components are easier to come by than others. As noted before, even old fish tanks or large ceramic pots can be used in lieu of a traditional reservoir. As far as water pumps go, wick systems don’t require one, so when push comes to shove, hydroponic systems can be constructed to work without a pump if the cost is an issue. In cold climates, heating will be required, but as we’ve seen through Iceland’s example (by using geothermal vents to heat greenhouses year round), it can certainly be done.

Growing mediums come in so many forms that it’s almost difficult to think of a scenario in which they aren’t accessible. Whether perlite, rice husks, or stone wool, there are several options that fit any type hydroponic grower.

Trays are easily constructed from readily available materials for growing plants horizontally, as are materials to construct towers to grow plants vertically.

Many of the resources that require electricity (such as pumps, lighting, heat, ventilation) can be made not only more efficient, but more accessible with the use of batteries, generators, and/or solar power.

Seeds and plants will be easily found in some areas, and may be difficult to obtain in others. Where seeds are difficult to come by, they can be obtained either through ordering, bartering, or with the aid of humanitarian organizations.

While there is an issue of water shortages, it is more easily overcome than you might expect. Some solutions include gathering rain water, treating existing water sources, and using a recycle system for hydroponics. Compared to the water requirements for farming, the water demands of hydroponics are minimal.

Obtaining nutrients can be done in several ways. Nutrient solution can be bought in wholesale bulk, and created through homemade methods (so long as the nutrient ratios and EC testing are done properly).

Is there data that support the use of hydroponics in food insecure areas?

While simplified hydroponic projects have been implemented in some food insecure areas since as early as the 1980s in Latin American and African countries, there are enough studies and projects from then to the present that do show hydroponics can be put to good use in these nutrition deficient places. In short, not only is there data that support hydroponic use in these areas, but there are also successfully implemented projects that demonstrate the utility of hydroponics.

Another case of a successfully planned large scale hydroponic implementation was staged in tropical Asia by Bradley and Marulanda. They found that by establishing 50 million hydroponics gardens, they could support the nutritional needs of the 232 million individuals suffering from food insecurity. That’s factoring an average family size of 4, with some room for variation. These gardens would cost about $355 not just for initial set up, but for an entire year’s supplies to keep it running including nutrient solution as well as seeds.

While this may seem like a large investment when taking poverty issues into account, looking at the revenue figures provides a clearer perspective:

Total project cost: $20 billion

Single garden setup and 1st year costs: $355

Total project yearly revenue: $135 billion

Single garden yearly revenue: up to $1405

Variations of hydroponic gardening provide even further reach

If you’re unfamiliar with aeroponics, it’s a newer type of hydroponic system, also used by NASA in research for growing plants in outer space. As more minds contribute to the solution of solving world hunger, we see more innovation. Part of using hydroponics to fix hunger is getting innovators and contributors to expand solutions.

One such case comes from a recent product design grad that took aeroponics to an accessible level. Nikian Aghababaiecreated a low cost aeroponic kit that uses entirely locally sourced and recycled materials and has hardly any maintenance costs. Using locally sourced seaweed a nutrient solution is created (and yes, it’s totally adequate for growing and has proper EC levels), so even the cost of nutrient solution is taken out of the equation.

While this isn’t as widespread as the traditional hydroponic systems we’ve been talking about, it just reminds us how important it is to continue innovating and watching for solutions that leverage hydroponic technology to make food go farther.

So what’s our main takeaway here?

Hydroponics provide a formidable solution for solving hunger, but it also provides us ample room to continue building, improving, and extending accessibility. And we’ll need that to conquer a huge issue like world hunger.

How can using hydroponics as a solution to global hunger be accomplished?

Look, global hunger is no small issue. It can’t be tackled overnight, and it’s going to take a lot of work and cooperation to make a solution work. The beauty of using hydroponic systems to alleviate the hunger pandemic is that it can start small and grow into a much larger solution. Hydroponics can be started in a single home and grow into a community wide project.

While the idea is great, we still have to consider what it will physically, financially, and logistically take to implement hydroponic systems to absolve our world of hunger. Hydroponic systems don’t need to expensive or fancy, but at the end of the day you still need materials to make one. Some components like a tank and growing tray are more easily acquired without cost. Items such as water pumps and testing kits will have to be purchased or donated. In addition, water will have to go through a purification process in many regions to make it usable. Supplies to create solar powered systems, generators, and batteries will often need to be provided as well.

How can we get these supplies to food insecure areas?

That’s one of the hardest parts of implementing a solution to world hunger. In truth, it will take a lot of cooperation from international aid organizations, governments, and grassroots organizations. Global organizations like The World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are already exploring and implementing hydroponic garden installations in food insecure regions.

What scale are we looking at?

The global eradication of hunger is a project of massive scale, and the need for food is only expected to grow. By 2050 this need is predicted to rise at least 60%. There’s a lot of planning to be done to determine the exact scale of the systems that need to be implemented, but we can come up with some ballpark numbers in the meantime:

Let’s say 800 million people are currently food insecure (according to the latest UN statistic). Keep in mind that realistically the level of need in this group will vary anywhere from lacking fresh produce, to literally being on the verge of starvation. For our purposes however, we’ll use this as a static figure.

Using the above studies as a baseline, we can simplify the problem to make the numbers easier to get our heads around. Assuming an average family size of 4 again, we can say that one garden supports one family.

To produce enough food for the currently 800 million food insecure people, we will ultimately need about 173 million working hydroponic farms and gardens.

What kind of funding is needed to make this happen?

Donated supplies can be obtained to significantly reduce the cost of building these systems, and there are plenty of innovators creating low cost kits to help implement hydroponic systems. To create a hydroponic system that’s able to support an average family, we’ll use the above figure of $355. That means to create sufficient hydroponics systems approximately $6.14 billion in funding would be needed. These costs can be subsidized by using recycled and donated materials, as well as using low cost start up kits where appropriate.

It’s unreasonable to expect any single entity to provide all the funding to implement this solution. Realistically, several different organizations will need to coordinate to provide not only funding and supplies, but education and assistance.

Thinking small on a big scale

The truth of the matter is, hydroponics works better as a solution when we stop looking at it like traditional farming methods. That restrains our ability to create solutions with these systems. We can’t hope to make this happen overnight but through consistent effort and development, it can become a sustainable solution. There have been so many valuable studies that show hydroponic gardens provide more than food, they can provide a livelihood that supports families and sustains the growth of the garden.

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How to Test EC in Water – Complete Guide to Electrical Conductivity

Hydroponic growers are faced with many challenges when it comes to monitoring their nutrient solutions and pH levels. We know this can affect how plants grow because some plants require very different ratios to grow to their full potential.

If these two factors were challenging enough, there is one more element in nutrient solutions that needs constant monitoring and adjusting when required. This is the EC level, and here we will see how it affects your plants, how you can test it and how you can adjust it if needed.

Understanding EC Levels

What is the EC in a Nutrient Mix?

EC is the measure of electrical conductivity in any solution. You might also see it as CF which stands for the ‘Conductivity Factor.’

On many occasions, you will see this EC written in conjunction with nutrient solutions pH levels. At this point, you need to know the difference between the two.

The pH levels of your nutrient mix give an indication of nutrient balance in your mix. EC, on the other hand, is an excellent guide to the quantity of available nutrients in your solution.

To make this easy to understand, distilled water contains no EC because it has no minerals contained in it. Once there is an introduction of minerals, salts are dissolved, and then the solution can conduct electricity. The higher the amount of salts, the higher the EC level or the electrical conductivity.

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One thing worth noting with EC levels is, it doesn’t tell you what nutrients, and at what levels they are at, it is an overall number of nutrient concentration.

EC Levels in Hydroponics and Why They are Important

Just like pH levels in your hydroponic system, and some plants prefer different levels. It is the same with EC levels, and various plants prefer different levels. On top of this, most plants like the EC level to be in the range of 1.2 – 1.6 in their vegetative stage, and once they reach flowering, they like the EC to be in the range of 1.6 to 2.4.

These levels are worth knowing because, from the following three plants, you can see a vast difference between what levels they prefer.

  • Basil & other herbs – EC 0.8 – 1.4
  • Tomatoes – EC 2.2 – 2.8
  • Spinach – EC up to 3.5

Now we know what can affect EC levels, we need to understand why they are essential. These levels provide a detailed indication of what is happening in your nutrient solution, especially when tests are carried out as an addition to testing pH levels alone.

Here is a brief overview of what is happening with plants when the EC levels change:

  • EC level remains the same – the plants are absorbing the same amount of water as nutrients. When this happens, and reservoir levels drop, you need to top up with a nutrient mix of the same strength. This does still require checking once it has stabilized and run through your system.
  • EC levels drop – when this happens, it shows the plants are using more nutrients (salts) than they are using water. When this happens, you need to top back up your reservoir to the level it was, and it might mean you need to make the concentration of your newly added nutrients a little stronger. This does need to be checked after topping up in case your solution ends up too strong.
  • EC levels rise – this happens when your plants are using more water than they are using nutrients. You may have seen this and know the symptoms as ‘Nutrient burn.’ To resolve this, you need to dilute the solution with more water. Again, your solution will require checking in case it falls off and goes in the opposite direction.

EC Levels and Plant Growth

There are a few things growers should know about EC levels, and this is what happens to a plants growth, and what factors can make EC levels change. There are elements which can affect these levels aside from the amount of nutrients plants are absorbing.

We have seen why these levels are significant, and here is how it affects plants during different stages of their growth.

How Conductivity Levels Will Affect Plant Growth

Seedlings, cuttings or delicate plants will suffer from nutrient burn when the EC level is too high. This ‘too high’ doesn’t mean you have it wrong because even a nutrient mix that is suitable for larger plants can be too strong. To make sure your plants don’t suffer from nutrient burn during these stages, it is advisable to run your nutrient levels at half strength or lower.

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Once plants become more substantial and are entering their vegetative stage, you can increase the nutrient concentration. This is still dependent on the type of plant you are growing. If you have a mixture of plants, you need to separate these into light feeders, medium feeders, and heavy feeders if possible. If you have three different types of plants which all feed at different rates, this means you will need three separate reservoirs.

This might seem too much, and it might not fit in with everyone’s hydroponic system, but as a good example. If you feed lettuce with high EC levels that are suited to tomatoes, then your lettuce will become bitter. At the other end of the scale, if you feed tomatoes with low EC levels intended for lettuce, then your tomatoes won’t have any taste.

