Introduction: Hydroponic Drip Garden for Vegetables, Herbs or Flowers

Picture of Hydroponic Drip Garden for Vegetables, Herbs or Flowers

The picture below shows the two hydroponic drip systems I built that are covered by this instructable. The prototype system was built about 3 weeks prior to the taking of the picture. All the plants currently residing in the prototype are between 1 and 2 1/2 weeks old. The prototype has been working so well I build a second system for plant staging. This instructable chronicles the construction of the second system, as well as growing progress updates in Step 15.

How the System Works
The hydroponic nutrients are stored in the black plastic box. A water pump inside the box pumps the nutrients up to the drip lines at the top, thus providing nutrient solution to the grow media (clay balls in my case) and plants inside the white plastic pots. The nutrients will drain out the bottom of the plastic pots which is then collected by the recessed yellow lid that the pots sit on. Holes in the lid allow the nutrients to drain back into the black plastic box. I currently have a timer that waters the plants for 15 minutes every hour that the light is on, and then twice more during the night.

Hydroponic Systems; What is best for you?
I have been using two basic hydroponic systems: Raft and Drip. Other hydroponic systems include: Ebb and Flow, Nutrient Film, Aeroponic and Fog.
The raft system works by floating the plants right on top of the nutrient solution. An air pump and air stone are used to aerate the nutrients. The raft system is really good for growing lettuce but most plants thrive better without their roots submerged right in the nutrients.
The drip system works in much the same way that plants normally get watered. Nutrients are provided to the top of the grow media by gravity or a pump which draws much needed oxygen into the media as the nutrients drain out. This method should work well for almost any type of plant. Pump failure and cloged drip lines are the down side of this method.
The Ebb and Flow system is a popular system for home hydroponics. Pots are placed in a tub that is flooded with a couple inches of nutrients using a water pump. This waters the pots from the bottom up. After the tub is flooded, the pump is turned off and the tub drains back into the nutrient reservoir. One downside of this type of system is you need a large reservoir to hold all the nutrients necessary for flooding the tub as well as enough left over so the pump does not run dry. Like the drip system you also have the possibility of pump failure.
The Nutrient Film system works by placing the plant roots on a thin layer of flowing nutrients. From what I have read, these systems are hard to set up and thus not a good place to start for the home hydroponic enthusiast.
The Aeroponic and Fog systems work by atomizing the nutrients which the roots are sprayed with, or suspended in. This can be a very powerful method for growing plants as the atomized solution contains much oxygen, which the roots thrive in. Most of the home bought systems labeled as "Aeroponic" are not really aeroponic system though. These home systems use small fountain pumps and spray nozzles to spray the bottom of net cups and roots. The tiny fountain pumps cannot produce the kind of pressure necessary to atomize the nutrient solution so the gain over a drip or ebb and flow system are questionable. I have avoided these systems as the tiny spray nozzles seem more likely to clog than the larger drip emitters. Fog systems are fairly new and I do not know about the reliability or availability of these systems for the home hydroponic enthusiast.

Step 1: Materials Needed

Picture of Materials Needed

Here are the items you will need:
1 - 27 gallon heavy duty plastic storage box with recessed plastic lid
10' of 1/2" PVC pipe
5 - 90 deg PVC elbows
3 - PVC T connectors
1 - 3/4" to 1/2" PVC reducer
1 - 3/4" PCV pipe to 3/4" Male Thread connector
4 - 1/2" PVC J-Hook Hangers
1 - Male Quick Disconnect to male 3/4" hose thread
1 - Female Quick Disconnect to female 3/4" hose thread
1 - 1/2" hose barb to female 3/4" hose thread
1 - rubber washer with filter screen
3' of 1/2" flexible rubber hose
1 - Active Aqua PU160 water pump
12' 1/4' O.D. drip line hose
12 - Drip stakes or drip nozzles with tie down stakes
12 - Square Plastic pots sized to fit 3 across top of tote lid
1 - 24 Hr timer with 15 minute on/off timing intervals

The first 11 items on the list were all purchased from Home Depot and can be picked up at most hardware stores. The remaining item were purchased from a local hydroponics store in Billerica MA []. I highly recommend them if you are local; If not most items can be picked up via the WEB or at a local garden supply shop. I purchased everything new for a total cost of about $70.

Tools Needed
Miter box and miter saw or hack saw for cutting PVC
Sand paper, small round file, or deburring tool to debur cut PVC
PVC purple primer and cement adhesive
Electric Drill with assorted bits
1" speedbor bit or 1" hole saw
Awl or Nail to place drill starting mark in PVC
Utility knife

Hydroponic Supplies Needed
Your choice of hydroponic nutrients (I'm using Botanicare Pure Blend Pro)
Your choice of grow media (I used about 15 liters of clay balls)

Step 2: Box Setup

Picture of Box Setup

The lid of the plastic box needs to be solid enough to support the weight of the pots and plants without significant bowing. The lid must also be recessed to capture the nutrient solution as it drains from the pots. Drain holes in the lid will then allow the nutrients to drain back into the box. Heavy duty stacking storage boxes like this can be found most large hardware stores.

You will want to select square pots that will set flat 3 across the recessed part of the plastic lid (see first photo). You should also be able to get 4 pots along the length of the lid as well as a 1" space between each half dozen pots (see second photo). As you can see from the photos the pots I selected are a good fit.

Measure from the top outside edge to top outside edge of 2 pots lined up side by side, as well as 3 pots lined up side by side. the yellow note boxes in the second photo indicate the measurements to be made.

In my case 2 pots measure about 10 3/4" and 3 pots measure about 16".

With these measurements in hand, let's get to cutting.

