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How Vegetables and Herbs Are Grown With Hydroponic Gardening

Using her master's in sustainable development, Susette helps Southern California water agencies carry out their water conservation projects.

Professional hydroponic setups predated the smaller, vertical ones.

Professional hydroponic setups predated the smaller, vertical ones.

Start a Hydroponic Window Garden!

There's a new technology being shared online that will delight apartment living, plant lovers, and locavores alike. It can double your plant space and allow you to grow food indoors. And it can bring a solid dose of nature into your home with all its attendant benefits: Clean air, a sense of life, silent companionship, the fresh color of green. If you like plants, new technologies, and have limited growing space, hydroponic window gardening may be for you.

What Is Hydroponic Gardening?

Hydroponic gardening is the practice of growing plants, especially food crops, without the use of soil. Instead, plants are set in sand or another kind of non-nutritious medium to hold the roots in place, or just planted through small holes in a container with space inside for roots. They are fed with water laced with worm castings or another kind of fertilizer or, in some systems, by pond water in which fish are being raised, called aquaponics.

Aquaponics is an outdoor system used by the Aztecs in ancient times, where they planted crops on straw mats covered with a thin layer of soil and floated them on Lake Titicaca to grow in the nutritious lake water. The nutrition in the water came from fish and other organisms living in it.

Related to the islands are "chinampas" - soil extensions built out into a lake by the Aztecs in Mexico. This photo was taken in 1912.

Related to the islands are "chinampas" - soil extensions built out into a lake by the Aztecs in Mexico. This photo was taken in 1912.

Hydroponics, NASA, and the Space Program

More recently, NASA has been experimenting with hydroponics to figure out how to grow crops in space ships, space stations, and on other planets, like Mars. For those who have little or no outdoor space, hydroponics is a great way to grow veggies and herbs indoors.

"Hydroponic" means making water do the work (hydro = of water; ponic = labor). Because water can be transported easily through tubes, the indoor hydroponic way of growing usually involves the use of pumps to send water through tubes to a number of plants in pots. Plants grow more easily this way than in soil, because nutrients are already dissolved, hence more readily available to plant roots. As long as they have enough light, crops you plant this way grow faster and have bigger yields than they do in soil.

In deference to the desire to minimize the use of electricity, many growers have been experimenting with using the power of gravity to transport water by locating plants on top of each other. That way they can pump water to the top plant and let it drip down from pot to pot naturally. Excess water from the bottom plant/s is directed through the feeding system and up to the top plant again. This also minimizes the use of horizontal space, making it a great way to grow plants in an apartment or condo.

Indoor Window Garden Learning Project

It is a short step from horizontal outdoor hydroponics to bringing the system indoors and installing it on something like a windowsill with lots of light. Crops could be grown indoors with such a system (as in a greenhouse), as could herbs and flowers. With the system set up vertically, it doesn't take up much room, yet gives each plant enough light to grow well.

Windowfarms is one entrepreneurial company that developed from adapting the technology to urban living. They set up a system using inverted plastic bottles, tubing, and an air pump that could be installed in a well-lit window of a city apartment. Then they experimented with different types of crops to find out what would grow best. After doing the best they could on their own, they asked for help from anyone in the world who was willing.

Hydroponic Garden Product Development Strategy

Windowfarms recognized that they had a unique product that could easily be captured, patented, and manufactured by a corporation intending to market at the highest price possible. In order to prevent that from happening, they created a Facebook page and posted the project with an open request for help.

This "commons development" strategy is spreading fast across the Internet, with sites of many different types (movies, music, politics) inviting anyone who has the skills and interest to work together online to create something new.

Access to Healthy Food and Organic Gardening

The main benefit to setting up a window hydroponics system is the good food you can grow indoors. This is especially true of low-income communities in cities that do not have access to healthy, nutritious food. Supermarkets have disappeared, moving out to the suburbs to serve wealthier residents, and local stores are mostly convenience stores charging high prices and selling canned or frozen, rather than local, fresh food. In Chicago, for example, 9% of the city's neighborhoods are "food deserts," according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Buying Local Vegetables vs. Growing Your Own

Assuming your area does have access to healthy food, where does this food come from? Does it matter to you that it might be shipped from South America during the winter and grown with pesticides? Or from California or Florida the rest of the year?

If you are a proponent of reducing carbon emissions and/or the use of oil and gas, then check your local supplier to find out where they get their produce. Can you buy locally grown food in your neighborhood, so it doesn't have to be shipped from afar? If not or if you just like growing healthy food, you might decide to grow your own.

Local organic foods are healthy and good for the environment, if you can find them. Local farmers markets are the best source.

Local organic foods are healthy and good for the environment, if you can find them. Local farmers markets are the best source.

Indoor or Outdoor Organic Garden?

How much room do you have in and around your home? If you live in a house in the city or suburbs, you likely have garden space outside. If you live in an apartment or condo, you likely don't—at least, not that you can utilize.

If you do have a yard, you may or may not want to use it to grow food. The work involved with setting up and growing outside vs. inside is a key factor, as is your physical condition. And finally, there may be certain foods you can grow outside in your location and others you cannot.

Outside you will have the weather to contend with. You will also have pests and hungry critters who like to eat what you like. Inside, you may or may not have thought you had enough light or space before, but with this system, there is a good chance you've already identified a place—maybe a window that needs decorating anyway.

Assuming that all of your answers so far are leading toward "Yes, let's do it," and you know this article will end by telling you where to find the right equipment, the next thing to do is look at the types of plants you can grow inside with this system.

Starter trays for a large grow-it-yourself garden outside. Takes work to cultivate, plant, and nurture the growing foods. Many survive, many don't, but it can be well worth the work.

