12 Hydroponic problems and how to solve them

Hydroponic problems

So if you are reading this post then you are most likely either trying to avoid running into these hydroponic problems or are currently facing them. Growing hydroponically is a great way for micro homesteaders to grow food year-round but sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

It doesn’t matter if you have been growing food hydroponically for 5 minutes or 5 years. Issues can creep up at any time. That said there are definitely things you can do to drastically reduce the likelihood of these issues happening. So let’s take a look at these 12 hydroponic problems and what you can do if you are battling one or more of them!

1 – Pests

So I think it’s important that we level set here. The chance of battling pests is WAY lower if you are growing hydroponically rather than if your garden is outside. That said, if you ARE dealing with pests then it’s kinda worse as it means they are in your house! Yuck! So what are some of the most common hydroponic pests you may encounter? Let’s take a look at the list of wee besties below:

  • Fungus gnats
  • Aphids
  • Whiteflies
  • Thrips
  • Spider mites

There are more but those are some of the common ones. So if you are battling an infestation what can you do? There are many options such as sticky traps, apple cider vinegar, soapy water or even an electronic bug device. Sometimes an infestation reaches a point where you have exhausted all of the options available and you have to just wave the white flag and shut down and sterilize your garden completely. It’s sad but it does occasionally happen.

So one recommendation I would make is to be VERY careful bringing plants in if you moved them out for the warm weather. This is a prime way of introducing pests into your home. So becare doing this, or better yet keep indoor plants inside and outdoor plants outside so you can hopefully avoid these types of hydroponic problems with pests.

2 – Not monitoring water quality

Of all the hydroponic problems mentioned this is the one I always feel most guilty about as it is completely within my control. So I will be the first to put my hand up and admit that I was guilty of this until pretty recently. It wasn’t until I got my shiny new Personal Rise Garden that I found out about the importance of testing your water. Doesn’t sound bad right?

Well this is the part where I tell you that I have been growing hydroponically for at least two years. Like seriously Kiri WTF! But hey, now I know and knowing is half the battle (thank G.I. Joe). So anyway moving on from my previous failures, I now know that water quality is key. Though I should point out that I did grow successfully over those two years of questionable water quality. But I would have had healthier plants and better yields if I had kept tabs on the water.

It’s not even hard to do! I recently picked up this EC meter and pH meter set and I am now water testing each week in all my hydroponic systems! So if you are just getting started in the wonderful world of growing indoors hydroponically then PLEASE start out on the right foot and test your water regularly.

My overcrowded Aerogarden Harvest
My first overcrowded Aerogarden Harvest

3 – Overcrowding

There is a certain excitement you feel when getting your first (or even fifth) hydroponic system. You see all the growing potential in all those lovely holes and you want to fill them all up! But you need to stop and think about what you want to grow. If you fill the holes willy-nilly you are headed for disaster. Some things grow tall, some are bushy, some stay low and some are ready for harvest quicker than others. You will need to take all these things into account before you pop a single grow sponge anywhere.

A good general rule is do NOT plant in all the holes, this statement comes with a caveat. If you don’t use one of the holes then you need to cover it up! I’ll get into why in the next item on the list. But by not using all the holes available you are already taking steps to prevent future overcrowding. It always looks like there sooo much space when you first start out but it disappears VERY quickly. I submit Exhibit A above, from my own archives as supporting evidence for this issue!

4 – Algae

Look at all the hydroponic problems listed here this one is the most specific to growing in a hydroponic environment. I’m pretty sure anyone that has grown hydroponically has at some point in their hydroponic growing journey has had a run-in with algae. Hydroponic growing is the perfect breeding ground for algae as it brings into play the trifecta of algae as noted in a super fancy calculation below.

Water + Light + Nutrients = Algae growth

So you can see how this can go bad, right? So we obviously can’t remove the water from the equation. Nutrients are important but just make sure you are using the right ones at the right time and not going overboard. Which leaves us with light, but wait! We need light to grow the plants!!! Yes, we do, but we can make sure that we are not letting any unnecessary light reach the water in the grow bowl. So make sure there are no open holes!