Step 3: Cutting the PVC Pipe

Picture of Cutting the PVC Pipe

Now take your 1/2" PVC pipe and cut the following pieces:
2 - The length of three pots + 1/4"
(in my case that is 16" + 1/4" = 16 1/4" total)
4 - The length of two pots + 1/4"
(in my case that is 10 3/4" + 1/4" = 11" total)
2 - one half the length of three pots - 3/4"
(In my case that is ( 16 - 3/4" ) / 2 = 7 5/8". Sorry about the math)
2 - 2" long pieces

I used my cheap plastic miter box and saw to cut the PVC (first photo). You can use a hack saw without the miter box, but I like how the miter box squares up the ends. Once you have all the pieces cut, use some sand paper, a small round file, or deburring tool to remove the plastic burrs left over from cutting (second photo). Make sure you blow out any loose plastic bits once you are done deburring as they can clog the drip lines.

The cut PVC pieces as well as the PVC fittings are shown in the last photo in their final positions prior to assembly.

Step 4: Drill Selection for Drip Line

Picture of Drill Selection for Drip Line

Select a drill bit one size smaller than the outer diameter (O.D.) of the drip line. My drip line was 1/4" O.D. so I selected a 7/32" drill bit. Take a piece of the left over 1/2" PVC (not one of the pieces you cut in the last step!) and drill a hole in he side of the PVC using the 7/32" drill bit. Remove any plastic burrs with a utility knife (be careful not to cut yourself). Only cut at the surface as you do not want to change the hole diameter.

Take a small piece of the drip line tubing and cut the end of the tube at a 45 degree angle. Now try to insert the end of the drip tube in the hole you drilled. You should find that the hole is smaller than the tubing and the tubing does not want to go in (see second photo). If it does slide in, you will need to select a smaller drill bit.

To get the tube into the hole I found I could place my thumb nail against the tubing with one hand, while I grasped the tubing with the other hand, then I pushed and twisted the tubing back and forth. The inserted tubing made a nice pressure fitting that does no leak. If you can not get the tubing in, try soaking about 1/4" of the drip tubing end briefly in hot tap water. this will soften the tubing and should make it easier to insert. If you still can't get the tubing in, you may have to go up a drill size. In the end you want as tight a fit as you can get though.

Step 5: Drilling Drip Line Holes

Picture of Drilling Drip Line Holes

Take the two longest pipe pieces (16 1/4" in my case) and place a mark 1 1/2" from one end of both pieces. Now make a second mark further down the same side of the PVC pipe the exact width of the top of one of the pots. In my case the width of the top of one of the pots was about 5 1/3". Now make a third mark further down the same side of the PVC pipe again the width of the top of one of the pots. The marks on the long pieces should look similar to the first photo.

Now take the two shorter PVC pieces (7 5/8" pieces in my case) and place marks 1 1/2" from both ends of both pieces on the same side. Once you have done that place one more mark half way between the two end marks. The location of the marks should look similar to those in the first photo.

A vice clamp can be handy at this point. Open the jaws slightly more than the width of the PVC tube. Lay an old t-shirt over the clamp jaws and press the PVC tubing down into the clamp jaws as shown in the second photo. tighten the clamp just enough to hold the PVC tubing (you don't want to crack it). Now use an awl or nail to indent the PVC tube at one of the marks (see third photo). Using the drill bit found in the last step, drill through one side of the PVC tube (do not drill through the back side of the PVC tube or you will have a leak on your hands!). Repeat these steps for all 12 marks.

Finally, use a utility knife to remove any plastic burrs left over from the drilling. As in the last step, remove only surface material and do not deform the hole size (see last photo). Make sure you remove any loose PVC material as it can plug the drip lines.

Step 6: Assemble PVC Sides

Picture of Assemble PVC Sides

NOTE: Purple primer and PVC cement are used to attach all PVC fittings to the PVC pipes. If you have not done this before it is fairly simple. Just read and follow the the instructions and safety precautions on the cans.

Attach a 90 deg PVC elbow to the end of each of the 4 mid-sized pieces without drill holes (First photo). Once the fittings are attached, allow the cement to cure for a couple minutes before proceeding.

The second photo shows how to attach two of the pieces assembled in the first photo to one of the long PVC pipes with drill holes. Assemble one side at a time. While assembling the first side make sure that the drill holes point strait up, away from work surface shown in the second photo. Allow a couple minutes for the joint to cure. Then join the second elbow to the long pipe. While holding the joint in place, quickly press the whole assembled unit down on a flat work surface before the cement dries. Both elbows as well as the two open pipe ends should touch the work surface as shown in the third photo. If they don't all touch your final PVC assembly will be cocked.

Use the same procedure above with the remaining two pieces assembled in the first photo with the remaining long PVC pipe with drill holes. Once complete the two assembled pieces should look like the fourth photo.

Step 7: Assemble PVC Middle

Picture of Assemble PVC Middle

NOTE: Purple primer and PVC cement are used to attach all PVC fittings to the PVC pipes. If you have not done this before it is fairly simple. Just read and follow the the instructions and safety precautions on the cans.

Attach one of the PCV T-fittings to the end of one of the shorter PVC pipes with drill holes. Orient as shown in the first photo with the T-fitting flat on the work surface, and the drill holes pointing straight up from the work surface. Repeat this procedure for the other short PCV pipe with drill holes and a second T-fitting.

The second photo shows the orientation of the two units just assembled with a third T-fitting. Note that the holes in the PVC pipe are not seen as they are facing the work surface. Attach the T-fitting in the middle to one of the assembled short pipes. Be sure to orient the T-fitting so that it is pointing straight up from the work surface down, while the drill holes face straight down into the work surface. Allow the joint to cure for a couple minutes. Now attach the other end of the T-fitting to the remain short pipe end. While holding the joint in place, quickly press the whole assembled unit down on a flat work surface before the cement dries. Both end T-fittings should lie flat on the work surface with drill holes all facing the work surface as shown in the third photo.

