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Credit: Burke/Tiolo

Plenty of garden ideas but nowhere to plant? Hydroponics offers a soil-less alternative for condo dwellers strapped for space. An attic, crawlspace, spare bedroom or sun porch can become any renter’s indoor oasis. And no matter where you live, the sweet smell of jasmine can linger in the kitchen and garden-fresh veggies may be harvested year round – who needs soil, tools or a piece of ground?

What is hydroponics?

Put simply, hydroponics is the growth of plants without soil. In a hydroponic garden, plants are grown in a soil-less medium such as shale rock, sawdust, sand or clay. The medium is then filled with a nutrient solution made up of water and fertilizer. Instead of taking food from minerals found in soil, the plant finds all its nutritional needs in the nutrient solution. The job of the medium is to simply hold the plant in place and provide a surface to which the roots can attach themselves.

Can you grow a hydroponic garden in an apartment or condo?

Believe it or not, you can be both an apartment dweller and a gardener. Starting a hydroponic garden in an apartment or condo does not have to be an expensive endeavor, nor does it have to take up what limited space you have. Home hydroponic systems currently available range in size from small window planters to large complete room-size set-ups. Your garden can also be portable, allowing it to be moved according to your space needs. Smaller systems, such as a tabletop garden costing about $100, are ideal for growing herbs or African violets, while larger units will accommodate veggies.

What if I live in a shoebox with very little space?

When it comes to hydroponics, vertical space is more important than horizontal especially when considering crops such as peppers, tomatoes or beans. Hydroponics will ignore your horizontal challenge and head up. The efficient use of nutrients and water in hydroponics allows the plants to be crowded together because the roots are not competing for water and minerals. So even just an arm’s length of space is enough to turn your thumb green!

Where is the best spot for my garden?

You will want to choose an area that has access to electrical outlets and a window that opens. Aside from that, your location really depends on what you are planning to grow. Lettuce likes it cool at night and needs lots of light. Basil prefers a warm and cozy spot. Keep in mind that you have to look after the garden, so don’t locate it where maintenance is a hassle. The best light for your plants is sunlight, however for gardeners in apartments where this may not be possible, you have the option mof supplementing or replacing natural light with artificial light.

What are the different types of hydroponic systems?

The most popular systems for hydroponic hobbyists are passive and nutrient film solution systems. The simplest form of hydroponics is a passive system. This type of hydroponics involves plants being placed directly in the nutrient solution. Using an aquarium air bubbler, the solution is oxygenated so the roots don’t rot. The nutrient film technique system is a little more complex. A plastic trough or tube is used as a container through which a constant thin film of nutrient solution flows. Plants are suspended through holes in the top of the tube or trough. The system is gently sloped to allow the flow of the solution back to the nutrient reservoir.

Light requirements?

With proper exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, hydroponic plants will grow faster and bigger than soil-bound plants. There are four basic types of grow lights that you can use. Metal halide lamps, sodium vapour lamps, grow lights, or florescence used in conjunction with incandescent bulbs will provide proper light. Whatever light you choose, you should purchase an automatic timer to turn the lights on and off at certain hours during the day. Light needs to be adjusted to make plants flower. An ideal schedule is 12 hours on and 12 off. Once the plant begins to flower, increase light exposure to 16 to 18 hours a day. The extra light will speed up the plants’ growth and produce flowers or vegetables at a rapid rate. When mimicking natural light, it is a good idea to slowly switch between the two so as not to stress the plants. The new Solaris horticultural lighting is ideal for small spaces and is CSA approved.

Is there enough breathing room for both the garden and me?

Plant roots must have oxygen available to keep them alive. Healthy roots (which are white in colour) are responsible for the uptake of all nutrients for the plant. If the roots die, it is impossible for the plant to survive, even if the plant growth requirements are met. Air circulation around leaves is key since it mixes the air and allows the plant to draw out the carbon dioxide necessary to carry on photosynthesis. Air circulation also helps prevent fungal diseases caused by moist, stagnant conditions. For your apartment garden, you will want to have a small fan to circulate the surrounding air.

Can I grow a hydroponic garden on my balcony?

It is possible to place your hydroponic garden on the balcony. Just keep the weather patterns in mind. You will want to make provisions to prevent excess water from filling up the garden and diluting the nutrient solution. Remember that Mother Nature, not you, controls the weather outside. The good thing about a hydroponic garden is that the system is portable and can be taken down and moved according to the season.

Is hydroponics a time-consuming commitment?

Little or a lot of maintenance is required, depending on the type of garden set-up. You do have to add water and nutrients to any plant, even ones in soil. Daily maintenance should take no more than five minutes – this involves checking the nutrient reservoir and pH levels. Your maintenance schedule should include replacing the nutrient solution every week. The big advantage to hydroponic gardeners is the ability to automate the entire system with a timer. Automation reduces the actual time it takes to maintain plant growth requirements and gives you the freedom of being away for up to 10 days without having to worry about watering the plants. You can virtually grow any kind of plant hydroponically. The most popular crops are lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. A variety of herbs can be grown such as jasmine, basil, mint, dill and chives. If you are looking to spruce up your space with some fresh flowers, try marigolds, snapdragons or sunflowers.

What are the main advantages of having a hydroponic garden?

Soil-less gardening offers many advantages: No mud stains on the carpet, no weeds to remove and no soil-borne diseases floating around your oasis. Properly grown hydroponic plants are also more vigorous than soil-grown plants because all of the necessary growth elements are readily available. The plants can mature faster, yielding an earlier harvest of vegetable and flower crops. Last but definitely not least, the largest single effect of growing a hydroponic garden is eliminating the winter blues. The generation of negative ions by the plants (good for your moods) and the increased light levels during the winter will have you smiling through those cold and dark months. Do you need another reason to dig out your inner gardener? PHOTO Burke/Triolo from Complete Flower Library