Types of Hydroponic Systems

Starting a hydroponic garden is pretty simple. Choose your plants, choose your system, choose the perfect spot in your house. But what if you need a little more info on what type of system will work best for the plants you want to grow in the space you have? Don’t worry! That’s where we come in.

There are six main types of in-home hydroponic systems, each with its own pros and cons, depending on what you’re looking to grow and how much room you have to work with. We’ll explore wick, deep water culture, ebb and flow, drip method, nutrient film technique and aeroponics systems to help you decide the best choice for your hydroponic garden.

Wick System

Arguably the easiest hydroponic system to work with, a wick system is perfect for beginners. It doesn’t need electricity, pumps or aerators, and it usually needs a grow medium like perlite, vermiculite or coco coir.

This system utilizes nylon wicks that go around the plants and down into the nutrients. Because it doesn’t use a lot of water or pass along a large amount of nutrients, the wick system works best with herbs or other smaller plants. You definitely want to avoid trying to grow larger plants that need more nutrients like tomatoes or peppers. And because you’ll sometimes find that water and nutrients aren’t absorbed as uniformly as other systems, it’s important to flush the system with fresh water regularly (about every week or two).

Plus, if you’re limited on space, this system is fantastic since you can utilize a reservoir container like a quart-size mason jar, which doesn’t take up much room at all.

Deep Water Culture

Another excellent choice for beginner hydroponic gardeners, deep water culture (DWC) systems put your plants’ roots right into the water and nutrients, allowing for maximum absorption. You’ll need to use net pots in order to keep the plants properly in place, as well as a diffuser or air stone to ensure they receive the correct amount of oxygen.

DWC systems are incredibly versatile, meaning that they can handle pretty much any type of plant, especially larger ones with deeper roots. And because the plants are right in the water and absorb nutrients and oxygen consistently, they tend to flourish and grow very quickly. So if you’re looking for fast results, this may be the best option for you.

Many people use a hydroponic bucket or large plastic tote for this type of system, so you’ll have to consider the amount of space you have before going with this option. However, creating your own deep water culture system is pretty simple, making it the perfect DIY project.

Ebb and Flow

Though the ebb and flow system is still a good choice for beginners, it can require a little more maintenance. But if you’re up for a challenge that doesn’t cost a ton of money—it’s the one for you. The basic setup for an ebb and flow system is filling a sizable grow bed (this can be as simple as a plastic tub) with a grow medium such as perlite or rockwool, which is then submerged with nutrient-packed water. A pump with a timer is utilized to regularly drain the water and avoid overflow. And if you’re looking for a quicker way to flood and drain, you can use an automatic drain in lieu of a pump.

The ebb and flow system is great for all sorts of plants, though it’s probably not the best option for larger plants since the grow medium and nutrient solution take up a fair amount of space in the bed on their own. You also want to keep an eye on the pump to ensure that it’s running properly and giving your plants the nutrients and water they need.

Drip Method

The drip method is for hydroponic gardeners who can handle a bit more of an intermediate system. That being said, they’re relatively easy to set up, using a pump and a tube that delivers the nutrient solution right to the base of the plant. An adjustable drip emitter regulates how much of the solution goes to the plant, which is great because you can tailor each one to fit the specifications of each of your plants.

You can also choose to build a circulating or non-circulating drip system. The main difference being that a circulating system provides a steady, consistent drip. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the pH and nutrient levels if you choose a circulating system, since they can go up and down with so much water movement.

If space is a concern, rest assured that the drip method system can be small or large, depending on which types of plants you’re looking to grow. And because the flow can be easily modified, it’s a fantastic choice for most any plant, making it extremely versatile.

Nutrient Film Technique 

A system very similar to the ebb and flow (with maybe a little more hands-on maintenance), the nutrient film technique (NFT) also uses a pump to bring water and nutrients to your plants. The main difference between these systems, however, is that the NFT utilizes a grow tray/channel that sits on an incline above the reservoir. This allows the water to be continuously flowing over the roots, down into the reservoir and right back up, rather than filling and draining like the ebb and flow. An air stone is also generally placed into the reservoir to help provide oxygen.

You’ll also want to utilize net pots to stabilize your plants, but grow mediums are typically not used for these types of systems since the flowing water provides enough nutrients and oxygen. Leafy greens, herbs and fruits like strawberries are your best options for an NFT garden since they’re lighter in weight and grow relatively quickly, but plants with larger roots or those that are heavier are not recommended since the setup isn’t designed to handle the size and weight.

This system tends to be a little larger than some others, so it’s important to make sure you have enough space to accommodate it, whether inside or out. You also always want to keep an eye to make sure the pump is working properly since plants have tendency to dry out quickly if the water stops flowing.

Aeroponic

While many home hydroponic gardeners see success with aeroponic setups, this type of system is generally more advanced than some of the others. With an aeroponic system, plants are suspended in the air, over the water reservoir. Mist nozzles attached to piping in the water (and connected to a pump) are used to spray the plants with nutrients, with the excess dropping back into the reservoir. The concept seems simple enough, but with so many working parts, it can be a little more complicated to build yourself.

However, if you feel confident in trying this system, it’s a fantastic choice for most any plant. As long as your reservoir is big/deep enough to handle larger plants, and the nozzles are positioned to reach all of the roots, you should be good to go. Depending on what you grow and the space you have, your aeroponic system can be as small or as large as you need it to be, making it even more adaptable.

Another added bonus is that because the plants are suspended in air, they’re naturally getting tons of oxygen. Plus, the aeroponic system doesn’t use as much water than other types. Just be sure to keep an eye on the nozzles to make sure they don’t clog.

Hydroponic Garden Maintenance

As you can see, there are a bunch of different types of hydroponic gardens, each with its own features and benefits, but caring for them is pretty standard across the board. A few of the key factors to keep in mind are light, temperature, pH balance and humidity. Keeping an eye on all of these things (and understanding the correct level of each for all of your individual plants) will help ensure your hydroponic garden is flourishing, not floundering.

You also want to make sure to check the nutrient solution regularly to make sure it’s not getting too murky in there. Throw old water out, and give the reservoir a good cleaning before refilling it again. And while it’s important to make sure your plants have enough growing medium and/or water, don’t overdo it. Too much of either can do more damage than good in a hydroponic garden, impacting the roots and, ultimately, your harvest.

What Do I Need To Get Started?

While every type of hydroponic system is different, here are some of the main/most common parts you’ll need to get yours up and running:

  •     Fluorescent or metal halide lights (depending on the type of plants you choose)
  •     Nutrient solution (liquid or powder)
  •     Reservoir (as big or as small as your chosen plants require)
  •     Reservoir, grow medium, pump, drain, air stone, net pots, drip trays (as needed)

Can’t I Just Buy A Pre-made System?

Sure! There are plenty of pre-made hydroponic garden options out there, most of which include everything listed above. However, depending on the type you choose, they can get a little expensive, so building your own may be more cost effective – and probably more fun!

No matter which type of system you choose, just remember to enjoy the process of starting a new hobby. And, of course, don’t forget to brag to your friends about your newfound green thumb as you drop off some tasty fruits, veggies and herbs from your flourishing hydroponic garden!

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