The orientation of the two sides with respect to the middle assembly is shown in the third photo. Note that all drill holes face the work surface. Assemble one joint at a time and allow the joint to cure before moving onto the next joint. Also be sure to press each assembly down on the work before the cement dries to keep the entire assembled unit flat. The PVC will flex enough to allow primer and cement to be applied before closing each rectangle. Final assembly is shown in the fourth photo.

Step 8: Final PVC Assembly

Picture of Final PVC Assembly

NOTE: Purple primer and PVC cement are used to attach all PVC fittings to the PVC pipes. If you have not done this before it is fairly simple. Just read and follow the the instructions and safety precautions on the cans.

The orientation of the final PVC fittings and remaining 2" pipe pieces is shown in the first photo. The assembly order is not important. Just start at one end and work your way to the other. Once everything is assembled it should look like the second photo.

Finally attach the 1/2" pipe end of the assembled unit to the T-fitting of the final unit assemble in the last step. The last photo shows the orientation of the two assemblies.

Step 9: Adding Drip Lines and Legs

Picture of Adding Drip Lines and Legs

Using the utility knife or scissors, cut 12 - 12" long pieces of the drip tubing. One end of each tube should be cut at a 45 degree angle for insertion into the PVC holes. Insert a drip tube into each of the 12 drill holes using the same method as in step 4. The first photo shows the PVC assembly with drip tubes installed.

Clip a 1/2" PVC J-hook hanger about 1" from each of the 90 degree elbows as shown in the second and third photos. It was very difficult to snap on the j-hooks, but once on they made nice legs for the assembly.

The j-hook legs should stand evenly on the plastic lid. Optimally the legs are placed to stand in a recessed area of the lid to hold the assembly in place (See last photo).

I did not glue the j-hooks in place but you could if you wanted to make sure they did not come off.

Step 10: Hose Assembly

Picture of Hose Assembly

The first photo shows the hose assembly pieces.

Insert the 1/2" hose barb into the 1/2" flexible hose and attach as instructed. If the female 3/4" hose thread end came with a rubber washer, remove it and insert the rubber washer with filter screen as shown in the second photo. The filter screen will help to trap particles that could plug the drip lines. You should check and clean the filter screen as necessary. Now screw the Male Quick Disconnect into the female hose thread as shown in the third photo.

If your female quick disconnect to female 3/4" hose thread is fitted with a one way valve you will want to remove it. To check for a one way valve look through the end of the female quick disconnect. If you can not see out the other end of the quick disconnect it contains a one way valve. I was able to use a standard screw driver to punch out the one way valve. The fourth photo shows the one way valve that was removed. The one way valve will impede the flow of nutrients and serves no purpose here so it is best to remove it.

Finally, screw the female quick disconnect onto the 3/4" PVC hose thread as shown in the last photo.

Step 11: Drill Drain Holes in Lid and Install Pump

Picture of Drill Drain Holes in Lid and Install Pump

Use a 1/8" drill bit to drill drain holes in the lid as shown in the first and second photo. You will want to have drain holes in the center of the lid as sell as out near the 4 corners of the lid. Also note that the drill holes should be in the lowest channels of the lid where the nutrients would pool.

I used an awl to mark the pattern shown in the second photo, then drilled each mark using an 1/8" drill bit. I drilled many smaller holes rather than a couple large holes as this helps to keep any large material (such as the grow media) from falling into the box. Using a utility knife remove any plastic burrs left over from drilling.

Now choose the corner you would like the hose and pump cord to exit. Use a 1" hole saw or speed bore bit to cut a hole in the desired corner as shown in the third photo. Check to see if the plug of the pump fits through the hole. If it does not carefully widen the hole with a utility knife so the plug passes through. Using use some sand paper, a small round file round over the edges of the hole so it will not cut into the 1/2 hose or power cord.

Insert the water pump into the lowest recess of the plastic box in the corner the hole was drilled in (see fourth photo). Extract the pump power cord up through the hole in the lid leaving enough inside the box so that it does not pull on the pump. Now run the unconnected end of the 1/2" hose down through the hole and attach the hose to the water pump as shown in the fourth and fifth photos.

Step 12: Checking Operation

Picture of Checking Operation

Put the PVC assembly on the plastic box lid and attach the hose end of the quick disconnect to the PVC end of the quick disconnect. Now place the 12 pots inside the two rectangles as shown in the first photo.

With the water pump unplugged, pour about 5-10 gallons of water into the large plastic box. Do this by pouring the water into the top of the pots slowly and allowing the water to drain into the plastic box through the holes drilled in the lid. This is a good test to make sure the lid drains well. Lift the lid slightly on the end with the hose and check to make sure the water pump is fully under water and firmly attached to the bottom of the plastic box. Close the lid again. Lightly insert the drip stakes or drip emitters to be used in the ends of the drip hoses. If you do not attach the drip stakes / drip emitters you may find that the pump cannot pump enough water to keep all the drip lines flowing. Plug in the water pump and look to see that water is flowing from each drip line. Allow the pump to run for half an hour and check that all lines are flowing and that no water is leaking out of any of the PVC or drip line connections. Unplug the water pump.

Step 13: Adding Grow Media and Drip Stakes

Picture of Adding Grow Media and Drip Stakes

The pots I used have large holes in the bottom that would allow the clay grow media to fall out so I cut a small piece of screen and inserted it into the bottom of each pot (see first photo). Fill all the pots with grow media of your choice. I used clay balls for my grow media. Insert the drip stake near the middle of the pot, but towards the edge nearest where the drip line exits the PVC. Shorten the drip line to the appropriate length and attach to the drip stake as shown in the second photo.