Can Water Temperature Affect EC Levels?

Nutrient solutions in your reservoir should fall inside the temperature range of 65 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Plants don’t like a rapid change in water temperature. This is more important around the root zone. When you are about to add water to your reservoir, you should make sure it is at the same temperature as what is already in the reservoir.

If your grow room is indoors and you fill from an outside hose, this could cause too much of a difference.

Ambient temperatures will also have an effect, so depending on where your system is situated, you might need to make use of an aquarium heater for colder regions, or a suitable chiller for your nutrient solution if you live in warmer climates.

How Does Air Affect EC Levels?

All growers know that plants require airflow to grow correctly, but many are not aware that ventilation plays a significant part in EC levels.

One thing to note is that airflow isn’t the same as ventilation. Airflow is the moving of the same air while ventilation is discarding of old air while introducing fresh air. When you have improved ventilation in your growing area, this aids much higher rates of transpiration. From this, plants will increase their rate of nutrient absorption and uptake.

EC Management

When you have a good EC management procedure in place, you are in a position to help your plants deal with changing conditions. Many growers use low-light conditions and raise their EC levels. This restricts vegetative growth and helps counteract stretching.

When plants are in low humidity areas with high heat, growers can reduce their EC levels to ease any stress on their plants.

Testing EC Levels in Hydroponics

Testing EC levels is no harder than testing pH levels in your solution, but there are a few terms and things you should know.

Terminology Related to EC Levels

  • EC Electrical Conductivity. A measure of the total dissolved salts/ solids in your nutrient solution.
  • CF – Conductivity Factor. Another term for the above EC.
  • TDS – Total Dissolved Solids. This is read in ppm (Parts Per Million)
  • PPM – Parts Per Million. This is a standard measuring unit of elements which are in your nutrient solution. When you have one ppm, this equates to one part of the (solid) weight of any given mineral in one million parts of the solution.
  • MilliSiemens – this is a measure of electrical conductance

Converting Between TDS and EC Values

Again, this might sound complicated, and when you come to take readings, your testing meter will do this conversion for you for whichever value you are using.

When you want to find the approximate values of sodium chloride (salt) TDS in your solution, all you need to do is to multiply your EC reading (in milliSiemens/cm) by 1000, and then divide the result by 2.

If you want to convert the other way to find out an EC level from a TDS reading, it is a matter of doing things in reverse. All you need to do here is multiply your ppm reading by two, and then divide the result by 1000.

It is far better to rely on a meter when it comes to taking readings than converting manually.

The EC vs. TDS Debate

There has been a debate in the hydroponics world, and this is because you can test nutrient solutions with different TDS meters and come up with mixed results. This purely boils down to there being different conversion factors, and some manufacturers use different calculations to come up their results. No matter which meter you use for TDS readings, you should only take the results as what they are, an approximation.

These TDS meters use an internal conversion formula to display the EC level as an average ppm. In most cases, this comes out at a 700:1 ratio. This will mean that when you have an EC of 1, you then have 700 ppm. Other makers of these meters use 500:1 ratios for their calculations, and with this difference, it is easy to see why there is such a debate.

The safest route for growers is in using the 700:1 ratio and the reason for this being it is safer and better for your plants to add too little nutrients. If they begin showing signs of nutrient deficiency, then it is much easier to add more than to dial back the strength to a weaker solution.

To reiterate about nutrient strength during different stages of plant growth, you are far better to keep things simple and using nutrient solutions at half-strength during any vegetative phase, and then increasing them to full strength during flowering and fruiting stages.

To keep things on a level, it should also be standard practice to empty and refill your reservoir on a regular basis

The good news is, when you read EC levels, this will return the same results no matter who manufactures the meter.

EC Meters

Testing meters come with many names. They can be EC meters, CF meters, and Truncheon meters. These are all basically the same device, but in looks, they might appear very different.

Digital EC meters can take readings and do all the calculations for you internally. A Truncheon meter, on the other hand, does a reading, and on the side, there are 3 scales, so when the mark stops, you then have your three levels.

For new growers, these digital meters are the better option. They can be faster in operation, and although the Truncheon meter is manually read, it is a lot more expensive than digital.

When taking EC readings, this needs to be performed on a daily basis because things can change rapidly, and as we saw earlier, weather and ambient temperatures can play a large part in these changes.

Here are some simple use and maintenance steps for using a digital EC meter.

Maintenance of an EC Meter

  1. Always be sure to stick to the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations
  2. Once you have used the device, always clean the electrode with distilled water and carefully dry with a lint-free cloth.
  3. On a regular basis, you should clean the electrode with rubbing alcohol. To do this dip and swirl around before giving it a good rinse with distilled water, and drying is as above.
  4. If there is any reason you need to store it for extended periods, always remove the batteries.

Using an EC Meter to Take Readings

  1. Remove the end cap which protects the electrode.
  2. Dip the probe into your reservoir and hold in place for up to 2 minutes or as advised by the maker of the meter. During this time, the meter will be reaching the same temperature as your nutrient solution.
  3. Once done, you can pull out the device and take the reading from the digital display. Many meters come with various buttons you can press to reach the other readings.

Organic Fertilizers and EC Levels

While reading EC levels can be very beneficial for your hydroponics system, when growers use organic fertilizers things can become very misleading. This is because the molecules in organic fertilizers usually don’t conduct any electricity.

Growers are still recommended to take EC readings with the aim of determining the soluble salt levels.

It is the case though that many of the nutrients won’t register on EC readings due to the form they are in. In most cases, they won’t have been broken down into simple salts. When readings are taken with EC meters, the gained results will more than likely read much lower than if they were using non-organic nutrients.

What growers tend to find is that although readings are lower, plants are showing no signs of deficiency. This means that nutrient profiles must be adjusted for use with these organic fertilizers.

Calcium can be one mineral which is lacking and can sit at around 100 ppm which is a long way from the recommended 200 ppm for leafy green vegetables. But, with the level at only half of the suggested, these leafy greens don’t show signs of calcium deficiency. One compound that can be added to rectify this is calcium sulfate.

It has been found both calcium and magnesium lacking when using organic fertilizers, but, if growers are using regular water, these deficiencies can be made up. However, this doesn’t help if you are using pure water.

Regular water contains 30 ppm of both calcium and magnesium, and over extended periods (several months) calcium levels naturally increase inside your reservoir, and can almost reach the recommended 200 ppm. Magnesium can naturally increase over time in the same way.

One thing which has been found when using organic fertilizers is that the smaller the reservoir, the more frequent testing must be carried out.


As you can see, on paper EC levels, look hard to control, but in reality, they are as easy to test for and to adjust as pH levels are.

Learning how to fine tune your hydroponic EC levels brings many more benefits than choosing to ignore it, and this can be evident when you have symptoms such as nutrient burn, or you are beginning to have vegetables with little taste.

All the formula are best remembered, but with a digital meter to take the readings, adjusting your EC levels works out to nothing more than dilution. As long as you can keep the EC levels on the right side, it is straightforward to adjust so your plants can grow to their full potential.

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The Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts of Hydroponics

Hydroponics can either be fairly simple or implicitly complex depending on how you choose to grow your plants and set up your system. That being said, there are some basic tenets that every hydroponic gardener needs to follow. Without these basic do’s and don’ts, no hydroponic system will be able to thrive, regardless of how it’s arranged. So without further ado, here’s the top 10 do’s and don’ts of hydroponics:

Do your research

But that’s what you’re here for right? So you’re already getting the first do of hydroponics right. Before you start your system, make sure you look at available system types and the kinds of maintenance and special considerations they require. For example, if you choose to use a Wick system you really don’t need a pump, but can choose to use one. If you choose a NFT or Ebb and Flow system, you’ll definitely need a pump. It seems like a small thing now, but it won’t be when you’re mid set up and realize you’re missing a critical component.

Decide on the kinds of plants you want to grow and make sure your system set up will support them. Then figure out what ideal pH and nutrient levels will be, in addition to the necessary temperature, humidity, and light requirements. Make sure you’re equipped to support your type of system’s water, electric, and monitoring needs too.

With research, comes planning. Set up your hydroponic system wisely and make sure it won’t be difficult to do water changes and maintenance as a result of a hasty set up. Allow enough space to account for potential future transplanting and make sure you’ve planned for your plant’s full growth size and weight to be accounted for. 

Do make lighting a priority

Too many hydroponic gardeners have made the mistake of relying on natural sunlight because their growing area seems ‘pretty light’ to them. While we, as humans, may see a bright, airy room, there are factors important to plants that this superficial assessment doesn’t consider. And when you’re growing hydroponically, it can be easy to let water take focus and accidentally ignore lighting concerns. Even if your growing area is really light, you’re still going to need supplemental lighting. Period.

You’ll need to install special growing lights to either supplement natural light or completely provide your plant’s light. Growing lights can be fairly inexpensive and they come in a variety of options: LED, halogen, and HID. Make sure you place them close enough to the plants to be effective, but far enough away that you won’t have singed or wilting plants from the lights.

Pay special attention to plants that may be at risk of receiving less light. Plants in the corner, behind another plants, or that have been surpassed in growth by another plant, are more likely to suffer a light deficiency.  That, in turn, means that the plant will suffer and fail to grow as well. You may have to adjust lighting in your system if you see that certain plants aren’t getting as much light as others.

Do change your water!

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Seriously, change your water appropriately. It’s a big deal for the plants, as missing several water changes can lead to disease and chemical burns on plant roots. The key with this do, is to do it appropriately. Overchanging your water can be just as bad as under changing it.

So how do you change the water correctly? While different systems will run through water reservoirs and systems differently, and evaporate differently as a result, you can tweak your routine from this rule of thumb: When the water reservoir is visibly lower, add your treated, clean water to top it up, but keep a log of the amount. You’ll typically need to top up your water every few days or less. When the amount you’ve added reaches half the total amount of your reservoir capacity, drain half the water currently in the reservoir and replace it with fresh water.

Why should you be careful of overchanging your water? Because it can stress the plants and result in dramatic fluctuations in pH and nutrient levels.

You might be interested in:

How often should you change your hydroponic water?

Do monitor your system

Testing and monitoring your system isn’t just good practice, it alerts you of any water quality issues. That means if you read a sudden spike or drop in pH or nutrient levels, you can correct the problem before it negatively affects your plants. Daily pH and EC level tests will go a long way in preventing water quality issues.

