Easy-to-understand basics that will get you growing without soil. By Nico Escondido
Just because we're in an economic depression doesn't mean anyone should quit smoking pot. (In fact, ifs on the rise.) So why would it mean that anyone should stop—or not start—growing it ,too?
Of course, buying a $50 bag of reefer doesn't seem quite as hard on the wallet as buying hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of grow equipment. But to be honest, it doesn't have to be that way. Anybody can grow pot on the cheap, and you can even do it hydroponically. Assuming you have core knowledge of what hydroponic growing is and some regular household junk to draw from, you can rig up a homemade (albeit fairly ghetto) hydro system for next to nothing!
Getting Down the Basics
To start, we need to have a simple understanding of what hydroponic cultivation is all about. In short, hydroponics—or water culture—is the soilless growth of plants. In hydroponic systems, plants are cultivated by placing the roots in a liquid nutrient solution rather than soil. Oftentimes, the plant's root system is suspended in different types of media that are then injected or flooded with the nutrient solution.
This is a very important aspect of hydro to understand, because in hydroponic growing, the key factor is really the air surrounding the roots, not the nutrients or water. Many people forget that although plants breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2), their roots breathe in oxygen. So hydroponic growing is just as much about supercharging the root
system with oxygen as it is about supplying nutrients and water, if not more so. Hydroponics offers an advantage in this arena because the roots are not smothered beneath a lot of soil, and air can easily permeate the mediums often used in hydro systems.
The medium that holds the roots and the rest of the plant can be one of any number of sterile materials. Most of these mediums are cheap and easy to find in hardware stores or plant nurseries—even pet shops. Clay pebbles, rockwool and lava rocks are some examples of inexpensive and easy-to-find mediums to grow plants in. Soilless mixes that look much like rich outdoor earth, but are really peat- or sphagnum-based mixtures, can also work in certain types of systems.
Easy and Inexpensive Store-Bought Systems
Before we get into how to make your own homemade hydro system, here is a brief overview of the most popular hydroponic grow systems on the market today. These systems can be relatively inexpensive when growing for personal consumption and utilizing the smaller versions.
Flood-and-Drain (or Ebb-and-Flow) Systems
Flood-and-drain systems are probably the easiest hydroponic system to use. They consist of simple, user-friendly parts and function exactly as the name dictates: They flood root systems with nutrient-rich water and then quickly drain it away.
These systems utilize either a tray or a simple table to hold plants, with a reservoir usually sitting directly beneath. Water is pumped from the reservoir into the tray, which fills with water and floods the root zones with nutrients. The water is then either drained back into the reservoir and reused or drained directly to waste, never to be seen again. Most growers opt to recycle their nutrient solution a few times before replacing it with fresh water and nutrients.
In a flood-and-drain system, growers can use a variety of grow mediums to house their plants. The most popular choice in this system are netted pots, which have mostly open sides and bottoms that allow for easy soaking and draining. These pots are filled with clay pebbles or hardened expanded clay (HEC), which look like brown or red clay marbles and are made by a few different companies. The HEC usually holds the plugs in which the seedlings or cuttings were first started, but once they become acclimated to the hydro system, the roots will begin to grow out over the HEC and into the bottom of the tray. Once the nutrient solution has drained, the roots are left with an abundance of air for oxygen consumption. Trays are commonly flooded two to three times a day for a few minutes at a time, depending on what stage of growth the garden is in.
Nutrient-Film Technique Systems
Nutrient-film technique, or NFT, is another popular and easy-to-use system for hydroponic growing. In this scenario, a thin film of water is run past the roots, usually on a tilted table or tray for easy drainage. The roots—most commonly hanging out of netted pots—sop up this nutrient-rich water, which is pumped to the grow table from a reservoir.
In NFT systems, nutrient solution can either be recycled or drained to waste, and there's a lot more flexibility for growers in determining the feeding schedule for their garden. Because the root zones are not completely inundated with water, they have less chance to drown. The thin film of water running over them also moves a lot of air past the roots, carrying valuable oxygen molecules for uptake. Because of this, growers using NFT can choose to run a constant flow of water over the roots, knowing that plenty of oxygen is still provided to them. Most NFT cultivators, however, choose to run multiple feeding cycles per day, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes at a time. This largely depends upon the strain being grown.