The third photo shows an alternate watering method using inline and terminating drip emitters along with a hose stake. This way works very well also, and drip emitters are sometimes easier to find than drip stakes. Harbor Freight sells a very inexpensive drip kit for about $6 which I used in the construction of the drip system in the third photo. You will need two of these kits as each kit only contains 10 inline and 10 terminating emitters.

UPDATE: The single stake emitter does not saturate the grow media as well as the two emitter system. The plants with the two emitters seem to do better than the ones with a single emitter. They both work, but I recommend using the two emitter system for best results.

Step 14: Operating the System.

Picture of Operating the System.

Your hydroponic garden is ready for planting. Follow the planting instructions for the particular type of plant and media you are using. Note that the pots used in this system are good for small to medium sized plants. Most herbs and flowers as well as small plants like strawberries and beans should work well. Large plants such as tomatoes need more space as well as a larger pot size to really thrive, thus are not a good choice to grow in these small pots. Note that 4 pots could be removed to allow a larger (roughly 4X) sized pot to be added. This would allow you to grow larger sized plants such as tomatoes. The 4 drip tubes could all be used to feed the large pot providing an abundance of nutrients.

Staging Plants
I built two of these systems to allow plant staging. One system can contain Grow nutrients for vegetative plants like basil and spinach as well as be used to get flowering plants through their initial vegetative phase. The second system can contain Bloom nutrients for plants in their flowering and fruiting phase. Since all the pots are the same size, they can easily be swapped between the two systems.

The third photo shows a plant growing in a black plastic bag inside the white plastic pot. These grow bags can be purchased cheep at most hydroponic stores. This allows you to start tomatoes or other large plants using this system and when the plant gets large enough, the bag is removed from the pot and placed in a larger pot (such as the large bato buckets seen in the back of the second photo). The bag is then cut away and more grow media is added to fill the large bucket. This way if you have a single drip system for your large buckets (as I do) you can keep it flowing with Bloom nutrients only.

Adding Nutrient Solution to the System
I mix up the nutrients and water in a 5-gallon pail, and then I pump the nutrients onto the yellow lid and allow it to drain into the main reservoir. I use the same type of pump that is used in the system. This way I have a spare pump if one of the system pumps fail. If you do not want to buy a second pump you can either siphon or pour the nutrient solution onto the lid.
UPDATE: Currently I am mixing 5-gallon batches and adding more nutrient solution once the solution gets low. I check the amount of nutrient solution in the box but using a dip stick. Poke a thin stick down into the box through the hole the power cord / hose come out. You could add a level indicator to the system, but I would rather use a dip stick than drill holes in the body of the box personally. Follow the instructions for mixing and changing on whatever nutrients you decide to use.

Draining the Nutrient Solution from the System
Draining the nutrient solution is made simple by the quick disconnect. Unplug or shut off the pump. Then disconnect the hose from the PVC assembly. Place the hose in a bucket and turn on the pump. Pump out the nutrients until the pump starts to run dry. When the pump runs dry, the pump sound changes noticeably. At this point, turn off the pump, and reconnect the hose to the PVC assembly. You can tip the box toward the pump and get almost all the nutrients out if you want.

Operating the System
UPDATE:Get a mechanical timer that has 15-minute or 30-minute timing intervals. I currently have the timer set to water the plants for 30 minutes every hour that the light is on, and then once during the night for 30 minutes more. I was on a 15-minute per hour watering cycle, but I found larger plants did better on a 30-minute per hour watering cycle. It does not seem to matter to the small plants which cycle they are on.

Step 15: Progress Updates...

Picture of Progress Updates...

The hydroponic system had not been in use for very long as of the original instructable publication (about 4 weeks). I will add photos and commentary to this section for future progress reports on how the system is working. the plants are grown under a 400W high pressure sodium light and I am using Botanicare Pure Blend Pro Grow and Bloom nutrients per manufacturers recommendations.

First Photo taken 3/21/09. Peas, summer squash, and tomatoes planted. All plants 1-2weeks old. Second drip garden not built yet.

Second Photo taken 3/28/09. Added 2 new jalapeno and 2 new tomato plants. Second Drip garden just completed, but not planted yet.

Third photo taken 4/5/09: Comparing to the 3/28/09 photo you can see that the plants have come a long way. About 2 weeks has elapsed between the two photos. The squash plants already have little squash and multiple buds. I transplanted the squash into the larger Bato buckets, which have replaced 4 of the small pots each. This shows how larger pots can be used with this system. The new tomato and pea plants have more than quadrupled in size. The only plants that have not progressed much were my jalapeno plants. I think I planted them a little early and the nutrients were a little strong which burnt them slightly.

4th-7th Photos taken 4/18/09: The 4th photo shows that the Peas have overtaken the meager trellis I built for them. I have now moved the two larger (6 week) tomato plants into the larger Bato buckets as seen in the 5th photo. The 6th photo shows that my jalapeno plants have recovered and are doing well. Finally I moved the summer squash Bato buckets onto the Bato drip system which is running only bloom nutrients. I think I may have to move the squash outside as I think they will get too big for my small grow area.

The 8th photo taken on 3/21/09 shows a tomato plant at 8 weeks grown exclusively in a Bato bucket. The tomato plant was about 2' tall and well into the flowering stage but did not have any fruit at this point. The 9th photo shows the same tomato plant at 12 weeks. The tomato plant is now over 4' tall and has dozens of smaller tomatoes (up to 1.5") and is still flowering.

