‘Hydroponics’ is an umbrella term for six different methods to growing plants, usually fruits, vegetables, and herbs, without the use of soil. This type of hydroculture replaces the nutrients normally supplied through soil with minerals dissolved in water, which is then brought into contact with the plants’ roots.
Sounds confusing? It’s actually really not.
Table of contents:
1. Hydroponic Drip Systems
A drip hydroponic system uses a trickle system to deliver nutrient-rich water to your plants. It can be used with both regular soil as well as other growing media and works well if you’d like to grow many plants at the same time, as it uses water efficiently.
Explained simply, a hydroponic drip system generally consists of a reservoir containing the nutrient solution, a rack with plants in individual pots, a pump to move the water to the plants and thin tubing running to each individual pot to deliver the water. You can control the times the pump turns on and starts supplying water and a run-off leading back into the reservoir makes sure nothing is wasted. As such, this is a pretty efficient way to grow your plants!
2. Flood and Drain Hydroponic Systems
Also known as the ebb and flow technique, a flood and drain hydroponic system works exactly as its name suggests. It floods your plants a set number of times a day (often 2) and then lets them drain. You can easily make a flood and drain set-up yourself, although many choose to go the simpler route and buy one instead.
A flood and drain system consists of two containers stacked on top of each other, with the larger bottom one functioning as your water reservoir. It contains a pump hooked up to a timer as well as your nutrient solution. Once it’s time for the pump to start running, it floods the container above it (which is filled with your plants and a medium like clay balls). It keeps running for a minute or so before turning off again, allowing excess water to drain back into the reservoir. The risk of spills is minimized using an overflow drain. A great option for small indoor growers!
3. Nutrient Film Hydroponic Technique
The nutrient film technique doesn’t generally use a medium to grow the plants, just net pots that allow the roots to stick out. This is because the system will run a continuous stream of nutrient solution past the roots. It’s simple but ingenious and allows lots of oxygen to reach the roots, making your plants grow better.
A nutrient film system consists of a lightly sloped growing channel that the plants are placed in. Under this channel rests the water container and a pump which can supply water to the higher end of the channel. See where we’re going here? The water flows downwards (forming the ‘nutrient film’), past all the hungry plant roots, and then returns to the container to be pumped up another time. Not a difficult system to set up and you can make it as big or small as you want, although it works best for smaller plants like lettuce.
4. Water Culture Hydroponic Systems
Water culture systems are about as simple as it gets in hydroponics and you can do this with as little as a single plant. As with the nutrient film method, the plants are not grown in any medium. Instead, they are placed in net pots and suspended over a tub, often using styrofoam with cut-outs that fit the pots, that contains nutrient solution and an air stone for oxygenation. The aquarium hydroponic kits you might find in your local pet store are an example of water culture hydroponics.
If you’d like to get into growing a lot of plants at the same time, you can even set up a modular water culture system. This consists of multiple pots or containers containing plants as well as a central water container, with the water circulating constantly.
Although it differs a bit from the other techniques we’ve discussed so far and isn’t technically really hydroponics, aeroponics is still usually considered one of the six classic system types. As with water culture and flood and drain, aeroponics involves growing plants without the use of any growing medium. Instead, a nutrient solution is misted onto the roots, which dangle down through net pots as we saw with the water culture technique.
An aeroponics system can be set up in a regular tub with a lid, although some like to use vertical towers to save space. It’s not the simplest of all the systems to build and set up but can still be done at home without too much of a hassle.
6. Hydroponic Wick Systems
If you’re really looking to keep things simple while exploring hydroponic growing, you could consider setting up a wick system. No complicated setting up, no risk of overflows or malfunctions and although some like to use an air pump, technically there’s not even need for electricity!
Basically, a wick system consists of a basket with the plant sitting on top. Wicks run down from the growing media (usually something like coco coir or perlite) into the nutrient solution water below, wicking it upwards and transporting it to the thirsty roots. The method works best for plants that don’t get overly thirsty: small things like lettuce don’t carry fruits and therefore don’t need as much water.
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1. Indoor Gardening Kit by iDeer Life
- Sleek design with bamboo frame;
- Almost no set up, easy to use.
- Lamp height is not adjustable;
- Not the cheapest option out there.
