So you’re looking for ways to boost food production and willing to consider some creative alternatives? That’s a good thing! By branching out into previously unexplored territory, you expand both your mind and your options. Skill development can only help, especially in uncertain times. In this article, I’ll discuss tabletop hydroponics, an option workable in spaces big and small that doesn’t cost a ton of money.
So what is hydroponics?
Generally, it’s growing plants in water rather than soil. The plants are placed in a basket of some kind, often containing a sphagnum moss sponge or coco coir, and inserted into nutrient-enriched water.
While hydroponics requires power (for the lights), it does have many benefits. You can maximize your space as tabletop units can turn an otherwise unproductive area of your living space into food production. Labor is much less, as you don’t have to weed or mulch, among other things. Your supply chain is local, therefore more predictable, and if you’re growing your own food, you know it wasn’t sprayed with God-knows-what for the trip! Hydroponic units actually use less water than growing in soil, and you don’t have to deal with weather or pest problems. So what’s not to love?
A tabletop unit can be well suited for growing greens, herbs, and micro-tomatoes. While such a unit can’t produce 100% of your calorie needs, it can certainly add a layer to your food plan and contribute to your medicinal herb garden as well.
And why stop at one? If you’ve got the space, a few of these might be a great investment. One of my gardening friends has several, and hers produce bags of salad greens right on site! So much for supply chain issues. And if, like me, you sometimes crave a fresh, green salad in the middle of winter, these units can keep you satisfied.
How do we go about setting a hydroponics plan into motion?
There are a few options. Everyone has heard of the Aerogarden, but there are also off-brands that are much cheaper. The closest Aerogarden unit to my 12 space IDOO is the Bounty, holding nine plants with a price point of $262 on Amazon as of this writing. My IDOO unit was $79 on sale.
The only difference between my unit and the name brand, aside from the name, is that my unit holds 12 plants versus nine in theirs, and it doesn’t tell me exactly when to add water and nutrients. I have to think for myself on that point. Happily, there is a nice window so I can see the water level, and I just add nutrients when I add water. So I’m good!
I have no doubt that a good DIY’er could make their own. My unit consists of a tank that holds four liters of water, a top panel that has twelve holes for plants, a small aquarium pump, and an LED light panel on a bar that I can raise & lower as needed.
The light panel consists of white, blue, and red spectrum bulbs. The panel is one concern: if any of the lights burn out, I’m sure I’ll have to replace the entire panel. I haven’t seen an advertised replacement part, so I don’t know about compatibility, but I’m an optimist. There’s also a small fan and a light timer, both integrated into the LED panel. The panel options include turning the fan & water pump on & off, as well as preset selections for ‘vegetables’ and ‘fruits/flowers.’ I’m not sure how complex the panels of other units are.
Other components of the kit are the baskets, and the grow sponges, both of which are easily replaceable and not terribly expensive. There are plastic spacers to cover holes that don’t have plants in them. I’m finding that my greens grow well enough that they’ll crowd out other plants if I’m not careful, so planting all twelve holes isn’t necessary or even practical.
Right now, I have eight holes planted, and I’m getting a few salad greens every day. Not quite a bowl full, but more than a mouthful, if that makes sense. Daily. I trim the older leaves daily for munching. It’s been six weeks since the initial setup. So I can see how having 2-3 of these would provide all of the salad and sandwich greens one person could eat.
(Since we’re talking about growing your own food hydroponically, why not look at other ways to bolster your food independence by reading our free QUICKSTART Guide to home canning?)
But how about those replacement sponges?
While I expect the plastic baskets will last quite a while, the sponges won’t. I’ve already tried removing the plant and saving the sponge, to no avail. The sponge was too shredded to reuse. Replacement sponges are available for about $0.50 USD each, but why? Why should I buy what I can make so much more cheaply? When I can make my own grow sponges from peat moss or even a kitchen sponge if it’s not imbued with chemicals for far less? For more information on making your own grow sponges, go here:
What about nutrients?
No plant grows in water alone, and those nutrient solutions can also be a bit pricey. Plants, in general, require ten essential nutrients, and those nutrients must be in a form the plant can utilize. I did purchase the Aerogarden liquid plant formula just to get started and to see what it contains. My IDOO unit came with two bottles, A and B, in pellet form.
The Aerogarden bottle contains standard forms of NPK, calcium, and magnesium. The IDOO nutrient pellets win out here: in addition to the above, they contain iron, manganese, copper, zinc, and boron. Much better!
But do I really want to buy this stuff forever, or can I make my own?
I can! In fact, I can make my nutrient solution from compost tea. All it takes is a 5-gallon bucket, a few shovels full of my good home compost, and a strainer to strain out the chunks after I’ve soaked it for three days. I can also make a good nutrient solution from fertilizers I have around the house: seed meal, lime, bone meal, gypsum, and kelp. Another recipe uses seaweed and Epsom salts, or yeah, you can channel your inner chemist and make yours from food-grade chemicals.
Lastly, we need seeds.
Both Aerogarden and IDOO, and I suspect any other worthwhile kit you can find, offers various seed pods. But why? Since I save my garden seeds, I have plenty! So why spend money on their choice of seed when I can plant my own and grow what I want to eat? Enough said.
There are a ton of these kits available, so I’ll trust you, dear reader, to do your own due diligence with respect to your needs, budget, and space. If you can make your own, so much the better!
- Trim those roots. Roots grow surprisingly long and can foul your pump if you’re not careful. So give them a trim on a regular basis.
- Adding hydrogen peroxide can save you a bit of trouble. A few drops of hydrogen peroxide in your tank can save you many nasty problems. Plants aren’t the only things that can grow in your tank water!
- Watch out for mold. I used filtered water and found that my sponges still got a bit moldy. Mold is no bueno, so keep an eye out for it.
- I don’t like nutrients in pellet form. I find it takes some time to dissolve, even when swishing water to help the process along. The liquid form is MUCH easier to work with.
A tabletop hydroponics unit or three can be a valuable addition to your food plan.
You can easily grow greens, herbs, and even micro-tomatoes regardless of the season! If you’re interested in ways to cook and preserve your bounty, please consider the Seasonal Kitchen Companion! Not only will you get some ideas for cooking whole foods simply, but you’ll also learn about buying groceries in season and preserving your bounty. Buy it today and add another layer to your self-reliant food plan!
What are your thoughts on tabletop hydroponics units? Do you utilize any in your home? What brands have you had the most success with? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.