Best hydroponics setup for tomatoes?

vipvenomMarch 2, 2008

Hi all!

I am finishing up my first season of hydroponic tomatoes and I am thrilled with my experience. I want to see if anyone has any other suggestions on how to grow tomatoes. I grow outside and I have a decent amount of land (1.3acres) but I still try to grow as efficiently as possible. My idea for my first setup is this. It was made from 4' corrugated drain line (which is $40 for 100'!) snaked back and forth every eight feet. This allowed me to grow ~ 85 LF of garden in only a 3x8 piece of land. There is a 27w pump that runs 24/7 since there is so much foliage that I lose 15-20gal on a hot day! A pic will better explain there is a link at the bottom.

Anyway, the only flaw to the system is that I found the seams to sometimes leak (but is easily fixed) and one row was not pitched enough so the water could get too high and leak from the planted hole. The only other problem is that where the holes are cut that is where the plant goes. ie. if they grow very large they can't be moved. I guess that could be fixed by spacing the plants more since I know that they will grow large. I like this system a lot and would maybe like to build another one but better this time. But since I have never grown any other way I want to know if there may be a better way.

So if you think I should stick with this method how else can I improve it? Is there a better, cheaper way to grow tomatoes? What methods have you found to be easiest to maintain and expand if needed?




Here is a link that might be useful:

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If it works don't fix it! Maybe improve, yes but only you can determine that because it's your system and it looks great to me! The result vs. cost seems very much worth it. A mature tomato plant will use a gallon a day in the heat so your water use seems ok. But you weren't using it to also water weeds!

I too thought of trying the corrugated pipe but after trying a miserable attempt of draining the old wastewater plant onto the drying beds via siphon using the stuff, we were plagued with seam leaks like you say and that thought quickly left me! What method of repairing the leaky seams did you use? Where did you find white pipe or did you paint it?

What media are you using in the cups and are those styrofoam cups or plastic? Holes punched in the bottoms?

Overall I love your system. Way to grow!

    Bookmark   March 2, 2008 at 6:49PM
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I just had to add that your system blows away much I have heard about using 4" pipe. Some say it will clog with roots and cause water flow to backup. I have always also heard that hydroponic grown plants don't develop a massive root system given proper nutrients so I'm glad to see someone having so good results with 4" pipe. If I could steal your seam leak fix, this would be even better than the rain guttering I'm using on my patio and the only thing I could possibly see as maybe an improvement to your system is doing away with the cups and using foam plugs with no media like I'm trying but haven't gone a full season with yet so don't know what problems I might run into down the road.

Do you aerate your nutrient reservoir?

    Bookmark   March 2, 2008 at 7:14PM
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That makes me feel good to hear that I am on the right track with my system. To fix the seams I use one of two things and both can be found at many hardware stores (like HD). The first comes in a caulking tube and is called either PL 375 & think they also make a 500 and 750. This is a construction adhesive. Just shoot it on with a caulking gun and smear it around the leak with your finger (remember to wet your finger first or this stuff will stick to you!). This works well but I have also used something called aquamend which is a 2 part leak fixing epoxy that you just knead together and smash it in place. Both fix the leak usually the first time and you don't need to shut down the system to do it. Just put it on and move it around until the leak stops. When I build my new system I will make sure the seams are in the middle of the pipe instead of on the top and bottom. This should keep the potential leaks away from puddling water.

As far as clogging I only have one problem area and that is where the water enters the system. In hindsight I see that there needs to be more room between the first plant and the inlet water. So my next design will have at least 12" before the first plant and my inlet hole will be on the top and not the side. Simple fix take my end cap off and insert 5' of 3/4" pvc pipe. This allows the blocked water to continue past the plants that are blocking it. The top row is the only row that I have problems with blockage.

The pipes were painted white with a $5 can of oops paint at my local home depot. The pipes are supported by a 2x4 A type frame and the pipes are held to the horizontal 2x4's with UV resistant zip ties.

