There are 6 main hydroponics systems for growing all types of plants in your home. But which one should you choose and why?
We're going to answer that in this guide and also which system is best based on your growing needs, budget, and skill level.
Let's get started!
- Ebb and Flow
- Wick System
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
- Deep Water Culture (DWC)
- Drip System
- Kratky Method
Frequently asked questions about hydroponic systems
- What type of hydroponic system is the best?
- What is the easiest hydroponic system to use?
- Why is hydroponics expensive?
- Is tap water OK for hydroponics?
- Can I use hydroponics to grow weed?
- How do I start a hydroponic garden for beginners?
- Is hydroponics bad for your health?
- Is hydroponics healthier than soil?
- Is it cheaper to grow hydroponically than traditional gardening?
- How long should I run my hydroponic system?
- Do I need a grow light?
- Should I use dry or liquid nutrients?
- Conclusion: What is the best hydroponic system or method for you?
Ebb and Flow
The Ebb and flow hydroponics system is a method of moving water and the plants, rooted in that water.
A hydroponics system with a reservoir is topped up and then drained through an emitter or drip line to ensure all roots are consistently submerged under nutrient solution.
It's also known as a flood-and-drain table system for growing vegetables since it can support plants larger than the nutrient film technique.
This method is best for growing large plants, like tomatoes or cucumbers.
What are the advantages of Ebb and Flow systems?
- You can grow larger plants. Fruits, veggies, flowers are perfect for this system.
- You have more control over the nutrient levels of the water since you're draining it after each use.
What are the disadvantages of Ebb and Flow systems?
- Heavily reliant on a pump, so if the pump fails, your plants will die.
- High maintenance means that if you don't drain the reservoir often, it can lead to root rot and other diseases.
The wick system is one of the simplest methods for hydroponics. This system is very similar to a self-watering pot, but instead of relying on soil for nutrients and wicking action.
A reservoir sits beneath an absorbent layer that has been saturated with nutrient solution then drained down into the root zone where it dissipates back into the reservoir.
This method uses the principle of capillary action. The wick is placed in an inert medium like perlite. You can use almost any kind of container to make a self-watering pot, you just need to drill holes for drainage and place your wicks through them into the growing media below.
What are the advantages of the Wick System?
- It's very easy to set up and maintain as the system takes care of itself.
- It also saves on space as it can be placed in smaller areas that don't have direct access to electricity.
- Perfect for first-time hydro growers.
What are the disadvantages of the Wick System?
- It can be hard to keep the nutrient solution at an ideal level based on what you're growing. So it's likely you'll be limited to certain plants.
- The wicks are difficult to clean, so you need a larger reservoir and more perlite medium than other systems which requires more space for this system.
- Needs humidity and dampness to thrive, so fungal issues are a major problem.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
In a Nutrient Film Technique (or NFT) system, there are two main components: growing beds and supply pumps. The supply pump pushes nutrient solution out from the reservoir to one or more locations in all of the grow beds. The growing plant beds are filled with aggregate, normally gravel or pumice.
The nutrient solution gradually flows over the top of the roots and down through both layers until it exits at a drainpipe on the side of each bed. Each grow bed is covered with greenhouse film to keep light out and water in.
An NFT growing system requires much more infrastructure than other hydroponic methods because of the water and aggregate needs.
NFT is a good method for plants that require large amounts of oxygen near their roots, such as fast-growing vegetables or leafy green crops. Plants with low nutrient requirements do well in NFT systems.
What are the advantages of Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) systems?
- NFT hydroponics requires little water or nutrients to operate, as they constantly recirculate the water.
- Once you've started with one channel, expanding it is a breeze since to its modular structure.
What are the disadvantages of Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) systems?
- If your pump fails, your NFT channel will stop circulating the vital nutrient film and your plants will dry out FAST. That means the whole batch can die in hours.
- Clogging is common the more plants you have because the channels can become obstructed by the roots.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
Deep water culture systems are also known as "bubbleponics" because they use a reservoir of nutrient-rich water with air stones to provide oxygen.
The plants are suspended above the solution, which prevents algae from forming on the roots and also makes it easier to check for root problems or pH issues.
Aeration is important in any growing medium, but it is especially crucial in an inert medium like coconut coir. Because of this, many growers believe that a single air stone simply won't provide adequate oxygen for their plants and opt to use two or more instead.
What are the advantages of Deep Water Culture (DWC) systems?
- A water culture system works well for plants like berries and tomatoes.
- Barely any maintenance is required after the initial setup.
- Very cheap to set up and maintain, so they're perfect for hydro enthusiasts.
What are the disadvantages of Deep Water Culture (DWC) systems?
- It requires a lot of nutrient solutions.
- Slower growing larger plants are harder to grow with DWC.
- Temp control is crucial as the water won't recirculate if below 60°F. or above 68°F.
The drip system is believed to be one of the easiest ways to water your plants. This method is most commonly used for grapevines, however, it can be applied to other types of plants as well.
It uses a timer that controls how often and when you are required to water your flowers or fruits every day.
The benefits of using this technique include being able to water your plants without adding too much extra phosphate and nitrogen to the soil.
A drip system can also be used in small spaces, such as a square foot garden or even on balconies of tall buildings.
What are the advantages of Drip Irrigation Method systems?
- Very scalable, so When a grower wants to expand the number of plants, new tubing can be connected to a reservoir and the solution may be diverted to them. That's why commercial farmers use drip systems.