Like most hydroponic systems for casual home use, the Indoor Gardening Kit by iDeer Life is a water culture hydroponic system. It houses up to 12 plants and uses a full spectrum 24-Watt LED lighting system to get them growing.
As with other premade water culture systems, setting up the Indoor Gardening Kit won’t be much of a challenge. Once you’ve put together the accompanying bamboo frame all that needs to be done is planting the seeds and ensure they’re supplied with water and nutrients by filling up the reservoir.
Our verdict: This is pretty much the only kit on this list that actually features a natural-looking design. The bamboo looks great against the green of the plants! All around a simple little hydroponic grow system that does what it’s supposed to do and fits in the kitchen.
2. DWC Hydroponic System Growing Kit by SavvyGrow
Price range: LowCheck price
- Affordable option.
- Doesn’t include a light;
- Not the prettiest kit.
The DWC Hydroponic System Growing Kit is a very simple water culture hydroponic set that comes with almost everything you need to get started with your indoor hydroponics adventure. It allows you to grow either 6 or 11 small plants like lettuce or herbs at the same time in its polypropylene container.
Although this kit isn’t the fanciest and lacks some of the items needed to start growing (nutrient solution, light), it’s affordability should make it easy for beginners to take the step and get into hydroponics culturing. Just place your seeds of choice into the rockwool medium, pop them into the net pots and turn on the air pump!
Our verdict: This seems like a good option for something like a classroom; it’s not the best looking but it’s affordable and does what it’s supposed to. Just don’t forget to also get a light!
3. Bounty by AeroGarden
- Sleek design;
- Displays important information on a screen.
- Not the most economical option.
If you like your hydroponic kits fancy, the AeroGarden Bounty is probably what you’re looking for. This sleek indoor gardening solution allows you to grow up to 9 small plants at the same time. It comes with 45-Watt LED lighting and even includes a screen to remind you when it’s time to add water and nutrients. Additionally, it’ll cycle its lights automatically so you don’t have to add a timer yourself.
Like the kits discussed previously, the AeroGarden Bounty is a water culture hydroponic system. It includes a herb seed kit but you can grow any plant up to 24” in it.
Our verdict: The pretty Bounty is a great option if you’re looking for something that looks nice without sacrificing functionality. The little screen really adds to the feeling of being in control of your mini garden!
4. Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Bucket Kit by PowerGrow
Price range: LowCheck price
- Comes with air pump and growing media;
- Works well as a set.
- Only houses a single plant.
Deepwater culture is a subtype of water culture hydroponics used here by PowerGrow for their DWC kit. This five-gallon bucket can house only a single plant, but the upside is that it doesn’t limit you to lettuce or herbs. There’s plenty of space to grow something a bit larger, like a full-size tomato plant or your favorite veggie.
The main point of deep water culture is providing the roots with plenty of oxygen, so the DWC kit comes with a 44 gallon per hour air pump. It also includes pretty much everything else you need to get started with the exception of lights.
Our verdict: This is probably the best hydroponic system for growing larger plants and it works especially well if you’ve got a bunch of them under a larger growing light area.
5. Hydroponic Grow Kit by DreamJoy
- Grow up to 108 plants;
- Hybrid system.
- Does not come with lights.
If the previously discussed hydroponic kits made you wonder whether there is anything out there with a bit more capacity, don’t worry. For those that have a lot of plants to grow there’s the Hydroponic Grow Kit by DreamJoy, a system with up to 108 sites. Interestingly, this is also the first hybrid kit on the list: it can be switched between the flood and drain method or recirculating water culture depending on your own preferences.
Perfect if you’d like to grow large amounts of small plants like lettuce, the DreamJoy kit is made of PVC and easy to assemble. It can be used in- or outdoors, but be aware that as always it’ll need some extra lighting if you’re wanting to use it in the home.
Our verdict: Although this hydroponic grow system isn’t suitable for growing larger plants, it sure will give you a lot of lettuce or herbs! We like that it’ll work well in the garden and only requires popping the PVC pipes together to get started.
6. Grow Tent Room Complete Kit by TopoLite
- Many different sizes and wattages available.
- Lacks some essential items;
- A bit pricey.
So you’ve got some experience with the hydroponic culture and would like to expand your set-up? If this is the case (or you’re just one of those people that likes to jump in the deep end), the TopoLite Grow Tent Room Kit might be for you. This grow tent kit is designed to make as much use of the included light as possible by reflecting it back onto your plants from every side.