How can you test and monitor your solution? There are plenty of options, so there’s no excuse not to do it. For pH testing, you can use strips or drop testing kits that grade pH in colors that you then compare to a chart included with the tests. Or, if you want to get a little techy, you can buy a digital pH monitor that you simply place into the water for a pH reading.

For testing nutrient levels, you’re actually testing the salt content (ion concentration) in the water that results from adding nutrients, and from evaporation that causes them to become more concentrated. The most common method of monitoring nutrient concentration is EC testing. EC, or electrical conductivity, raises and lowers with the level of nutrients (and their resultant salts), so you can use it as a measure to determine your nutrient concentration.

Like pH testing, you have a lot of options for how you test. The main ways to test also mirror those of pH testing. Because you have to test again and again, you may choose the route of most convenience: a combination testing meter that tests both pH and EC.

Yes, the ideal levels for pH and EC vary from plant to plant and across the various growing stages. Just for reference, the typical ideal levels are:

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EC: Between 1.2 and 2.0

PH: Between 5.5 and 6.5

You might be interested in:

How to monitor your pH levels (Complete Guide)

Do make sure you understand your nutrient solution

Nutrient solutions can be either hand mixed or bought as a ready for sale mix. Either one is fine to use, but you need to understand some things about nutrient solution before you grab the first nutrient mix that catches your eye.

Different plants have different nutrient requirements to grow their best. You’ll see many nutrient solution mixes that are sold as just general ‘plant food,’ or that claim to be safe for all plants. While they may not destroy your plants, they may not be giving you the most growth for your dollar either. Hydroponic fertilizers are specifically designed to work with these systems, and the plants therein. They’re either sold as liquid concentrates or granules.

For the sake of simplicity (and to avoid the rabbit hole that can come from a very long talk about all nutrients and manual mixing), we’ll focus on NPK nutrients. NPK stands for N- Nitrogen, P- Phosphorus, and K- Potassium. These are the three main nutrients that plants need that they cannot obtain from water and oxygen. When you pick out your hydroponic nutrient solution you’ll see three numbers on the front.

You see a lot of different number combinations here, and it can get confusing quickly. Because plants need certain nutrient concentrations depending not only on the type of plant, but also the growing stage, there’s a lot of choice. Here are the basics of what you need to know:

The first number shows Nitrogen concentration, the second shows Phosphorous, and the third shows Potassium. The number shown indicates the percentage of the solution that is made up from said nutrient.  The growing stage of your plants will have the greatest impact on the NPK ratios you need. Thankfully, most hydroponic fertilizers come labeled with their best use, so it’ll be easy to find the one you need.

Here’s another important thing (and a big don’t of hydroponics) to remember:

Don’t use regular fertilizer in your hydroponic system. Ever.

Why not? First, the fertilizer you get from the garden and hardware store is not going to dilute properly when it’s pumped through your system. Not only that, you can be doing serious damage to your system and equipment. Regular fertilizer can clog up your system and cause an even bigger nutrient delivery issue. It seems like a small thing now, but in the end it’ll be a pretty big deal if you destroy your equipment over a hasty fertilizer purchase.

Related reading

Can you use miracle-gro in a hydroponics system?

Don’t overplant

It’s easy to get excited and get carried away with planting, especially when you’re setting up a new system. In the excitement, you might end up with more plants than your system can sustain. Not only that, even if your system can handle the nutrient flow issues, the plants might not be able to handle the crowding. Yes, hydroponic systems can be much more space efficient that soil gardening, but that’s not an excuse to overfill your grow tray.

There are a ton of reasons that having too many plants can wreak havoc, but when it comes down to it, it’s just plain bad for the plants from top to bottom. First, you’re going to have issues with providing sufficient light to all your plants. When they’re crowded and leaves overlap too much, that’s just taking away from the covered plants that need as much exposed leaf area to absorb light as possible. Then, you’ll have to worry about roots tangling and creating blocks to critical nutrients which then, as you can guess, leads to dead or dying plants.

When you overplant, you also get yourself into situations where you may be mixing incompatible plants. While many plant types grow suitably well next to each other, you’re going to run into a problem if they have conflicting pH and nutrient ratio needs.

For example: if you’re growing mint (with a pH tolerance from 7.0 to 8.0) alongside sweet potatoes (with a pH tolerance from 4.5 to 6.0), you won’t be able to meet suitable pH levels for both, and one of the plants will suffer as a result.

Don’t neglect the growing environment

Beyond lighting, you need to pay special attention to your growing area. That means you can’t always rely on ambient temperature and humidity levels to fit the bill. Since you’ll have taken care of one of the first do’s (taking care of lighting), it won’t be a whole lot of extra work to maintain temperature, depending on your lights and how much heat they give off. Likewise, the humidity shouldn’t require too much work because, yes it’s a hydroponic system and you’ll be producing heat to maintain the needs of your plants.

While plants are going to have specific needs, the best ranges for humidity and temperature in hydroponics are:

Humidity: 40% to 70%, with 50% being optimal

Temperature: 65 to about 80 degrees, with most plants comfortable at about 77 degrees

You don’t need the fabled thermostat detector found in the minds of dads everywhere, but you do need to monitor the temperature regularly. For most growers (with plants that aren’t excessively sensitive to small temperature changes), that’s as easy as installing a thermometer or two in their growing area. Just check it once or twice daily to ensure temperature are in the appropriate range for your plants.  If you’re struggling to keep the temperature up, a small space heater can be used as long as it isn’t too close to the plants and circulates heat evenly.

At night, it’s ideal to give your plants a lower temperature, just like they’d experience if grown outside in soil. You should aim to reduce the temperature by about 10 degrees for 12 hours at night.

To monitor your humidity, you can purchase a hydrometer. Alternatively, you can invest in a combination thermometer/hygrometer device. And increasing humidity in your growing area is no big deal either. In most situations you can use a cheap room humidifier, and that’ll be enough. 

You also need to make sure your growing area gets plenty of ventilation. Ventilation not only helps prevent mold and fungi, but it also helps strengthen plant stems by causing gentle movement. Just as plants would strengthen through growing to resist the wind outside, they grow stronger with a little ventilated adversity. Really, an oscillating fan will do the trick for most systems.

Don’t put in unsuitable plants

Okay, most plants actually grow very well in hydroponic systems regardless of their sensitivity to and preference for certain conditions. But sometimes, there are plants that just plain aren’t going to work. Or they don’t work with the specifics of your system, available resources, or experience level. Don’t be stubborn about this one, either. Most plant species have variations that are more suited to hydroponic growth if the main species isn’t. For example: trees. No, you cannot grow a full size tree in a hydroponic system, nor should you try to. In this example, there are dwarf species that actually can be grown hydroponically. So be prepared to compromise.

Related reading

Can you grow Avocado in a hydroponics system?

Can Trees be grown hydroponically?

This don’t actually goes hand in hand with not over planting. Really, it’s about plants that fit your system, and fit well together.

Which means:

Don’t ignore your plants

Hydroponic systems offer a lot of advantages over soil gardening, but reduced plant maintenance isn’t one of them. Many a novice hydroponic gardener has had unhealthy or failing plants as a result of neglecting routine plant care. So that means you can’t let them run amok. You still need to trim and prune your plants. Remove dead leaves, stems, and flowers, cutting right below the head. When you need to remove stems, cut right before leaf nodes, and cut as close as you can to the main trunk when removing larger stems.

You also need to routinely observe your plants for any signs of distress, illness, or infection. If you’re doing it regularly, you’ll be able to catch potential problems before they destroy your plants and you won’t have to spend nearly as much time doing more in depth observations and later problem solving.

So how do you look for problems, and what are you actually looking for when you do?

Try and do a methodical observation. Whether observe then top down or bottom up, be consistent and systematic. Most people start at the roots, but whichever you choose is fine. For the purposes of this example, we’ll start there. Make sure the roots aren’t strangling each other, first of all. Then, make sure you don’t see abnormal discoloration or dry, withered spots on the roots. Roots are most susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections, so make sure you don’t see any signs (visible fungi, fuzzy appearance) beginning on the roots. Healthy roots are a pearly white color; discoloration is often a sign of impending issues like root rot.

Then, inspect the stems. Does the stem look thinner or weaker in some spots? Is the color uniform? Look for inconsistency in the stem thickness and coloring.

Now to the leaves. Leaves are often the first thing growers notice when plants aren’t doing well. Make sure you look at the leaves of all your plants. Don’t just inspect one plant, see that it’s healthy, and call it a day. Check the leaves for drooping, discoloration, dryness, visible lesions, and abnormal curling.

Any of the above mentioned symptoms can indicate much larger problems, so you need to take steps to figure the cause and correct it as quickly as possible. 

You might also be interested in:

Why is my hydroponic lettuce bitter?

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How to Test The pH Of Water (Complete Guide)

When hydroponic growers first begin running their systems, there is one aspect that is so very often overlooked. This is the importance of the pH level of the water and nutrient solution. If this isn’t around the ideal levels, it can have a dramatic impact on your plants. The most significant thing with a solution pH is it can go up as well as down rather than only in one direction.

If this wasn’t enough, some plants require different levels, so setting the pH to one level can cause harm so some plants if they’re fed from the same reservoir.

Here, we will take a look at all you need to know about the pH of water, how you can adequately test it, track it, and control it for the benefit of your plants.

Understanding a Hydroponics Systems pH Levels

An Introduction to pH

What is it, and why is it so crucial in hydroponics? The meaning for the term pH means Potential Hydrogen, and it is one of the most essential parts leading to healthy plant growth.

All types of water have a different pH level. Tap water to bottled water and water in your system will all vary. When we measure this, there is a scale which reads from 0 – 14, and zero being the most acidic while at the other end of the range, 14 is the most alkaline.

Neutral levels are found at number 7, and this like our body is the region which plants thrive best. With this being said, there are a few plants which prefer a pH level slightly outside the range we consider neutral.

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When we look at what this means for our systems, the ideal or standard pH for plants to thrive is under a neutral level, roughly around 5.5 and 6.5. But, there are a few plants that like the other side of the scale and grow best in the region of 8.

When the pH level is correct, it allows plants to absorb all of the essential micro, and macronutrients they need through their root system. Additionally, it is in this ideal range when there are higher uptake levels of the all-important NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) which maximizes plants growing ability.

