Updated: Mar 26, 2021
There are several ways to grow your own food, and several reasons as well! Among them are health benefits, cost effectiveness (saving money when you go to the grocery store), and a lower carbon footprint, if you're one who usually buys your produce in single-use plastic! Now, there are multiple ways you can grow your seeds hydroponically, but I choose to use a system called Ebb and Flow. We will get into that as we go, but first let's start out with the basics of what you will need (Please note that product photos are clickable and will take you to where you can purchase from.)
First, you will need your germinated seeds! If you have not purchased your seeds yet, I highly recommend 99 Heirlooms for affordable seeds at an amazing price (often just 99 cents! And no, I'm not affiliated, but I love the company and their customer service is amazing). For help with how to germinate, please see this separate video I did all about hydroponic seed germination!:
Next, you will need a hydroponics system set-up. These can be crafted in all sorts of manners using PVC pipes or materials you can acquire at your local home improvement store. Personally, I purchased a hydroponics system on Amazon that came with easy-to-assemble PVC pipes that did not require any glue! This set-up will contain multiple plugs (mine has 104), where you will be able to plant your plugs.
I was lucky enough that my PVC hydroponics set-up came with a small pump and tubing to pump water up into the system, but if you do not have a kit like I did, you will need to purchase both of those. The pump included in my system has a timer on it, where you can elect how often the ebb and flow system turns on, flooding the space where all the plugs are, and for how long it stays on. Mine is set to 5 minutes, every 30 minutes. You can find this at your local hydroponics shop, or Amazon!
You will also need a bucket for a reservoir (totes work well, I am simply using a 5 gallon Home Depot bucket that I already had, but note that if you choose this option, you may need to use risers to allow the system to be tall enough to accommodate the height of the bucket. Luckily, I had both on hand, but you could easily substitute what I did for a wider, shorter tote bucket.
The system I purchased did come with net cups which rest perfectly inside the plug holes with an adaptation for the flat surface of the top of the tubing. These work well, but I elected not to use the styrofoam plant plugs for the majority of my germinated seedlings, since I germinated them in the General Hydroponics Rapid Rooters, which I highly recommend.
If you are outdoor growing hydroponically, there is only one last step, which is to acquire nutrient water materials. I really recommend CloneX as well as the General Hydroponics 3-Series (yes this is an up-front investment, but I have had mine for about a year now, and I have hardly even dented the volume of liquid inside. The amount needed for the dilution is quite small, so a little goes a long way!).
Now, if you're growing indoors (like me), your set-up will require a few more things. Firstly, grow lights. When growing vegetables and herbs in a highly controlled environment indoors, we have to compensate for the natural sunlight. I highly recommend the following two lights. Because there are three layers to my hydroponics set-up, I have one hanging light over the top tier, and one clamp-on lamp on each of the two tiers below, to allow for more even light distribution.
While not 100% necessary, I highly recommend investing in a grow tent if you want to grow long-term, in high volumes. You can certainly find grow tents in all sizes and price ranges on the internet or at your local hydroponics shop, but I personally have a larger, 8' x 4' one to accommodate for all the projects I want to get into. The reflective material it is made with helps to maximize light absorption by the plants, and the tent zips up to allow for it to keep light, humidity, and temperature in, and pests and unwanted environmental influences out.
Finally, I recommend you have both a fan and a heater. These do not need to be expensive by any means- both of mine were in the $20 range each. However, having adequate air circulation will ensure your seedlings and plants get adequate oxygen supply, and a heater will be useful if you live in a colder environment (or if you're like me and have your system set in an often cold basement).
PHEW! Now that we've gotten through all the materials, let's dive into how we set up an Ebb & Flow system! Because I like to make things easy, I am going to break it down into five simple steps.
Step 1- Assemble hydroponics system
Luckily, I purchased a hydroponics system that came with pretty clear instructions and pre-cut PVC pipes and elbows. However, if you're crafty and don't want to pay for a commercially designed one, you can likely analyze the set-up photos or find a diagram for how to create the proper cuts of PVC to assemble one yourself! Ensure all the pieces are tightly fitted together, avoiding glue if possible (one of the perks of the system I purchased is that no glue is used).
Once all the elbows and pipes are fitted together, ensure that there are tight fits by going back over and pushing them together (put some elbow grease into it!). Then, you will need to position a clean bucket underneath the "draining" pipe (the lower one in the diagram of the hydroponics set-up shown above), and affix the tube that will pump water into the top of the system, to the nozzle at the topmost position.
Then, secure your pump (usually has suction cups on the bottom) to the bottom of your reservoir (bucket) and connect the tube that emanates from the top of the hydroponics set-up to the mouth of the pump so that the water flows from there adequately! I will likely be investing in a second pump because mine, while functional, is a bit small and for the size of the hydroponics I am using, I would prefer more oxygen pumping to happen.
Step 2- Transplant plugs (trimming rockwool if needed)
Now, take your germinated seeds and transplant them into the system! You can easily use Styrofoam inserts (like the ones that were included with my system) and the net cups. Because I chose to root with the General Hydroponics Rapid Rooters, I stuck with those, and my lovely boyfriend and I tried the edges of the plugs with scissors so they would snugly and comfortably fit into the net cups already wedged into the system! Simply trim the corners so they are tapered to fit, and add them into the net cups. I keep track of which plant is which by a spreadsheet that correlates with the design of the system. If you want to keep track this way, it's a good idea to plan that out beforehand, while you are germinating!
