For some really weird reason I still don’t understand, one year ago I woke up one morning with the idea in my mind that I *must* research and learn how to grow a vegetable garden hydroponically.
It was one of those intuitive hits that I have learned to listen to in my life.
A gut feeling that I just couldn’t shake.
To be honest the thought crossed my mind that maybe my intuition was preparing me for something that might happen in the near future, like some crazy apocalyptic event where all of a sudden there’s a major disruption in the food supply and learning how to grow my own vegetables could save my life or something.
I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I did have that thought cross my mind and when my intuition tells me to pay attention to it I listen!
So I started researching everything I could about hydroponic gardening and started setting up a small hydroponic system to see if I could grow some vegetables.
The whole process of learning about this way of growing food completely fascinated me and I found it a LOT of fun.
Sprouting Seeds for My Hydroponic Garden
I started off by just going out and buying some seeds for a few different types of vegetables and trying to sprout them.
I did a bunch of research on YouTube and the Internet about how to sprout seeds and I discovered that you can do it pretty easily using the paper towel method where you just put seeds on a wet paper towel, and throw the towel in a large ziploc bag and place it somewhere warm (don’t melt the bag though).
The seeds started to sprout pretty quickly, which was kind of exciting as I’ve never grown any vegetables before in my life.
Next, I went to the hydroponic supply store and picked up some Grodan Rockwool cubes that the guy there recommended for starting off your seedlings.
As I was a total beginner, I really didn’t know WHAT stuff to grow so I just started planing all kinds of seeds for various types of vegetables.
I had green beans, cucumbers, spinach, several types of tomatoes, chives, red peppers, green onions, lettuce, zucchini, radishes, beets and cauliflower.
I also found this other stuff called “Sure to Grow” that’s white and kind of soft and spongy that you can use to sprout seeds so I threw a bunch of seeds in to try to grow them in that stuff as well.
All in all I had a LOT of different types of seeds sprouting and growing.
Again, as a total noob, I had no idea what to expect and how many seeds would actually grow so I just went a bit crazy and started a whole bunch of seeds to see what would actually start growing.
Setting Up My Hydroponic Garden
Once my seeds started sprouting and then grew into seedlings I started moving them into my actual grow system that I setup.
There are several different types of hydroponics systems you can setup, and I decided to go with a flood and drain system which basically just means that the system is on a timer that floods the roots of the plants with nutrient rich water for a certain period of time like a few minutes and then drains the water for a certain period of time like a few hours, and then repeats.
This way the roots of the plant get water, and nutrients and also the oxygen they need to thrive.
Here’s a short time-lapse clip I shot one day showing my plants over a 12 hour period of time.
The reason everything is pink looking is because I am using an LED grow light that’s got a pink hue to it.
Later in the video you see a second grow light I had setup come on and then you can see the vegetables in a more natural light / color.
Once I got everything setup to this point, everything was pretty much growing on autopilot.
I had a system setup where the lights would come on and turn off on a timer automatically.
Another system was in place which would periodically flood and drain the nutrient water into the different growth buckets to feed the roots of the plants.
I had a heating system in place which would keep the temperature at a certain level and a fan which would cool down the temperature if needed.
All in all, it was a fairly automated system that took very little maintenance and it was kind of fun to watch the plants grow every week.
Then I started running into some challenges. 🙂
Hydroponic Garden Challenge #1 – “Growing Pains”
One of the first challenges that I ran into with my setup was that I completely underestimated how much ROOM it would take to grow all of those seeds that I started.
When they were just seedlings, I could fit all the different plants into my growing buckets, but as they started to grow they all started crowding each other.
When I planted the seeds I didn’t know what percentage of them would actually grow and survive, so that is why I planted so many.
But then once I had them growing, I felt bad about throwing some of them away when I realized I didn’t have enough room to grow them.
At first I just moved things around to try to make room for the different plants, but as they kept getting bigger and bigger I just couldn’t keep up and had to start cutting back on the number of plants I was growing at the same time.
