Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a nutrient solution instead of soil. Why would you want to do that? Because the soil can act as a barrier between the plant and the nutrients the plant needs to thrive. By removing the soil, hydroponics makes growing plants faster and easier.
What’s more, hydroponics enables you to grow plants even if you don’t have a patch of earth of your own. You can grow plants hydroponically just about anywhere—apartments, balconies, cellars included.
In this post, you’ll learn the benefits of hydroponics, find out how different systems work, and discover hydroponics kits that can help you get started. Let’s get right on to it!
It’s worth repeating to avoid confusion—hydroponics means growing plants in water enriched with nutrients to speed up growth. As you’ll see, some hydroponic systems use other grow mediums as well. But whatever the grow medium may be, it’s not standard soil.
In nature, soil anchors plant from hazards above ground and provide them with nutrients. Hydroponics removes the barriers between the plant roots and the nutrients and water—in other words, the soil. By doing so, it helps plants absorb nutrients more efficiently.
The result is faster growth and healthier, more beautiful plants. When applied to farms, hydroponic systems can increase the harvest considerably.
It may all sound like a very modern technique. But hydroponics is an ancient practice. The word hydroponics comes from hydro (water) and ponos (labor).The Babylonians used hydroponics as far back as 600 BC.
You’ve heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, right? Today, hydroponic farming and hydroponic gardening are popular alternatives to conventional practices. Taking a closer look at the different types of hydroponics systems will make you see why.
Types of Hydroponics Systems
Hydroponics systems range from simple to complex. The main difference between them is whether they use a solution or a medium culture. Another distinguishing feature is whether the system uses a static or continuous flow solution.
If you are considering creating your own hydroponics system, you want to read about all your options including their pros and cons. That way, you can choose a system that’s just right for your needs.
Wick Hydroponic System
The wick system moves nutrients stored in a reservoir into the root system through a candlewick, hence its name. This hydroponic system requires an air pump and a grow medium such as perlite, coconut fiber, or vermiculite. The chosen medium fixes the plants on the grow tray.
The type of plant you want to grow will influence the medium you choose. A passive system, the wick hydroponic system is easy to set up and has no moving parts.
- Inexpensive to set up compared to more advanced hydroponics systems
- Doesn’t require a nutrient pump
- Easy to maintain
- Not ideal for large plants, which may absorb nutrients faster than the wick can supply them
- Doesn’t provide optimal amounts of oxygen to the roots of the plants
- Slower growth rate compared to other systems
Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System
The deep water culture system is a simple active system that uses a platform to hold the plants afloat on the nutrient solution. Other components include an air pump and an air stone for dispersing the oxygen and the mineral-rich solution widely throughout the reservoir.
Overall, the deep water culture system is a great introduction to the world of hydroponics.
- The easiest active system to set up
- Cheaper compared to more advanced active hydroponic systems
- Doesn’t require a nutrient pump
- Great for fast-growing, water-loving plants like water lettuce
- Not suitable for large plants that need time to develop
- Requires regular cleaning or may cause the plants to rot
- Slower growth rate compared to other active systems
- Requires frequent reservoir refills to ensure the water tops the roots
Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System
The ebb and flow system regularly floods the plant tray with the nutrient solution. For this, it uses a nutrient pump installed at the bottom of the reservoir. The solution drains back into the reservoir through an overflow pipe or drain, preventing rotting and overfeeding the plants.
To ensure optimal flooding, the pump is set up according to a timer and runs in cycles. A flooding cycle may last 20 minutes or longer depending on the plants you are growing.
This hydroponic system has the advantage of pushing low-oxygen air up the roots and then pulling high-oxygen air into the growing medium. Also, you can use individual pots with different mediums, each optimized for the plant grown in them.
- Highly effective for hydroponic gardening
- Relatively easy to maintain
- Works with many different growing mediums including gravel or rock wool
- Prone to pump failure and power outages
- Roots may dry quickly if the flooding cycle is not set properly or the growing medium doesn’t retain water
- May promote the growth of algae
Drip Method Hydroponic System
Systems using the drip method are a bit more sophisticated than those we’ve covered so far. They use drip lines for each plant and require both a nutrient pump and an air pump. Drip emitters enable you to adjust how much nutrient each plant gets. This means you can use almost any growing medium.