I am using large styrofoam cups that have large holes cut in the bottom. I took a decent sized spade bit, stacked 8 cups at a time and drilled through the bottoms letting the drill do the work (I didn't force it through). The results were cups that had only a lip left around the base which I then took a plastic mesh sold for keeping leaves out of your gutters, cut it a little larger than the base of the cups and wedged it in the bottom to keep everything in place. Then I took rinsed decorative rocks (maybe river type rocks) filled the bottom 1/3 of the cup with these to give the roots some mass to hold on to. Then I filled the rest of the cup with a perilite/vermiculite mixture with the sprouted plant placed in it. To top it off I used more rocks to secure the plant upright, prevent algae growth and to keep the media from blowing away.

I do not aerate my reservoir but I plan on putting an air stone in there eventually. But this system has grown for 5 months with no air stone. The water tumbling down 10 turns may keep the water oxygen rich. But I am adding aerating soon just to see if ti helps but I don't think it will hurt.

Here is a picture of my cups below. If you are interested in this setup I will take some more detailed photos and post them so you can use my design as a blueprint. When I build my next one I will have to make a step by step process with lots of pictures :).

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 2, 2008 at 9:17PM
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use html code to display pictures. "I like you system. not a big fan of the corrogated pipe but just because it holds water in the grooves.
Is your system NFT then? I've read you shouldn't run NFT lines longer than like 40 feet or the nutrient gets depleted of oxygen. But its just something I've read. I haven't actually tested it.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2008 at 10:02PM
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Lot's of pictures are good! You have a good design and sounds like your next will be even better. Seams on the sides is a simple fix.

No air for five months and in the heat too! There is surely something going on there. Water tumbling over those corrugations in the turns is likely the reason. Whatever, it works!

Maybe on your plant spacing would be improved by putting smaller plants between the tomatoes instead of bunching them up all together?

    Bookmark   March 2, 2008 at 10:02PM
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I am currently growing hydro indoors but am trying to make plans as quickly as possible to begin exploring the great outdoors and take advantage of the plethora of Florida sunshine! Here is what I've been thinking about doing... (not to distract from your system, but just to share an alternative and get any feedback).

I was considering setting up a bucket ebb and flow system for a lot of large plants - but it seems like your little pipe can handle tomato plants? Could you send more pictures please?

1) get X number of 5 gallon buckets and X number of 3 gallon buckets. Drill holes in the bottom of the 3 gallon bucket, fill it with clay balls or some other good grow medium, and set it inside the 5 gallon bucket.

2) On the bottom of the 5 gallon buckets, drill a hole and run a line of poly tubing with t connectors, to connect all of the buckets together, and eventually to a reservoir.

3) I am considering digging a hole in the ground to partially / mostly submerge the reservoir container underground in order to keep it cooler.

4) Set it all up on a timer so that the pump floods the contaners to a proper height and then kicks off. To keep it simple there is not overflow - this could be set up but would be a pain, so make sure the timer is VERY reliable. This is a point of concern for me because in my indoor garden my pumps timer has decided to turn on at 6:11 PM everyday and not shut off - I have enjoyed my overflow very much and have been very thankful that it is working :)

5) Thinking of using black and white poly to keep sunlight out of the growing medium, and, making it higher around the plant and draping out to the edge in order to keep out rainwater.

6) Also thinking about mulching the nutrient lines to keep everything as cool as possible until it actually gets to the plant's bucket.

- Big containers that will hold big plants, I think?
- You can very easily move plants and clean the system - just by lifting the 3 gallon buckets.
- Seems like the overall setup would be pretty much permanent, including the growing medium.

- Got to buy some buckets and a bigger reservoir, or, maybe I can find a big ol' olive barrel or something (like the size of a rainbarrel)

I will be trying this on a small scale, maybe two pots. But FIRST before I try the above system, I was thinking of starting out with a "water farm" setup which has some similarities, is a little easier at first, in order to get some of the variables above more known first.

'Nother thing about using 20+ gallons water a day: You can set up a controller unit - just a float valve that automatically tops off your water for you as the reservoir level drops. I think this would be very useful.