What we like about this kit is that it’s available in a range of sizes and LED light wattages, which means there’s a perfect one for every grower out there. Additionally, the set includes a filter kit, although some items like a thermometer and fan speed dial need to be bought separately.
Our verdict: Although the set itself could be more complete, obviously the big advantage here is that this grow tent set comes in so many different sizes. A great choice for the dedicated hydroponic grower!
7. Big Smart Indoor Hydroponic Growing System by E SUPEREGROW
- Handy trellis for growing vining plants.
- Doesn’t come with an air pump.
Although the name mentions ‘indoor’, we feel the Big Smart Growing System by E SUPEREGROW would be perfect for outdoor use as well. This water culture hydroponics system was designed especially to make growing vining plants like cucumbers easier with a trellis. It features three large slots to grow bigger plant species in, although it also comes with a rack to turn those slots into small spaces for a total of 27 mini plants.
This hydroponic kit doesn’t come with a light, so you’ll have to set up one yourself if you’re growing indoors. It does feature smart control to keep track of the water level and its minimal design ensures it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb in your home.
Our verdict: We love the trellis that this hydroponic system comes with, as many others aren’t that suitable for growing vining plants without some modifications. It’s large enough to not limit you to plants like lettuce or mini tomatoes, which is nice if you’re looking to get a bit more variety.
8. ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Indoor Garden System by Ecolife
- Adds another aspect to hydroponics growing.
- Doesn’t allow you to mix nutrient solution;
- More of a ‘fun’ option than one with a huge yield.
Most aquarium hydroponic “set-ups” we’ve come across are not much of a success. They’re often too small to actually keep any fish in and don’t offer enough filtration, resulting in poor fish health. The Ecolife ECO-Cycle seems a lot more promising. The set doesn’t actually include a fish tank but instead is mounted on top of your existing 20-gallon tank, which is plenty of space for both fish and plants to thrive.
The ECO-Cycle includes programmable LED lights and a pump to move aquarium water past the plant roots. Nutrient solutions aren’t used with aquarium hydroponic set-ups: instead, fish waste is relied on to keep the plants healthy and well-fed. A fun and educational project that would be perfect for a classroom or anyone who gets bored with growing just plants.
Our verdict: Definitely the most fun option on the list, as it combines two relaxing hobbies into one little ecosystem. We feel this is the best hydroponic system for kids as it gives you the opportunity to teach them about fish keeping as well as how plants grow!
9. Hydroponic Growing Systems by WePlant
- Space for plenty of plants.
- Not the sturdiest design;
- Does not come with water reservoir.
Like the DreamJoy kit we described earlier, the Hydroponic Growing Systems by WePlant is made of PVC pipes that small plants like lettuce can be grown in (in large quantities!). A timed pump works for 5 minutes every 30 minutes, pushing the nutrient-rich water through the pipes and then allowing it to fall back down into the water reservoir (which does not come included) to use again.
Because this hydroponic system doesn’t come with lights the simplest way to use it would be outdoors where the plants can get the sunlight they need. With added lighting, it would also work for indoor use, though bear in mind that this kit does take up a bit of space.
Our verdict: Although it’s not the most complete kit, this hydroponic system is quite affordable. It makes a great choice for beginners looking to get started with growing plenty of plants at the same time.
10. Farm Plus by AeroGarden
AeroGarden Farm Plus - BlackCheck price
- Sleek design;
- Holds plenty of plants;
- WiFi connection.
Another AeroGarden product, the Farm Plus lends its name from its large size. It contains two separate containers to grow plants in, one with the light mounted high and the other low to allow for species of different sizes. It has space for up to 24 plants of up to 36” and features 60 Watts of LED lighting to help them grow.
The Farm Plus is a ‘smart’ garden, as it hooks up to your phone via WiFi so you can control it via your app and receive notifications when it’s time to top up the water reservoir. A perfect option if you’re really looking to grow plenty of plants, although as expected this is definitely a pricier option when it comes to the indoor hydroponic gardens.
Our verdict: If you’ve got the space to house the Farm Plus it should make a great option for starting your indoor hydroponic garden. Plenty of room for planting is a big plus and the nice design definitely doesn’t hurt either.