The three plants that just completely took off and started growing super fast were my tomatoes, my cucumbers and my green beans. The sweet peppers also started growing, but not as tall as the others.
It seemed that I would leave them for a day or two and come back with them twice the size as I left them.
It was pretty exciting, but it also got increasingly crowded!
Hydroponic Garden Challenge #2 – Equipment Malfunctions
The next challenge I started running into was a few equipment malfunctions that were really annoying.
Firstly, the pH meter setup I had in place was setup in such a way that it was constantly monitoring the pH levels of my nutrient water.
I would check the pH levels on a regular basis and try to maintain them at an ideal range for the plants that I was growing.
Using a product called pH Up and pH Down I could adjust the pH levels of the water as needed.
However, at some point my pH started going out of wack and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
My readings started showing the pH Levels being very alkaline for some reason.
I tried making adjustments, but something just seemed really off.
It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that the one thing I didn’t consider checking was the actual TESTER itself! Meaning I didn’t consider that the digital pH meter itself could be giving me false readings.
Sure enough when I compared it with another meter I purchased, it was completely off.
This was weird because when I bought it, I calibrated it and I tested it multiple times to make sure it was spot on and it was.
But I guess after a certain period of time it needed to be re-calibrated.
I tried doing the standard calibration process as shown in the instructions, but I couldn’t get it work.
After a bit of digging around, I realized that the probe itself was malfunctioning and it wasn’t reading things properly.
I sent it back to the manufacturer, and they claimed that they were able to calibrate it properly and that nothing was wrong with it.
When I tried using the probe again, it was now working so I know they must have done SOMETHING to it to make it work, but I don’t know what they did.
Unfortunately, after a few weeks that same problem came back again so I’m pretty sure there is something wrong with that probe.
I was going to order a replacement one, but I never got around to it as I had another challenge I ran into.
Hydroponic Garden Challenge #3 – Difficult Tomatoes and Cucumbers
The two plants that started growing on my like CRAZY were my tomato plants and my cucumber plants.
They started growing like crazy and started crowding out the other plants.
My green beans didn’t really do too well, so I got rid of them and just made room for tomatoes and cucumbers.
My sweet peppers were also growing in the corner but much smaller than my tomatoes and cucumbers.
After a while, my tomato plants and my cucumber plants were over 6 feet tall and just growing like crazy, but there was one problem…. NO FLOWERS!
All they were growing were leaves! No flowers, just leaves and more leaves.
My cucumbers started REALLY sprawling and taking things over. I had to cut them back several times.
By this time it had been about 3-4 months since I started my hydroponic garden “experiment”, and I was excited about how fast the plants were growing but frustrated that I wasn’t getting any flowers or fruit!
Yes, big flowers are cool, but where were my vegetables!
I started doing some more research on tomato plants, how they grow, the ideal nutrient mixture for them, lightning conditions and pruning practices etc.
I tried making some changes to various things to try to figure out why my plants weren’t flowering, and I did start to get a little discouraged.
Then one day as I was showing my setup to my brother, I lifted up one of my sweet pepper plant leaves and I saw something amazing – MY FIRST PEPPER!
Again, the pink hue in the picture is due to the LED grow light I was using.
I was so excited because FINALLY my hydroponic garden produced SOMETHING!!!
I actually cut the pepper down and tasted it, and it actually tasted delicious.
More than that, it smelled amazing!
That little “win” for me got me excited even more and I started doing more research to try to figure out why my tomatoes and cucumbers weren’t growing.
But then I ran into yet another challenge…
Hydroponic Garden Challenge #4 – Sudden Lack of Time
Shortly after discovering my first sweet pepper had grown, I ran into a small challenge in that my business got really busy and I had to focus on it, which meant that I had less time to focus on my garden.