The 10-12th photos taken on 5/5/09: The Peas in the 10th photo are flowering and about 2.5' high. Once the Peas are harvested I intend to grow green beans. I have read that green beans provide significantly more yield than peas. The 11th and photos shows the continued growth of tomato, pepper and squash plants. The squash plant is definitely moving outside once the weather gets warmer.

The 13th-15th photos taken on 5/17/09: Well it has been about 2 months since I started to keep track of the progress. The peas that were started at the beginning of this project are now 2.5' tall, still flowering and are now being harvested. The tomatos started at the beginning of this project are over 3' tall, flowering and bearing small tomatos. I am going to try to keep the tomatos pruned to under 4' tall. The jalapeno plants are really starting to take off and have started budding. With the tomato plants moving to the Bato system, space has opened up to plant basil, oregano, mint, and strawberries. The grow room is really turning into a jungle.

The 16th - 18th photos were taken on 6/14/09: Three months since I started keeping track of progress. I have been harvesting Tomatos, Banana Peppers, Bell Peppers, Lettuce and Snow Peas for the last month (see harvest section - step 16). The grow room is a regular jungle. The Peas are at peak production and appear to be slowing. I intend to replace the Peas with Green Beans. Photo 18 shows a couple of my Green Bean plants only 1 week after planting seeds. I choose a bush variety and hope to keep them under 3' tall. I have planted the beans in rockwool cubes as well as clay balls to see if which medium works best. I have a smaller bush tomato plant that I will try when some of my larger plants quit producing.

At this point I am going to stop tracking progress unless I get comments to do otherwise. It is a good amount of work keeping this page updated, and it is not clear that it is adding anything more to the project to keep it going. Clearly the drip garden has been successful.

Step 16: Harvest Updates

Picture of Harvest Updates

Per request I am adding a harvest update section.

The first five pictures were taken on 5/31/09. I have been harvesting produce for about 2+ weeks now. The first photo is of my Banana Peppers. You can see there are quite a few. The Banana Peppers are sweet (not hot) and very tastey on a salad. The second photo shows one of my bell peppers. There are many small bells (quarter size or smaller) and this one big one. The small ones have been growing extremely slowly, but seem to be taking off now. I have not harvested any bells yet. The Third photo shows some of the Peas that are growing. I get a handful of these every couple days. They taste great! Fourth photo is of my ripening tomatoes. They have been on the vine a very long time (17 weeks) and ripened really late. I think it might be because I have been supplying them with a lot of nutrient. I am going to try cutting off the nutrients on the next plant once the tomatoes are ready to ripen. I have harvested sever over the last couple weeks. The tomatoes are not as flavorful as I hoped. I'm trying a different variety next time. The fifth photo shows the days harvest which is going into my daily salad. It is quite satisfying to eat something you have grown.

The 6th photo was taken on 6/14/09 and shows the Jalapeno plants are bearing fruit. They are still small and I don't expect to be picking them for another week or two. I also added a picture of my Lettuce raft. I need to re-populate the raft after several of the sites went bad. I think I let the PH get too low. My friend has a lettuce raft that is producing all the salad he and his wife can eat. I hope to get mine back to that level soon.

Once I get this whole system tuned I figure I could be harvesting a couple salads a day. That would make the $1 I spend in electricity a day worth while.


makjetta (author)2014-12-04

Can you give some demensions on the pots? Im having a tough time tracking down these pots?

thanks much!!!!

reracingjp (author)makjetta2017-08-11

I purchase my pots from the local hydroponics store for $ .18-.40cents depending on size and using 3" pots you can get exactly 24 on one Costco tote lid that is my system as well as 12x 5" pots on the other tote. This system is great I also use a IKEA system useing their tote I prefer the Costco tote. My opinion over Costco tote vs home depot tote , Costco has a better brand over Home Depot PDX brand I had 2 crack and split leaking water every where.

dirty_valentine (author)makjetta2014-12-04

The pots were a little over 5" square at the top and about 6" tall. You should be able to use just about any 5" square pot. The important thing is that the pots fit on top of the lid. Just about any 5" pot should work with the large plastic tub I used. I wrote the instructions so that it would take into account different size pots. Good luck.

JamesC356 (author)2016-04-25

I live this setup. Im thinking of making about 10 of these. Trying to configure a way to link them all together and use a 55g drum for easy cleaning of water .rather then doing them all separatelyany ideas?

If you want to do a lot of these I would find or make a long tub that you can place all the pots in to catch the solution as it drains from the pots. Tilt the tub toward one end and place a hole near the base or in the bottom with a fitting that drain into your water tank. You could make a couple tubs that all drain into the same tank. Then pump the solution into a couple PVC pipes that run the length of the tub and tap the drip tubes into the PVC. This would be way simpler than building 10 of mine. This is actually similar to the way the Bato Buckets work as shown in the background of my photos.

Paracletos (author)2015-08-27

Is this garden outside or indoors

Indoor, but you could use it outdoors and then you would not need the grow light.

mpmuebles (author)2014-10-21

well done. Good project


scigazer (author)2014-10-10

i love this instructable!! :) good job!

gluvit (author)2014-04-18

Great job

diy_bloke (author)2012-12-15

Interesting. I always find it hard though to get the plants from tiny seedling to thrive in clay balls. tried raising them first in vermiculite (with nutrients) but that gives bad results. Any tips on what to do with the sprouts until big enough to put in the clay balls?

Start the seedlings off in peat pots of rock wool starters. Once the roots start appearing outside the pot/starter, plant the whole thing in the clay balls. The pot/starter provides the support for the seedling until the roots can establish in the clay balls. 've had good luck using this method.

I have not had great luck buying seedlings in dirt. You have to wash away the dirt before planting in the clay balls. I think this is pretty traumatic to the plant.