Understanding the pH Levels of the Plants You are Growing

Plants which are grown in the soil, grow equally well in soils that have varying pH levels and will range from around 6 (slightly acidic) to 7 (neutral). In a hydroponic system in most cases, plants need pH levels which are a little under the recommended for soil.

Here is a list of ideal hydroponic pH levels for a range of plants:

PlantIdeal pH range
Asparagus6.0- 8.0
Broad Bean6.0-6.5
Brussel Sprouts6.5
Chili peppers5.5-6.5

This list is by no means extensive and these are indicative of the levels required.

Testing and Measuring the pH of your Hydroponic Nutrient Solution

If you are a new grower, you will need a daily check of your solution to check the pH levels. After a while, you will come to understand your system and how all of the nutrient concentrations and water type you are using will affect the levels.

Before heading off with testing methods, it is essential to know the effect that different water types can have on a hydroponic system, and why many growers decide to use reverse osmosis water rather than tap water.

EC levels are the amount of conductivity the nutrient solution can have, or in simple terms, the amount of electricity that can pass through the solution. EC is dictated by the salt levels that are in a solution. EC though doesn’t tell you what salts are in your mix, and hence the reason for growers using reverse osmosis water. They want a clean slate where to begin so there is no guessing.

Once they have this water, they can take their nutrient bottles, and will then know precisely what will be in their solution. A point to note here is, never purchase nutrients that don’t come with a guaranteed analysis, or they are from a highly reputable company. All too often cheap nutrients can cause more harm than good to your plants.

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By using good water, the levels of pH will require less adjusting, and by doing so will give less shock to your plants. Now, you can either decide to use reverse osmosis water from the beginning, or you can adjust the EC levels and then focus on your pH levels.

Ways of Measuring pH Levels in Hydroponic Systems

There are three ways in which you can measure your pH levels in your system. Here is an overview of methods available.

Litmus Test Strips

The simplest way is by means of litmus paper strips. Litmus paper contains a dye which is sensitive to the liquid it is dipped into.

In this case, it would be a sample of your nutrient solution. Once you have this sample and you have dipped your strip, you wait until the color changes, and this is then compared to a chart which shows the pH level.

Although this method is the cheapest, it isn’t the most reliable. Some of the colors for the different levels are very close, and comparing a small squab can leave you guessing at which one it is. For some plants, this approximate measure of the difference in pH might not be significant, but for others it can leave your plant battling for survival!

For a quick means of testing, they are handy to keep close to your growing area, but shouldn’t be relied on.

Liquid pH Testing Kits for Hydroponics

This liquid pH testing kits cost slightly more than their litmus counterparts, but with this price increase, there is more accuracy. This form of testing is commonly found for people who have swimming pools, so the process has been well tested over the years.

The way you perform this test is to take a sample of your nutrient mix, and then place a few drops of sensitive dye into the container. After a short while, the color changes and is then compared to a chart representing the pH levels similar to the first method.

Like the first option, there are drawbacks and the most significant being the color shades can be hard to detect and interpret. Both these tests should be carried out in good lighting conditions so as not to affect reading the colors.

Testing Hydroponic pH Levels with an Electric Meter

The final option is the most expensive, but it does give exact results without growers misinterpreting the reading of a color chart. These electronic pH testing meters vary in design, size, and price. One of the most common varieties is a digital pH pen. Once this is placed in the sample of the nutrient mix, it will give a digital reading of the exact level.

Although these are precise in their readings, this can vary over time, and they do need calibrating on a regular basis. In some cases, this can be weekly. This might seem to be a little overkill for some growers, but when it can be the difference between healthy plants, and ones which are suffering from a nutrient lockout, it can be a chore worth doing.

What you Need for Calibrating a pH Pen

There are two forms of calibration for these pens. One is digital, and the second being ones which can be manually calibrated. We will run through calibration of both, and first off is the equipment you will need:

  • Your pH Pen
  • Calibration solutions: One at pH 4, pH 7 and pH 10
  • Distilled water
  • Small measuring cups
  • Gloves
  • A small screwdriver will be required if you have a manually calibrated pH Pen

Digital pH Pen Calibration

Many of the pens use similar methods for calibration, so these steps will more than likely suffice for whatever digital pen you have.

  1. While wearing gloves, pour a small amount of the calibration liquid into separate measuring cups (solution must be room temperature). Now you will have one for 4, 7 and the third for pH 10. This solution should be as fresh as possible, so when purchasing, refrain from thinking a large bottle is leading to a cost saving.
  2. Before commencing, ensure the pens probe is clean, (Refer to cleaning pH pen section).
  3. Check the pens instructions for performing the test on the pH 4 solution. Most pens have a guide marker where you should submerge the pen too, when it as at this level, gently swirl it in the solution.
  4. Rinse the probe with distilled water, and then test on the two higher pH solutions.
  5. Not all pens require a 3-step test, but the more calibration points, the more accurate your pen will be.

Calibrating a Manual pH Pen

Although it might sound harder to calibrate your pH device by using a screwdriver, the process is straightforward. The actual testing phase is exactly the same, and all you do with the screwdriver is adjust the dial to match up with the pH.

Again, the more often you perform this calibration, the more accurate the results you will obtain. For anyone with an average sized garden, a period of between 2 to 3 feeds should be okay for pen calibration.

Cleaning of a pH Pen

Before use and in between calibration tests, the probe on the device needs to be clean. For 15 minutes before you conduct your solution testing, the electrode needs to be soaked in a buffering solution. If you have none of this solution, refrain from using any other water, because even distilled can erode the glass membrane.

If your pens electrode has been allowed to dry, you must soak it in the storage solution or a cup of pH 7 buffer solution before performing your testing. If the pen has been in storage, gently shake it up and down to disperse any bubbles which may have formed.

Keeping the electrode clean is one way not to affect the operation of the device. You should never wipe the electrode because this can affect any static charge in the device. Gently blot the device and bulb with lint-free paper. You should also be sure to never touch the bulb with your fingers, if you don’t damage the device probe, you can leave behind a residue that will stop the device from giving accurate results.

Some devices need storing in a recommended storage solution. These can be purchased, and when the device is stored and cleaned as instructed, they will deliver fast and accurate results.

pH Levels of Different Hydroponic Systems

Now we have seen the equipment you can use to test your solution, and how you need to calibrate your device. We will take a look at how different systems can have different pH levels. NFT is straightforward because the solution is in direct contact with the roots.

If you have a media based system, the readings can be a little more intense. Two readings need to be taken, one from your reservoir, and the second from the runoff solution (the leachate). If you have large plants, then there will be a difference in this before and after scenario. When you come to adjust your solution, you need to base the adjustments to your reservoir based on the pH of the leachate solution. This adjustment is required because it will be the level of PH your plants will be experiencing rather than the pH which is in the reservoir.

Adjusting Hydroponic pH Levels

There are a few reasons why your pH levels will rise or fall, and luckily, it can be quite easy to fix them. One of the easiest ways to avoid any spikes or drops in levels is to make sure your nutrient solutions contain pH buffers.

Many of the nutrient suppliers will also offer solutions which can raise or lower pH levels as required. One of the most well-used is pH UP and pH Down from General Hydroponics. When using these, it is crucial to follow the recommended doses, and in relation to how close to the desired levels your solution is when you test.

If your pH levels swing too far in either direction, plants can suffer from the nutrient lockout, so it is vital to regularly test these levels until you have a better understanding. When it comes to making these adjustments, there are only a few steps involved:

  1. Depending on your reading – add 1-2 ml of pH Up or pH Down per gallon of water.
  2. Stir your solution and wait for 30-minutes before testing your solution a second time
  3. Repeat as necessary until you reach the desired range for your plants

Your pH levels will change when you add nutrients, so you should always test once these have been added to a fresh tank. Apart from that, it is advisable to check around the same time on each day. There are a couple of natural methods to adjust pH if you are out of any pH Up or pH Down. These are a short term fix and should only be used if it is absolutely necessary.

Citric acid or white vinegar can be used to lower pH, while baking soda can be used to raise your pH levels.

Maintaining pH Levels in Hydroponic Systems

To finish off, here is a quick recap of how you can maintain your pH levels:

  • Check levels on a daily basis until you understand your system. After this, and you gain experience, once or twice per week might be enough.
  • Use the best testing kit you can. Litmus strips are best used for quick periodic testing.
  • If you see your pH levels are between 5.8 – 6.5, don’t be tempted to adjust anything. This is ideal for the majority of plants.
  • If your solution is too high then lower it with pH Down (phosphoric acid).
  • If the level is too low, then raise it with pH UP (potassium hydroxide).
  • Don’t rush for a quick fix to your pH levels, too much too quickly will shock your plants.
  • Keep records of how much solution you add to your tank.

Depending on where you live and are using tap water, you might not require too much adjustment, but for hard water areas, the change can be more significant.

Overdosing with either of these pH adjusters or nutrients can be harmful to your plants. Additionally, if your solution levels drop in your tank, then the pH levels will be changing at the same time. Much can be said if you are topping your tank with water, again your levels will vary.

Understanding pH levels is one of the best skills any hydroponic grower should take the time to learn.

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How to Prevent and Treat Root Rot in Hydroponics

Many problems face hydroponic growers at different stages, and one of the most common can go undetected for a while and can cause severe amounts of damage to plants.

Root rot is a disease that can affect every single grower, and the symptoms can lead us all to think it is a deficiency in another area. Plants can begin wilting or showing signs of nutrient burn, or they might die altogether. There are many reasons these symptoms can happen from lighting, pests nutrients or feeding cycles, but in the end, it is a case of root rot.

Once we gain some experience, and if our plants have suffered from root rot, it’s a thing we always know to look out for. But, if we are unaware of what to look for, there is no way we’ll know how to prevent it, and how we can treat root rot in our hydroponic systems.

What Causes Root Rot in Hydroponics?

Root rot can affect plants in different ways. This will depend on if they are a flowering type, or they are crops such as lettuce or herbs. You will see plants can have symptoms such as curling leaves in an upward or downward direction, plants have slow growth, or there is yellowing in the leaves.

One of the reasons that makes root rot hard to detect can be that, it might be affecting all of your plants at the same time. All plants can suffer from stunted growth at the same time, so it might appear there is another problem.

The primary cause for root rot is insufficient levels of oxygen reaching your plant’s root systems. This is more often found in Deep Water Culture systems or systems where roots are exposed to water for extended periods.

