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DIY Hydroponics Systems (Part 1) || Growing in the Garden

Growing in the Garden blog posts originally aired in 2019 as a radio show produced by the Food Sovereignty Initiative for KOYA 88.1 FM, the community radio station owned and operated by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. They have been transcribed and adapted to be shared here as a community resource.

Hello, Rosebud! As the spring and summer progresses, we’re going to be talking a lot about gardening and what’s going on at the Keya Wakpala Garden in Mission. But we are also aware that not everyone has tons of space to grow food, and that getting materials and tools like dirt, compost, and shovels isn’t always the easiest. So this week, we want to talk about some DIY hydroponics growing you can do at home. Which may beg the question, what are hydroponics?

Essentially, hydroponic growing is the method of growing plants in water. No dirt or soil required! There are a surprising number of herbs and vegetables that you can grow using this method.

First, the basics. The two items you absolutely need are water and containers. Try to avoid using chlorinated water directly, as it contains a bleaching chemical that isn’t good for the plants. Spring water or well water is best, because they already contain some dissolved minerals that can be good for the plants. Alternatively, you can collect rainwater and use that. If none of the above options are available, then we recommend filling a container with tap water, and leaving it to sit out overnight before using.

Next, the containers. You can use either glass or plastic, although glass is preferable for the plants. Plant roots will actually grow away from the light, so if you have colored bottles, those work best. If there are no colored bottles available, that’s okay! You can always wrap a piece of paper around the bottle so that the roots will be somewhat in the dark. The other aspect to consider is the shape of the container. Plants like to have a little support. Using containers that have a narrow mouth will support any plant cuttings you may put in there. Just make sure they’re not too tight: roots need to breathe and if the mouth is too small, it might prevent airflow.

Hydroponic seedlings growing in the GrowWall at the SFSI office, March 2020.

Alright! So we have the containers filled with water, what’s the next step?

Choosing what you want to grow! Not all herbs or plants will succeed in a complete water environment.

Some popular herbs to grow hydroponically are: peppermint and spearmint. These are both very easy to grow in water. Any new cuttings can be put into a different container to grow new plants. Oregano, which has an aromatic smell and is a great savory seasoning, is also an option! As soon as your oregano plant starts growing well, pinch the growing tips.

Another popular herb that you can grow in water is basil. This herb needs good light and likes the warmth of kitchens. You can take cuttings from this plant any time before it begins to flower. Sage is another herb that needs good light when grown in water. Sage can also be prone to mildew, so make sure it has a good airflow!

Hydroponic basil cuttings. Notice the roots growing in the second picture.

And have you ever seen stevia packets in restaurants or coffee shops (next to the little sugar packets)? Did you know that you can grow that plant? You can easily grow this naturally sweet herb in water at home! Place the cuttings in a warm and bright place - this plant likes light - and you’ll have a natural sweetener for teas and other beverages.

The last two herbs we’ll talk about today are thyme and rosemary. If you are trying to grow thyme, make sure you take cuttings that are green in color, since older growth that is stiff and brown will not sprout as easily. Mid-spring to early summer are the best times to take cuttings, before the plant starts to flower. You should put any thyme cuttings in water immediately, as the stems will dry out pretty quickly. If you need to, you can always mist the top of the plant with water using a spray bottle. Once the plant starts growing, cut the stems to promote branching.

Finally, you can grow rosemary in water. This herb takes a little longer to root and grow, but the wait is worth it! Just put it in a sunny spot, wait patiently for a few weeks and soon you’ll have some delicious rosemary to season your food with.

A hand built hydroponics system for herbs and fresh greens, made using parts all readily available at hardware stores. This system is one of two built by the high school technology teacher in Greenport, NY, and provides fresh produce for the school cafeteria.

A few notes on upkeep and taking care of your water herbs. Since they do not have soil to provide nutrients and minerals, you will probably need to add some fertilizers to ensure your herbs stay healthy and strong. You can use regular fertilizer (make sure to dilute it with some water first), or fertilizers that are specifically designed for plants growing in hydroponics systems.

As we mentioned earlier, plants like to have some support to help them grow. Soil provides a natural support system, but in the case of hydroponics, you can place some sand or gravel at the bottom of your containers to provide more support to your growing plants.

We hope you find this information useful, and that you try some indoor growing this season. There’s nothing like fresh herbs to make a meal taste delicious. If you ever have any questions, message us on Facebook!

Thanks again for listening to Growing in the Garden. Pila Maya Pelo!

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