Six Hydroponic Growing Systems and Which is Right for You


Hydroponics is quickly catching on as a popular technique to grow food because of its unique ability to grow terrestrial plants in a liquid medium. Farming styles vary from place to place, and a distinct farming style that suits one person may not suit another, so whether the hydroponic method is suitable for you will depend on several factors. 

There are different kinds of hydroponic growing methods: deep water culture, nutrient film technique, ebb and flow method, and the drip method, to name a few. The hydroponic growing method that is right for you depends on the space you have, your budget, and the time you are willing to spend.  

In this article, you will find a comprehensive overview of some of the most popular methods of hydroponic growing methods. You will also find information about:

  • The different hydroponic systems
  • Things you need to know before you choose a hydroponic system
  • Light and space requirements for hydroponic growing systems
  • Pricing, maintenance, and upkeep

What Are Hydroponic Growing Systems?

It may seem a tad confusing for a beginner to figure out how the hydroponics growing method works. It can be challenging to not only monitor the growth of a plant in a particular medium, but also the whole process of choosing a system that works for you, knowing what to grow, and learning how to nurture what you intend to grow can be quite challenging too.

In simple words, hydroponics is the technique of growing plants using a liquid growing medium instead of soil. The idea is to eliminate anything restricting the plant’s roots from accessing the nutrients, water, and oxygen that it needs to grow, and you can achieve this in quite a few different ways.

There are six major kinds of hydroponic systems that you can choose from:

By Ekaterina Kapranova
  1. Wick System:  As the name suggests, this growing method makes use of a wick. Using something simple such as a rope or a piece of felt, you can help transport nutrients and water to a plant’s roots. This system is a passive form of hydroponics because you do not need air or water pumps to grow plants using this method.
  2. Deep Water Culture System:  A simple reservoir with the nutrient solution houses the plants’ roots and provides a constant supply of nutrients and oxygen. The water needs to be oxygenated, so you will need to use an air pump every once in a while.
  3. Nutrient Film Technique System (NFT): This is a commercially popular hydroponics technique which adopts a recirculating system with the nutrient solution pumping through the entire set up constantly.  
  4. Ebb and Flow Drain System: The ebb and flow drain system is also known as the flood and drain system and works much the same way as the name suggests. The tray in which you are growing your crops is flooded with the nutrient solution a few times a day. After the flooding, the nutrient solution drains out to a bottom tray, and the plants sit there absorbing the nutrients till the next flood.
  5. Aeroponics System:  The aeroponic system is a very high-tech setup for hydroponic growing methods. In this growing method, you suspend the roots in the air. Then you mist the root zone of the plant with a nutrient solution.
  6. Drip System:  Another very common hydroponic growing method is the drip system. People use it largely in commercial operations because of its simplicity and scalability. The liquid drips down the plant and collects near the plants’ root area, nourishing it with the nutrients and water that the plant needs to grow.

Comprehensive Overview of Six Hydroponic Methods

Earlier in this article, you read a brief overview of the various kinds of hydroponic methods. In this section, we will dive a little deeper into each such kind of hydroponic methods by illustrating:

  • How the system works
  • What type of plants grow best in the system
  • Pros and cons of the system
  • Instructions on how to build the system
  • Ready-made examples available on the market

Wick Hydroponic System

The Wick system is one of the most basic hydroponic systems and has been in existence for a long time. Of course, it was not called the “Wick System” in the old days, but the technology was the same. You can build a wick system on your own because this system does not need any air or water pumps to function.

How the Wick System Works

As the name suggests, water and nutrients move to the plant’s root zone with the help of a wick. Some even use a piece of felt to this end. Using a growing media, such as coir or perlite, will make the hydroponic system even more successful.

What Type of Plants Grow Best in Wick Systems?

The Wick system works best with plants that can grow well using relatively less amounts of nutrients or water. Herbs, especially rosemary, and leafy vegetables like lettuce will grow well in a wick hydroponic system.

Pros and Cons of a Wick System

The pros of the wick system include:

  • Once you set it up correctly, the system can run remarkably well on its own.
  • Beginners and children can easily handle this form of a hydroponic growing method as it requires very little involvement.
  • It is a great solution for small plants and herbs.