- A wide range of plants to choose from, as it supports bigger plants than other systems.
What are the disadvantages of Drip Irrigation Method systems?
- Harder to maintain than other systems. Monitoring pH levels, topping up nutrient solutions, and cleaning the system takes a lot of effort.
- Quite hard to set up, so first-time hydro growers usually stay clear of this one.
This technique lends itself to a basic introduction to aquaponics, which requires fish and a water reservoir. Aquaponics differs from hydroponics as it is a balancing act between fish and plants. The fish’s defecation feeds the plants a rich nitrogen source, and the plants nourish the fish.
The Kratky method is perfect for those who are currently homesteading and don’t have access to the same utilities as average suburban homes like endless supplies of water and electricity.
While these homesteaders would be considered more experienced, the other target demographic is novices and children.
For novices, it is easy to test pH and clean the reservoir, and for children, they can see firsthand how plants put their roots down.
While most will associate the Kratky method with a smaller countertop setup, like sticking a basil cutting in a glass of water, you can scale it up. You can make what could be considered a raft technique, but the main difference is that the Kratky method requires that the plant is held above the water line, with only the roots touching the nutrient solution.
Aeroponics is a subset of hydroponics that uses an air pump and Rockwool to grow plants
Unlike its soil-based cousins, aeroponic systems do not use any growing medium for the plant roots to absorb water from.
This enables them to have greater nutrient absorption, as well as increased oxygenation, compared with traditional methods.
Although there are many types of hydroponic plants, aeroponics is best suited for plants that use a lot of water.
This includes aquatic plants like lettuce and basil, but the majority of commercial growers choose this method to grow leafy greens such as spinach or herbs like mint.
Note: This system also has an advantage in space-constrained urban environments, as it requires no growing medium and can be rack-mounted.
Aeroponic systems require regular nutrient changes to avoid the build-up of mineral salts in enclosed spaces. They also need careful monitoring for any signs of disease or pest infestations, which spread rapidly due to the high humidity within an aeroponics system.
What are the advantages of Aeroponics?
- They work well for plants like berries and tomatoes.
- Super simple to move around and doesn't affect the quality of your plant's growth.
- Rich in oxygen, so plants grow faster than other methods.
What are the disadvantages of Aeroponics?
- It can get pricey, especially if you're opting for a high-quality submersible pump, timer, and reservoir.
- A headache to maintain for most people. The delicate balance of an Aeroponics system is easily upset, resulting in devastating consequences for your plants.
Frequently asked questions about hydroponic systems
Here are the most common questions that people have when starting out as hydro-growers and deciding on which system to use:
What type of hydroponic system is the best?
Ebb and flow, as it ticks all the right boxes for folks. Cheap, easy to set up, and fairly easy to maintain. Plus it can fit into smaller spaces, so you can use it to grow herbs or fresh vegetables in the kitchen.
What is the easiest hydroponic system to use?
The easiest is Drip Irrigation Method, as it requires little effort and maintenance, but is scalable so you can expand your system in the future.
Why is hydroponics expensive?
In general, it's considered quite expensive because of the equipment needed, which includes pumps, timers, and liquid nutrients for your reservoir solution.
Is tap water OK for hydroponics?
No, tap water contains minerals and chemicals that can cause problems in your system. For example, some types of chlorine may kill the plant's roots while other compounds have a negative effect on nutrient absorption.
Can I use hydroponics to grow weed?
You sure can! If you want to grow weed at home, then hydroponics is one of your best options. You can use it with any type of plant and get excellent results in terms of yield and potency.
How do I start a hydroponic garden for beginners?
The first step is to determine what type of system you want and then buy the equipment. Next, prepare your reservoir solution by mixing nutrients with water and set up your environment (pH meter readings, light intensity, etc). Finally, just add seeds or seedlings into your chosen growing medium and sit back while they grow!
Is hydroponics bad for your health?
No, hydroponics has been around for a long time and has gone through rigorous testing to prove its safety. You can always check with your local health authorities or research the topic before starting your own hydro system at home.
Is hydroponics healthier than soil?
Hydroponics is definitely better for your health because it doesn't contain any form of contaminant or fungus that can then be transferred to you through the soil. It's also more predictable, so you have higher control over growth factors such as nutrient levels and pH balance.
Is it cheaper to grow hydroponically than traditional gardening?
Yes, you'll save a bit of money on gardening supplies like soil and nutrients. Plus, your plant will reach maturity faster than if it was grown in the ground - hydroponic gardening is considered cheaper overall.
How long should I run my hydroponic system?
The basic rule is to run your system for at least 12 hours every day, but the actual duration will depend on factors like light intensity and temperature.
Do I need a grow light?
You can grow your plant without an LED grow light, but it will take longer to reach maturity and you'll get less produce in the end. In most cases, you should use some form of artificial lighting to stimulate growth and improve yields.
Should I use dry or liquid nutrients?
You can use either dry or liquid nutrients, but most growers prefer the latter because they're easy to mix with water and are more accurate in terms of nutrient levels.
Conclusion: What is the best hydroponic system or method for you?
Before choosing a hydroponic system, you'll need to consider your own personal circumstances, such as how many plants are being grown, the space available for them, time constraints on maintenance visits, etc.
One of the biggest factors for most people is how much it costs, followed by how much maintenance is needed.
But if you're looking to get started as quickly as possible, then we'd recommend you go for the Ebb and flow system as it's the most popular for beginners.