You can quickly see if there is a problem by lifting your tank lid and see if it smells funny, this is a clear sign you have root rot in your system. Next, you can look at your plant’s roots. Some roots can become tinted from the nutrients they are absorbing, but if they appear to be brown and slimy, then this is a clear sign root rot has already set in.

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It might sound like a simple problem to overcome. Monitoring your water levels and making sure there is plenty of air won’t be enough, because at this stage, something else will most likely be occurring.

Mold and pathogens such as Pythium and Phytophthora are water molds which can attack plants when the conditions are right. Nutrient solutions which are too warm produce the ideal conditions for these molds to grow, and they will rapidly infect all your system.

The spores of Pythium and Phytophthora become immobilized and can survive for several months. They take up home in the dying roots and are dispersed via reused growing media, polluted water or a system which has become contaminated. Even other equipment or things you handle can be enough to reintroduce these spores back into a clean system.

Either during this stage, or the first stages of root rot, a coating of slime will form around the roots. This barrier is strong enough to prevent any oxygen from reaching the roots, and it is this that allows these pathogens to worm their way in and smother any part of the root system.

Treating Root Rot in a Hydroponics System

A lot of what you can do to treat root rot will be the same as what you can carry out for prevention. But, there are a couple of things you can do to immediately tackle the problem is there are only a few plants which are infected.

If plant leaves are showing signs of dead matter, all this should be removed and discarded away from your growing room. You can remove your plants and physically clean the root system. If you do this over a sink, you can remove anything that is dead or slimy from the roots.

The next stage is to soak the root bed in a sterilizing agent up to a maximum of 12 hours. One product which is ideal for this is Physan 20. It should be noted, this product doesn’t know the difference between bad bacteria or good bacteria. This can also be an excellent time to begin sterilizing any growing equipment you have.

The addition of root builders can also be beneficial in helping roots grow stronger. These are packed full of good bacteria and help to aerate your nutrient solution. Many growers also use this as an addition to their regular feeding schedule as a way to boost plant growth and claim impressive results.

One other type of compound which can be added are microbial inoculant mixtures, these also help with new growth in the rooting system, and also aid in the eradication of diseases. The bacteria in these lead to the breakdown of what is causing the root rot.

Both the root builders or the microbial inoculants can be added as a prevention rather than a cure. However, these methods should not be relied on as the overall way of preventing root rot, this will come down to many other factors which will need your attention.

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If you are looking for a natural remedy for root rot rather than using any of the above chemicals. The following natural recipe was devised by Heisenberg, who is a member of the rollitup forum. The following methods help breed beneficial microbes in DWC systems.

The following recipe needs to be added after you have performed the previous root sterilization, and system clean with Physan 20. This formulation isn’t added directly to your nutrient solution but formulated as a tea, which you then add as required. To make this tea, you do need to purchase a few ingredients, some of which are discontinued so we will provide alternatives.

Hydroguard or any solution that contains the bacteria Bacillus genus can be used. Hydroguard has plenty of good reviews, but the Hydroguard solution requires use within six months of opening, so it is better to order the smallest bottle required.

Great White comes from the same company as the root builder specified above, it delivers explosive root growth and contains mycorrhizal fungus that is well suited for a variety of plants.

Ancient Forest consists of 100% pure forest humus and contains a high diversity of microorganisms. This can be replaced by any earthworm casting product, but this is produced by General Hydroponics who are well renowned for superior products.

Before proceeding with the formula, there was an edit to the post. Both the Hydroguard and the Great White solutions can be replaced by Mycogrow soluble as a cheaper alternative.

Heisenberg Natural Formula Steps (Edited)

  1. Add 2 gallons of non-chlorinated water to a clean bucket, and add two air stones. For this to be effective, you need as much air as possible.
  2. Now, add 15-30ml of Hydroguard and about 1/4 to 1/2 scoop of the Great White powder (these are approximate, just don’t go overboard).
  3. Take an old pair of stockings or pantyhose and place 2 handfuls of Ancient Forest (or EWC alternative) inside.
  4. Tie off and place over one of the air stones in the solution. You can also put one air stone inside the stocking to give more stimulation. This method is more straightforward than straining two gallons of tea if you add the Ancient Forest directly to the bucket.
  5. Add one tablespoon of molasses. This wakes the microbes and gives them something to eat. Never add molasses to your nutrient tank. The beneficial bacteria will die in the tank due to starvation, but you will be replacing these, so it is okay.
  6. Let your tea solution bubble for 48-hours at room temperature. You can use it after 24, but it is more effective at 48. If you are using EWC, the water will foam, this is normal.
  7. After 48 hours, you can store your tea in the refrigerator where it can stay fresh for up to 10 days. If it begins to go bad, you can smell a bad odor. If you smell anything like rotting or sweaty socks, throw it away and make a new batch. Your fresh tea can smell of earth or slightly mushroomy.
  8. To start, add 1 cup to your nutrient tank for every gallon of water.
  9. Add 1 cup to the tank at 3-day intervals.
  10. You can drizzle a little of the tea at the base of your plant stalks. This helps inoculate the root crown (plant dependent). The solution can become cloudy, but your roots will remain white and highly stimulated.

When you multiply microbes with this method, your products will last longer. Once you have ridden your roots of slime build-up from root rot, you can add 1 cup for every 10 gallons at one-week intervals to help prevent future outbreaks.

Prevention of Root Rot in Your Hydroponic Systems

As we can see from the above information, root rot is a culmination of different elements and organisms. Before looking at how we can prevent root rot in your systems, here is a quick recap of the factors which can lead to its appearance:

  • Dead or decaying matter in the reservoir – any dead leaves can start something terrible.
  • Lack of oxygen – Once water becomes stationary, it becomes stagnant, and there is no oxygen passing to your roots.
  • Heat – Warm nutrient solutions make it easy for bacteria to reproduce. A cool reservoir makes it harder for bacteria and fungi to survive.
  • Agitating young roots: When roots are young, they need a chance to build up their defenses. Moving them will weaken these and expose them to pathogens that can quickly attack.
  • Light leaking into the reservoir – This can be a boost to any unwanted growths.

Solutions to Prevent Root Rot

To not only get rid of but to also prevent root rot, you need to take a two-pronged approach. This includes:

  1. Directly treating the plant’s roots – same as above in treating against root rot.
  2. Changing your plant’s environment – changing how plants are growing, so root rot is unable to.

Some of the following procedures will be the same as the treatment steps above but are crucial steps nonetheless.

Adding Beneficial Root Bacteria

As prevention, these beneficial bacteria can be added throughout your plant’s growth. Once mixed with the water, they are a handy way of preventing and treating root-related diseases while making sure nutrients are available to your plants. Subculture B, Rooters and Piranha being alternatives to the preferred formula Hydroguard.

The one bacteria that is most beneficial is Bacillus Amyloliquefaciens because it will survive better in reservoirs than other forms of Bacillus bacteria while fighting a vast number of root ailments.

Plenty of Bubbles

Because lack of oxygen in your system is the primary cause of root rot, it is essential to make sure you have plenty of bubbles. If everything appears to be okay in your system, and you are still showing symptoms, it might mean you need a secondary air pump, or a larger unit altogether.

Root rot can’t thrive in an oxygenated environment, but, it is also crucial to make sure your roots are not being overly disturbed. You can never have too much oxygen in your water, so finding the ideal position for your pump will bring nothing but benefits. You can find some air pumps with dual outlets. These can either be placed in separate tanks or different locations to maintain healthy air flow.

One pro tip is to make sure your hoses are black so no light can penetrate.

A Cool Grow Room

It is essential your growing area is under 80F with the ideal being under 75F if possible. This is the easiest way you can lower your reservoir temperature without the use of a chiller unit. The warmer solutions become, the less dissolved oxygen they can retain, and then can’t pass the highest oxygen amounts to your plants.

Using one of the supplements mentioned, you can let you run your system a few degrees warmer, but it is far better to try and maintain around the optimal 72F for your water.

Being Clean and Sterile

Any dead leaves or debris that find their way into your reservoir will become a breeding ground for bacteria. Cleanliness extends way beyond your reservoir and includes all of your growing areas. One bit of advice is to thoroughly clean all of your growing tools either in between growing periods or on a routine basis. Hydrogen peroxide only delivers a temporary solution. Anything stronger and you need to make sure it doesn’t find its way to your system.

When you have a regular cleaning routine, this goes a long way to letting any pathogens survive in your growing area and hydroponic system.

Stop Disturbing Roots

With the way a hydroponic system works, it is essential for you to change your water on a regular basis. When you do this, you can disturb the rooting systems. In the later stages of plant growth (flowering stage), these become sensitive to pH and nutrients. Changing water between one week and ten days helps plants access nutrients easier.

What is crucial is do not disturb plants when they are seedlings or clones and are trying to become established in your system. At this stage, they lack a colony of beneficial bacteria and have not developed their own biofilm which helps protect their roots against pathogens.

If you are in need of changing a full reservoir, this can severely upset the balance, and young roots might find they have to start again from scratch.

During the first few weeks of a plants growth (plant dependent), it is advisable to only top the reservoir up with additional nutrient water before making a full change and system flush. It is, for this reason, it is a continual struggle against root rot.

Prevent Light Entering Your Reservoir

As much as harmful bacteria and organisms love the light, roots hate it in equal amounts (think air pruning). If you are using grow lights, this problem is worsened because you are giving everything these bacteria need to thrive.

DWC reservoirs are kept in almost pitch black by a lot of hydroponic growers. To be sure you have a reservoir which is capable of fending off any light, there are a few things you can do to help.

  • Use black tubing – This stops light leaks which might not be obvious.
  • Reflective coverings – Your reservoir lid could be getting warm from your grow lights if it is dark in color. However, using a reflective material can prevent heat seeping through the cover and warming your reservoir interior.
  • Reservoir construction – there are many reservoirs which have a thin wall construction. The thicker you can get the better because these are less likely to let any light soak through.
  • Taping light leaks – light can get in all sorts of cracks and gaps. Be sure to tape these with thick tape that will prevent light seepage.
  • Net pot light seepage – you can cover the tops of net pots to prevent light soaking through the growing media. Net pot covers are a quick and easy way to avoid this.
  • Black tubing – dark tubes can prevent light exposure to your reservoir. This often goes unnoticed.


There are plenty of hydroponic growers who throw in the towel if they find out they have root rot, and get rid of all their plants and start again. However, not all occasions require anything this drastic, and the same problem can occur if there are no preventative measures in place.