The downsides of the wick system include:

  • The incorrectly positioned wick can cause irreversible damage to your plants.
  • Large plants do not grow well in a wick system.

How to Build Your Own Wick System

  1. Take a wick and gently wrap it around the base of your plant’s stem so that it reaches the roots of the plant.
  2. Fill a large bowl, or reservoir, with water and the nutrient solution required, and place the other end of the wick in that bowl.
  3. Suspend the pot over the reservoir so that the pot does not touch the liquid solution, but the end of the wick can reach the water, as this will allow the water to gently wick over to the plant’s roots where the other end of the wick is tied. 

Examples of Ready-Made Wick Systems

This Click and Grow is a great example of a wick system. You only have to fill in the larger tube at the bottom, and the wick draws up the water to the plant’s roots. You can even keep a couple of fish in the larger tub below, and the fish waste can act as a plant fertilizer.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)

Deep Water Culture (DWC) Hydroponic System

Deep Water Culture is a fairly easy hydroponic system that you can set up and use. Unlike the wick system, however, setting up the DWC system will require an air pump and tubing. If you can set it up on your own without purchasing a ready-made system from the market, you can do it in as little as $50.

How Does the DWC System Work?

The Deep Water Culture tub holds the nutrient solution, and the plants’ roots are suspended inside that solution so that the plant gets a constant supply of water, nutrients, and oxygen, which will help it grow.

What Type of Plants Grow Best in DWC Systems?

Lettuce grows very well in Deep Water Culture systems. Large crops that tend to be top-heavy do not grow well in this system. As the plant roots are not in a dense media, top-heavy plants, such as tomatoes, tend to break at the stems and fall over. Light leafy vegetables are your best bet for DWC systems. 

Pros and Cons of Deep Water Culture Systems

The various upsides of DWC include:

  • It is very easy to set up at home
  • It is an extremely low maintenance set up
  • DWC works by recirculating the water, so there is less overall wastage

The downsides of DWC are:

  • It is not well-suited for growing large plants
  • The system does not bode well for plants that have a long growing period

How to Build Your Own DWC System

  1. Take a large bowl that will act as the reservoir and add the nutrient solution to it
  2. Use an air pump to send bubbles into the growing medium
  3. Place your plants in net pots and suspend them over the reservoir, but let the roots dip into the solution

Examples of Ready-Made DWC Systems

The Hydrofarm OX20SYS Oxyclone is a great example of a DWC hydroponics system. It is simple and compact and includes an aqua pump in the setup.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Hydroponic System

NFT is a very popular commercial technique of doing hydroponic cultivation. It is a lot like DWC, but unlike DWC, the roots of plants in NFT do not stay submerged in the solution.

How Does the NFT System Work?

The nutrient solution pumps into the channels, and once the solution reaches the end of the channel, it falls over to the main reservoir. The roots emerge from the netted pots and receive their nutrients from the thin film of the solution running at the bottom. 

What Type of Plants Grow Best in NFT Systems?

Spinach, herbs, lettuce, and broccoli grow very well in an NFT hydroponic system. Any leafy green plant with a short growth period will do well in this system. 

Pros and Cons of an NFT System

The pros of the NFT system include:

  • High yielding for its surface area
  • There is less waste as the plants recirculate nutrients.

The cons are:

  • If the pump fails to function properly, the entire crop may get damaged
  • If the roots remain untrimmed, they may grow uncontrollably and clog the channels, stopping the nutrients from reaching other plants.

How to Build Your Own Nutrient Film Technique Hydroponic System

  1. Saw some holes in a PVC pipe and place this on top of a large tub. The large tub will act as the reservoir.
  2. The holes in the PVC pipe are where the net-potted plants will rest. Their roots will protrude from the nets. Place a tray at the point where the roots will reach. This tray will rest parallel to the bottom of the reservoir.
  3. Next, with a small pump’s help, connect the bottom of the reservoir to the tray.
  4. Your nutrient solution is ready to be poured into the reservoir and pumped into the tray.