Also if you are using the Aerogarden grow anything pods then make sure to use the green sticker tops they provide (notice I didn’t below). Why is this important? Well, it’s just another way to reduce the amount of light leakage that can cause an algae bloom.

Aerogarden algae
A nice old algae bloom in my AeroGarden Farm Plus

5 -Not much fruit

If you are just growing lettuce and herbs in your hydroponic system then this is at least one of the twelve hydroponic problems you won’t run into. However, if you are growing other common hydroponic plants like peppers or tomatoes then this one may come into play. Now to start I need to point out that peppers and tomato plants are for all intents and purposes self-pollinating. This is also the point where people picking sides. Either on #teamyouneedtopollinatethem or #teamyoudontneedtopollinatethem.

Basically, if you are not getting much fruit or the blossoms are just dropping off then poor pollination is probably playing a role. But if they are self-pollinating then how can this be? Well, they are self-pollinating because they have both the male and female parts in the same flower. But out in the real world, you have pollinators, wind, rain and a host of other factors that bring these two parts into contact with one another. So while they can and do self-pollinate they have some help.

So at this point, you may be thinking of joining #teamyouhavetopollinatethem but hang on I’m not done yet! I have gone through stretches where I did nothing and I still ended up with fruit. How? Well, plants move. Yup, they do! I have a timelapse I took of some beans growing and it’s crazy how much they move from side to side! Why does this matter? Well there could be contact between the tomato, pepper and other plants in your hydroponic system that helps them self-fertilize!

So before you now jump on #teamyoudontneedtopollinatethem. Let me just say that while you don’t technically have to, that a little action on your part can help increase your yields. A simple GENTLE shake of the stem is all you need to do! You can also add in a small oscillating fan which will give you other benefits as well as introducing some wind into the equation. Finally, there is a little Aerogarden pollinator tool that you can buy if you want to, BUT YOU DON’T NEED IT!

I just want to be clear on that point. I mention it as I do have it. But that’s because I bought it in all my excitement of getting my first hydroponic system. If you do want it as well then you can just touch the little bristles to the stem or back of each flower.

6 – Root rot

Roots should be pearly white, end of story. But rarely is anything that simple and cut and dry. It’s easy to forget about the roots when it’s the plants you see! I speak from experience as I have run into this very issue myself. The one HUGE benefit that you have when you grow hydroponically is that you CAN see and access the roots if you choose too.

Root rot is a fungal disease that is typically caused by Pythium spp. It is a sneaky foe and the damage usually only appears on the plant when it has reached an advanced stage. As I mentioned in the beginning your roots should be pearly white. So if you see any brown roots that can look slimy or smell then you, my dear have root rot. As with anything like this, the best medicine is prevention, but if you do find yourself in this situation then there are a few things you can do.

  1. Remove the affected pod and rinse the affected roots with clean water
  2. Trim any affected roots using CLEAN pruners (I love these Fiskars ones)
  3. Prune any dead or dying leaves
  4. Clean out the grow bowl and add fresh nutrients
  5. Make sure your pump is working correctly and is not clogged with roots
  6. Optional: Add hydrogen peroxide to your water bowl. If you are using 3% hydrogen peroxide then you should NOT exceed 2.5tsp of hydrogen peroxide per gallon of water. So make sure you know how much water your grow bowl holds!
  7. Optional: You. can add in an air stone to help provide more oxygen to the roots.

7 – Wrong nutrients

I’m not talking about one brand versus another, I will leave that decision up to you. Just don’t fall into issue #12 below. It is so important to use nutrients that are made for hydroponic systems, typically they will be liquids. Adding in nutrients that are not made for use in hydroponic systems could burn your plants, be too diluted to do much good or even damage your pump! So go ahead and find a brand that you like, either the Aerogarden nutrients, those that came with your Rise Garden or another brand. A lot of other people also use Cal-Mag in their systems as well without issue.