It can be more beneficial to get root rot and save your plants, because this way, you will know the symptoms, and best of all, you will know how to tackle the problems. There will be occasions when you can’t save your plants, but when you know there is something you can do, it will reduce the chances of losing any crops at a later date.

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The Critical Differences Between Aeroponics and Hydroponics

New trends have risen among innovative gardeners, hydroponics and aeroponics having been some of the biggest uptakes in the industry. Like many uninitiated, you’re probably wondering what each involves and what the critical differences between aeroponics and hydroponics are. Many of the differences come from the method of delivering nutrients, applications, and growing medium (or lack thereof). It gets more confusing when you do a little research, only to find out that aeroponics is technically a type of hydroponics. So let’s take a look at what the difference is in regards to what people consider traditional hydroponics (ebb and flow, DWC, wick method, etc) and aeroponics.

The first big difference: Roots

Both hydroponics and aeroponics deal with growing plants without the traditional growing medium of soil. How the plants’ roots are situated determines how they receive nutrients (as you probably know if you know anything about plants). Just like you learned early in your first years of school, plants growing in the ground absorb nutrients from the soil.

So, because the plants don’t get nutrients from the soil, hydroponics and aeroponics systems have to deliver nutrients in another way. That also means that gardeners have to situate the roots in a way that allows nutrient absorption. Hydroponics systems more or less have the roots submerged into water (with or without a growing medium).  In aeroponic systems the roots are exposed and sprayed with a mist containing nutrients. 

How hydroponic systems deliver nutrients

Hydroponics systems deliver nutrients via the water in which plants are absorbed. Nutrient solutions are added to the system’s water reservoir and the plants then absorb nutrients and water when the water cycle floods the roots.

How aeroponics delivers nutrients

Aeroponics, naturally, also delivers nutrients through the water given to the plants but the format is very different. Plants are grown in a humid, fog like environment where continual or timed misting keeps the roots from drying out and supplies the nutrient solution.

Hydroponics and aeroponics require different set ups

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While it sounds like an obvious point, there are critical differences in how both of these systems need to be set up. Because the plants are receiving nutrients in different ways, care has to be taken to set the system up in a way that not only doesn’t kill the plants, but encourages healthy growth.

Back to the roots

Plant positioning may look similar in some set ups, if you don’t know what to look for. But don’t let that fool you. Hydroponics and aeroponics systems have plants positioned and secured to keep them stable and ensure nutrient delivery isn’t wasted.

Hydroponics systems often use a type of chemically inert growing medium (so it won’t affect water or nutrient concentrations negatively). This medium helps keep plants in place and deliver a more consistent flow of both moisture and nutrients. Plants are also sometimes grown in vertical towers where plants are secured.

Aeroponic systems have to have a way of securing plants while leaving roots stable but exposed. Often special aeroponics clips are used to achieve this and allow for more movement if you need to tweak your system later on. If clips aren’t used to secure plants, usually gardeners use foam sheets or boards that they’ve modified (adding holes or slats where needed).

To really illustrate the differences between the setups of these two systems, here’s a brief look at the basics of hydroponic and aeroponic systems:

The basics of a hydroponic setup

Hydroponic systems first have plants typically positioned in a growing tray. A water reservoir is kept nearby, and a fill line, tube, or wick goes from the reservoir to the grow tray. A pump located in the reservoir (if it’s a submersible pump) or connected outside of the reservoir (it it’s an inline pump) then powers water through the line and up to the grow tray.  An overflow drain then returns unused water back to the reservoir or tank.

The basics of an aeroponic system

Aeroponic systems are typically set up with roots hanging down (as is most natural for them anyway), positioned below a board or tray that secures the plants up top. The roots are often contained in a ‘basket’ that keeps them from tangling with other plants’ roots. Below the plants is the water/nutrient reservoir (although some gardeners choose a more complex setup where the reservoir is detached and water lines go across to reach plant roots).  A submersible water pump is housed in the reservoir and pushes the nutrient solution through to the nozzles. Special misting nozzles are used to make sure the roots get a fine mist, and not large droplets. Then, any water run off naturally drips back into the reservoir.

It is worth noting that because roots are never submerged, gardeners must make sure they have enough nozzles (and that they’re optimally positioned) to reach all areas of the roots:

Water supply and resources used

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Both aeroponics and hydroponics are known to be more efficient and less resource intensive than traditional soil gardening. But because they’re both such different systems, they use different amounts of resources. Some of this is because of their nutrient delivery, and some because of the needs of powering cycling and maintaining the system.

Hydroponics uses greater quantities of water to produce its water cycles. However, because water is reused to a certain extent, water waste is kept to a minimum. So if a gardener cycles every couple of hours, and has 50 gallons of water go through their system, that doesn’t mean all 50 gallons are then disposed of. At the same time, it still uses more water than an aeroponic system.

Aeroponic systems rely on a fine mist of water to maintain plant roots. While some setups do have more mist spraying, and at more frequent intervals, the water usage is lower than in a hydroponic system, though it may seem counter intuitive. You can kind of think of it like a shower (aeroponics) vs a bath (hydroponics). Aeroponics, like the shower in this example, uses less water over less time.


A common beginner mistake when setting up their alternative growing system often only comes to light after some use, when it’s already too late to make a change. So what is it? System maintenance. Once you’re growing, it’s going to be one of the most critical aspects of keeping your plants healthy (and alive!). Whether you grow using hydroponics or aeroponics, you need to perform regular system maintenance. This includes doing water and nutrient testing as well as cleaning the components of your system such as nozzles (in the case of aeroponics), your water reservoir, changing out growing medium (in the case of hydroponics), and much more.

The majority of your maintenance time will be spent on different aspects of your system depending on whether you choose hydroponics or aeroponics.

In hydroponics, you’ll have to do routine water changes and top offs. That means when the water in the reservoir becomes lower you’ll have to add in water, and do larger water changes every couple of weeks. Because water evaporation causes chemicals from the nutrient solution to become more concentrated, you’ll have to test the water to maintain pH and nutrient levels and ensure there isn’t too much solution in the water. Once your system is established, you can test less frequently, usually a couple times a week. The water reservoir, or tank, will also have to be regularly cleaned. In addition, any extra equipment like pumps and water lines, will have to be cleaned and inspected for damage and degradation regularly.

Aeroponic systems can have fluctuating levels of pH and nutrient solution as a result of their constant mist flow and you will have to test your solution more often as a result. While the frequency you test with will go down over time, you’ll still need to more often than in hydroponics. That means eventually you will still need to test several times a week.  Especially when an aeroponic system is newer, roots need to be inspected frequently to ensure they aren’t drying out. If roots seem dry or withered, that means you’ll have to adjust the spraying cycles. Aeroponic systems also need special attention to the nozzles that supply the mist. They can frequently become clogged with scaling or mineral deposits and need to be inspected and cleaned regularly to avoid a clog that prevents roots from getting sprayed.

They’re measured differently

Well, kind of. First of all, the pumps are measured differently. If you’re looking into equipment for a home set up, you’ll quickly see a ton of different abbreviations: GPH, PSI, HP. So what does it mean and why does it matter? These units all determine how much water your pump will move through your system.

In hydroponics, pumps are typically graded in GPH, or gallons per hour. This is a measure of again, how much water will move through your system in a cycle. In some cases, hydroponic pumps are graded in HP, or horsepower. Pumps that grade in HP are inline type, and used more for larger systems.

Aeroponic pumps are graded in PSI units. PSI stands for, pounds per square inch, which is a unit that measures the amount of pressure exerted. Because aeroponics doesn’t ‘flow’ water through the system and instead uses pressure to produce water in mist form, using gallons per hour as a measurement wouldn’t make sense. The amount of PSI the pump can produce, in addition to the nozzle, determine the droplet size. The most common droplet size for household aeroponic systems is 30 to 80 microns.

Differences in cycling

Both aeroponic and hydroponic systems have to use a means of regulating how nutrients are provided to plants, and the biggest way this occurs is through timed cycling. So how do these different systems cycle?

Hydroponic water cycling

Hydroponic systems have water cycles that basically measure the time it takes for the grow tray to fill with water and subsequently go through a gradual draining. A typical cycling time is about 1 ½ to 2 hours, although it can vary a bit depending on the needs of the plants. The water cycle allows the plants ample time to absorb the nutrients they need, while also helping to provide the roots with oxygen thanks to the rotation of the water. When a growing medium is used, it helps retain oxygen and moisture in between cycles.

Aeroponic cycling

First, it should be said that not all aeroponic systems technically cycle. In a LPA system, or low pressure aeroponic system, sprinklers pretty much run constantly. A few smaller sprinkler heads simply spray the roots continuously. HPA systems, or high pressure aeroponic systems, do cycle. The point of cycling in a high pressure system is to keep the smaller droplets from forming larger droplets, that in turn make nutrient absorption more difficult for the roots. To prevent larger droplets, misting is done for 5 seconds or less, in intervals of about 5 minutes.  

Other differences to consider

So, while we’ve discussed the major differences between the two, there are some other differences between traditional hydroponics and aeroponics that are worth a mention.

Level of skill involved

While both hydroponics and aeroponics are great, eco friendly ways to grow plants, there is something to be said about the skill level involved in either of them. Hydroponic growing offers gardeners a wide variety of systems to choose from, and many people choose to construct their own at home, or even in the classroom. These DIY hydroponic systems can be very cost efficient and simple to assemble. After you know the basics, hydroponic gardening can be easily continued by any beginner.

Aeroponic systems require a little more technical ability, and a lot more in terms of properly setting up and maintaining them. Yes, beginners can grow aeroponically regardless of their skill level, but it’s going to take more work. Because of not only the equipment, but also the need to frequently test your nutrient solution, monitor your plants, and deal with any arising issue with the plants or equipment, it’s going to take some dedication. Not only that, aeroponic systems tend to be more costly, and which may cause hesitation among new growers. 

The types of systems

Okay, it’s true that aeroponics is a type of hydroponics. That being said, there are still some different kinds of systems and set ups you can use with each of them. Currently, traditional hydroponics offers more variety, but we’ll still take a look at the basics of some of their different system types.