Step 3- Fill bucket with water and test the flooding system
Fill your bucket with filtered water (we use a giant Brita for this), ensuring to keep the water level high enough to submerge the filter (if the filter is not submerged, you will likely break it).
Test the flooding system before adding nutrient water, so as not to spill nutrient water everywhere if there are any leaks with pipes that need to be reinforced. Once the plant plugs are secure, turn your timer on (many pumps come with a little control button that has options for timers). I turned mine on during the testing process to pump for 15 minutes. You should immediately notice water flooding the tube that comes out of the pump (I prefer to use a clear tube so that I can see what's going on), and trickling into the top of the hydroponics system. You want to follow the water as it goes down the first tube, turns the corner (through the elbows), and into the next tube, and so on. This will take several minutes, so be patient! You want to follow the water closely at the beginning to make sure if there are any leaks, you catch right where it is and can reinforce it! This happened to us while testing- one of the connections at the elbow was too loose and broke when water was added. We simply jammed the pieces back together, much more tightly, and cleaned up the spilled water. :)
Keep an eye on the reservoir as the system fills. As the water is pumped upwards, you may find that you need to continue to add more water to the bucket to ensure the pump is not uncovered at any point.
Once the water has passed through the entire system and is draining back into the reservoir/bucket, your hydroponics flood system test has passed! It's time to add the nutrients.
Step 4- Mix Nutrient Water in Reservoir
Nutrients are huge with hydroponics, because we are providing water, oxygen (through aeration from the pump), and now, we need to feed the plant a healthy diet. No soil is wonderful for efficiency, lower clean-up, and fewer materials used, but because the soil typically provides nutrients, we need to compensate.
I am personally a big fan of General Hydroponics. They have a 3-series that's great for indoor houseplants and hydroponic veggies and herbs alike. I like to start at the original recommended dose for seedlings, 1/4 tsp. of each component per every 1 gallon. I go a little heavier on the GH Flora Gro (green) because my seedlings have germinated to the point where they are ready for some structural stimulation & vegetative growth. As your plants progress through different stages of their life cycle, we can adjust the amount of each respective nutrient to accommodate what we are hoping to inspire them to do. For now, we will keep it relatively simple with about 1 tsp Flora Gro per gallon, and about 1/4 tsp of Flora Bloom & Flora Micro per gallon (always start with Flora Micro when mixing your solution!).
I also add a bit of Clonex to the nutrient water, in the ratio of 5-10 mL per liter. (Again, this is an up-front investment, but if you follow the dilution recommendations, one bottle will make just over 25 gallons of solution). This is a plant nutrient that is formulated for rooted clones and seedlings and contains Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Calcium, and other essential elements needed for vigorous growth. It also has Vitamin B1 to prevent transplant shock. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
If you add the nutrients while the pump is running, it will help with the mixing, but it doesn't hurt to give it a stir yourself as well. Now your reservoir is all set-up with the appropriate nutrient water, to flood the system at intervals! Like I mentioned, I keep mine on every 30 minutes for 5 minutes.
Step 5- Add lights, heater, and fan if growing indoors (Grow Tent)
Finally, if you are growing indoors, you will need to add some elements that mimic the natural environment these veggies and herbs thrive in: sunlight, warmth, and air flow. I use a grow tent because when growing indoors, it is tremendously helpful with creating an isolated, controlled environment. Especially if you are setting up camp in a basement like me, where you want to keep your plants isolated from any potential pests or light pollution (giving the plants adequate light is just as important as allowing them a thorough "dark cycle" when the lights are not on).
For my set-up, given that it has three tiers, I like to have one hanging light overhead, and then clamp a grow light onto each of the lower two tiers, to allow for more even light distribution. I set these on automatic timers to come on for 12 hours a day (this may increase as I continue, but the seedlings were germinated and sat for a while so I don't want to shock them at once).
The grow tent I purchased has convenient drawstring holes in the sides for a small fan to vent air. Air flow is really important because it can get musty and static inside the grow tent, and air flow pumping in from outside will really help to keep your plants even more oxygenated and healthy. Additionally, the slight breeze from the fan will help your plants to maintain their structure rather than falling limp (Think about it, in nature, plants withstand winds and rains, which in turn contributes to their structural integrity. Plants that are never tousled at all may be weaker/less fruitful). I inserted the fan into the respective hole (make sure you are inserting it the proper way, and be careful not to knick your fingers in the receiving end of the airflow chamber. I like to assemble it when it's not plugged in to be safe).
Lastly, I installed a small, fan-driven heater. I did this because my basement sits at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit when not monitored, and that's a bit too cold for where I want my plants to be. Just make sure to carefully set-up your system so that you avoid fire hazards. I keep my heater on medium, and try to keep the temperature around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also make sure you keep the heater facing away from any direct plant contact. I do this because you do not want to blast heat directly onto your plants and dry them out.
Well, if you've made it this far, congratulations! You are now ready to set up your own Ebb & Flow System. Stay tuned for a YouTube video coming on this extremely soon! In the meantime, feel free to drop comments or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out my YouTube channel to view my other videos in the meantime.
*NOTE: I am using affiliate links to send you to the Amazon pages that will show you the products I used for this video (or very similar ones). If you choose to use these links, I will receive a small kickback from it, at no extra charge to you. So, if you feel so inspired to support, please check out the links! :)