Hydroponics for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Hydroponics for Beginners

So you've heard about this way of growing plants called 'hydroponics', but have no clue what it is...

If you’ve heard about hydroponics but find yourself overwhelmed by information and have no clue where to begin…this is for you.

Before we get into the meat of this article, if you find yourself asking, “Where did hydroponics come from?” then I would recommend you check out the history of hydroponics article that I wrote a while back. 

This articles will take you from knowing nothing about hydroponics to knowing enough to construct your own homemade hydroponic system and grow your own food!

But before we get to all of that, we need to understand exactly how hydroponics works. Without this fundamental knowledge, we would never build a deep understanding of how our hydroponics systems work.

How Does Hydroponics Work?

Hydroponics for Beginners

If you break down the word “hydroponics” you get “hydro” and “ponos”, which mean “water” and “work”. In hydroponics, water and a solution of nutrients do all of the work to make the plant grow…there is no soil! The picture to the right is an example of one of the most basic types of hydroponics systems, a passive irrigation setup.

In this setup, the plants are held in place by a growing medium (in this case perlite is being used). The 2 liter soda bottle is used as the reservoir to hold the perlite as well as the water, which is in the bottom compartment. Add a little light to this setup and you have a working hydroponics system!

Of course, this is a very simplistic setup. While it will keep these plants alive, they probably won’t thrive in this system. Read on to find out why.

What are Plants Made Of?

If we want to understand how to feed and care for our plants, we must know what they are made of. All living things are made up of organic matter.

Organic matter must be made up of the following elements: Nitrogen, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Carbon.

These four elements account for over 90% of a plant’s weight and serve different roles in the functioning of all of a plant’s different systems.

What do Plants Need to Grow?

Now that we know what plants are made of, we need to know what they need from the environment to thrive.

The five keys to plant growth are light, carbon dioxide, oxygen, water, and nutrients.

Light

Plants need light in order to carry out the process of photosynthesis. Simply put, photosynthesis creates glucose, which is a sugar that provides energy for the life processes of a plant.

Carbon Dioxide 

Carbon Dioxide is used by plants in order to breathe. They take in carbon dioxide and breathe out our next compound, oxygen.

Oxygen 

Plants need oxygen as part of the breathing process. They breathe it out as a waste product during photosynthesis. Fortunately for us, their waste product is what we humans need to breathe!

Water 

Water is required for many different biochemical reactions in a plant, as well as being a solvent for additional reactions. It also helps to keep a plant rigid – without it, plants wilt. Lastly, it acts as a transport medium for nutrients.

Nutrients 

The many different elements that plants use as nutrients are important because they are the elements that make up a plant. They are used in all biochemical reactions.

Macro Nutrients

The most essential elements are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. They are known as macro nutrients because they are absorbed in the largest quantities and are the most important for the survival of a plant.

Micro Nutrients

In addition to these macro nutrients, plants require other elements in smaller amounts. These are known as micro nutrients. They include: Boron, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Sulfur, and Zinc.

This is an extremely basic explanation of what nutrients do for plants. For an in-depth explanation, visit my hydroponic nutrients guide.

How This Plugs Into Hydroponics

Now we what plants need to grow and the basics of hydroponics.  What makes a hydroponic system tick?

If we look at it, we're essentially removing soil.  This means that we are removing the only source of nutrition for a plant.  To counter this, we need to supplement the plant with proper nutrition.  We do this using hydroponic nutrients, which is an entirely different article.

By removing the soil we're doing a few things:​

  • Removing nutrients (which we then add back)
  • Removing the main source of pests
  • Removing a water-retaining medium

You might be thinking, "Hm. These all sound like BAD things.  Why would you grow in a hydroponic system rather than soil?"

It's a good question.  The short story is this:

You gain almost complete control over your growing environment, which means healthier plants that grow faster.

To answer that more in depth, check out my article on Hydroponics vs. Soil Gardening.​

Why You Need To Know All Of This Stuff

When you build your own hydroponic systems, you are creating a new environment for our plants to live in. Without understanding what a plant needs to survive, it will be hard for you to grow strong and healthy plants. You’d also have a hard time troubleshooting problems that arise in your homemade hydroponics system.

It’s important to know all of the different variables that go into your system. This way, you can figure out how to optimize them and have everything work in harmony. A well-designed system is definitely a beautiful thing to see…everything runs automatically, creating a utopia for your plants!

A poorly designed system is an atrocity. Too little light? Underwatered? Wrong nutrient mixture? Any of these could cause your plants to grow poorly, and leave you with a lackluster crop. Don’t worry though – this series of articles will provide an answer to all of these problems and more!


Now that you understand the basics, check out the next post in the series. I've put together an overview of all of the different types of hydroponics systems that you can build and their pro's and con's.

Check it out:​

About the author

Kevin

Kevin is the creator of Epic Gardening, a community dedicated to teaching urban gardening, hydroponics, and aquaponics. He enjoys skateboarding, piano, guitar, business, and experimenting with all kinds of gardening techniques!

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