Interested in growing plants hydroponically?
Before you decide on which hydroponic system to use, you need to know a bit more about them. Some will be better suited to your needs than others, whether this may be based on the plants you want to grow, your budget, how much time you have to maintain it, or anything else.
Either way, if you want your plants to truly flourish, you need to pick the best hydroponic system. If you want some inspirations for DIY, read our list of Hydroponic DIY Plans and Aquaponics DIY Plan.
- 1 How Hydroponic Systems Work
- 2 Wick Systems
- 3 Deep Water Culture (DWC) Systems
- 4 Ebb and Flow Systems
- 5 Drip Systems
- 6 Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Systems
- 7 Aeroponic Systems
- 8 Conclusion
There are six main types of hydroponic systems out there, and while they all work in different ways, they do have some basic similarities too.
Rather than using soil to grow plants, hydroponic systems are designed so that the roots of your plants come into direct contact with a nutrient solution, while also having access to enough oxygen. They are also exposed to light, whether this may be natural sunlight or artificial grow lights, all of which give plants everything they need to thrive.
Growing plants hydroponically can speed up the growing process by 30-50%, making it no surprise that hydroponics is becoming increasingly popular. Many commercial growers use hydroponics too, enjoying the healthier and higher yields that their plants produce.
Just about every plant out there can be grown hydroponically. However, some systems are better than others for different types of plants, making it important to understand the basics of each one.
Let’s see this guy introduce “What is hydroponics?”:
If you’re a complete beginner and are looking for a hydroponic system that can easily be set up with items you have around your home, while also not requiring any movable parts or electricity, then a wick system is perfect for you.
Wick systems consist of a growing container placed just above a reservoir that holds a nutrient solution. Wicks are inserted through holes at the bottom of the growing container, so that one end is in constant contact with the nutrient solution, and the other is sitting beside plant roots.
The wick slowly carries the nutrient solution up and into your growing medium, where your plants can then absorb what they need.
- This is the only completely passive hydroponics system, and is also the easiest one to set up and maintain.
- Wick systems don’t require much space. You could even set up a small system on a sunny windowsill, making this the perfect way for beginners to get started with hydroponics.
- Wick systems are very low-maintenance.
- Wicks work slowly and aren’t able to transport large amounts of water, meaning that this system is only suitable for smaller plants that can be harvested quickly, such as lettuce and herbs. Thirsty plants, such as tomatoes, won’t do well in a wick system.
- Since the wicks keep the growing medium constantly damp, plants can end up susceptible to rot.
- Nutrients often build up in the growing medium used in a wick system, which can be toxic to plants over time.
In a deep water culture (DWC) system, plants are placed into their growing medium in net pots, where they are then suspended in a nutrient solution. This gives them direct access to an unlimited supply of nutrients and water, which really pushes them on in terms of growth.
Of course, oxygen is a must too, and this is provided with the use of an air pump and air stones.
- DWC systems are very low-maintenance – all you usually need to do is top up the nutrient solution whenever it runs low.
- Plant growth is accelerated in a DWC system, since they are provided with oxygen, water, and nutrients at the same time.
- It is very easy to set up a DWC system.
- Both small and large plants can be grown in a DWC system, although some adjustments will need to be made for slow-growing flowering plants.
- Maintenance is inexpensive for DWC systems.
- A growing medium isn’t needed, which not only saves money, but also means less pests and diseases are able to take hold.
- It can be difficult to maintain the temperature of the nutrient solution in a DWC system, since the water doesn’t recirculate and the air pump can often lead to a temperature increase.
- The pH of the nutrient solution can fluctuate, so this needs to be closely monitored.
- Most DWC systems are reliant on electricity to run the air pump – if you experience a power cut, your plants could suffocate from a lack of oxygen.
The Kratky method is a variation of the DWC system that simplifies it even further.
It does away with the need for electricity and a pump, instead making sure that about 50% of each plant’s root system sits above the nutrient solution to absorb oxygen, while the rest of it dips down into the water.
Over time, as the level of the nutrient solution drops, the plant roots grow. This means that if you set things up correctly to begin with, you won’t need to make any adjustments or additions to the nutrient solution throughout the growing process.