This setup has a controller kit on top of it:

Here is a water farm setup. It uses an airlift and can easily be made yourself:

My main idea is a slight twist on this "ebb and grow" system - my res. is below the plants instead of on the same level as them:

Autopot also sounds interesting to me to try out but I'd need to gravity feed the res:

Of course I'd like to try out aeroponics / foggers as I am told they produce amazing growth and great oxygen levels but I need some more basics down first :)

    Bookmark   March 3, 2008 at 12:56AM
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As far as putting smaller plants in between the tomatoes I had already tried that to an extent. The tomatoes just took over every inch of space they could. Next season I may be pruning to keep the production up while leaving light for all the plants.

Thanks for the info on the water losing oxygen. It seems an easy fix though. Just add an airstone every 20-40'; problem solved. The tubes easily hold my tomatoes. I have large eggplants growing and they are standing up right with no support.

The reason I like this system is it's low cost. PVC pipe and gutters are cheap but this stuff is very cheap (.40/ft as comared to $1 or more for PVC). The fact that the grooves hold water doesn't bother me, I actually like it. If I shut the system off it can maintain the plants for a short period of time.

OK pictures as promised.

First Image is a sideshot of the A frame that allows the garden to take up about 7' of vertical space. I did this to increase the efficiency of crop yield to land needed.

Next is a front view of the whole setup. The right bottom corner is where the nutrient tank is buried underground. This lets gravity do the drain work and keeps the temp more consistent and lessens the light hitting the solution.

Next two are of the holding tank and drain system. It's just a 54gal rubbermaid tote with a black plastic bag over it to keep light out.

This is the black poly tube that comes from a pump in the nutrient tank. The PVC pipe goes the entire length where it then has a 90 to enter the corrugated pipe.

The next 3 are pictures of the roots and hole cut into the 4" pipe. Self explanitory. I used a large circle bit and a cordless drill to cut the holes.

This is just a picture of the zip ties that holds the pipe to the 2x4 frame. About 3 per row is sufficient. There is a middle 2x4 that supports the inside but I don't think you can see it in any of the pictures.

Thats pretty much it. If you didn't want the system that tall it could be set on the horizontal rather than the vertical. Let me know if you have any more suggestions or questions.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2008 at 8:53PM
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Whoops missed a photo.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2008 at 9:01PM
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I just love it when somebody shows a good working system that doesn't cost an arm and leg. Hydroponics doesn't need to be complicated or cost a whole lot as comparing to commercially produced systems. I know people have to work and jobs are created and people who invent and pay huge sums for patents deserve some return for their efforts and expense. I just think a whole lot more people would get into hydroponics if the costs were not so high for the blue collar majority. Systems like this prove just about anyone can purchase or scrounge up some working material to grow abundance of food.

The best hydroponic system for tomatoes or any other plant is the one you can afford, learn to run, maintain and it does what it's supposed to do. They all work given the necessities of air, water and nutrients in whatever form and proper amounts. Looks are in the eye of the beholder.

I love the simplicity of this system and the results. Way to grow!

    Bookmark   March 3, 2008 at 9:45PM
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What an impressive system. I've never seen that plastic ribbed tubing before (we have metallic stuff for the dryer, but it's not the same), but it looks ideal for thin film. In my imagination of it, the ribs set up tiny tiny waterfalls that oxygenate the water while it traverses through the pipe.

That stuff may be better than the 6" PVC pipe I was planning on using in the fall greenhouse. You may have converted me.

Quit converting me, hydroponics people! ;)

    Bookmark   March 3, 2008 at 10:29PM
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WAIT A SECOND! You live in Florida, right? You've got those horrid stinkbugs too! Worse, if you live in the south, you've got them all year round! How do you fight them? Show us some of your fruit please. I'm having trouble believing they are blemish free.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 12:30AM
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we get stink bugs in NC too. they've only sparsely attacked my tomato plants and even then it was only the leaves. from what I've gathered, the only way to fight them is manually. I wonder if that is where the term 'green thumb' comes from.
I don't believe the ribs in the pipe will act as tiny waterfalls. they'll simply fill with water and then the flow will go over them. kind of like an ice tray.