Examples of Ready-Made NFT Systems

The Cropking NFT 4-6 is readily available in the market if you would like to spare yourself the hassle of making an NFT system yourself. It is on the costlier side, however, and people generally use these systems for commercial purposes, as you can grow a lot of vegetables using just this one system.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain) Hydroponic System

Ebb and flow systems are quite uncommon, but they are just as effective when opting for hydroponic cultivation. Depending on your budget and situation, you might benefit from an ebb and flow system.

How Does the Ebb and Flow System Work?

The roots are not exposed to the nutrient solution constantly. Rather the tray where you are growing your plants is flooded with the nutrient mix a few times a day, and immediately after that, the tray drains itself. The cycle repeats itself a few times a day.

What Type of Plants Grow Best in Ebb and Flow Systems?

Heavier plants tend to do well in this system. Tomatoes and cucumbers that bear heavier fruits than the lighter leafy greens grow very well in the ebb and flow method. Leafy vegetables like lettuce also grow well.

Pros and Cons of the Ebb and Flow System

On the positive side, this system makes very efficient use of water and energy, and it is highly customizable to the plants’ water and nutrient needs.

On the flip side, however, since there is less contact with water, the roots tend to dry out fairly quickly. 

How Can You Build Your Own Ebb and Flow System?

To build an ebb and flow system of your own, simply:

  1. Take a reservoir and fill it with the nutrient solution.
  1. Connect the reservoir to a tray on top using a water pump. The tray contains the plants, and the pump helps flood the tray above with the nutrient solution.
  2. Ensure that the tray is slightly slanted downwards on one end so that the nutrient solution falls back down into the reservoir. 

Examples of Ready-Made Ebb and Flow Systems

The Hydroponic Ebb / Heavy Duty Flow Tray System is a sturdy construction of this type of hydroponics growing method. In this system, the water pump connects to the middle of the tray and the pump floods the tray above with nutrient water.

Aeroponics Hydroponic System

Aeroponics is one of the most high-tech hydroponic systems, and if too many technicalities put you off, this may not be the best solution for you. If you would like to geek it out, however, then this could very well be your jam.

How Does the Aeroponics System Work?

It is quite similar to the NFT system, but unlike the NFT system’s channels, aeroponics provide the nutrient solution to the plants’ roots through mist.

What Type of Plants Grow Best in Aeroponics Systems?

Tomatoes and leafy greens grow quite well in this system. Aeroponics increases the yield in plants with a shorter growth cycle. Thus, you can grow bushy greens using this method. 

Pros and Cons of Aeroponics System

This system’s main benefit is that the plants’ roots come in more contact with oxygen due to being exposed almost the entire time. On the downside, it is relatively more expensive to set up this system than other hydroponics systems.

How to Build Your Own Aeroponics System

  1. Fill a large reservoir with a nutrient-rich solution and fit a pump that sprays this water upwards.
  2. Connect the pump to a timer and set it for a recommended frequency for your plants.
  3. At the top of the reservoir, place a tray with clean-cut holes to hold the netted plants, and that’s it—the pump will spray the roots with the nutrient solution.

Examples of Ready-Made Aeroponics Systems

The Viagrow VCLN24 is a great option with the misters built into the reservoir. It has multi-colored neoprene slots to help you keep track of the various plants you are growing.

Drip Hydroponic System

Drip systems, too, are quite commonly used in commercial operations. They are not for an occasional hobbyist or a beginner as they require a serious commitment from the grower.

How Does the Drip System Work?

The reservoir pumps up the nutrient solution to the plants’ tray, and the water drips back to the reservoir. The nutrient solution remains in the tray for a long period until it finally drips down to the bottom.

What Type of Plants Grow Best in Drip Systems?

Strawberries, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes grow very well in a drip hydroponics system. The shallow roots and short growth cycle help with a good yield.

Pros and Cons of a Drip System

It is a relatively cheaper hydroponic system on the plus side, while on the downside, the system may lead to fluctuating pH values. This system also is best used by someone who has a bit more experience with hydroponics.

How to Build Your Own Drip System

To build a drip system of your own, simply:

  1. Take a reservoir and fill it with the nutrient solution.
  1. Connect the reservoir to a tray on top using a water pump. The tray contains the plants, and the pump helps flood the tray above with the nutrient solution.
  2. Use drainage that helps the water from the tray drip back down to the reservoir.