A simple DWC system is great if you’re growing on a small scale, but limits you in terms of how many plants you can grow, since they all need to be able to fit inside your reservoir.
The recirculating method addresses this problem by allowing for multiple growing containers and reservoirs.
Rather than having to maintain each one individually, each reservoir is connected to one larger main reservoir. The nutrient solution is continuously pumped from here into the other reservoirs and then recirculated back, still ensuring that your plants are exposed to a constant supply of water and nutrients.
Bubbleponics is considered to be a hybrid deep water culture technique. Just like the original DWC method, bubbleponics has plants constantly suspended in a nutrient solution.
However, bubbleponics takes things a step further by also utilizing elements of the drip system. In addition to the reservoir below providing nutrients and water to plant roots, that same solution is also pumped up through tubing and delivered to plant roots.
Bubbleponics works well for particularly thirsty plants and heavy feeders, since it provides two different sources of the nutrient solution.
The main downside to a bubbleponics system is its complexity. It can take a while to set things up properly, and also to ensure that your plants are getting just the right amount of nutrients, water, and oxygen.
Also known as flood and drain systems, ebb and flow systems are especially popular with small-scale growers, although they can be scaled up for commercial setups too.
Plants are placed into a growing container, along with their growing medium. At regular intervals, a timer turns on a pump that floods that growing container to a specific level with a nutrient solution.
Once the timer turns the pump off, the nutrient solution is then allowed to slowly drain away. This ensures regular access to water and nutrients, as well as plenty of time for roots to absorb oxygen during the draining process.
- An ebb and flow growing container can be as large as you like, making it incredibly versatile when it comes to the type and size of plants you can grow.
- Ebb and flow systems are easy and inexpensive to set up.
- Some plants prefer to have periods of dryness, rather than constantly moist roots.
- Ebb and flow systems are reliant on electricity – a power cut will prevent your plants from accessing nutrients and water, which could cause them to quickly dry out and die.
- Regular maintenance is needed to ensure that drainage is taking place at a suitable rate. Drainage holes can sometimes become blocked, which can leave your plants susceptible to rot.
- The pH level of your nutrient solution will fluctuate quite wildly each time it drains back into the reservoir, so this will need to be regularly monitored.
Drip irrigation is a popular method for traditional growing, but it has been adapted to work well in a hydroponic setup too.
The way in which it works is pretty simple – just like most other hydroponic methods, a drip system makes use of a large reservoir containing a nutrient solution. A pump pushes the solution through tubing and takes it over to your growing containers.
In each growing container, there’s a drip emitter, and the nutrient solution slowly drips out of here and into your growing medium, where your plants can then absorb it.
Timings and drip flow are very finely tuned to ensure that plants are only given the amount of water and nutrients that they need. However, there will usually always be a small excess, and this simply drains out from the bottom of the growing container and is sent back to the reservoir, where it is then recirculated through the system.
- Since the individual flow on each drip emitter can be adjusted, a drip system gives you total control over the amount of nutrients and water that each growing container receives.
- Drip systems are simple to set up on a small scale, but they can also easily be scaled up for commercial setups.
- Since they are so versatile, pretty much any type of plant can be grown in a drip system, making them popular among commercial growers.
- Drip systems are relatively low-maintenance.
- Drip systems make use of less water than other hydroponic systems.
- Since the nutrient solution is being reused, nutrient and pH levels will keep changing, meaning that these will need to be constantly monitored and adjusted.
- It can take quite a bit of trial and error to establish drip irrigation timings, as well as flow volume from each drip emitter.
- Drip emitters will need to be regularly checked, as they can sometimes end up clogged.
- Drip systems rely on electricity, as well as a functioning timer. Any problems with either of these would be damaging for your plants.
The drip system method described above is known as a recirculating or recovery system, since any excess nutrient solution is saved and reused.
The main variation in a drip system is the non-circulating or non-recovery system. As you can tell from its name, this means that the nutrient solution isn’t reused in the system – instead, it drains away as waste.
This may sound like you’re wasting nutrients and water, but if you set up your drip system to be as accurate as possible, and make the necessary adjustments throughout the growing process, the amount of waste produced is very minimal.
