Is Hydroponic Gardening for You? How to Grow Lush, Delicious Veggies and Herbs Indoors.

published Apr 24, 2023
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Basil growing in hydroponic greenhouse
Credit: Steve Cicero / Getty Images

Maybe you’ve seen them in your favorite celeb’s kitchen (Zoë Saldana grows basil in hers), or peeking out on Pinterest  — those modern, molded plastic towers with a mid-century, space-age vibe, crafted in a style akin to Eames chairs and Nelson bubble lamps. They’re so chic, it’d be easy to mistake them for pieces of art — except for the lettuce, flowers, and herbs sprouting out of their sides. Because, of course, these towers aren’t furniture or art pieces — they’re hydroponic gardens!

For those of us who struggle to keep a single houseplant alive, the word hydroponic can sound intimidating —  but don’t be scared. Think of hydroponics as a place where backyard garden dreams meet 600-square-foot apartment realities. Hydroponically grown plants (meaning, literally, plants grown in water) are nothing new, and have actually been around for thousands of years. While the latest design advances make the process pain-free (and super pretty), the basic idea is quite simple: Growing veggies without soil (and without compost, digging, or weeding) makes things a lot easier to grow, and not to mention much more realistic for those of us with tiny urban kitchens.

Like all plants, this method requires sunlight and water. A good hydroponic system supplies the “sun” (using a special light), plus the nutrients found in soil (i.e., a special liquid plant food that’s added to the water). If you’re lucky enough to have access to a fire escape, a giant sunny window, a porch, or a rooftop, then you can skip the light, of course.

The coolest thing about this method of growing your own greens and herbs might be its flexibility. You could go high-end, with farmstands like the ones from Zooey Deschanel’s Lettuce Grow company — or, you could go dirt cheap (ha!) by DIYing your own system with buckets and $10 grow lights.

Whether you choose a self-sufficient style or go a more DIY route, plant coach and urban gardener Farmer Nick Cutsumpas of GardenTok fame shared some great insights on growing your own veggies hydroponically. 

“The beauty of growing indoors is that you don’t need to worry as much about where the plant originally grows,” Cutsumpas said. “When you grow indoors, you can manipulate your indoor environment and experiment with unique varieties that wouldn’t survive in your outdoor environment.” 

Generally, he noted, seasonality is huge when it comes to picking plants — plants like leafy greens, snap peas, and Brussels sprouts love the cool damp temperatures of spring, while summer is best for cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash — but these factors matter a whole lot less when hydroponic gardening.

If the price tag of some of these gardening systems is deterring you from hydroponic gardening, we gathered some tips on how to get started yourself  in just a few hours (for just a few bucks) from YouTube’s favorite expert hydroponic gardener, Mike VanDuzee. In this video, he shares his best “training wheels” for newbies looking to get their indoor herbs on.

  1. Containers: “Basically any container that holds water will work.” But as VanDuzee points out, algae loves light — and you don’t want algae! But if you’re using a clear container, like a Mason Jar, “you’re going to want to block out the light. You can use paint, burlap, even old socks.” Or even better, dig up something opaque, like a milk jug.
  2. Plant cups: “You can buy net cups or take a slice off a pool noodle,” VanDuzee says. The purpose of these cups is to suspend the plants, keeping them upright in the water.
  3. Rockwool: These are the little squares with holes in them, they feel almost like cotton candy. You start seeds in them. “Put a piece of rockwool in your net cup, then in the middle, we put a few seeds into it.”
  4. Nutrients: VanDuzee recommends a mixture of plant foods that are easily available on Amazon:  Masterblend Tomato and Vegetable Formula, 4-18-38, Epsom salt, and Calcium Nitrate 15.5-0-0. He mixes 12 grams of the Masterblend formula, 12 grams of the Calcium Nitrate, and 6 grams of Epsom salt in a five-gallon bucket of water, stirring until it’s all dissolved. 
  5. Plants: Now, for the fun part — you can start with seeds in rockwool, or you can just head on over to your local garden shop to grab some starter plants. VanDuzee recommends leafy greens and herbs, like lettuces, chard, kale, basil, and mint. Simply rinse off the roots, stick them into the net cups or pool noodles, make sure the nutrient-rich water is touching the bottom of the plant roots, and start growing!

Mike’s favorite tip: The water level will drop after a bit, but don’t fill it back up to the top of your container. Here’s why: After a short time, you’ll notice tiny fuzzy roots growing at the base of your plant. VanDuzee says these can’t be submerged — it’s actually how the plants “breathe.” For the healthiest plants, his rule of thumb is to keep your container about 3/4 to 1/2 full with the water-nutrient mix.