Grow the BIGGEST hydroponic vegetables! Here’s how and EXACTLY what you need


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Dave Ware

The winters get VERY cold where I live, so I decided a few years back to start growing things indoors, hydroponically. Hydroponic growing, at its simplest, is growing plants in water rather than soil. There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s fairly easy to get started, and pretty much everything you need can be found on Amazon.  If you’re wondering how to start growing hydroponics vegetables easily indoors, we can help, because I grew a tomato plant that stretched over 10 feet, without any specialized training, chemicals or hassle. I’ll tell you exactly how it did it.

What you need to grow gigantic hydroponic tomatoes

  • Rubbermaid 11-Litre bin
  • Grow lights
  • Rockwool cubes
  • Netcups
  • Hydroponic fertilizer
  • Bubbler or fountain pump
  • Smart Plugs

My winter setup consists of a handful of everyday items, as well as a couple more specialized growing gadgets.

To start hydroponic vegetable garden, I use a large Rubbermaid Roughneck 11 litre/3 gallon bin. That as the base container, paired with an aquarium bubbler, and a set of Barrina Grow Lights. You’ll also want to get some Rockwool grow cubes. Rockwool is a light hydroponic growing substance. It is made from spinning melted, crushed basalt rock into fine fibres which creates a thick mass of fine, intertwined threads. The density of Rockwool means it holds moisture very well, while also allowing airflow, gives the plants something to root in, and it too is available on Amazon or from most garden centres.

You’ll also want to source some netcups. Also called net cups or mesh pots, these are simple webbed or slotted containers with openings of varying sizes along all sides. Netcups allow plants to be secured properly while also making sure nutrients and water flow all the way to the root. Purchase a bubbler or fountain pump to keep the water from becoming stagnant. This also helps introduce oxygen. Hydroton pellets can also be added to the netcups (more below)  to block light from your reservoir to help stop algae from developing.

The other thing you should add to your cart is some liquid hydroponic fertilizer.

Consider also a smart plug, like this one that can be operated on a timer using a smart home system like Google Home or Amazon Alexa.

How to set up a indoor hydroponic garden in a Rubbermaid bin

Stage 1: Create sprouts

  • Soak Rockwool cubes
  • Plant seeds in Rockwool
  • Place Rockwool in netcups
  • Place wool/cups into a shallow dish filled with water
  • Allow to sprout and roots to develop

First up, soak your Rockwool for 10 minutes or so. Once it absorbs lots of water you can plant your seeds. Plant seeds in the rockwool cubes and then place them in the netcups. Put the netcups in a shallow container or dish with plain water until they begin to grow roots.  Once the roots are longer than the bottom of the netcup, they get transferred to the big container.

Stage 2: Move sprouts to larger bin

My Rubbermaid bin for growing.

  • Cut holes in lid of Rubbermaid bin (to size of netcups).
  • Fit netcups into holes
  • Fill bin with water
  • Install bubbler
  • Add hydroponic fertilizer

Place lights

Set up smart home timer for lights, bubbler (according to your preferred smart home system).

I cut a number of holes in the lid of the Rubbermaid container, then moved my growing plant babies into the openings in the lid; be careful not to damage the seedlings!

Place the bin where you’ll want it to stay and fill the bin with water. Add the appropriate amount of hydroponic nutrients (follow directions on the container) to the water to give the plants nutrients. Add your bubbler to the water and plug it in. Place the lid on the bin. Set up your lights by clipping them to the container or placing them over top (depending on the lights you bought).

My grow lights are set to turn on and off automatically using a smart plug and my Google Home system, and the bubbler operates on the same cycle.  Your plants should be growing strong in no time. Check every few days to ensure the water level isn’t dropping. You can add more if needed, you don’t need to add more nutrients each time.

Let them grow!

The best vegetables to  grow hydroponically is lettuce, basil, and even bell peppers during the winter. I tried out a San Marzano tomato plant two years back, but it didn’t grow very well. When the summer came around, I decided to bring the bin out to my 6x8ft greenhouse, to add more humidity. On a whim, I left the tomato plant and a couple of jalapeno plants in and exchanged the bubbler for a full-on fountain pump, which would move the water around more.

The Summer of Gigantor

My growing operation begins.

With lots of outdoor tasks and chores getting the garden ready, I kind of forgot about the hydroponic bin. When I took notice of it again, I was shocked at how much the tomato plant had grown. It was crowding out the jalapenos, and also taking over the back of the greenhouse. I staked it, moved some of the runners back out of the way of the fans, and continued to let it do its thing.

A few weeks later, I named the tomato plant ‘Gigantor’. It continued to grow both upward and sideways, eventually reaching both side walls of the greenhouse, and the ceiling too! In hot weather, I was refilling the container practically every day. Gigantor’s roots were huge, and started to fill the entire container.

When the growing season came to an end, I reluctantly cut down Gigantor, and harvested all the tomatoes. There were 141 tomatoes. Some were still green, and they were ripened in a box with a few ripened tomatoes. We ended up making a few containers of tomato basil soup and a really nice pasta sauce with our bounty.

This season, I have a few more plants in the bin, including San Marzanos, and I’m keeping on top of the growth of Gigantor II (grown from the seeds of original Gigantor!), and making sure the plants in the front have enough light, at least for a few more weeks when Gigantor II inevitably takes over.

Your Gigantor Shopping List

Growing Your Own: what to know about growing hydroponic vegetables

Netcups – They come in a variety of sizes, I tend to use 1.5 inch.

Hydroton pellets – Consider using these clay pellets that block light from reaching your water/nutrient mix (which will cause algae growth) and also helps anchor the plant.

Your bin – size it to your space, but make sure there’s room for roots to grow in. Larger plants will need more water and space.

Light – LED grow lights are pretty inexpensive, and having a system that can adjust to the plant size is great for avoiding ‘leggy plants’. If your light is too fat from the plant, it will stretch and grow towards it, making the plant less stable. Put your lights nice and close to the plant, and move them upward as the plant grows. I really liked the Barina Grow lights I found on Amazon.

Water + Air – If your local water isn’t high quality, you can use bottled water. It’s important to leave some air space at the bottom of the netcups, as the plants will grow air roots, which supply oxygen to the plant.

Nutrients – Plants need the three basic nutrients known as ‘NPK’ –  nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Most hydroponic nutrients will contain these, and show you their numbers on the container. Indoor hydroponic vegetable garden need oxygen (again, make sure you’re leaving some airspace at the bottom of your netcups,). Calcium is another big one, and you can usually find that mixed with Magnesium in hydroponic nutrients. I use this one.

The initial investment in growing hydroponic vegetables might seem high, especially if you go with larger or more expensive lights, but in general, the only thing you’ll need to replace is the Rockwool and the nutrients. Netcups are reusable, as-is Hydroton, and your bin is ready for action after an occasional cleaning between grows.

Have you grown hydroponic vegetables? What unique setup do you have, and what were the results? Let us know in the comments.

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