Examples of Ready-Made Drip Systems

The Automatic Drip Watering Kit With Timer has 30-day programming built with an automatic watering system for your potted plants.

What Do You Need to Know Before Picking a Hydroponic System?

Photo by Tan Kian Yong

While it may seem exciting to switch to a new system for growing plants, it is also important to bear in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each of these systems before you invest in setting up the entire system. Some things to consider:

What Do You Intend to Grow Using the Hydroponic System?

The obvious first question that you need to answer is related to what you intend to grow using the hydroponic growing system. You need to know this because different plants grow better in different hydroponic growing methods.

Knowing which plants you would like to grow right from the start will help you set up the right system for the job, which is always a better alternative to setting up the system and realizing that it is not suitable for the plant.   

Get a Clear Understanding of Your Budget

The cost of setting up a hydroponic growing method is another very important factor to consider when you are in the market for a hydroponic system. Deciding on your budget beforehand will help you narrow down your options, thus saving you time and decision fatigue.

Having a budget in place does not go to say that you will, in any way, be limiting your options. Instead, it will allow you to explore the options available to you in a given budget range more thoroughly. We’ll discuss different pricing options later in the article.

How Much Space Are You Willing to Allocate for Your Hydroponic Growing Method?

The amount of space you can allocate for your hydroponic growing method will vary greatly from person to person. A person growing plants for commercial purposes will need to invest a relatively greater space than someone who is merely experimenting with the process at home.

Understanding the amount of space that you can spare will help you plan better and choose a hydroponic system that will fit into that space. When determining how much space you need, don’t forget to include the additional space needed to drain and refill the water in your estimates.

How Much Time Are You Willing to Invest in Your Hydroponic Garden?

With hydroponics, the traditional notions of gardening—watering and weeding—are replaced by more technical and modern requirements. You will need to spend more time measuring the liquid and nutrient ratio and making adjustments to the growing medium.

Some types of hydroponics require more time than others because they have a more complicated process. Today, however, some hydroponic systems are technologically advanced and can monitor the temperature, nutrient content, and pH value of the growing medium for you automatically, thereby not just saving you time but also providing an accurate reading.

What Kind of Harvest Yield Are You Looking At?

Alongside the budget you have carved out for your hydroponics project, it is the amount of yield that you may be expecting that will dictate the investment in terms of cost, area, and time that you spend on this project.

These days people design systems to grow more plants within the same amount of square footage, but you will need more vertical space. In most systems, the plants are placed vertically on top of the other to make the most of the space available. 

Light Requirements

You will need to keep the plants in 14-16 hours of bright artificial light every day, and 10-12 hours of darkness, on a cyclical basis. The period of darkness is just as important for the plants as light, as it is in the darkness that the plants can metabolize properly.

If you are growing perennial plants, you will need to be extra mindful of the lighting schedule and adhere to it as strictly as you can. It may be a little difficult to stick to a scheduled lighting schedule, but there are many electric timers available in the market today that can automatically light up and shut down at predetermined times.

The Century Indoor 24 Hour Mechanical Timer from the BN Link brand is a small and handy electric timer that turns lights and other small appliances connected to it automatically. The product comes in a package of two, and each of them can be infrequently programmable at intervals of 30 minutes. The timer is compatible with fluorescent lighting and LED bulbs.

Investing in an electric timer may seem like an extravagance, but there are huge advantages of doing so. If you forget to turn on the electric timer just once, it may hurt the plant’s growth and yield.

Electronic timers are especially helpful when you are growing different plants that have different light requirements. While some plants can do with shorter bursts of light, some plants may need prolonged light, and having the lights manually adjusted every day to meet these need leaves room for error. Having electric timers will help you customize the lighting to suit each of your plant’s needs.

Space Constraints

The amount of space you can provide will also affect the type of hydroponic system and the size of the garden you intend to set up. You can stack the plants vertically as well so that you can save some square footage. The market has a ton of different hydroponic systems that can fit any given area.

Just make sure that the hydroponic system does not take up the entire area, and you have some space on either side to make adjustments and pour or drain water from the system comfortably.

