Starting a garden with the family is not only healthy and financially solid, it is also a tremendous amount of fun. My experience with growing hydroponically goes back more than 25 years to a time well... lets just say that I grew the best tomatoes in South Quad at the University of Michigan.
Over the years, the crops have changed but my love for general gardening has stayed solid and relatives have achieved masters degrees in horticultural sciences. The big problem I have is that I live in a metro area with limited space and a tiny yard that is in shade most of the day.
Year after year I would try almost everything to succeed but the amount of light in my back yard (north yard) is just too low to grow anything. The front yard of my house is equally shaded by large street trees which leaves me just the two sides of my house and the southern facing patio roof.
A few years ago before the children and the family I dedicated time to large soil pots that I could use along the side of my house against the aluminum siding. Yup... I still have a house with aluminum siding and I'll tell you, the plants love it.
POTS & SOIL
Pots and soil are the traditional way to go. This year I will be using pots and soil again for the simple reason that I do not have enough hydroponic chambers for all the plants I want to grow.
SIZE IS IMPORTANT - One thing I learned the hard way is that if you are growing in pots or containers, it really makes a difference for some crops. There are obviously some crops that are not really suitable for container growing (corn, sunflowers) but you can use this rule of thumb. If you are growing something that does not really flower, smaller containers are fine. This includes herbs & spices, lettuce and greens. If you are trying to grow tomatoes and peppers or other fruit crops, the larger the container the larger the plant you will have in the end.
STARTING YOUR SEEDS
The most cost effective way to start your garden is to go from seed as opposed to buying seedlings (small plants) from a Loews or Home Depot or your local Garden Center. Additionally, sewing your own seeds gives you much more control over variety and genetic (or lack of genetic) manipulation.
A great organization that is a non-profit that I like to steer people towards is The Seed Saver's Exchange. Seriously, use them they deserve your business.
If you want a more commercial source with a much larger choice of seeds, I have had a great experience with Johnny's Seeds. They are not the cheapest but they deliver some of the freshest and most viable seeds in the business.
After purchasing your seeds it is time to germinate them. I completely suggest that you use a traditional dome and tray system with a heating mat and good starter medium. There are some people who like to germinate seeds between damp paper towels or in a dixie cup with soil and one on top. The disadvantage to the paper towel technique is that after they sprout you must move them root and all into the medium and this causes stress and possible damage to the plant. There is no good reason to do this. Likewise general potting soil is not the best medium either although it is acceptable.
General Hydroponics makes something called Rapid Rooter Tray which contains a coconut husk and bark fiber plug which already has a place for seed hole and comes with a sample of their Rapid Start Solution. Although I am not a big fan of using Amazon, if you can not find this locally it is an option. The vented dome is also available on Amazon. If you have a local hydroponics store nearby, items like these are usually just as cheap locally as on Amazon so please help your local businesses and shop there!
The last piece to the puzzle is the heat mat which will increase germination rate, success and growth. Germination is caused by light, temperature and water and this provides just enough heat to get things kick started. You can find this online at Home Depot or again at your local Hydroponics Shop for the same price or cheaper than the big box stores.
You want to use the heat mat only up to the point that everything in your tray has germinated, after that it will hinder growth so unplug it.
For the first 1-2 weeks all you need is plain distilled water available at any supermarket. This is better than city water because it lacks salts and chlorine and is better than well water because of the lack of salts and dissolved solids. You can use rain water, bottled water and RO (Reverse Osmosis) water just as well. If using tap water, leave overnight an open to air so that some of the chemicals can sublimate into the air.
The last piece, now that you have the heat, water and substrate (medium) is the lighting. A sunny window is acceptable and artificial light is also a good solution especially for those who get a late start or those who wish to have larger and earlier finishing plants. I always get better results with artificial light for my seedlings.
In recent years indoor Grow Tents have become popular. These are almost light proof and have a reflective inner coating of a mylar or reflective material. Not only do they provide a convenient way to hang your lights, but they also don't let the light bother other things in your house. No pet kitty bothering my plants!!! Because I like to do more than one tray of seedlings I went with an amazingly cheap and well built enclosure made by Lighthouse Hydro. This grow tent can fit up to 3 trays and gives my plants room to grow.
For lighting I choose a 4bulb 2 foot T5 fixture which is amazingly versatile. They use T5 fluorescent grow bulbs which are more efficient than traditional fluorescent bulbs and the whole unit pulls just shy of 100w. I find that the light is much more even than using CFL (compact fluorescent light bulbs) much more powerful and directed at the canopy. It's hard to believe that you can get 100w of high output specialty lighting for under $85 shipped to your door with no tax! For those wondering, I use this fixture and keep it on all the time 24 hours / day and it costs me $.30 to run it daily. At under $10/month in electrical costs this light can do 150 seedlings!
STARTING YOUR GROW
Now you have everything you need for the first 2 weeks of germination and early growth. First saturate the plugs in the tray and continue adding water so that there is about 1/4" of water remaining in the bottom of the tray. Drop your seeds into the starter plugs, cover with the humidity dome, plug in your germination mat and spark up your light and you are done. For the next 2 weeks you want to keep that 1/4" of water in the bottom of the tray at all times. If you see rooter plugs drying out turning brown or yellow hit it with some water to re-saturate. depending on what you are growing it can take from 1-12 days before you see life. With the heating mat engaged some of our flowers and lettuce already had green sprouts after just 24 hours!!! At the end of 2 weeks we had a 99% germination rate with just one bean plant failing to germinate. After you have full germination, it is time to aclimate the plants to the normal humidity. Crack the hood for a day then a little more to reduce humidity from 100% closer to ambient humidity. After a few days of this it is time to take off the hood and give the seedlings some fresh (and moving air).
|2 WEEKS AFTER PLANTING - DOME WAS REMOVED FOR FIRST TIME JUST NOW|
|2 50 PLUG RAPID ROOTER TRAYS IN LIGHTHOUSE HYDRO TENT UNDER 4 BULB T5 88w|