Hydroponics are intimately associated with the cannabis industry. Several hydroponic systems have been invented thanks to someone tinkering with their home-grow set-up in their basement. These systems are useful for many more crops outside of the cannabis world, and if you grow veggies at home, it's worth investigating. From indoor herb gardens to year-round tomato crops, hydroponics can dramatically improve yields, flavor, and color.
If you are relatively new to indoor growing, hydroponics is a method of gardening which relies on nutrients, oxygen, and water. The key takeaway here is that it does not require soil. Instead, most soilless hydroponic systems rely on a soil substitute like rock wool, perlite, clay pellets, peat moss, or vermiculite. Some systems, called aeroponics, use no medium at all.
Why on earth go through all the trouble of building an entirely new garden ecosystem without soil, when soil does such a great job? Hydroponic gardeners create an ideal environment for plants to grow, which gives the plant's root system direct and constant access to nutrients, water, and oxygen. Roots are suspended in a liquid nutrient solution, giving the plant exactly what it needs when it needs it. The most significant benefit to hydroponics is this direct nutrient access develops bigger, better, yields.
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Getting Started with Hydroponics Doesn't Need to be Intimidating
Hydroponic systems do require a bit of technical know-how, and experimentation before you get these bountiful yields. There are many, many different types of systems, all with their own intricacies.
A hydroponic grow operation needs daily attention, a slightly higher financial investment, and a bit of a green thumb to perfect. You need to know your crop intimately before moving to a soilless system. Why? Because you will be taking over the duties of the soil, taking full charge of the growing environment.
Ask any indoor grower about which hydroponic system is best, and they’ll likely ramble on about technical specifications until you very politely tell them to stop. Growers are passionate about their preferred system and highly argumentative about which one is best.
Here are the most common types of hydroponics systems, which we’ll get into more detail shortly:
In all honesty, there is no perfect, risk-free, easy to use, hydroponic system. Each system comes with pros and cons, and it’s up to you to learn the ropes. Mistakes in a hydroponic system are bound to happen, but when you harvest a successful grow - it will be well worth the investment.
Hydroponics systems are also a comprehensive way to get better insight into what your plants need, and when they need it. It’s another way to develop your master indoor growing skills and continue to grow as a gardener.
Over the course of this article, let’s introduce the most common and effective hydroponics systems, plus the best option on the market today for each type. With a little gumption, you’ll have a new hydroponics system up and running in no time at all.
Aeroponic Hydroponic Systems
Aeroponics, made famous by the Aerogarden countertop herb garden, is a pretty straightforward system to understand. It is a bit tricky to build yourself, but as the Aerogarden has demonstrated, there are many commercial options on the market. Whatever your crop of choice, from tomatoes to cannabis, there is very likely an aeroponic hydroponic pre-built install out there.
Aeroponics means to grow without soil, but also without relying on a reservoir of water. The system suspends plants, either in a small soil-less plug, or in a basket, and the roots grow into the air. This gives the root system maximum access to oxygen, which can be challenging in other systems. On a regular basis, nozzles mist nutrients over the root system. It is direct and efficient nutrients straight to the roots.
The Best Aeroponic System
Obviously installing a do-it-yourself aeroponic system requires a significant amount of technical know-how but can be worth it. They're aren't many pre-built systems on the market, other than extremely popular aeroponic cloning machines.
It’s an affordable space saver, and perfect for a small indoor operation. Although it comes in a variety of sizes, the 18 plug option is ideal if you are just getting started. The kit includes everything you need to get started including a 17-gallon reservoir, water pump, injection system, and clay pebbles.
Deep Water Culture
Unlike an aeroponics system, which may need an engineering degree to set up on your own, a deep water culture system is one of the simplest hydroponic systems to build yourself.
Instead of suspending your plant's root system primarily in the air, the root system is suspended over a nutrient-packed reservoir. Plants grow in some sort of soilless medium, but their roots extend down into the nutrient solution. The nutrient solution is consistently pumped with oxygen to ensure the plants don’t suffocate. The root system and reservoir is also light blocking to avoid algae build-up.
Deep water culture hydroponic setups can be as simple, or as complex as the gardener desires. It can be as easy as one reservoir, with a few plants living on top, or a series of 20 reservoirs, multiple plants each, with a mother reservoir constantly pumping the nutrients through the system.
You can still save time and costly mistakes by investing in one of the many affordable deep water culture systems on the market. All-in-one kits take all the guesswork out of the process and avoid continually running to and from the gardening store for resupply.
The Best Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System
There are two different types of deepwater systems, the recirculating kind, and the non-recirculating kind. If you can find a recirculating system, it offers much more consistent nutrient delivery to each of your plants because the water flows around the roots 24/7.