As long as ample oxygen is being provided, root systems in NFT set-ups can stay very compact, as they do not need to search very far for nutrition. The top sections of the root zone can breathe, while the bottom sections dip into the thin film of nutrient water, sopping up food. It is important to remember that when using NFT or any hydroponic system, for that matter, plants need more air than water. One of the most common dangers of hydroponic growing is a lack of oxygen to the roots. The roots should always be bright white; any sign of browning roots is a sure indication that they're being deprived of air.
Drip or Sprinkler Systems
Drip or sprinkler systems are slightly more complicated to use, but only because they involve a few more parts that an ebb-and-flow or NFT system. In drip or sprinkler systems, growers rely on drip emitters or spray nozzles to keep the root zone constantly moist.
Plant roots can be suspended in netted pots or held in place by rockwool. Rockwool is the more common choice when using drip emitters, and netted pots are more common when using sprayers. Rockwool absorbs and holds the constant drip produced by the emitters much better than clay pellets, while clay pellets in a net pot expose the roots better for more direct spraying.
In both cases, however, tiny water droplets not only feed nutrients and H20 to the plants, but also move a supply of air over the roots between droplets. In drip systems, emitters are usually set to a constant, very sluggish flow of water; thin spaghetti-tube lines run to the rockwool cubes holding the plants. Emitters are easily held in rockwool by tiny stakes, and the constant drip keeps the cubes permanently saturated with water.
Similarly, in spray systems, tiny lines also carry nutrient water to the spray nozzles that are attached to net pots. These systems are set to a specific schedule of spraying that keeps the roots zone perpetually moist. It should be noted that spray systems usually require higher water pressure in the lines and thus more powerful pumps. Nozzle heads are also very delicate and can easily get clogged by nutrients. Make sure your nutrients can be completely dissolved in reservoirs before trying to use them in spray systems. Unfortunately, organic nutrients usually cause the most problems with spray nozzles.
Homemade Hydro Options
You may have noticed by now that all hydro systems are basically the same in theory and carry only slight variations in functionality. They all utilize the same core components, making them fairly customizable for each individual's situation and preferences. But many of us forget that this also enables us to easily construct hydroponic gardens from scratch in our very own home.
It's always best to think through your options entirely before deciding on the set-up that's best for you. Important considerations to make before beginning are the types of genetics you want to grow, the amount of space you have, and the type of grow medium that is best suited to your skills and environment.
In this example, we will assume an indoor garden with a short, squat lndica strain, as this is usually the most logical choice for indoor growers. We will also choose expanded clay marbles (HEC) as the grow medium. The HEC will suspend a starter plug (either rockwool or peat pellets are usable for this project) in place.
We will also focus on an active hydro system, in which the water is being moved throughout the system by means of a pump. Although slightly more complicated than passive systems, active hydro systems are one of the more popular choices among growers and offer excellent results.
Glue, Hose S Soda Bottles
We here at HIGH TIMES recognize that the following examples are not necessarily environmentally ideal. We encourage readers to remember that, with a little creativity, its easy to find "green' or organic solutions to any project!
Because we're trying to be cost-conscious in this scenario, the system that gets built will largely depend on the materials that you already have at your disposal. The four basic components of an active hydro set-up include something to hold the water (a reservoir), something to move the water (a pump), something to catch/drain the water (a bin or tray), and something to hold the plants (pots, bins and medium). Of course, there are many variations for each of these components, but the point here is to keep it simple.
The ultimate goal of this system is to flood your plants' root systems with nutrient-enriched water twice a day for two to three minutes at a time. The plants can be in net pots or any similar homemade container that allows for fast and easy draining. Popular household items to use in lieu of store-bought pots might be small buckets with holes drilled around the sides and bottom or—our personal favorite—inverted plastic soda bottles. (Two-liter ones work best!) Soda bottles are best used when combining homemade pots with your set-up's water-circulation system. This can also let you effectively combine some of the basic components of your system, further simplifying the process. With a little luck and some imagination, home growers can construct their own hydro system for approximately $150 (and hopefully even less if you've got most of it lying around).
