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Young girl studies a hydroponic garden that is growing various kinds of lettuce.

No Dirt. No Problem: How to Start a Hydroponic Garden

You can grow lettuces and even veggies without soil. Here are some tips from master gardeners-in-training and the pros who are teaching three schools in Newark, New Jersey about how to start hydroponic gardens.

5 min read

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using only water and nutrients instead of soil. Small farmers, hobbyists, commercial growers and even schools—with help from OXO and Trust for Public Land—have turned to hydroponic gardening. The technique is perfect for tight spaces since yields are three to ten times what they would be in a traditional soil-based garden of roughly the same size. In addition, hydroponics uses water more efficiently. 

OXO has partnered with Trust for Public Land, a national conservation nonprofit, to introduce hydroponic gardening in three public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Experts in hydroponics are working with teachers and students at Louise A. Spencer Elementary School, Lincoln Elementary School, and Central High School to set up hydroponic labs and, eventually, whip up nutritious meals with fresh ingredients. “At Lincoln Elementary, we plan to use hydroponics to grow food for the salad bar,” says Lorraine Gibbons, a gardener who consults for Urban Agriculture Cooperative, which is providing instruction in the schools. “We also bought a portable kitchen so we can prepare food right in the classroom.” 

A hydroponic garden growing different kinds of lettuce.

Here's What You Need to Start a Hydroponic Garden at Home:

Depending on what you plan to grow, you’ll need some basic equipment. Indoor grow lights are essential since this kind of gardening is done indoors. You’ll also need a growing medium since you won’t have soil to support the roots. These can be purchased online or from a local garden center and include coconut coir, rockwool, sand, and perlite. Then there are a variety of containers, like propagation tables for starting seeds, towers, carts, and buckets. And don’t forget a good nutrient solution—without soil, your plants will depend on you for vitamins and minerals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has several good articles and resources on its website for the would-be hydroponic gardener.  

Hand holds packets of carrot seeds and other vegetables for use in a hydroponic garden.

What to Grow:

The fun of gardening—equal parts art and science—is the freedom to experiment, so go ahead and plant a rainbow. Lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and herbs are among the vegetables most suited to hydroponic gardens. (Larger root veggies and tubers such as potatoes, carrots, turnips, and beets as well as corn—which is technically a fruit—need soil or more space and aren’t ideal for hydroponic gardens.) Gibbons recently started baby lettuces from seed, using a spongey grow pad, and then transferred them to an apparatus that resembles a gutter circulating with water. Strawberries grow in towers perforated with openings, not unlike a traditional terracotta strawberry pot. And roomy buckets are reserved for tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, with nutrients drip-fed to the plants.

What You'll Learn:

Hydroponic gardening teaches or underscores a number of important concepts—botany, food production, sustainability, cooking, chemistry, and mathematics. Identifying the right nutrient mix for a particular plant and titrating the correct amount touches on almost all of those subjects. “That’s a lesson we teach the kids,” Gibbons explains. “Lettuce needs different nutrients than cucumbers and tomatoes.” Macronutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, while micronutrients include minerals like zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Students also test the water to make sure the temperature and pH levels are ideal. Of course, discovering you have the power to grow and create a healthy meal in your own home is a pretty cool lesson too. 

Hand holds a small radish that was grown in a hydroponic garden.

The Takeaway:

Growing plants in water is a technique that dates back many centuries. (There is evidence hydroponic gardens were used by ancient Egyptians, as well as the Aztecs in Mexico.) The renewed interest in hydroponics is part of the burgeoning field of sustainable agriculture. “In many neighborhoods in Newark, residents have limited access to affordable, fresh, healthy food,” says Bryanna Fogel, a program associate with Trust for Public Land in Newark. “More than 33 percent of the city’s population lives in a food desert. With help from OXO, we are connecting young children with local food production by growing fresh vegetables right in school.”

After the time and care you’ve put into starting a hydroponic garden, make sure your harvested produce lasts. Follow these steps for storing lettuce, fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator to keep them fresh for longer. Plus, check out these ideas for integrating veggies into more meals.


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