I've been accumulating parts and now I finally have enough to start growing food indoors.
My goals are to learn more about hydroponics and growing plants without soil, to validate some assumptions that support my designs and of course to grow some food that I can eat.
I will post updates periodically. I may even bother to take pictures, but no promises. As of right now I am just under $200 into the project and hoping to get a variety of crops for no more than another $100. I could have bought a lot of vegetables at the store for that much cash, so hopefully this works out.
Read on for details.
My first attempt (strawberries) failed due to operator error. (Fungus caused by poor drainage.)
Product links below are through Amazon and are for illustration only. These are not sponsored links. I strongly recommend doing your own shopping / research since products and prices change frequently.
Hopefully it doesn't need saying, but this project requires wiring and is dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. Please don't electrocute yourself or anyone else.
I am using a very DIY approach. If you are not interested in learning about plants and electronics or troubleshooting cobbled-together systems, go for a retail growing machine. They are expensive and their supplies are expensive but they seem to be reliable and should be fairly easy to use.
The base of the system is an O-Grow bloomhouse we picked up for about $30. It has a light steel tube frame, four 18x24 wire shelves and a zippered plastic cover. This is designed to start plants in early spring, but I will be using it year-round if possible. I wish I could afford Metro shelves.
I have it near a window, but there is definitely not enough light. I am supplementing with LED light strips; these are intended for theatre, mood lighting and entertainment so they are less than $10 per 5-meter roll. I have four rolls of deep-red, one blue and one white, or about 360 watts. I used SUPERNIGHT brand; they are working well so far. That should be enough for 1.64m² of vegetables or greens, way more than I have space to grow right now. Still, the tape is cuttable and has solder pads, so I can make circuits to fit individual shelves. When I bought mine there were silicone-sealed versions for a bit more money; if I were to do it again I would buy that type instead since they should last longer in a humid environment.
These are powered right now by a 360w 12v switching power supply for $24. It's also a SUPERNIGHT unit. It does not come with any cords, so you will need to make your own power cord to match your local outlet. The power supply is controlled by a GE digital timer for $14. The timer manages to be less confusing to program than a VCR, but not by much.
The lights are attached to the shelves with velcro plant ties. These can also be used to wrangle foliage; comes as a long roll so pieces can be cut to size as needed. I had to cut little divots into the sides of the velcro to get it to fit between the LED emitters on the tape, but it holds everything together nicely.
Throw in some various bits and bobs (soldering iron, fine tips, a multi-arm gripper with loupe, silver solder and a reel of heavy-gauge speaker wire) and I'm ready to get dangerous.
I used a couple of old cookie sheets (scratched and rusty) as trays. It's only enough for one shelf; depending on how this goes I may invest in better trays but I don't know yet what depth(s) I will want.
My first attempt was bare-root strawberries. I planted them in store-brand potting soil in 4" plastic pots. This was a terrible idea. They sprouted wonderfully and grew like wildfire until some kind of fungus devoured them. I tried using a garlic-based antifungal mixed up in my kitchen (recipe supplied by internet rumors), but ended up killing the plants (or perhaps just hastening their demise).
Long story short, strawberries like sandy soil and good drainage. Potting soil will cause them to rot.
The next attempt will use Leca / Hydroton / Plant!t clay pellets. I also picked up some 1" rockwool plugs for planting seeds. I want to grow radishes, but I think that would work best by sticking the seeds between two sheets of tissue paper (not paper towel or toilet paper, actual tissue), laying the sheet on a small bed of media and putting a thin layer of media over the top. Should be interesting to see if radishes grow into a proper shape when grown in these big irregular pellets. I'll be trying strawberries again as well.
I do not have a pump yet, so anything requiring circulation is out for now. I'll have to try some kind of raft / wick arrangement with the clay pellets, so hopefully that works out ok. It is known to work well with lettuce so I will try some black-seeded Simpson in rockwool.
I'm probably going to need several more things to really get going, but hopefully not too much more money. I have cats; we buy litter that comes in large plastic buckets and I have been saving those for the last two years. They look to be ideal for trying passive hydroponics just by cutting holes in the lids and using net pots. They should also work well for holding larger plants like tomatoes; I will try rigging lights off the side of my shelving. Other than that the big missing piece is a pump; I have a second timer so I can automate a flood and drain cycle, but I'd like to try NFT as well.
I may still need to try coir or another fine-grained media for root crops like radish. If I have a chance I'll get a few pounds of in-shell peanuts, save the shells and try making my own media.
Updates will be few and far between but I will report on any interesting developments.