Hydroponic system types

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In deep water culture system, plant roots are continuously submerged. Plants are typically placed on a board or tray that allows roots to hang beneath. The root are held in netted pots (typically also containing a growing medium) and hang directly into the nutrient solution. These systems are simple, but they do need an airstone in the reservoir to ensure plants don’t ‘drown’ without proper oxygenation.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

In NFT systems, like DWC systems, the roots are constantly in nutrient solution. However in NFT systems, the roots aren’t entirely submerged. They sit in and just above the growing channel, where nutrients are pumped and then flow across the channel because of a slight slope. Run off water goes back into the reservoir for reuse.


Wick systems are one of the simplest kinds of hydroponic system, and can even be used with or without a pump. Plants are arranged in a tray with growing medium, and situated directly above the nutrient solution. Then, a wick (typically made of a fiber that can absorb a lot of liquid) connects from the nutrient solution up to the growing medium. The growing mediums used need to be absorbent enough to work, so vermiculite and perlite are popular choices.


Drip systems employ a similar set up to many of the other systems, but in this case plants are given nutrients through a drip line. The plants are still placed in growing medium, but a drip line typically goes to each individual plant. Run off can either be ‘recovered’ (aka reused) or ‘non recovered’ (aka disposed of).

Aeroponic system types

Traditional aeroponic system

While aeroponics is an increasingly popular form of hydroponics, there’s still a typical set up that comes to mind with aeroponics. Plants are suspended to expose the roots while special nozzles spray intermittently using a very short burst. Droplets are generally in the size range of 30 to 80 microns.

Fogponic systems

Fogponics is a new take on aeroponics, although it’s set up in a very similar manner. In this case however, more specialized nozzles are required and may be positioned differently as fogponics also targets leaf nodes and stems. In these systems, the nutrient solution is delivered as vapor that reaches more areas of the plants. How? Basically, the droplets produced are so tiny (5 to 30 micrometers) that they qualify as vapor.

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What is the Best Fertilizer for Hydroponics?

As hydroponics grows without soil, plants miss out on a vast number of nutrients that are contained in the ground. This is where hydroponic nutrients come into play and are replacements for all of the micro and macronutrients that are found in soil. There are two types of fertilizers you can use, liquid or powdered, and these can come in organic or non-organic varieties. Here we will take a quick look at which one is the best, and also the possibility of making your own instead of buying.

What is the best fertilizer for hydroponics? The best fertilizer you can choose, needs to be one you are most comfortable with as a grower, and at the very least, the best fertilizer for hydroponics is one that delivers all of the micro and macronutrients at each phase of a plants growth.  

If you want to find out the best fertilizer choice you can make for your plants, or you want to find out whether to go organic or not, read on and all your questions will be answered.

What do Plants Need from Fertilizer to Grow?

Macro and Micro Nutrients

The three core macronutrients are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium (N-P-K), and these are absorbed in the most substantial quantities. Here is a quick breakdown of the role of each during plants growth:

  • N (Nitrogen): Responsible for leaf growth, Leaf color and providing proteins, amino acids, chlorophyll synthesis, and nucleic acid.
  • P (Phosphorus): This is responsible for the synthesis of plants RNA and DNA. It also dictates the proper development of Stems, flowers, roots, and seeds.
  • K (Potassium): The primary role is to synthesize proteins and carbohydrates, and in a smaller degree it helps develop stems, roots, and flowers.

Micronutrients are required for plant growth, albeit in smaller quantities than the above. These are Boron, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Sulfur and Zinc.

Fertilizer Types for Hydroponic Use

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Now we have seen what components plants need, we will take a look at powdered nutrients and the liquid type before taking a look at organic, and also how you can make your own.

Powdered Fertilizer

Although fertilizer in a powder form is customarily used in commercial scale hydroponics, there is nothing to prevent anyone from using these. One of the significant differences, when you compare them to liquid fertilizers, is, you are not paying for water to be shipped.

Powdered fertilizers come in different ratios for N-P-K, and the one you choose will depend on the plant types you are growing. An example being, the ratio will be very different for lettuce as it is for tomatoes.

With this aside, you will have three core mixes to fertilize your hydroponic system:

  1. N-P-K fertilizer mix
  2. Calcium Nitrate
  3. Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salts – never buy with added dye or scent)

Your plants and crops will be pulling oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon from the water and atmosphere, so there is little need for worrying about these apart from making sure your roots are not waterlogged.

The N-P-K primary nutrients will be provided by your first fertilizer, and are then followed by your secondary nutrients which are your calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. The magnesium and sulfur are supplemented by the Epsom salts.

After this, all you need to worry about will be the micronutrients, and rather than purchasing a system that will automatically add these, we suggest monitoring your plant’s growth and dealing with any deficiency as it arises.

With these components, you can mix them all together, or you can add them to your system one by one, but the crucial part is making sure they are all thoroughly dissolved. The quantities you are adding will be on the product packaging, as will the amount of Epsom salts which will be included.

Liquid Fertilizer

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For many home growers, it is well-known liquid fertilizers hold the edge slightly over powdered fertilizers. This can be for ease of use because it is much easier to measure out than figuring out the ratios of powders to add.

Liquid fertilizers come in 1-2 or 3 part solutions and depending on your plants, or the phase of their growth, the amount from each bottle will be changed. Along with this, there is no adding of additional supplements because everything is already included.

There are many brands on the market, and growers prefer one brand over another. This, of course, is down to the grower who has found the best liquid fertilizer for their use. Mixing is as easy as adding to water and stirring it before you add it to your nutrient reservoir, and on most occasions, the quantity is per gallon of water which makes it easier than needing a weighing scale.

An often overlooked benefit of liquid fertilizers is that there is less chance of residue build-up in piping or water trays within your system.

Out of these two, a lot of it depends on the scale of operation. Buying in bulk for commercial farms makes more sense, and they will be geared up to face the minor problems which come with using this type of formula. Liquid fertilizers for many are highly convenient and eliminate a lot of the issues. Many also come with pH level buffers so there won’t be as much need to adjust pH levels manually.

Now, we will take a look at if it is better to use organic fertilizers and lastly, how you can make your own. There is a massive debate if hydroponics can be entirely organic, but, leaving that aside, you need to see what using organic fertilizers means for you, and how it affects plant growth.

Organic Fertilizers for Hydroponics

Although nutrients can be organic, it is difficult to get a full range of nutrients from one source alone. It is common for growers to blend two or more fertilizers which are organic to reach the desired levels. Base products often come from a concentrated fish emulsion that is then combined with liquid calcium. After this, there is the chance a source of organic nitrogen might be required.

The most significant downside of using organic nutrients in hydroponics, is that it can be difficult to reach high enough levels of nitrogen and calcium. What happens is that the systems rely on microbes which are found in the root zone to convert organic compounds into nitrogen sources which are ideal for plants to use. In many cases, this process doesn’t happen fast enough for the nutrients to be taken up by the plants.

Although there are many commercial products available which are organic based, the most reliable method for smaller farmers is to use vermiculture (worm farming). It should be noted, plants are none the wiser where their nutrients came from, and if you use inorganic, or organic, they have no preference. Must of the debate about being organic is for the benefit of what we do to obtain the healthiest food possible.

Before Making Your Own Organic Fertilizer for Hydroponics

The best process a grower can use is as we have just seen, vermiculture. This is a highly effective way of processing raw materials into solutions that are fit for use in a hydroponic system. Materials such as manure, blood and bone, seaweed meal, fish meal, and limestone can all be mineralized.

The vermiculture process relies on two components. The vermicast process must be carried out all the way to completion, and then from this, all of the goodness needs to be extracted into water. Growers can purchases worm juices, but, many of these are already diluted and not balanced to use as a standalone solution.

Although many food scraps, weeds, and vegetation can be used, these end up containing lower levels of the nutrient than liquids being produced from high-mineral sources such as the fish blood and bone meal. Another area which causes problems is that of concentration because many organic solutions are not as concentrated as regular salt-based fertilizers. This can leave plants more vulnerable to disease while not growing vigorously.

Whilst this is fine for more experienced growers, who can detect nutrient deficiencies, and even then to adjust these, it might take the addition of further additives like humic and fulvic acid to aid in nutrient uptake.

DIY Organic Liquid Fertilizers

Here are two quick ways of producing organic nutrients for your hydroponic systems.

Worm or Compost Tea:

  1. In a 5-gallon bucket, place 1 pound of either compost or work castings.
  2. Fill the bucket with water and stir well.
  3. Aerate the mixture continuously. Aquarium air pumps are ideal for this.
  4. Sit the bucket out of direct sunlight for 3 days. Be sure to mix every day.
  5. Filter the liquid through a disposable filter to remove all of the solids.
  6. This compost or worm tea can act as your fertilizer.

Plant and Animal Byproducts

  1. In a 5-gallon bucket add one gallon of water.
  2. Add 1 1/2 tsp of fish emulsion
  3. Add 1 1/2 tsp of seaweed extract
  4. Add 1 tablespoon of blood meal
  5. Mix well and use as your fertilizer. Check for any sediment and filter is required.

Related Questions

Should I use Epsom Salts for hydroponics? Epsom salts are used to treat magnesium deficiencies, and not only for hydroponics. They are commonly used in soil based gardens also. Epsom salts consist of oxygen, sulfur, and magnesium (magnesium sulfate).

What is required for hydroponics? Aside from the N-P-K ratios, you need a consistent temperature between 50 -70 degrees for fall crops. Spring plants require 60 – 80 degrees. Additional oxygen is necessary for optimal nutrient uptake.

Can I use my hydroponic nutrients in the soil? Hydroponic nutrients will increase the potency of buds. Plants will also grow too fast. These shouldn’t be used in the soil as soil fertilizers shouldn’t be used in hydroponics.

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Why Hydroponics Fail: 8 Common Mistakes Growers Make

People enter the world of hydroponics for many different reasons, these can be for fun or profit, and in both avenues, it will pay to know what you are doing before you make any form of investment. Like any form of gardening, the more you do, the more knowledgeable you become and the better you are at knowing the requirements and complexities of growing plants in a soilless environment.

It does take an abundant amount of planning and research when starting, and by doing so, you can save on making several common, time-consuming and costly mistakes. These are unfortunately made over and over again by new growers.

Here we will take a look at the top 8 mistakes made by hydroponic growers, and hopefully, you can use this information to avoid making the same mistakes in your hydroponic venture.

Why do we focus on hydroponic mistakes and failures?

