If you like to garden but don’t like digging in the dirt, there’s still a way you can have a garden. It’s called hydroponics.

Is hydroponics for you? To help you decide, here’s a primer on hydroponic gardening. We’re assuming you’re new to hydroponics, so we’ve tried to anticipate your questions, starting with the basics. (And if we’ve missed something, let us know in the comments.)

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a soilless solution. Because the method is called hydroponics and “hydro” means water, most people think the soilless solution is water. Of course, it can be water, but it doesn’t have to be. Hydroponics can be any nutrient solution or inert growing medium such as perlite and sand — basically anything other than traditional potting mixes or soil.

Is it complicated?

It doesn’t have to be. In fact, hydroponic growing can be so simple that a child can do it. There’s even a good chance you gave it a try when you were a kid. Did you ever put toothpicks in a potato and suspend it in a jar of water? If so, do you remember waiting for the roots to grow into the water and then watching green shoots emerge from the portion above the water? That’s hydroponics!

What do I need to get started?

You’ll need a hydroponics system, hydroponic nutrients, an inert hydroponics medium, a light source, time and plants.

What is a hydroponics system?

hydroponic lettuce Hydroponics systems are various structures (e.g., towers, trays, A-frames) that hold water or other inert media and provide places to grow plants. Hydroponics systems fall into two basic categories: a solution (liquid) culture and an aggregate culture. In a solution system, the plant roots grow directly into a nutrient-filled solution. In an aggregate system, such as gravel, sand, or small clay pellets, the roots grow into the medium. In each method, the system supplies the three essential ingredients plant roots need to grow: water/moisture, nutrients and oxygen.

Different types of systems are available to meet individual comfort levels in growing plants hydroponically. These include drip, ebb and flow, nutrient film technique (seen at right), water culture, aeroponics and wick.

Where do I get a hydroponics system?

Systems (think kits for home growing) are available from a variety of commercial suppliers. Look for a system that fits your needs by doing an Internet search with the key words “hydroponic kits” or “hydroponic systems.” Searches for “kits” may bring up simple systems ideal for newcomers to hydroponics and for home growing. On the other hand, searches for “systems” may tend to find advanced or commercial systems more suitable for large-scale growers.

Can I build my own?

If you are handy, you can definitely design and build your own system. Several sites offer lists of free hydroponics system designs. An advantage to building your own system is that you can customize the design to fit your space and the kinds of plants you want to grow.

How about nutrients and medium?

You will need to use nutrients — a mix of primary, secondary and micro — designed for hydroponics. For a variety of reasons, hydroponic nutrients differ from nutrients (fertilizers) used to feed plants growing in the soil. If you are not already familiar with hydroponics, keep it simple. Use a proven formula that you can buy from a reliable manufacturer. (Here’s a partial list of nutrients to get you started.)

Besides water, hydroponic medium possibilities include rockwool, small clay rocks (sometimes called hydrocorn), coconut fiber or chips, perlite, sand and vermiculite. All of these are “inert,” meaning that they don’t break down quickly, a process that helps supply nutrients to plants growing in soil. One hydroponic material isn’t better than another. You just need to decide which one works best in your circumstance or best fits your gardening comfort level. A critical factor is to avoid keeping medium like coconut byproducts from becoming too wet. Constantly soggy medium will cause the roots to suffocate from a lack of oxygen.

Why don’t roots suffocate when grown in water?

We knew you’d ask that! Air pumps used in water systems generate bubbles and increase the dissolved oxygen in water, both of which supply oxygen to the submerged roots.

What about light?

Hydroponic Arugula under fluorescentsDifferent types of artificial lights exist, but metal halide seems to be the light source of choice among many gardeners. Other types of artificial lights include high-pressure sodium bulbs, LEDs, high-output fluorescents and compact fluorescents. This assumes that you are growing hydroponically indoors.

Can I grow hydroponically outdoors?

Of course! Growing plants hydroponically is not an indoor, winter-only sport! Hydroponics will work anywhere with sufficient artificial or natural light.

How much time does it take?

Like all hobbies, hydroponic growing takes time. Assuming you are new to hydroponics, you’ll want to invest some time in learning more about the process before you get started. Although you don’t have to spend time weeding like you do in a traditional garden, you do have to spend time maintaining your system, replacing nutrients and harvesting.

Is this a type of organic gardening?

Not exactly. The ingredients in organic fertilizers have to come into contact with soil for them to be converted into a form that plant roots can absorb. Because hydroponics doesn’t involve soil, it’s not really organic gardening. The ecological values of hydroponics, however, are the same as organic gardening.

What kind of plants can I grow?

The simple answer is almost any houseplant, fruit or vegetable that you want. As a general rule, solution systems are best for plants with shallow roots. Some examples are leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, radishes and herbs. Aggregate systems generally are best for vegetables with deep roots, such as beets, or those that are top heavy, such as squash and cucumbers.

What kind of yields can I expect?

With the right balance of light and other growing conditions, growth rates and yields are said to exceed to traditional gardening, including organic gardening.

What about taste?

The flavor and nutrition of hydroponically grown produce is also said to exceed that of soil-grown crops.

Where can I learn more about hydroponics?

For more information about seed sources, magazines, groups to join and other information, visit Dr. Howard Resh's website. You can also search online using “hydroponics” and related key words.

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Inset photos: Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons (NFT lettuce); Urban Sunshine Hydroponics/flickr (arugula under fluorescents)