Starter trays for a large grow-it-yourself garden outside. Takes work to cultivate, plant, and nurture the growing foods. Many survive, many don't, but it can be well worth the work.

Hydroponic Vegetables, Herbs, or Decorative Plants?

The kinds of plants you can grow under the hydroponic system are many. Your choice will depend on your needs. If you have easy access to local organic food, you might prefer growing herbs or decorative tropical plants, with some cherry tomatoes thrown in. Here are examples of plants already tried and tested with hydroponics:

  • Food: Leafy greens, cherry tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bush beans, peas, broccoli, radishes, celery, micro-greens. (Bigger foods like squash will grow too, but you don't want them to take up all the space.)
  • Herbs: Basil, all the mints, oregano, cilantro, spring onions, chives, garlic, and (if it's legal where you live) marijuana. Most herbs can be grown hydroponically, both culinary and medicinal.
  • Decorative plants: Coleus, most of the ferns (they love the humid air too), pothos, orchids, African violets, spiderplants, lilies, marigolds, petunias are some good examples.
Example of a food: lettuce

Example of a food: lettuce

Example of an herb: basil

Example of an herb: basil

Example of a decorative plant: coleus

Example of a decorative plant: coleus

Indoor Hydroponic Gardening Supplies

Whether you build a system yourself or buy a kit, these are the parts you will need, along with maintenance and food supplies.

Hydroponic Equipment and Parts

  • Reservoir for the liquid (water/nutrient) medium
  • Aquarium-type air pump for water circulation
  • Plastic tubing to carry liquid to and from containers
  • LED grow-lights, unless you have a very sunny window
  • Some kind of structure for hanging the pots
  • Opaque containers for plants (needs to be dark inside to prevent algae growth)

Plant Equipment and Supplies

  • Plants of your choice
  • A liquid fertilizer like fish, worm castings, seaweed, or bat guano
  • A small fan or something to provide light airflow from a distance
  • Simple water test kit to make sure you keep the right pH level
  • Plant-loving music to encourage growth
  • Lemon, apple cider vinegar, or sea salt to further condition the water, if necessary

Ready to Grow a Garden Indoors?

As you can tell from the parts listed above, this system is fairly easy to set up. Windowfarms and other entrepreneurs have made it even easier by developing hydroponics kits for sale. Some of them you can find for sale online. Some YouTube videos show how to build hydroponic gardens as well, so take courage and your adventure spirit in hand and go for it!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 28, 2015:

This is real fascinating to know. I would love to do this, but not with two adult senior cats in my home. Maybe someday. Plenty of great information. Voted up!

Arco Hess from Kansas City, Kansas on October 11, 2014:

I've seen a couple of these in my life. They are so interesting. I've always wondered how they were made.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on August 25, 2014:

OK guys - For whoever wants one, here are detailed instructions for how to build an indoor vertical hydroponic system:

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on June 21, 2014:

Hmmm... You've got me thinking, lgbux. Writing a do-it-yourself hub to support this one (and others I've written) is a good idea. I really want people to take action, so what better way to help them along? Make like the Pied Piper and follow me. When I start writing DIY's you'll be one of the first to know . . . and it will be soon. Thanks for your request.

Ouk Vitheavirak from Cambodia on June 20, 2014:

i would luv to see the deeper instruction for beginner hehe

i plan to make one

nice hub thank for share

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on February 10, 2014:

Cool Levertis. Sounds like a great plan. Do keep me updated.

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on February 09, 2014:

I'm back! I read your article again, and I think I want to try this method of growing plants. I will try a few plants at a time. I have access to pond water, I know how to raise night crawlers and red worms, and I can collect their castings. I will have to take some from the larger bed and contain them in order to get enough castings. I will try a few herbs this spring and let you know how hydroponics worked for me. I am excited, so thanks again!

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on January 18, 2014:

Sounds like a great project, Levertis! Making your own compost, building your own raised beds, getting ready to plant the crops of your choice. Good luck with it all. I'm sure it will work great!

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on January 17, 2014:

Hydroponic gardening. How interesting!

More than a decade ago, I went to the Epicot Center in Orlando, Florida. Many things mesmerized me, but the plant experiments were the most memorable. I do not remember all of the methods that were in use, but I am willing to believe that one was hydroponic as you have described. I remember cucumbers two feet long growing in sand with nutritious water seeping onto them. It was interesting at that time to see plants growing without soil.

I do not know if I am ready to try hydroponics, but I am preparing raised-bed gardens for the first time. I have mounds of various compost materials in a bin, the beds are built and full of compost, grass clippings, topsoil, fall leaves, etc., and I can barely wait for spring planting.

Thanks for sharing!

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on January 17, 2014:

Thanks all - for both reading and sharing!

ologsinquito from USA on January 17, 2014:

This article really is interesting, even though I'm not a gardener. I'm pinning this to my Things You Really Need to Know board.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on January 17, 2014:

I found this article very interesting as there are some hydroponic gardeners who sell veggies in my local farmers market.

Voted Up++ and shared


Jay-Ar Segundo from Philippines on August 21, 2013:

Very nice article. It helps a lot.

LSG on May 06, 2013:

Wonderful article! So full of information and suggestions as well as inspiring photos.

Eco-Lhee from Alberta, Canada on April 03, 2013:

This was informative and interesting, thank you for sharing.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on September 21, 2012:

Thanks Leah. I read that one of the earlier experimenters with hydroponics (1929) grew a tomato plant in his backyard that was 25 feet high!

Leah Lefler from Western New York on September 21, 2012:

Hydroponic gardening is so interesting, Watergeek. I once saw an exhibition at EPCOT in Florida, and they had huge tomato trees grown with hydroponics. What a great hub!