Thanks. I have bad results with rock wool. that is why I tried vermiculite. Oh well. I'll just keep trying.
I heard about washing away the dirt, indeed that seems pretty traumatic but maybe some plants can take it, but then you have to sort of spread out the roots amongst the clayballs

Dandeman321 (author)2012-10-01

Great instructable! Not sure if you're still monitoring this and responding to comments but I was wondering what the purpose of the PVC was? Why not use barbed tees like these:

I think it would save a chunk of change. Is it because the pressure of the water coming out of the pump is too high? and the larger PVC pipes allow it to slow down?

I was worried about the pots falling over as the plants grow larger so I used the PVC to provide support around the pots. Too much pressure is not a issue. In fact the pump used barely provides enough pressure to run all the drip tubes. If you run the pump without the drip ends on the tubes, nutrients will not flow out all of the tubes. With the drip ends on, it works fine though.

You totally could use the barbs and skip the PVC. Others have suggested that, and If I had to do everything over again, I might do just that. I would still want some kind of support around the pots for tall plants. Small plants are probably ok without the support as the clay balls weigh quite a bit.

Yeah that's what I was thinking. Also, I like the quick disconnect idea. You can easily disassemble the whole system to clean/service a single part or when you want to drain. You still using this system? Working good still? I'm thinking about building one this weekend and starting some plants for winter. I was going to do tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and give strawberries a try just for fun. Are these good beginner plants??

This system would be good for strawberries, but they are a perennial plant, so you would have to keep the system going year round. Personally I would use dirt for strawberries. You will find that it is a bit of work keeping a drip system going. I enjoy doing it through a growing cycle, but I prefer dirt for plants with a long life. Dirt is lower maintainence and tends to be more forgiving than hydro. The longer the system is run the more careful you need to be about the PH and PPM of the nutrient solution.

For tomatoes and peppers you will need bigger pots like the bato buckets I have in the back of my set up. You can just use bigger pots with this set up, but you will only get a couple per storage box. This system is good for starting large plants, or harvesting small plants (like pees, beans and herbs).

This system works well for letuce, but I recommend that you build a raft system for lettuce. Lettuce works very well with a raft system, and it is a lot less maintainance since it uses an air pump instead of a nutrient pump. Here is a link on how to build one:
I've found that you can start the lettuce in Jiffy peat pellets and when the roots start growing out of the peat pellet, you just drop it into the raft (skip the clay balls all together). They look pretty bad after being dropped in the solution but they recover in a day or two. use 1/2 or 1/4 strength nutrient to start.

At this point I mostly grow bananna peppers, tomatoes and lettuce. So I use the bato buckets and lettuce rafts and don't tend to use this system any more. It works great for small plants, but that is not really what I am into growing now.

Wow, thanks for all of the info and taking the time to respond! I was thinking about doing a few small pots for lettuce, maybe 1-2 tomatoes, a pepper plant or two, and then a couple strawberries. I mostly want to use the for 1 grow cycle, something to allow me to grow some stuff in the winter months. After one grow cycle I could always keep it going as long as I had the patience for. If the strawberries start to die out because the pH or PPM gets way out of wack, oh well.

I don't have a lot of room since I'm in an apartment, so a small experimental setup is a good start I think. I saw those lettuce raft designs and thought it was cool, I have a few air pumps leftover from my last hydroponics adventure so maybe I'll make a small one of those.

What system do you use now to grow your peppers and tomatoes? Something new?

If you are just starting out and have limited space start with lettuce and herbs. Skip the peppers and tomatoes as you will be disappointed in the results unless you have big enough space and pots for them to grow. Skip the strawberries too because they take a year or more before they really start bearing fruit.

For my peppers and tomatoes I use a bato bucket system:
You can see the bato buckets in the background of my grow area photo

Yeah I was thinking about space too. I mean, I'm not too cramped. My girlfriend and I share a 2 bedroom apartment. I should be able to find enough room in there, otherwise I could fit it along the sliding glass door window in our living room and get a bunch of natural light . Came up with a plan though. I'll have your system as the main grow area for the smaller plants. When the tomatoes and peppers, or any other plant I try like cucumbers, get too large for those I'm going to transfer them into those netted pot lids that fit on top of 5 gallon buckets. I have the air pumps already and I figure I'll have buckets around for de-chlorinating the water with air stones for the main system, why not use them for grow buckets. Buckets are cheap at lowes, 3 for $6 I think, and the lids are $5 each at the hydroponics store. Just need some air stones from walmart.

You can use clear tubing from airpump to airstone, right? No moisture no algae? Also, what size pots do you use for your larger plants? They sell 6 in and 10 in lid pots. Is 6 in large enough? or should I go with the 10?

Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions!

I highly recommend that you pick up a good book on hydroponics and read it before you start so you understand what you are doing. Since you are just starting out there is a lot you will need to know that will go far beyond what I am willing to answer in this forum. Two good books that I can think of are "How To Hydroponics" and "Hydroponics for Everyone". The first book gives very good description of different hydro systems you can build at home. The second book gives a good understanding of the hydroponic process, what to grow, and how to grow it. These books will provide all the information you need to get going and will save me a lot of typing. Good Luck.

Thanks for the suggestions! I've spent the last few days reading up on the whole process. A lot of good information. I've watched quite a few youtube videos on different parts of the process as well. I'd estimate I spent about 10-13 hours of reading/planning so far so I feel like I've got a pretty good grasp on the basics. I went through a 60 page hydroponics book as well. I feel pretty confident on my first go around. If something fails it'll just give me something else to fill up my free time with!