In a recovery drip system, a drip manifold collects excess nutrient solution back into the reservoir. The pump then sends it back to the roots during the next cycle. Systems that don’t recover nutrient solution call for a precise timer to function optimally. But they require less maintenance.
- Drip adjustments create optimal conditions for plants to thrive
- Good flow of oxygen
- Works with almost any growing medium
- Recovery systems can create large shifts in the nutrient levels in the reservoir, calling for regular checks
- Requires maintenance to prevent clogging
- Needs to be cleaned more frequently than other systems
Nutrient-Film Technique (NFT) Hydroponic Systems
NFT hydroponic systems use grow-baskets instead of growing mediums. A pump pushes nutrient solution through a tube or similar fixture over the plant roots. It then drains excess solution back into the reservoir.
This is an active system in which the nutrient solution nourishes the roots of the plant continuously. The plants do need oxygen, which is usually provided through an air pump connected to an air stone in the reservoir.
- Recirculates excess nutrient solution
- You don’t have to worry about choosing the right growing medium
- Effective for growing a wide variety of plants in a medium-free system
- Requires careful tuning of the entire system to yield optimal results
- Technical malfunctions could kill off the plants
- Requires periodic de-clogging
The aeroponics system uses air as the growing medium. A water pump pushes up nutrient solution through mist/aerosol nozzles to the plants suspended in the air. The misting of the roots occurs for a few seconds every few minutes.
The short cycle timer of the pump calls for precision timing and faultless operation. If the roots dry out between cycles, the plants can die. With this system, the plants receive oxygen directly from the air.
- Fast plant growth
- Plant roots avoid contact with soil-borne pests
- Doesn’t require a growing medium
- Effective recirculation of nutrient solution
- Requires an effective pump and timer to deliver misting on time, every time
- Requires periodic maintenance and fine-tuning to operate well
- Doesn’t work well with organic-based nutrients
Rotary Hydroponics Systems
A rotary hydroponic system uses a continuously rotating circular frame. The frame constantly rotates the plant around a glowing light that stimulates sunlight while providing it regularly with a nutrient solution. The rotation may occur once every hour or more often, depending on the setup.
The force that gravity exerts on the hanging plants speeds up plant maturing considerably. No surprise then that NASA has been using this type of hydroponics for its life support systems on space stations.
- Small footprint makes it space-efficient
- Promotes fast growth of the plant
- Simulated light is usually built into the system
- More expensive than simpler systems
- Requires constant monitoring
- Vulnerable to power outages
Hydroponics Systems Uses
Thanks to their growth rate and yield, hydroponic systems have become appealing for both gardeners and farmers. Whether you plan to grow plants hydroponically on a small or large scale, here’s what you need to know.
Gardening using hydroponics can make plants grow 20% faster. The process doesn’t require soil and can save water provided you use enclosed reservoirs that prevent evaporation. Also, hydroponic gardening can help you save space. That’s because you can bunch up plants more closely to each other than in the soil. Hydroponics systems are great for vertical gardening too.
What can you grow?
Start small with herbs and quick-growing vegetables like water lettuce, kale, and spinach. In your hydroponic garden, you can also grow tomatoes, strawberries, and hot peppers. All of these are good plants for starters.
What to pay attention to
You need to ensure the plants get 6-16 hours of light for them to develop properly. This often means choosing a hydroponic kit that contains High-Intensity Discharge (HID) or T-5 lights—or buying a light source separately. Room conditions call for a relative humidity of 40-60% and temperatures 68-70°F.
Also, you have to pay attention to the pH level of the water—5.8-6.2 pH usually works best. The nutrient solution should include both macronutrients and micronutrients. The specific formula depends on what you’re growing and the type of hydroponic garden setup you use.