This is also usually offset by the advantage of not having to closely monitor the nutrient and pH levels in your reservoir. Since the solution isn’t being reused, pH and nutrient levels won’t fluctuate, making it quite a low-maintenance variation.
The nutrient film technique (NFT) is similar to deep water culture systems in that plants are constantly exposed to a nutrient solution. However, unlike in DWC where the water in the reservoir remains still, NFT systems make use of a constantly flowing stream of nutrient solution.
This runs through a channel that has been tilted at an angle, and plants are suspended at regular intervals through the channel above the nutrient stream.
The system is designed so that the nutrient solution only runs over the ends of plant roots, rather than the entire root system. This leaves a section of the roots constantly exposed to air, enabling them to absorb oxygen too.
Once the nutrient solution reaches the end of a channel, it runs into a tube that takes it back into the reservoir, where it can then be recirculated.
- One reservoir is capable of supporting multiple growing channels, making a NFT system easy to scale up, even for commercial growers.
- Since the water is constantly circulating in a NFT system, salt buildups on plant roots are rare, and the nutrient solution is kept well-aerated.
- Timers aren’t needed in a NFT system, since the flow of the nutrient solution is constant.
- A growing medium isn’t required for a NFT system.
- The reservoir will need to be regularly drained and refilled, often once a week, to keep nutrients at an optimum level.
- It can take some trial and error to establish the correct angles at which to place your channels. If these are too steep, water and nutrient flow will be too fast and your plants won’t be able to absorb what they need. You also run the risk of your whole system overflowing.
- NFT systems are good for small and lightweight plants. However, heavier plants will need supports in order to grow, and larger plants could end up blocking the channels as their root systems grow.
- If electricity cuts out or your pump fails for any reason, your plants will quickly dry out – they could even die in just a few hours.
- If growing channels are too long, some nutrients may be depleted by the time they reach the plants at the end, leaving those plants deficient.
Aeroponics may sound simple at first, but it can be quite a complicated system to set up. This means that it tends to be used more by commercial growers rather than home gardeners.
However, when set up correctly, aeroponic systems are an extremely efficient way to grow hydroponically.
They make use of a reservoir, with plants suspended in net pots above. However, the plants are placed high enough so that the roots aren’t able to directly access the nutrient solution – instead, they simply hang in mid-air.
The nutrient solution at the bottom of the reservoir is then pumped into mist nozzles, which spray the plant roots with the solution. Any excess simply falls back down into the reservoir, where it can then be reused.
- No growing medium is needed in an aeroponics system.
- Aeroponics uses less water than any other hydroponic system.
- Aeroponic systems can easily be adapted to vertical gardening setups.
- Since the roots of plants in aeroponics are constantly exposed to oxygen, plants tend to grow very quickly. Aeroponics often outperforms other hydroponic systems in terms of speed of growth.
- Most plants do well in an aeroponics system, apart from fruit trees and root vegetables.
- Aeroponic systems can be complex and difficult to set up, making them unsuitable for most beginners.
- Setup of an aeroponics system can also be quite costly.
- Spray nozzles can sometimes end up clogged, and these are quite difficult and time-consuming to clear.
- Aeroponic systems need to be fine-tuned very accurately. Any problems with electricity, your timer, or your pump would be problematic for your plants.
Aeroponic systems can be set up in a couple of different ways, making use of elements from other hydroponic systems:
- Aeroponics and NFT Systems: Some aeroponic systems work similarly to NFT systems, in that plant roots are constantly exposed to the nutrient solution. However, unlike the flowing stream that NFT provides, aeroponics makes use of a mist.
- Aeroponics and Ebb and Flow Systems: Rather than exposing plants to a constant supply of the nutrient solution, some aeroponic systems also incorporate ebb and flow techniques. The pump is connected to a timer, meaning that the nutrient solution is only misted onto plant roots at set times.
The beauty of hydroponics is that there are so many different hydroponic systems out there, giving you so much choice and flexibility in how you grow.
It doesn’t matter how much you have in terms of space, budget, and time, as there are hydroponic systems out there to suit every type of grower, as well as just about every type of plant.