What You Need To Know Before Starting Hydroponic System - No Plant No Life

Thursday, November 3, 2022

What You Need To Know Before Starting Hydroponic System

In this basic hydroponic tutorial, I will be covering;

*How I prepare my plants for the system

*How I mix my hydroponic fertilizer

*How I measure the PPM and pH in the nutrient solution and how I adjust it to its correct optimal levels.

I don't claim to be a hydroponic expert and I do appreciate constructive criticism, so please feel free to leave your comments below.

Before starting a hydroponic system, you would need several items to grow plants in the system, one of which is hydroton. 

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Hydroton is a growing medium composed of expanded clay pebbles. I use hydroton for several reasons, it helps support the plants, it's pH neutral, it's light in weight, it's reusable and it provides lots of oxygen to your roots. There're several substitutes for hydroton such as coconut coir and perlite.

Next, you would need a net cup. I chose 2-inch net cups as the holes in my system are 1 and 7/8 of an inch. The size of your net cup would be determined by the size of the holes in your system. 


For the purpose of this demonstration, I bought plants but normally I will germinate from seeds and then transplant the seedlings. I will be planting kale, parsley, and celery, be sure to choose plants that are suited to your location. You will need a scale that can measure in grams and that can be zeroed.

What is NPK and why is it important?

There're many water-soluble fertilizer blends for hydroponics but I will be using one that I currently have on hand which is a herb and pepper formula that has an NPK of 11-11-40. These figures represent the macronutrients which are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium by percentage. Formulas also usually contain micronutrients such as copper, iron, zinc, and others. 

Knowing the NPK values of a fertilizer can help you select one that is appropriate for the type of plant you are growing. For example, if you're growing leafy vegetables, you may want to apply a fertilizer that has a higher nitrogen number to encourage leafy growth. If you are growing flowers, you may want to apply a fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus number to encourage more blooms. 

When mixing your hydroponic fertilizers, they usually require that you add calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate which is also knowns as Epsom salt.

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pH is adjusted by using an acid to lower it or a base to raise it. You may require pH Up or pH Down, depending on the acidity or alkalinity of your water. I use food-grade phosphoric acid instead of pH Down. I have never had cause to use pH Up but your local water may be more acidic than mine. 

Gloves and Goggles

Remember to wear goggles and gloves when mixing your formula or adding pH Up or pH Down. When you increase the aeration levels in your system, your plants can use the hydroponic fertilizers much more efficiently. You would therefore need an air stone, an air pump, and some quarter-inch tubing. 

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You would require a PPM (Parts Per Million) or TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter for measuring the conductivity which is a concentration of total dissolved solids in the water and the pH meter which measures the acidity or alkalinity of the water. You should also get some calibration fluid for each meter as you must often calibrate them.  

Hopefully, you should have your pump and reservoir ready for the hydroponic solution. I would suggest you either paint your bucket on the outside or use some insulated lining which would maintain the temperature of the water and prevent algae growth. 

Plant Preparation

Fill your 5-gallon bucket with tap water and set it aside for at least 24hrs, this should be sufficient time to allow the chlorine to evaporate.

Next day, wash the hydroton thoroughly to remove the dust and other debris. Begin preparing your plants by washing off the potting soil, massage the roots gently, and eventually, the soil will wash away. Try to get as much of the growing medium off as possible. Insert the plant into the net cup, ensuring that the root goes through and that the length is sufficient so that when the net cup is placed in the pipe, the roots will touch the water.


Grab a handful of hydroton and place it around the plant. Make sure it's enough to keep the plant upright. When you purchase your hydroponic fertilizer, it usually comes with mixing instructions for both seedlings and mature plants. 

I will be mixing the formula for mature plants, according to the mixing instructions, 5 gallons of water would be required by my calculation, 12 grams of fertilizers, 12 grams of calcium nitrate, and 6 grams of magnesium sulfate.

However, having said that, I usually find I require double the amount they recommend, be sure to follow your mixing instructions on your fertilizer packs as you can always add more if necessary after checking your PPM levels.

Mixing your formula 

Remember to set your scale at zero before adding nutrients to your container, measure up to 12 grams of calcium nitrate and 12 grams of the 11-11-40 fertilizer. Add six grams of magnesium sulfate or Epsom salt. 

Scoop out some of the water you left overnight into your mixing bucket, empty your fertilizer into the bucket and mix thoroughly until dissolved. Be sure to wear your gloves and goggles.

Next, add the magnesium sulfate and mix thoroughly until dissolved. Finally, add the calcium nitrate and mix thoroughly until dissolved. You can also add the ingredients one at a time in a 1-gallon bottle and shake vigorously to dissolve. Before we add the mixture to the reservoir, we will need to measure the PPM of the water in the reservoir. 

If we look at the conductivity in the mixing instructions under mature plants, it has a recommended PPM of 1,500 plus the source of the water. The PPM of the water in my reservoir is 211. Therefore my final PPM level should be around 1,711. Add your mixture to your reservoir and let it circulate for at least 15 minutes before you take your PPM reading. 

The  PPM meter used for this demonstration displays the highest value at 999 and after that, the amount must be multiplied by 10. In fact, my reading is 175 X 10, which is equal to 1,750. This PPM reading is slightly higher than what they recommend. You can add some of your chlorine-free water to lower your PPM. If your PPM is below the recommended level, you would need to make some more formulas to add to the solution.

Why is pH so important? 

The optimal acidic pH range for hydroponic crops is important, an incorrect pH level will reduce or completely lock out the amount of nutrients your plants can absorb. For pepper and herbs, they recommend a pH level of 5.8 - 6.2.  After my nutrients have been added and the solution left to circulate for at least 15 minutes. My PPM level was 7.1. I therefore needed to lower it by adding pH down or food-grade phosphoric acid. 

When adding phosphoric acid or pH down, always wear gloves and goggles, and never add water to acid. When adjusting pH with either pH Up or pH Down, start out with 1 milliliter per gallon, wait 15 to 30 minutes, and test your water again, continue this process until you have brought it into the optimal pH level.

I used phosphoric acid and added a total of 40 drops in other to bring it to a pH level of 6.2. If your pH is lower than the recommended range then you would need to add pH Up. Now that your PPM and pH level are at their optimal range, go ahead and add your plants.

Keeping Records And Changing Out Nutrient Solution

You should begin keeping records throughout the growing season, it's the best way to understand what you are growing and how your crop responds to the nutrients provided. Keeping records may sound tedious but it serves the purpose of making sure you get the most out of your harvest.

Over time, the nutrient concentration within the solution changes as the plants take what they need. You would be required to change out the nutrient solution every two to three weeks. The discarded solution can be used for the plants in your garden. 

I hope you guys enjoyed this beginning hydroponics tutorial? For the hydroponic experts out there, if you do things differently, please drop a comment below and share your thought. Go set up your hydroponic system today. 

Check out my amazon storefront for products I use regularly in my garden.


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