There is a learning curve when first starting out in hydroponics, and it is a curve many individuals might try and take shortcuts or rush, rather than taking their time and correctly doing things. We focus on these common mistakes because as humans, we learn more from errors and failures than we do if something is running successfully.

We can also take these mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn and improve our hydroponic systems, from the first beginnings to scaling up operations. There will still be hiccups along the way, but knowing what the most common areas for failure and mistakes, go a long way to making your hydroponic venture a success.

Mistake #1: Grow Space and Hard to Use Systems

Although a hydroponic system can be set up in almost any location, this is no reason to think any space is suitable. This is one thing which catches many growers out because they design systems which become hard to manage.

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When a system isn’t designed with the growing space in mind, things like workflow and efficiency are often forgotten. This leads to growing areas that:

  • Use space ineffectively
  • Are difficult to harvest
  • Can require lots of tending to and transplanting
  • Are not ideal for pest control
  • Access to vital components is difficult

These can vary if you are growing indoors or utilizing a greenhouse. However, all variables need considering before you build your system. This can fall into two categories, growing needs being one, and user needs being the second.

Growing needs

  • Lighting
  • Watering
  • Nutrients
  • Pest control
  • Heating & humidity

User needs

  • Access
  • Convenience
  • Automation
  • Redundancy

A prime example being growers who design systems in a basement. They have their nutrient reservoir sat at the side of their grow table, and when it comes to the time of flushing a system, they have no means of draining their reservoir without the use of a bucket.

Mistake #2: Underestimating System Build Costs

For home growers, a hydroponic system can be built for as little or as much as you want to spend on it. Underestimating these costs regardless of system size can leave growers out of budget, and with a system, they are unable to use.

Different system types do cost varying amounts of investment. Some systems can even be built without the need for purchasing certain production items and using products from local hardware stores. Grow towers and NFT systems being good examples.

Following on from mistake #1, it is better to fully design your system and calculate costs before you being installation.

Mistake #3: Choosing the Wrong Crops 

Thinking every crop will grow the same in every type of hydroponic system is one quick way to failure. Not only do all plants have different needs, but some also are not suitable for specific environments. Growing indoors, or outside in a greenhouse or other growing space will have a distinct bearing on this, but, there are three quick questions to ask yourself before purchasing any seeds to grow in your systems:

  1. Are you facing any climate constraints?
  2. What are your growing techniques?
  3. Can you grow the desired crops with your production techniques?

All crops come with very different needs. There are tall plants and short plants, and all these can only be cultured in a certain way. If you are using a raft system, then there is no use in looking to grow tomatoes as an example.

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Climate is also one limiting factor. If you are battling against high heat, then you have little chance of growing cool weather crops, and vice versa. Unless you can control temperatures affordably, there is little reason to attempt growing crops that stand a good chance of failing before you begin.

Mistake #4: Ignoring PH Levels

The first three mistakes can all be attributed to setting up a system before actually growing. Now we are at the stage where plants are at risk when things go wrong. This is one of the most crucial areas of any hydroponic system, and it happens to be one area which is often ignored or mismanaged.

This mistake stems from growers wanting to see results as fast as they can and mix up nutrients and begin watering their plants. The urge for results prevents growers from even considering all the formulas and acronyms they need to know, and the effects of what comes with them.

Knowing about PPM, pH, 18/6 and others can be overwhelming, but they do play an important role. Many of these terms can be somewhat ignored, but pH definitely can’t at any cost. When pH levels are out of balance, it is the plants that will suffer, and they can suffer faster than many growers fully understand.

pH determines when nutrient solutions or plain water are acidic or alkaline. Ordinary tap water has a pH level which in most cases is suitable for use in hydroponic systems. Growing media in most cases is already pH balanced, although something such as Rockwool is more alkaline than other growing media such as coco coir.

pH neutral is a level of 7.0, which is what most soil grown plants prefer. In hydroponics, you tend to find plants prefer a little below this level and have a range of 5.5 to 6.5 depending on the plants in question. Many nutrient deficiencies come from pH problems, so making sure these are in check is vital. You can be chasing issues in other areas, and gaining no ground in solving them because your pH is wrong.

Both a pH testing kit and also pH adjusting compounds are advisable, so you can quickly adapt your nutrient mix to the correct level (check on a daily basis). Once you do so, your plants can take up all the nutrients they need.

Mistake #5: Using Too Many Nutrients or the Wrong Nutrients

Not all fertilizers are the same. First off, conventional fertilizer won’t dissolve entirely and can quickly block pumps and pipes. Additionally, they don’t contain the same nutrients as a good quality hydroponic formula.

With the correct nutrient solutions in hand, you then need to make sure your mixes are at the proper levels. The addition of too many nutrients is way too easy, and it is a mistake a vast number of growers make way too often.

A lot of this problem is not always the fault of the grower, some of the blame is down to the company supplying the nutrients. These nutrient companies often include feeding schedules with their products. Unfortunately, these feeding schedule dosages are set too high.

This quickly leads to nutrient burn (nute burn), and although it doesn’t kill your plants, it will have an impact on how they grow from that point forward.

To overcome this problem, you can follow the same feeding schedule which comes with your nutrients, however, cut the dosage to a quarter of what is recommended.

An example being, if the guide is for 2 teaspoons of nutrient solution per gallon of water, only use 1/2 a teaspoon. By doing this, and your pH levels are in range, you will quickly see if there are signs of nutrient deficiency. If this is the case, you can increase the dosage up to half of the recommended dosage per gallon.

Following this methodology, you can also cut down on the salt buildup that occurs when your nutrient mix is too rich.

Mistake #6: Watering Too Often

Most of us were raised to think plants need sun and water every day. When this attitude is coupled with growers wanting to provide everything for their plants, they often end up overwatering their plants.

This overwatering can cause plants to droop, and in extreme cases, it can cause plants to suffer from root rot and die. If you can catch it in time, you can make adjustments to your watering, and plants can restore themselves to their full glory.

The climate or growing environment can affect this, and you will need to allow for external temperatures and evaporation. One easy way to tell if you have your watering schedule set correctly is to test the top inch of your growing medium. Using coco coir as an example, if your finger pulls away dry and there is no sign of moisture, then it is time to water your plants.

When using a hydroponic pump, it will take some trial and error to find the best balance, depending on your system.

One thing which is worth noting is for DWC (deep water culture) systems is to make sure you have sufficient air stones in your solution. Overwatering is basically a plant being deprived of oxygen, so you can have everything set correctly, but without oxygenating your solution, you are in effect overwatering your plants.

Mistake #7: Not Enough Light

This can be seen as the second most crucial area in a hydroponic set-up. Growers who don’t choose to invest correctly in their lighting rig, more often see their systems fail, or at least they don’t deliver on the yields they receive.

You can easily make or break your hydroponic garden by ignoring the importance of lighting. Here are three reasons getting it right can make a world of difference:

  • Buying too little (small or low power) lighting solutions, and your plants will suffer
  • If you purchase the wrong blubs, then your plants won’t grow
  • If you decide on the cheapest options for your lighting, they might not perform

Lighting will be one of the most critical investments growers can make for their systems, so it is vital some research is carried out to see which is the best solution for your growing space, and for the plant types you are hoping to grow.

Fluorescent lighting: Many growers are led to believe these light types are suitable for all plants at all growth phases. They are also attracted by their low price.Unfortunately, these types of tubes only emit a kind of light. White light doesn’t deliver the full spectrum of light needed by plants at the different stages of their growth.

Fluorescent lights are ideal for your seedlings, but once these enter vegetative and flowering stages, they need all of the blue, red and orange parts of the spectrum.

HID Lamps: these are among the top choice by many serious growers. They also come in two varieties HPS (High-Pressure Sodium) and MH (Metal Halide) and are often seen lighting large areas, such as streets or parking lots.

Although bigger, they are actually more efficient than regular light bulbs. These bulbs also come with a mechanical or electronic ballast that has the function of starting and maintaining the arc in the lamp. These lights do produce lots of heat and are often found inside ventilation chambers.

A good rule of thumb is to hang your lights around two feet from the top of your plants, and to find if this is ideal, put your hand on the top of your plants and see how hot your hand is. If it is too hot for you, then it is too hot for your plants.

LED Lights: These are new to the world of hydroponic lighting. Being energy efficient, they are powered by an external power supply. This power supply in most cases fails before any of the LED grow lights do, but it can be quickly replaced.

LED’s produce less heat and deliver a unique light spectrum that is conducive to photosynthesis.

Choosing the right lighting

When looking at your lighting options, there are a few factors which need looking at. These include budget, enclosure type, ventilation, and plant types.

Low budget growers can opt for regular fluorescent tubes (T5 type) while small-scale growers are better suited to use the newer compact fluorescent tubes. Once you have a more extensive system, you can then opt for the HID lighting systems, but because of their heat output, you need to check ventilation, and also your feeding times might change.

Ventilation also needs to be away from your grow room, cooling costs will increase, and it will be hard to regulate temperatures.

At present, LED’s are left for long-term growers, but over their lifetime, they will save thousands of dollars in electricity bills.

Mistake #8: Sanitation, or Lack of It

One final mistake many growers make is sanitation in their growing area. Because hydroponic systems are a sterile environment, this extends to the entire area, and not only the systems plants are growing. Once there is an element of disease anywhere in a system, this can quickly spread and affect not just one or two plants, it will affect all of them.

Floors should be clean and dry, and all the tools you might use should be for the sole purpose of your hydroponic system or cleaned thoroughly before use. All this is before you even consider the condition of your systems.

Nutrient reservoirs can have algae buildup over time, so when you flush your system, these should be inspected and cleaned as required. The same goes for piping and grow beds.

There will be salt buildup from your nutrient mix, and this will cling to pots, and your growing medium, and if these are not thoroughly cleaned, it can exasperate problems when you add your next batch of nutrients.

Plant waste can be one of the most crucial, and as soon as you see signs of a problem, this plant should be removed as quickly as possible, because any diseased plant will pass it onto the others.


It can be too easy to say it is common sense to avoid making these mistakes. But, this is not the case, and no matter how careful you are, there are elements which creep in you might be unaware of. All growers do make mistakes, and in many cases, it is not through lack of trying.

There are a vast number of variables at play in a hydroponic system to have it running effectively at all times.

Hydroponics doesn’t have to be difficult, but learning everything can be overwhelming while you are first learning. Hopefully, you can use all the information above to design and implement a well-functioning system that can bring you hours of happiness and bundles of healthy plants.

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