It works in any climate year round—even in the winter! 
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Woman standing in kitchen, holding basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables
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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where associate nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

In the doldrums of winter, I often find myself dreaming of warmer days. One thing I always look forward to in the warming weather is tending to my garden (for more on that, check out things I wish I knew before I started my first garden). Taking the time to grow your own vegetables is rewarding for a lot of reasons: it saves you money, can give you a mental health boost and is a great way to get extra movement into your day. Plus, it makes it super easy to up your vegetable intake when you always have fresh vegetables available. 

As much as I love gardening, it's hard to deny that the expenses can add up quickly. From seedlings to supplies and fertilizer, it can get pricey. There are ways to cut down on some costs, like starting your produce from seeds and container gardening, but there is one method that can save you money by skipping the soil altogether. Hydroponic gardening is the cheapest and easiest way to grow your own vegetables. 

What is hydroponic gardening?

Hydroponic gardening is the act of growing plants in water instead of soil. Yep, plants can grow with just water and light! You need a potting medium (the seeds won't sprout and take root just floating in water) and the water needs nutrients to feed the plants, but a hydroponic system is significantly cheaper than starting a traditional garden. Plus, hydroponic gardening can take place indoors, perfect if you don't have the outdoor space. 

How to start a hydroponic garden

All you need to start a hydroponic garden is a container (a plastic tote or bucket works well), seed cups (100-pack for $16.99,, potting medium (50-pack $17.99,, seeds and water. Use an X-Acto knife or drill with a two-inch circle bit to carefully create two-inch-diameter holes in the lid of your container. Next, fill your seed cups with potting medium, top with seeds (about a half inch below the surface) and place them in the container lid. Fill the container with water and nutrients, like the Fox Farm Grow Big Hydro Liquid Concentrate ($15.07, Add nutrients and fresh water every seven to ten days

What plants can grow hydroponically 

Several types of plants can be grown in a hydroponic garden system. Greens like lettuce, spinach and chard and herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil are some of the easiest because they grow very quickly. They also have a short lifespan in the refrigerator so growing your own can help you cut down on food waste. Other plants like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and even strawberries can grow hydroponically as well. Just make sure to choose self-pollinating seed varieties if they will be inside and shake the leaves occasionally to allow the pollen to move around the plant. 

Benefits of hydroponic gardening 

There are several benefits of hydroponic gardening. The most attractive might be that there is no weeding involved, since there is no soil. Hydroponically-grown crops also can grow faster and produce higher yields since it's easier for the roots to uptake the nutrients from the water. This type of gardening also works in any size of space, from a small apartment to a classroom (it's a great activity for kids to help with). Since there is no weeding and minimal upkeep involved, you can essentially set it up and leave it be until your crops are ready to be harvested. With this method, food can be grown all year round, keeping crops indoors or outdoors in the summer and indoors in front of a south-facing window or under a grow light in the winter.