Recommended hydroponic garden setups
- Wick systems
- Water culture systems
- Ebb and flow systems
- NFT systems
- Rotary systems
Farming using hydroponics can increase yields by 25%. Hydroponic farming applies the same basic concepts of hydroponic farming but on a large scale. A hydroponic farm can cost tens of thousands of dollars to set up. Costs vary depending on the size, location, existing facilities, and hydroponics systems you install.
What can you grow?
Herbs grow very well on a hydroponic farm. These include basil, dill, mint, lavender, parsley, oregano, and thyme. In terms of vegetables, turn your attention to tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, spring onions, spinach, and peppers. Tomato hydroponics are especially popular—leading producers are using hydroponic approaches to increase yield and save resources. In terms of fruits, strawberries and blueberries are popular choices.
What to pay attention to
Hydroponic farming requires careful planning and may call for investments in additional equipment. Ensuring optimal room conditions and choosing the right nutrients for hydroponics is crucial to achieving healthy crops. Different crops thrive on specific nutrients and water pH levels, so be ready to do some testing and experimentation.
Recommended hydroponic farm setups
- Ebb and flow systems
- Drip method systems
Deep waterculture systems
- NFT systems
- Aeroponic systems
How to Choose the Right Hydroponics System for You
When shopping for a hydroponics system, it’s important to consider the crop, location, maintenance, labor, and operating costs. Ultimately, each hydroponic system design has its pros and cons, so don’t shop for perfect. Here are some buying tips to keep in mind.
- Know what you want to grow before choosing a system. For example, you may like the simplicity of wick hydroponics. But if you want to grow large plants, it’s not the best choice.
- Keep in mind that the more complex a system, the more maintenance it’s likely to require. This includes de-clogging and replacing worn-out parts.
- Start with a small and simple system if you’re new to hydroponics. This way, you’ll learn how to calibrate it for optimal results.
- Hydroponics automation systems such as recirculation systems work pretty much on their own. They can save you a lot of time whether you implement them on a small or large scale. But don’t forget that they will still require calibration and regular maintenance.
- Invest in a high-quality pump and timer if you’re getting an NFT or aeroponics system. The failure of the timer or pump in such a system can ruin your crop.
- Choose a recirculation system if you want to minimize water and nutrient waste. This may require a higher initial investment, but you can recoup it in time.
- Use a hydroponics heater to ensure the temperature in your water and nutrient reservoir stays constant. Save energy with a submersible hydroponics heater that shuts off once the water reaches the desired temperature.
- Consider your garden design and how the system will fit into it. Ideally, you want to choose a kit that blends in with the style of your garden—or that can be easily concealed.
Best Hydroponic Kits
Hydroponic kits come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple and optimized for growing a small number of plants while others are scalable. If you plan to grow different types of plants, choosing a scalable system can help you save money in the long run despite higher initial costs.
Whether you’re new to hydroponics or have tried your hand at it before, here are some hydroponic kits that can make your life easier.
PowerGrow Deep Water Culture (DWC) Hydroponic Bubbler
With this deep water culture hydroponic kit, you can grow up to 8 different plants at once. The kit includes an industrial air pump, air lines, air stones, and 8 buckets with net pot lids with built-in water level indicators and drains. You do have to monitor the water levels in the buckets but the system is otherwise easy to operate and promotes faster plant growth compared to soil-grown plants.
- Easy to install and get started with
- Can be expanded with additional buckets and pumps
- Includes FDA-approved buckets
HTGSupply 5-Gallon Bubble Boy DWC Hydroponic Bucket System
Deepwater culture kits don’t get simpler than this. With the HTG Supply 5-Gallon Bubble Boy, you get a heavy-duty 5-gallon bucket with a net-pot lid and a dual-outlet electrical air pump and air stone combo. Also, you’ll find in the box a hydro stone grow medium.
This hydroponic bucket kit is great for growing your first hydroponic herbs or vegetables. It’s economical to maintain—the design of the bucket prevents alga growth, making this system fairly easy to keep clean. But keep in mind that you can grow in it only one medium to large plant.
- Straightforward operation
- Easy to set up
- Features instructions for beginners
Active Aqua Grow Flow Ebb & Gro 12 Site Hydroponic System
At the core of this system is a 2-gallon barrel with a controller unit. The easy-to-use controller unit allows you to set the fill and drain cycles fast and without any hassle. After that, the system runs pretty much on its own, pumping nutrients to the plants periodically. Also, you’ll like the built-in fail-safe overflow protection.