PhishyAl (author)2012-05-07

I cannot locate 1/2" PVC j-hooks anywhere. The smallest diameter of PVC pipe that I can seem to find is 1 1/2" j-hooks. Help.

dirty_valentine (author)PhishyAl2012-05-08

I have not looked for them in a while, but I did find mine at Home Depot. Do you have a Home Depot near you? If so did you ask someone in the plumbing department where they might be? I could not find them online at, but I did find a listing on the Lowes web site:

gneal (author)2011-07-05

Thanks for the post. I haven't actually done hydroponics since I took a section of my Manufacturing class in 9th grade. I want to start back into, but I don't know where to get the best hydroponic supplies. Have any suggestions?

brsullivan (author)gneal2012-03-20

Find a hydro supply store with good shipping rates. The biggest killer is always the shipping on these type of supplies. Local stores may be able to compete on price if you're lucky or if you can find what you want. Unfortunately there isn't a Walmart style hydro store.

Case in point... Farmtek sells some really nice NFT channels that I was going to buy for a small lettuce system (Can't find these locally). Pricewise they really aren't all that bad, so for ~$50 I could have had a decent sized system in the basement (Probably 30 heads of lettuce). However, they basically told me UPS won't ship anything over 7 ft. So of course if UPS ain't shipping it, it has to go freight. They have a flat charge of $120 for a freight shipment. So my $50 order basically jumped three fold in price just due to the shipping. You'd have to be starting a greenhouse to make it worth your while.

dirty_valentine (author)gneal2011-07-05

I bought my grow light off ebay, but I don't remember the seller. I have also purchased stuff from Discount Hydroponics ( They seem to have pretty good prices. Most of my hydroponic material was purchased locally at Greenlife ( Greenlife has stores in Billerica, MA and York, ME. If you can not find anything local there are plenty of online sited. Just google "hydroponic supplies" and have at it.

brsullivan (author)2012-02-10

Brilliant job! I just picked up one of those containers at Home Depot, can't believe how perfect they are and how cheap!

Couple of quick questions for you... are you aerating the solution at all with an air pump? What temp is your solution or I should say what is the general year round air temp?

I don't aerate the solution for any of my drip systems, only the lettuce raft. As for temperature of the solution it is just room temp. Unfortunately my grow room is in the basement which can get a little on the cool side (60-65F) during the winter months. This is my one complaint about the setup as I think my tomatoes would do better if it was warmer. It seems to take forever for the fruit to set and ripen. The lettuce on the other hand seems to love the cool. I could heat the room but it is not well insulated and I don't want to spend the money. Considering that the 400W lamp can not heat it adequately I would probably need a 1kW heater which would tipple the cost of the setup.

Thanks for the heads up. Mine are in my basement too which is the same temp, but my growth retardation on my green pepper plants is extreme which is why I asked. I've pretty much got a similar setup just using bato buckets w/ a 400W HPS.

I'm going to try aeration next, see if that helps and if that does nothing I might get a fish tank heater to raise the reservoir temp by 10 degrees. This is what's frustrating about hydro, when it's right it's really right and when it's wrong it could be one of a thousand things causing it.

Gotta say I also love your system for the portability potential. Just wash out the reservoir and you could use it as storage if you ever had to move!

My green peppers did not do great either. Like the tomatoes they were slow to fruit and ripen. They also tended to be small, but they taste great. I'm betting it is the either the temperature or limited light. This year I tried growing the peppers in pots with soil. Outside the peppers did very well over the summer, but inside they are slow to produce as usual. I used the same soil and nutrients. I did have very good luck growing banana peppers so you might try that.

I can pretty much confirm that temp is playing a roll here. I transplanted two tomato plants and 8 lettuce plants into my bato bucket system. I left a bunch of plants in my sprouting dome. After about 2 weeks the hydro system transplants are performing as follows: Lettuce is thriving and the tomatoes are slow growing. After the same time in the sprouting dome: Tomatoes are thriving, lettuce is slow growing. The dome gets much hotter than the hydro system since it is enclosed.

Also installed a bubbler which is only set to go on when the pump goes on, which is about ~3-4 minutes every 30 minutes (I have dripper tubes without the drip restrictor). So far it seems to be helping, but you are probably better setup to get reliable data on such an addition. At the very least, I no longer have to worry about giving them too much water.

Since my last post I sealed the room up and put a humidity sensor in there to vent the room when the humidity gets to 50%. The temperature is now hovering around 70-72F and the tomatoes seem to be improving. I had the humidity trip point at 65% originally, but I was starting to see mold, so I cut that it down to 50%. From past experience I know you need to be careful about letting the humidity get too high during the growth phase. I had a bunch of trouble with the tomato stems damping off just above the ceramic substrate when I started this project.

Just thought of a great idea...

One of the drawbacks of your system is multiple reservoirs. With a 400 watt light you can definitely squeeze two of your systems comfortably in, maybe 3-4 if it's a tight squeeze (Lower light and high ceilings). Anyway to prevent having to manage multiple reservoirs you could just create some sort of fixed siphon tube between the two reservoirs. Have the pump in one reservoir sending nutrients to both tanks' plants. Both tanks will always balance out if you have the siphon tube connecting them, presumably evacuated of all air and the outlets on both almost at the bottom of both tanks.

The only negative in this setup is that ph changes will take a long time to take effect across both tanks and may only occur once the system starts pumping again. Also if the siphon gets evacuated, i.e., air gets into it, then you are in trouble. If the tube is clear though you could do a visual check everytime you come check on your plants with hardly any effort.