This is how I tried to control the bugs in my first hydro system. of course, then pollination becomes an issue.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 8:47AM
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I agree that hydroponics has a high cost/ high maintenance factor to it but I don't think it needs to be that way. That is why I tried to design a cheap system that could produce a high yield of produce. Like I said $40 for tubing, some scrap lumber, an old aquarium pump and one day was all it took. If you had to buy everything for this system you could probably do it for ~$100. I am growing about 50 plants right now but you could easily do 100 plants depending on what you were growing (lettuce, strawberries etc).

ILIKETOAST you can find this stuff at most hardware stores. It is 4' corrugated pipe sold for drainage. Make sure not to get the one with holes in it.

Yes, I am in Palm Beach FL. I do see those stinkbugs from time to time but they don't seem to bother my crops to much. Maybe becasue my crops are elevated high above the ground. I never said my tomatoes didn't have blemished but I think they look decent. I flipped the one over to show one of the only blemished I could find. I don't use any pesticides at all! How do they look?

    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 10:19AM
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    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 11:17AM
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Beautiful tomatoes! I'm jealous. You clearly don't have the stink bug trouble I have, you lucky dog. I haven't taken a photo of my stink bug damage, mostly because I'm ashamed. But here is a photo of what I'm dealing with:

This is MILD damage. It gets severe from late June to late August, when there is often more stung surface than ripe fruit surface. The flesh is rock hard and inedible for 1/8th inch around each one of those yellow stings.

The only thing that kills them is Thiodan(c), but our government in it's infinite wisdom has made the stuff illegal

    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 12:43PM
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Very interesting setup and one I am seriously considering. I haven't notice you discussing nutrients for your system. I have noticed in literature that different veggies require different pH & nutrients (Tomatoes pH 6-6.5 & 1400-3500 ppm; Zucchini pH 6 & 1260-1680 ppm; lettuce pH 6-7 & 560-840 ppm). Could you please discuss your nutrients used, and if have a variety of plants in your system were any adversley affected by non-optimal conditions?
P.S. I grew up in Jupiter, Fl near you.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2008 at 4:16PM
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Wow, wonderful setup. just a question, how do you keep rainwater from entering your setup?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 10:56PM
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you don't really. unless you get a Louisiana downpour, its probably not that much water. maybe check the EC level after a really big storm and adjust as needed.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2008 at 7:38AM
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I use a 5-11-26 fertilizer and I add about 1/3 more CaNO3 AND 1/5 magnesium sulfate by weight (~ off the top of my head ratios). My EC varies from about 2.0 to over 3.6 depending on how much water evaporates. In peak tomato growth I was losing 10-15gal per day in evaporation. I would just top it off when it got low and then every week or two I flush the system with hose water and let it run out. When most of the water drains I then fill up the nutrient tank with full strength once again. My pH tends to be high (upper 7's) but my plants seem to be ok. I have been adding sulfuric acid recently and have been able to bring the pH down sometimes but then it comes back up occasionally.

The nutrient concentration didn't need to be super accurate. I didn't have an EC meter until a couple of months ago. I used to just top off continuously with half strength nutrients. So I probably had a very high nutrient level but the plants seemed to handle it well.

I have grown together in this system the follwing;
tomatoes, chili peppers, eggplant, cilantro, basil, strawberries, dill, thyme and I think thats it. The basil grew to monster proportions and I had to pull it out and trust me it had a firm hold. All of the above plants seem to do well together.

Rainwater is not even an issue. It would need to rain 10" for my setup to even see a 1" rise in the reservoir. There just isn't enough exposed to be affected. I also have two 4x8 floating systems for most of my lettuce and when it rains those babies can easily overflow since they catch an equal amount of rain. ie if it rains 4" they rise 4".