First, look for a large bin or tray from your garage. If you don't have any luck finding one, you can easily buy an inexpensive trough from a garden center or purchase a Rubbermaid bin from your local drugstore. You can also build your own tray by constructing a wooden frame and lining it with thick (2 to 3 mm) plastic. You'll want this tray to be fairly deep (approximately 18 to 24 inches) and of a decent length, depending on how many plants you plan to grow (figure at least 1 foot in length for each plant). The beauty of this system is that it combines two components of your system into one, allowing your tray (or water-catchingdevice) to simultaneously act as your reservoir.
Next, look around for used soda bottles. Strip off the labels and cut them in half, discarding the bottom halves for recycling. Clean the top halves thoroughly. These inverted bottle tops will be your grow pods (or net pots), and they will need to be connected with either tubing, hose, or a hard/rigid tubing (try to avoid PVC) or clay piping. All of these are inexpensive and can be found at your local hardware store, but rigid piping works best. If you have the hose or piping laying around already, all you'll need to purchase are a few T-joints to attach to the bottlenecks so that the pods can be connected to each other.
Look for a non-toxic glue or epoxy to bind the bottle tops to your T-joints. Once you have all your grow pods on T-joints, connect the joints to each other using your rigid piping (and be sure to leave at least 1 foot of space between the grow pods). Place this unit at the bottom of your tray and secure it so that it stands upright. This can be done using bricks, or else by tying strings across the top of the reservoir to hold the pods in place.
Pumps, Pebbles 6 Plants
Now that you have the core of your system constructed, the end is in sight. The next step is to complete the water-circulation system. The base of your grow pods will serve as half of your water-delivery system. All that's missing is a power supply to actively move the nutrient solution from the reservoir up into your grow pods; a simple garden or fish-tank pump will suffice. Once the water is being pumped to the grow pods (i.e., the inverted soda bottles), the pods will fill up with water and overflow back into the reservoir. You may decided to cut extra holes just below the top of your pods to help facilitate continuous circulation and drainage.
Finding and connecting the right water pump can be the trickiest part of construction. Make sure the pump is strong enough to move the amount of wateryou plan to use in your reservoir. In some instances, you may need to get a decent store-bought pump, which will always be the most expensive item that a grower needs to buywhen building a homemade hydro system. Still, a good pump for a three-to-five-plant hydro set-up should cost around $50.
When connecting the pump outlet to the base of your grow-pod piping, you will need to find adapter tubing. Most hardware stores have multiple-sized selections of flexible tubing available for only a few cents per foot. Take your pump and piping to the store to see what size fits and whether or not you'll need any other adapters. Plus it's useful to remember that heat expands and cold constricts, which may help you make a nice friction fit without the use of any glues or resins.
Once you have your grow pods firmly affixed to your reservoir bin and have the pump connected and your water-circulation system complete, fill your pods with clay pebbles. Make sure the pods stay stable with the added weight. You are now ready for your trial runs. Fill your reservoir with enough water so that it covers the pump and all of the T-joints by a few inches. Turn on your pump and watch your grow pods fill with water, making any necessary adjustments (as suggested earlier) to improve water circulation. Holes may need to be made just below the top of the grow pods to aid in water movement, as sitting water is always to be avoided.
Now shut the pump down and watch to see if the water drains completely from your grow pods. If not, you may need to make a very small drainage hole at the bottom of the pods. This hole should be small enough not to leak too much during the water cycles, but big enough to drain the bottom after each watering. A small wall timer is all you need to set the water cycles during the day.
To start, when plants are young, use two dailywaterings of one to two minutes apiece. As the plants grow and flowering is induced, heavier waterings with added nutrients will become necessary. Plants should be started (either as seedlings or clones) in small plugs, either rockwool or peat pellets, that can be easily inserted into the grow pods and held by clay pebbles. The plugs should be inserted into the pods once the roots begin to show at the bottoms of the plugs.
Remember to stay safe—and, most importantly, have fun. Experimenting with do-it-yourself grow projects is an excellent way to truly learn about cannabis cultivation. Good luck!