There is an undercurrent system that actually attaches reservoirs near the base of the tanks using pvc tube which could also work, but I wouldn't really trust that not to leak. The siphon at least prevents a leaky junction, but with potential leaks coming from a failed siphon vacuum when the pump overflows one side of the system.

nmarta131 (author)2009-04-07

Wow that is WAY COOL!!! What a great way to go ORGANIC and to help solve a lot of environmental problem from using pesticides and herbicides. What an amazing system! I can't wait to make one myself!!!!

brsullivan (author)nmarta1312012-02-27

While properly designed systems can save water, hydroponics is not generally organic although it may be pesticide free. They do sell organic nutrients but it is extremely hard to have a healthy system with these. I tried it myself and after about 2 weeks the reservoir would become absolutely filthy and disgusting forcing you to completely change out the water instead of just topping it off. After trying this two or three times I gave up. By sheer chance I was talking with one local store owner about using organic for hydro and he basically stated my exact experience. Bottom line seemed to be, get ready for lots of water changes if you want 100% organic.

Now I primarily use a commerical solution and add small amounts of organic solution to supplement it. As long as you don't overdo it with the organic solution, I think this is a happy medium. If you want 100% organic, stick with soil.

daagom (author)2009-05-29

Wow that worked phenomenally well! I hope you add an image of your first big harvest. Good work and thanks for the instructable.

dirty_valentine (author)daagom2009-05-29

I have started harvesting (as of a couple weeks ago. I get a hand full of peas each day; they taste great on a salad or in stirfry. I have many tomatoes but they are ripening very slowly (only about 5 picked so far). I have a bell pepper about ready and a bunch more on the way. picked about half dozen banana peppers with more on the way. All in all I'm pretty happy with the results considering the small space utilized, and only a 400W HPS light used. I have a feeling I will be slowly harvesting things, rather than have one big harvest. I will try to get a few pics up of the fruits of my labor. Thanks for the comment!

ralphkaz (author)dirty_valentine2011-02-24

are you only using a single 400W HPS for all those different systems? if so, that's pretty good! do you have plans for either the float or bato bucket systems you are using as well?

dirty_valentine (author)ralphkaz2011-02-24

I never did an instructable on either of those systems. I designed those system based on "How to Hydroponics" by Keith Roberto. The book does a good job of documenting both those systems.

I was only using a single 400W HPS for all those plants, but I found that the plants at the croners were getting a little light deprived. I added a light mover and it helped out a lot.

wolfy47 (author)dirty_valentine2011-05-03

Maybe try using Mylar reflective material to reflect light back to the corners.

dirty_valentine (author)wolfy472011-05-03

I actually tried putting up panda film to reflect more light to the corners with only limited success. You can only do so much with reflectors because the light intensity falls off rapidly with distance from artificial light. In my case I found that moving the light to where it was needed provided better results than trying to reflect it there. Thanks fro the post!

lazer155 (author)2010-11-11

I transplanted some sprouts I was growing in dirt to my hydroponic system i built based off your instructions, however 2 days after transplanting them, they are starting to wilt. I thought it might be because I have my system outside and it gets down to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Could this be causing them to wilt? Or maybe they need more sunlight? I have them in a spot where they receive about 10 hours of sunlight a day.

dirty_valentine (author)lazer1552010-11-12

Wilting is usually a sign of lack of water. It is not uncommon for transplanted plants to experience wilting. By removing the dirt before planting in the clay balls (which you should do) you significantly disrupt the root structure. It will take time for the roots to regrow in this new medium such that they will begin taking up the nutrient solution. I would recommend you run the pump continuously until the plants come back to life (assuming they make it).

I have not had the best luck moving plants from soil to hydroponic medium. Removing the dirt is very traumatic to the plant but is necessary to keep the nutrient solution clean. For best chance of success I recommend starting plants in a hydroponic starter medium like rock wool or use Jiffy peat pellets. I have been using the peat pellets very successfully. They are cheep and you can find them at just about any gardening store. Good luck!

When plants are moved the microscopic 'root hairs' break off and 'hurt' the plants roots - shocking them. They have to grow back to become healthy again.The only suggestions I have is to dig up the plant and wash away the dirt and be very careful and gentle. Nice instructable.

lazer155 (author)dirty_valentine2010-11-14

Thanks for the advice. They seem to be doing better now, I added a few more sprouts and a day later they are also wilting. Hopefully they will come back like the others did. I'll try rock wool next time. About how often should I change my water reservoir if it's 25 gallons?

dirty_valentine (author)lazer1552010-11-14

I was changing it monthly when I started, but I was throwing out a lot of nutrients. Then I started waiting until the nutrients got low, then I would add an additional 5 gallons of nutrients. I found I was able to do this for several months (basically the life of the plant) without any bad results. I did need to adjust the ph a couple times, but the PPMs never got too high. I used a dip-stick to see how low the nutrients were and would add more nutrients when the level dropped to the height of the pump.

lazer155 (author)dirty_valentine2010-11-18

The leaves of my lettuce, pepper, and tomato plants start drying at the tips of the leaves and the leaves gradually turn a silver, gray color. I can't find any information about what might be happing in the Hydroponics book Im using. My pea plants seem unaffected.

dirty_valentine (author)lazer1552010-11-19

I can't say for sure what the problem is. If they are seelings or young plants, make sure you use a weak nutrient solution. Too strong can burn the plants and ultimately stunt growth if it does not kill the plant. I have been making my nutrient mix to 1/2 the manufacturer recommendation. Too little nutrients will slow growth, but too much can seriously damage the plant. Also, the weaker solution allows me to just keep adding nutrients rather than changing them. You might also try running the pump continuously. I don't think there is any down side to that, other than the additional power. Just for the record, I have only been doing this a couple years and do not consider myself an expert. I'm kind of feeling my way through the process and doing what seems to work.

I have found that some plant types/varieties do better than others in a hydroponic setting. I have yet to find a green bean variety that did well for me. The green beans seemed to show a similar problem to what you described above, did not yield well, and I never got to the bottom of it. If you don't have good luck with one variety, try a different one the next time.

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