The kit includes 12 individual plant sites which you can move with ease and expand if needed. Also in the box, you’ll find a mix of nutrients for hydroponics so you can start growing plants right away.
- Can be expanded to 48 pots
- Overflow protection prevents spills and plant damage
- Efficient and reliable
One Stop Outdoor 12-Plant Home Grow Kit – Starter Hydroponics Drip Irrigation Kit
This drip method hydroponics system for starters allows you to water up to 12 plants at once. It includes tubing, emitters, and converters but not pots. If you have a sprinkler rise already, you can convert it with this kit into an effective irrigation system. This setup is great for growing hydroponically your first herbs, potted plants, vegetables, or strawberries. You can also automate it with a timer.
- Accurate flow
- Durable built
- Easy to set up and use
AeroGarden Black Harvest
The AeroGarden Black Harvest is a small hydroponic kit you can keep on your kitchen countertop. It features a 20Watt LED grow light mounted on a 12” extendable arm. The control panel lets you easily add water or plant food and turn on the light on or off. The device reminds you if you’ve forgotten to nourish the plant.
With the AeroGarden Black Harvest, you can grow herbs and small vegetables 5 times faster than in soil. The system can hold up to six different plants and includes a seed pod kit.
- Takes little space
- Very easy to use
- Looks great in any room
GOWE NFT Hydroponics System
Nutrient-film technique hydroponic kits are best for medium to advanced users. This kit is great for plants and herbs and will save you the trouble of watering them constantly. It comes with a timer that enables you to set an intermittent or continuous feed cycle to optimize root aeration.
You don’t need to use a growing medium with this recirculation system as the roots sit in a sloping irrigation channel. What’s more, it’s energy-efficient and saves water. You get 36 cups for growing plants but bear in mind that the water reservoir is not included.
- You can choose between a continuous and intermittent feed according to your needs
- Recirculates water and nutrients
- Lots of space to grow plants
Frequently Asked Question on Hydroponics
Over the past years we have received many emails, messages and comments on different topics within the hydroponics area. We wrote down the most asked questions below so hopefully you do not have to go to the effort of reaching out to us… but feel free to do so because we always love to get feedback from our community.
What can you grown with Hydroponics?
Hydroponics enables you to grow herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Popular plants to grow include mint, rosemary, oregano, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, spinach, kale, peppers, blueberries, strawberries and many more.
What are the different types of Hydroponics?
The main types of hydroponics include wick, deep water culture, ebb and flow, recovery and non-recovery drip method, nutrient-film technique (NFT), aeroponic, and rotary. For each of these hydroponic systems, there are many variants depending on their application, the desired crop size, and the level of automation.
Are Hydroponic plants healthy?
Hydroponic plants can be as healthy as soil-grown plants while growing considerably faster. Rich nutrient solutions can ensure that hydroponically grown vegetables are as nutritious as soil-grown ones.
What are the benefits of Hydroponic gardening?
Hydroponics has a lot of benefits like speeding up plant growth and size, increasing yield, and saving water. It also eliminates weeds and pests and can save space, improve climate control, and reduce labor.
What are disadvantages of Hydroponics?
Hydroponics requires time and technical knowledge and is prone to system failure when not properly set up. Also, you may have to buy additional equipment such as hydroponics heater or lights. In some cases, it may have a long return on investment.
Is Hydroponics the future of agriculture?
Hydroponic facilities can be built anywhere and do not require soil as a grow medium. They can also save space, enable effective climate control, and speed up growth and crop yields.
The Wrap Up
Hydroponics is a faster way to grow plants and increase yield. But to maximize results, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each hydroponic system and adapt it to your needs. Hydroponics reduces labor so you can spend some of the time you save to learn more about this ancient practice that’s now seeing exciting applications.
Make sure to read the instructions that come with your hydroponics kit carefully. Your plants will thank you for it with their awesome growth, and we will thank you for your trust in us.