Not all hydroponic indoor growing systems are suitable for all types of plants. They all differ in the amount of space and water they offer, as well as other factors like the amount of weight they can take. We’ll outline the best options below to get you started.
Most commonly grown using hydroponics are veggies. They simply love having their roots in oxygen- and nutrient rich water and a well-made hydroponics set-up will yield great crops.
Now, when growing vegetables what you’ll have to keep in mind is the size and water supply of your hydroponic system. Even the smallest veggies, like dwarf tomatoes and peppers, can grow too large for certain systems. PVC tube-based nutrient film set-ups, for example, often really don’t provide the space these plants need past the seedling stage. Additionally, the plant will use up quite a bit of water while producing its yummy crops, so for the larger species you’ll want something that can provide this. The Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Bucket Kit by PowerGrow mentioned previously is a great option for basic veggie growing.
The best and easiest vegetables to grow hydroponically are probably tomatoes*, beans, cucumbers, spring onion, and peppers. The former three are vining species, which means they need little space as you can simply train them upwards on a trellis! The absolute easiest veggie to grow hydroponically is lettuce, but you’ll find more info on that below in the ‘leafy greens’ section.
*We know tomatoes are technically a fruit, but they are usually grouped in the veggies department in hydroponics.
Growing actual fruit trees like lemons and apples can be challenging in the casual indoor hydroponic garden. They guzzle water and need a lot of space and light to thrive. Luckily for us indoor gardeners, though, not all fruits grow on trees and some stay small!
Strawberries are probably the easiest fruit to grow hydroponically simply because a strawberry plant stays so small. Even a simple PVC nutrient film system should provide the room your strawberries need, which is why they’re such a popular choice. If you’ve got a bit more space you can also consider blueberries, small melon species or even the vining passion fruit. Get creative – our favorite choice is pineapples which could be grown perfectly in a hydroponic bucket kit.
3. Leafy greens
Looking for an easy start in indoor hydroponics? Go with leafy greens. Lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard and bok choy are all a breeze to grow. They don’t need much space to thrive, will be ready to harvest very quickly and don’t require loads of water.
Any set-up is suitable for growing the aforementioned, although the best hydroponic system for leafy greens is probably a pipe one, as it allows for the greatest quantity to be produced at the same time. They are also a great choice if you’re wanting to keep things very simple, such as with a wick system.
Like leafy greens, herbs make an ideal choice for beginners in the world of hydroponic growing. Herbs, too, don’t require large systems nor a lot of water. You can harvest them multiple times and easily dry the yield to use at a later stage.
The most popular herbs to grow hydroponically are probably basil and coriander. Do think beyond just these, though: mint is another super easy choice, as are rosemary, sage, parsley, dill, thyme… need we continue? If it’s herby, it’ll work well in your set-up.
Probably the best hydroponic system to grow herbs is a simple water culture one like the Bounty range by AeroGarden we discussed earlier. Fits on the countertop for an easy snip here and there while cooking!
When thinking of hydroponics growing, flowers won’t be the first thing that comes to mind for many. If you do like a bit of color, though, most popular flower species actually do excellent in hydroponic set-ups. They grow faster and tend to yield more and bigger flowers. And best of all: no annoying weeds!
There are not really any limits to growing flowers hydroponically and there are so many more great options out there than we can mention here. Think lilies, roses, dahlias, orchids, pansies, daisies… maybe hyacinths or jasmine for a naturally wonderful smelling house.
When choosing the best hydroponic system for flowers, keep in mind the adult size of the plant. While something like a single hyacinth bulb works in pretty much anything, for example, a rose bush is not the best option for your standard countertop water culture system.
If you’ve read through this article, the benefits of a hydroponic system should be clear. And they are many: faster growth, better and bigger crops, no annoying soil messes, no weeds, no pesticide, no outdoor garden needed and much more.
All of the aforementioned is great, but to us, the absolute biggest advantage of hydroponics growing is how much easier it makes to experience that immense satisfaction of seeing your crops grow. How amazing does it feel to see your seedlings thrive, to spot the first flowers and finally to eat the crops knowing they’re pesticide-free?
To conclude, hydroponics is something we feel every (indoor) gardener should give a try at one point. Whether it’s the simplest wick system or most complicated set-up, the many advantages of this method will have you hooked in no time.