Good to see another fellow person from jupiter. It is getting ungodly hot right now though but on the bright side my lettuce system has some pretty yellow flowers :).

LMK if you have anymore questions and I will be sure to help you out.

Ohh BTW a couple of fixes for this setup. I aerate the nutrient solution and in 3 places along the way down the pipe and this seems to have improved root health. After many months of growing some of the roots may block the path of water and cause a small overflow. Just pull the plant up and trim the roots. This mostly is a problem where the water enters at it's highest rate and can back up. Another solution is to let the water enter in more than one place reducing the flow rate in the problematic areas.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2008 at 11:02PM
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Nice looking system.

To "improve" on any design you must decide what the shortcoming of the current version is. Based on the pictures it looks like you are doing just fine.

Some common ways that people improve their hydroponic systems include:
lower cost to build/operate
 more efficient use of space
(1) higher density planting
(2) more compact design
 easier to maintain/service/repair
 trying new crops
 remove possible failure points in design
 make it prettier :)

How you go about accomplishing any of these things is dependent on what your current system is and what is important to you moving forward. In my oppinion, looking for and correcting possible failure points in the system is the most important way to revise a hydroponic design. I look at things like "how is my pump connected to the growing chamber?" and "What would happen if the power went out in the afternoon and the pump was off for an hour?". Then I try to adjust the system to compensate such as: using a threaded nipple to connect the feed hose instead of just drilling a hole and poking the tube through (pressure fit). To compensate for possible power/pump failures I might add cubed rockwool to the growing chamber to retain extra moisture in the root zone.

Good luck and happy growing.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2008 at 9:47AM
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Extra water puddles in the grooves of the pipe. For smaller plants on a cooler day they can go all day with the pump being off. Large tomato plants can go about 2 hrs before they start to show sever signs of water loss.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2008 at 7:47PM
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plant-one-on-me(MI 5b)

This is incredible. I am looking at starting a very basic system with just a bucket this year because of money problems. I could easily save money over the winter to get things together for a system like yours. Could you maybe make a list of supplies...I need very simple. Better yet a list which shows "must haves" and "would be better if I had"... Thanks Kim

    Bookmark   May 29, 2008 at 10:37AM
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This post is sooooo perfectly timed. Many, many thanks. I have to redo my system--not working well. So I've returned with most of the materials of your setup, vipvenom.

Your system is absolutely brilliant.


    Bookmark   May 29, 2008 at 11:09PM
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Vipvenom, you genius! I copied your system. It's working fantastic! I've made a make-shift greenhouse out of a walk-in bird aviary I had, about 3 ftx6 ft. Instead of angling the corregated pipe on a tripod, I just wired it to the side of the cage. It seems to be working great and saved my plants that were on the verge of croaking after my very bad and incorrect starts at another hydroponic system.

Thank you for your generous sharing this ingenious system.


    Bookmark   June 20, 2008 at 2:53AM
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chuck(Z10,SW FL)

I used 4" irrigation pipe with cups with good results. My runs were on parallel 2X4 that all drained into a tub at the end of the run, and got pumped back up to the main tank. It might be easier to operate than one long continous run.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2008 at 1:58PM
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You could also do a "best of both worlds": multiple runs like chuck's system, built on a vertical frame like viper's.

That way you'd have the space saving that vipervenom's system employs by going vertical and the improved aeration and so forth that chuck's system gets.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2008 at 7:16PM
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I bought some parts and make 3 lettuce rafts and 4 aerospring units - which I connected together and now have (2) - 2 bay aerosprings which I use to grow heirloom tomatoes. I suggest using large netpots (6") if you want to grow tomatoes, this helps give them enough room, too many tomato plants in a aerospring system will be too crowded, and use up too much nutrients on a hot day leaving you with dry roots unless you have a large reservoir.

Check out my website at to see some of my Hydroponic and Aeroponic pictures and some howto's on starting seeds, transplanting into a lettuce raft, etc

    Bookmark   June 26, 2008 at 11:55AM
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Couple questions on your site, technologygarden.