8 – Clogged pumps or tubing

One of the hydroponic problems that is relatively easier to fix (and prevent) is a clogged [ump and tubing. Typically a pump becomes clogged with roots which is why some people swear by root trimming. Honestly, I haven’t tried this and in 2 plus years of growing hydroponically, my pump has only been clogged once with roots. So the root trimming is up to you.

If you are checking on your root health regularly then the chances of your pump getting clogged by roots are greatly reduced. That said as I mentioned above using the wrong nutrients could clog your pump as well. Tubing typically isn’t affected by roots and it is algae or grow bowl sludge that can wind up in them. But regular cleaning and a handy-dandy pipe cleaner should help prevent this issue.

9 – Choosing the wrong plants

Wrong plants? I mean trust me as far as I am concerned I love all plants. BUT, there are some plants that are going to thrive in a hydroponic system while others will struggle or just aren’t suited to this growing method. I did a post on 14 Vegetables you can grow hydroponically (and 10 you can’t). That said I have already broken my own rule by growing some delicious charentais melons in my Aerogarden Farm Plus! That said I’m not going to try and grow carrots hydroponically.

Plants such as herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs all do really well hydroponically. But when it comes to tomatoes make sure you are choosing a dwarf or determinate variety. If you’re not sure what that means you can check out this post on the differences between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. So anyway, if you are new to growing hydroponically stick to the plants I just mentioned and then try pushing some boundaries when you have learned the ropes.

10 – Lack of proper cleaning

When I mention cleaning I am talking about cleaning your hydroponic system AND cleaning your tools, such as pruners. Not cleaning your pruners can spread diseases and not cleaning your hydroponic system can lead to multiple hydroponic problems such as root rot and affect your plant’s health and growth. So in the interest of being a kickass micro homesteader, clean your sh*t so you can grow the most food possible.

That said, I myself have fallen victim to a direct system as documented below in my video. It tends to happen to me as soon as spring arrives and I can get out into my outdoor garden. But I solemnly swear that this year will be the year that I grow both indoors and out with unparalleled success! Because who doesn’t love less trips to the grocery store?!

11- Plant diseases

So you are feeling mighty proud at avoiding all the other hydroponic problems only to be suddenly faced with sick plants! It can be a sad, sad day when sickness falls upon you hydroponic plants. As each one is a blog post in and of itself I will just list some of the more common ones below and a quick tip on how to prevent them. I plan to write full blog posts on each in the future.

  • Gray mold (Botrytis) – Caused by excessive humidity which can be mediated by introducing a small oscillating fan.
  • Powdery mildew – The bane of just about every gardener it is caused by dim light, high humidity and cool temperatures. Try turning up the lights (if possible), pruning to allow for space and air circulation and again that oscillating fan will help.
  • Wilts – There are many types of wilts and they typically strike eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. You’ll know you have it if you start to see the lower leaves curling up, drying out. The best thing you can do, unfortunately, is to remove the affected plant, disinfect and restart your system.
  • Damping off – This is a seedling disease that is more typical in soil. You know you have it when the seedling falls over at the “soil” line. There is no cure once it hits so make sure seedlings aren’t just sitting in stagnant water.

12 – Analysis Paralysis/Information overload

There is nothing that will stop you quicker in your tracks than analysis paralysis. This is a trap I have fallen into myself many a time. You find yourself so overloaded with options or information that you just don’t know what to do or which option to pick! Sometimes it helps to make a list of the pros and cons of each option. Other times it simply comes down to picking one and seeing how it turns out. If it doesn’t work out then try the other option. But as long as you do the research and don’t just jump on a bandwagon because all the cool kids are doing it then you should be fine.

So there you have it, 12 common hydroponic problems and some solutions that you can employ if you run into 1 or all 12 of them along your hydroponics growing journey. The important thing is to realize that even the best growers can run into issues all you can do is try your best to rectify the issue. If all else fails then you may have to clean out and restart your hydroponic system from scratch and that’s ok! The fun is in the growing and the lessons and skills you learn along the way.

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