The system was pretty self-running though, so it wasn’t that bad. I had set everything up in a way where the whole system takes care of itself and all I had to do was just monitor the water levels, nutrient levels and also pH once in a while – like once a week – to make sure everything was running well.
Then I ran into my final major challenge…
Hydroponic Garden Challenge #5 – Major Malfunction!
Then disaster struck.
I thought that I had setup a fairly robust system with everything running automatically by itself with just a little bit of maintenance required.
But what I didn’t count on was a seemingly small LIGHTING issue that turned into a disaster.
See, I was using this fancy electronic lighting timer that allowed me to create a schedule for the light system I had and gave me down to the minute control over when the lights come on and when they come off.
At the hydroponic store I saw that most of the stuff the sold was just old-school analog timer switches for the lights, whereas mine was a fancy digital one that I could even monitor and control from the Internet!
Unfortunately, for some weird reason the unit malfunctioned and it went into some kind of error mode and it turned off all the lights in my grow room.
I had no idea that this happened, so I was under the impression that everything was fine and that my plants were growing nicely!
But that was not the case, LOL!
Then, also because of my suddenly busy and hectic schedule with my business I didn’t actually check in on my plants for almost a week.
When I did, I was shocked to see that the lights were completely off!!!
When I re-set the digital lighting controller / timer, it came back on and the lights were back on, but all my plants were already dead!
In that moment I learned why the hydroponics store sold the old school ANALOG timers – because they are WAY more reliable than the digital one I was using – LOL.
I’m a tech-geek though so I always want to play with cool toys, and that digital timer with Internet hookup was just so much fun to play with.
I just never considered that it could JAM like that and just turn off the lights for a week, hehehe.
Looking back, I think there might have been a power failure at my house during that week for a few seconds where the power just kind of fluctuated on and off, and I think that maybe there was a small surge or power spike that forced the unit into some kind of protection mode.
In either case, the lighting system I setup failed and so all my plants died.
I decided to “retire” the system for the winter, and decide what I want to do in the new year.
Restarting My Hydroponic Garden
In the beginning of this year I decided to restart my hydroponic garden by trying to grow some tomatoes with the Aerogarden I have.
With this thing, it’s small enough that I was able to put it in my office where I can keep an eye on it, and I also wanted to see if the tomato plants/seeds that come with Aerogarden would be able to actually produce flowers and fruit.
So I got that setup about 1 month ago, and here is the progress so far:
As you can see the plants are growing pretty quickly.
The are actually about double the size that you see in the picture above, and guess what I saw today?
I saw that one of the plants actually started FLOWERING!
Two little yellow flowers started to grow. I’m pretty excited.
This Aerogarden setup is my little experiment to see if I can successfully grow tomatoes indoors using a hydroponic system and an LED light.
If this works I’ll most likely start to get my much bigger system back up and running.
This time around I’ll do a few things differently.
- Analog Light Controller – For my lighting system, this time around I will use an analog / mechanical switch that I hope will be way more reliable than a digital one.
- Less Plant Variety – I’m definitely going to try growing much LESS variety this time around. I might not even grow tomatoes or cucumbers this time around. I might stick to sweet peppers, since those seemed pretty easy to grow for me, and maybe some herbs as those grew pretty quickly as well.
- More Research – I definitely need to do more research on nutrient balances and maybe more on lighting as well.
I’m not quite sure yet when I’ll get my main hydroponic system up and running again, but it might be pretty soon as the weather has been getting better and it almost feels like SPRING here in Vancouver, BC, Canada even though it’s just February! 🙂
Hopefully this time around I won’t have a disaster like the one I had last year, but the cool thing is that no matter happens, at least I’m learning about something new and interesting that’s also fun for me to play with.
I’ve never really had any major interest in gardening or growing vegetables or anything like this in the past, but for some reason I just developed a little passion for this new hobby of mine.
The cool thing is that because I work from home, I can do these things during my days when most people are stuck at their jobs.
What kind of hobbies would YOU like to get into if you could retire from your job and work from home instead?