If you’ve heard people talk about hydroponics, you probably have some questions. Can plants even grow without soil? Should I try hydroponics? If so, which hydroponic grow system should I use?
To help you answer some of these questions, we’re going to cover the basics of hydroponics, including the different types of hydroponic grow systems, how to set up these hydroponic systems, as well as the advantages and disadvantages. With this information, you’ll be ready to learn more about what type of hydroponic system is right for you.
What is Hydroponics?
Let’s start with the basics.
As its name suggests, hydroponics involves growing plants in a liquid solution rather than soil. Plants, herbs, flowers, and vegetables growing in a hydroponic system obtain all their nutrients from this solution.
Some hydroponic grow systems use solid media to support plants, but this material’s sole function is to physically prop up the plants. In other types of hydroponic systems, plants sit directly in the nutrient solution.
It’s important to remember that hydroponics is a broad term. You can apply this word to a warehouse churning out 1,000 heads of lettuce a day via nutrient film technique as well to a single plant sitting in a bucket of nutrient solution.
Types of Hydroponic Grow Systems
While all hydroponic systems utilize a nutrient solution, there are variations between the systems. Before you buy a pre-built kit or start building your own setup, figure out which system best fits your needs, skills, and budget. Some hydroponic systems work better than the other depending on the type of plant and to where it is located.
Each hydroponic system deserves an in-depth explanation, but this breakdown of the top six hydroponic systems will get you started.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
Perhaps the simplest hydroponic setup, deep water culture is often the best choice for beginner hydroponic growers. The plants are planted in a net pot or cup hanging from a layer with roots sinking in liquid nutrient solutions. This method involves suspending plants in an oxygenated nutrient solution.
To get started with Deep Water Culture, all you need is a reservoir to hold a nutrient solution, an air pump, net pots, media, and a way to suspend your plants, such as styrofoam rafts or a PVC tray.
Ebb and Flow Hydroponics
Also known as flood and drain, this hydroponic system is similar to deep water culture. However, instead of constantly sitting in a solution, plants sit in a reservoir that alternates between filled and empty.
This hydroponic groe system allows your garden to add or remove quickly without affecting other crops in the surrounding. Like other systems, the idea is very simple — Plants are placed on a plate, frequently filled with water rich in nutrients pumped from an underwater reservoir.
When the reservoir is filled, plants receive nutrients, and when it’s empty, roots receive oxygen. By using a timer to move the solution, the ebb and flow system is fairly easy to manage.
This hydroponic method sounds complicated to beginners because it has so many different parts and can be assembled simply and rapidly. When completed, it needs little maintenance and effectively processes power and water in relatively short use.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
In this hydroponic grow system, plant roots continuously sit in a flowing nutrient solution. Since the roots are in contact with air as well as the solution, you don’t have to worry about providing aeration.
The difference is that the nutrient film solution runs continually through the roots. It is achieved by gravitational means. The plant is positioned at a corner to allow water to flow down into the drain tube, and a new solution is continually injected into the tube’s high end. NFT is an active machine, which means it depends on operating moving pieces.
One common setup is placing plants in slightly slanted PVC pipes and pumping nutrient solution to the raised end of the pipes. Gravity pulls the solution down the pipes, past the plant roots, and back to a storage reservoir, where the process can start all over.
If you’re familiar with drip irrigation, you already know the basics of a drip hydroponic system. Plants in this method sit in containers where they are supported by inert media such as rockwool, coco coir, or perlite.
A drip system is not hydroponics alone. Such a device is often typically used in outdoor gardens to supply individual plants with water and nutrients. The device has been planned to make outdoor cultivation of plants water efficient. It was modified to hydroponics successfully later.
The emitters secret the liquid in a gradual soaking motion instead of sprinkling or rushing water to the plants. The machine needs even less water. It means the water and nutrients supplied to the plants are regulated to a high degree.
The nutrient film solution is pumped from a storage container to drip emitters that slowly provide water and nutrients to plants.
Wick System Hydroponics
While most hydroponic systems rely on electric pumps to move the solution, a wick system relies on passive flow. Plants sit in containers filled with media, and string connects these containers to a nutrient solution reservoir. The solution slowly moves up the string, providing the plants with water and nutrients.
The wick system is the same as the Lettuce Raft system, as the roots are in contact with water. The difference is that a Wick Systems supplies water from the reservoir through capillary action using two or more wicks, whereas, in a lettuce raft, the roots are immersed in the reservoir itself.
The best plants to use are quickly growing plants or herbs. Herbs like rosemary that need not get much water are the better options, whereas thirsty plants like tomatoes do not perform well.
Best saved for experienced growers, aeroponic systems are the trickiest hydroponic systems to properly maintain. Rather than using a stagnant or flowing nutrient solution, aeroponics utilizes a mist of solution.
Aeroponic systems feed plants with only nutrient-laden mist. The principle is based on hydroponics. The roots are preserved in a soilless growing medium such as coconut, over which nutrient-laden water is pumped on a regular basis. Aeroponics merely dispense with the rising medium, leaving the roots in the air, in which the specially built misting machines regularly breathe.
In theory, aeroponics are used mostly for the same purposes as hydroponics; including leafy greens, healthy herbs, tobacco, strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. One example is root plants, which are unworkable in a hydroponic environment but ideal for aeroponics since root plants can be grown and easy to harvest.
Additional planting is possible, but the nutrient needs are more nuanced. Because of their height, fruiting shrubs and trees are unworkable in aeroponic systems.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydroponics
There’s no question that hydroponics differs from soil-based growing, whether it’s an outdoor garden or a potted plant in your home. Compared to soil systems, hydroponics has both pros and cons.
The exact benefits of hydroponics depend on the type of system. However, all systems have the following advantages.
• Saves water over soil-based systems.
• Provides the exact amount and balance of nutrients that plants need.
• Leads to increased growth and higher yields.
• Allows for vertical growing which leads to increased production in limited space.
• Can be used anywhere — even indoors and in areas with poor soil.
While hydroponics has many benefits, there are also some drawbacks.
• Startup costs are often higher than those of soil-based systems.
• Many systems rely on electricity.
• Some systems require technical knowledge and careful monitoring.
DIY or Store-bought Hydroponic Grow System?
Once you’ve decided on a type of system, you have another decision to make. Do you want to make your own system or buy a kit that’s ready to go?
As you might expect, each type has both pros and cons, and the right choice depends on your preferences. To help you decide, consider the following factors.
Ease – If you buy a kit, you don’t have to worry about finding the correct parts and figuring out how to set up your system. Many companies also provide helplines you can contact if you’re having trouble with setting up or maintaining your product. If you choose to build your own setup, you’ll have to scour the internet and talk to others when it comes time to problem solve.
Cost – Generally, building a system yourself is less expensive, especially if you utilize used materials. However, if you’re not sure what you’re doing, DIY projects can get expensive as you purchase unnecessary parts and spend hours building.
Customization – By building your own hydroponic grow system, you can end up with exactly what you want. You can construct a system that fits perfectly in its designated area and supports the types of plants you wish to grow.
Choosing the Right Hydroponic System
As you’ve already read, there are a lot of choices when it comes to choosing a hydroponic system to grow your own plants. Remember that different systems can vary quite a bit, so it’s important to consider what you want out of a system as well as what you have to offer.