1. Why did you opt to just let your rubbermaids bow out like that on your lettuce rafts? If you got two bits of wood (like pieces from a broom handle or something) and tied them along each side you could reinforce it so the water didn't force it out of shape, and the rafts would fit much better on the inside and reduce the capacity for light to hit the nutrient solution and grow algae.

2. What's an aerospring? Is it just aeroponics or what?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 11:45PM
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Hey Hydroponica...

Good question on the lettuce rafts, I agree that I need to do something about that. If they are indoors I use less water since the light is directly overhead, but outdoors the angle is not as good so I tried to fill them up more. The bending of the rubbermaid is an effect of that. I'll get to this eventually, thanks for the tips.

An Aeropsring is the name of the aeroponic system in the book How to Hydroponics, spraying the roots. These systems are better for smaller plants but they seems to be working just fine with my tomatoes.

I'll be posting my cloning box tutorial sometime in the next week or so so show how i adapted the aerospring plans to a mini size and clone my tomato plants

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 6:49AM
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Ah, so the aerospring is just a name for a particular design for an aeroponics system.

Another thing I thought of - if you have multiple raft systems you could just push them together so that only the ones on the ends even had a chance to bow outward (the middle ones would be squished together so that they hold their shape). Then you could prop sticks against the sides of the end units at an angle with one end jammed into the ground. It'd probably take 2-3 sticks per end, but it should keep things in shape.

It'll help cut down on water loss to evaporation, too.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2008 at 8:14PM
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I am planning on putting together a rigid NFT system, using 4" PVC ( as per Howard Resh's "Hydroponic Tomatoes") I am wondering what the advantages & disadvantages are to either black, or white PVC. I know black will absorb heat. Is this good, or bad ? Since, initialy, I'll be growing inside under lights, maybe it doesn't matter ??

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 3:28PM
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In a small STEALTH hydroponic system, I have beautiful, 3 ft tall pepper plants. They bloom nicely, but the blooms just dry up, not producing any peppers. Please help !!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 3:33PM
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arcobill - I'd use the white. More light reflection is a plus for indoors, where you need all the light you can get. Heat is usually the enemy, especially in hydroponics. It's much more common to need to cool the solution rather than heat it.

Why do you have pepper plants in a stealth system?

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 9:46PM
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That is truly an impressive system for tomatoes - my favorite fruit but found in the vegetable section! I like that pipe idea but not sure how I could manage all that technology. I'll stick to growing in soil for now - I love this forum! So many ideas, so many great people & of course so many beautiful fruits n veggies!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 6:52PM
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egnilk66(9 - Southern California)
    Bookmark   July 17, 2008 at 12:38PM
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That's a pretty slick-looking system. Where'd you get the fence post thing?

    Bookmark   July 17, 2008 at 6:23PM
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This is my first hydroponic tomato plant at 3 weeks of being in the bucket. The root growth was unbelievable and I now have my first little tomato. I'm now a firm believer in deep water culture. Cheap, effective and simple.






    Bookmark   July 21, 2009 at 9:16PM
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i know it has been a very long time but... i am brandy new to hydroponics and want to start this year, this system seems simple and would fit my budge and space confinements, would this system be good in New York (zone 6) and work well here for tomatoes, strawberries, herbs etc.... wife says grow lots of tomatoes and strawberries:-)

    Bookmark   February 27, 2013 at 8:21PM
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I am a newbie, my interest in hydroponics began 4 weeks ago when I was given an assignment in a classes at the Community College. We were told to use what was available to us and not to go out and buy something. I did some research and decided to try and grow some vegetables using hydroponics. I built an ebb and flow system which turned out great no problems. I also built a NFT system using 2 old rain gutters to grow different varities of lettuce. I like the idea of the 5 gal buckets for individual plants what type of system are you using in those?I haven't planted tomatoes yet, I didn't have room for them. I think I'd like to use the 5 gal buckets can you e-mail me the info.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2013 at 4:55AM
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