A recirculating system makes sure the plants get the nutrients and oxygen they need when they need it. One of the better recirculating deep water culture systems is the Current Culture H20 Under Current 4 (UV4). This system is simple enough but delivers impressive results with little fuss with set up and no complicated problem-solving required if it falters. It holds four plants and circulates nutrient-dense water from the reservoir on a consistent, ongoing basis. From cannabis to zucchinis, this system is highly adaptable.
Drip System Hydroponics
Another common hydroponic setup, both at home and commercially, is the drip system. It's easy to understand and a very efficient method, which is an excellent choice for beginners. Both cost-effective and simple to manage, it's hard to go wrong. The premise of the drip system is to allow the nutrient-laden water to flow with gravity (to drip) down through the root system of the plant. It’s a great solution for larger crops because they can grow (roots and all) in a large pot of soilless medium.
A pump drips liquid nutrients on top of the pot and, thanks to gravity, the solution eventually works its way through the medium, past the roots, and into a collection tray. Depending on set up, the drip system may either be a recirculating or non-recirculating system. Recirculating essentially means recycling, which takes the used nutrient liquid and pumps it back into the system. Suitable for avoiding costly nutrient waste, but this style does require frequent nutrient and pH monitoring.
The Best Drip System Hydroponic Set Up
Again, the drip system is another relatively simple one to set up at home, for any plant, but there are options on the market that make the process even easier. General Hydroponics offers an easy to use, a yield-boosting choice for the grower who wants to work with a proven product. Blumat Watering Systems are one of our favorite drip systems to get started with.
Ebb and Flow
Ebb and flow, also commonly called flood and drain, is a highly adaptable system. Build it inside, or out, often with equipment you already have lying around. It’s affordable and is adaptable for one plant - or many.
An ebb and flow system works by flooding the ecosystem with a nutrient solution and then allowing it to drain. The flood/drain cycle is scheduled based off a timer and pump system. The plants, whether a few or many, live in pots filled with growing medium, all housed in a large tray. When the timer goes off, the system kicks into gear and floods the tray with nutrients. As the water solution hits the overflow, the solution drains out and recirculates back into the reservoir.
The flood and drain cycle repeats until the timer turns off. Depending on what crop you are growing, you can adapt the system and flood cycles as needed. The plants stay happy because they have access to oxygen between flood cycles, and the nutrients they need during the flow.
The Best Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System
There are a number of systems on the market, ranging from fully-set up to parts only. If you’ve never worked with an ebb and flow, let alone hydroponics before, stick with something designed and tested by the experts. Hydrofarm has a 12 pot flood and drain system which comes complete with everything you need to get started, save the plants themselves. The Active Aqua Grow Flow Ebb & Gro is expandable up to 48 grow sites, all connected to a large reservoir for your nutrient solution.
Nutrient Film Technique
The last (but not least) hydroponic system is another common do-it-yourself option, and popular with cultivators growing smaller plants like lettuce and herbs. The essence of the nutrient film technique combines the best of the ebb and flow system with the deep water culture options.
First, the plants grow in baskets, or small suspended soilless plugs, usually in a long line down a covered tray. Second, a constant stream of nutrient solution flows down the trough tickling the tips of the suspended root system. The tray is fully enclosed to avoid unwanted algae or microorganism growth to interrupt the plants.
With only a small portion of the root system having constant and direct contact with nutrients, the nutrient film technique also provides continuous access to oxygen to the upper part of the roots. The nutrient solution is usually reintroduced to the reservoir for recycling. This is truly the best of both worlds, although the system does need more space and monitoring when compared to other systems.
The Best Nutrient Film Technique Hydroponic Systems
Most commercial growers will build their own nutrient film system because it can be quite space specific. As with most other hydroponic systems, you can also try the do-it-yourself approach. For larger crops, like cannabis, this system does need quite a bit of space and likely a custom build to hold the weight and meet the space requirements of the canopy.
If you are sticking with small-scale veggies, there are a few companies building nutrient film pre-built units. Crop King designs a small customizable nutrient film table top design, housing anywhere from 24 to 36 leafy green plugs. It comes with everything save the reservoir to cut down on shipping costs.
Discussions about hydroponics, as a novice indoor grower, can trigger feelings of anxiety. It's a bit intimidating to get started outside of soil. But, even a beginner can master some of the easier systems so long as they do their research and stick with a pre-made product.
Deep water culture and ebb and flow are likely some of the simplest systems to set up and manage yourself, with little skill. If you already have a grasp of the nutrient requirements of your crop and want to challenge yourself, the rewards of aeroponics or nutrient film systems can be even greater. Whatever method you pick, with a little dedication, you’ll see why hydroponics are the way of the future.