One example of a small space system is the Ivation 7 Pack Indoor Herb Pod Kit. It is a really small hydroponic germination system that comes with its own adjustable LED lighting. The manufacturers use bamboo to make the plant basket, which is a great environmentally friendly material. There is a circulation pump inside, and the product comes with nutrient powders—all in all, a great starter kit and a small space solution for plants.   

Maintenance and Upkeep

The hydroponics system is certainly a little more difficult in upkeep than growing plants the traditional way in soil. You will need to create an artificial environment and provide a different growing medium for your plants than what they are used to. You will need to monitor and ensure that the plants get the right amount of water, nutrients, and light.

If you are growing different varieties of plants in a single hydroponics setup, it is quite likely that each of these plants will have a different nutritional or lighting requirement. You will need to be mindful of these differences and make sure that it meets each of these plant’s needs.

Regular monitoring of the essentials for your plant’s growth is vital. You need to be on top of your game and know exactly when your plant’s nutrient intake might need a boost or if it is time to drain the water. Lighting is especially important when it comes to perennial plants and it is key to ensure they get an adequate amount of light to go through their vegetative and flowering stages.

It is important to be mindful of the equipment and parts making up the hydroponics system itself. You have to ensure that the pump is working properly, and the other parts are also in top shape, at all times. Even if one of these elements suddenly goes off balance, then the entire garden may become vulnerable and be put to risk—something that you want to avoid at all costs.

Investing in a hydroponic system is not a one-time thing. The system itself comes at a great cost but being unable to maintain it also makes all the investments go to waste. To successfully maintain and look after the upkeep of the hydroponic system, it is essential to regularly invest time and care to help make sure your plants grow well.

How Passive Are Hydroponic Systems?

Hydroponics come in two varieties: active and passive hydroponics. Passive hydroponics only provide water at the roots of the plants and do not circulate the water. The water is rich in nutrients that the plant needs for growth, and so it remains in the hydroponic system until the plants completely use up the water.

A true hydroponic system is one that functions in the complete absence of soil. All the nutrients that the plants need are available only through the water in the reservoir. There are various styles of hydroponics that are passive.

If you look at the Kratky method of hydroponics, the plants’ roots remain suspended over the nutrient tanks. Another method, wicking, works as a capillary and transports the nutrients to the plant. The plant remains suspended in the air so that there is a layer of oxygen that the plant can easily access.

How Expensive Are Hydroponic Systems?

The cost of a hydroponic system ranges between $150 to over $450 depending on the purpose you intend to use the hydroponic system and the amount of space you have available. For instance, if you are looking at it as a hobby, you can start small, but if you would like a full-fledged commercial production with a target yield rate, you might have to invest more.

You could also build your own hydroponic system, but with the wide variety of options available, it is more convenient to purchase a hydroponic system rather than build it from scratch. It might even cost less to purchase one, rather than building one from scratch, especially if you are looking to use a more large-scale version. Tracking down the different parts and supplies may also prove to be more time-consuming, in addition to being costly.

Cost of Beginner Hydroponic Systems

If you are looking for budget hydroponic systems, there are many options available for under $150. These systems are great for someone who is just beginning to learn about the hydroponics system. It is also a good option to opt for a low-cost hydroponic if you have a small garden area.

It does not mean that you can grow only a few plants if you have a budget hydroponic system. There are some hydroponic systems, such as the Nutrient Film Technique, that allows many plants to grow at the same time.

Cost of Hobbyist Hydroponic Systems

As a hobbyist, you might have already dabbled in growing with hydroponic systems, and you might want to pursue the craft more seriously. Hydroponic systems between the price range of $150-$400 might be a great choice for this purpose. You will get a lot more features, better design, and durability in this range, which in turn will allow you to grow more crops.

Cost of Upscale Hydroponic Systems

If you are looking for a high-end solution for your hydroponic growing systems, it could cost you upwards of $400. These systems have completely different aesthetics and help you produce a lot and offer great ease of use.

The AeroGarden Farm, for example, is a high-end hydroponics system that claims to be the smartest garden in the market. You can manage all the functionalities that it offers—right from setting up through to harvesting—using a smart device or a garden control panel.

Closing Thoughts

All over the world, there are dedicated commercial places for the cultivation of hydroponic crops. The massive leaps in terms of technological advancements in the agricultural industry, coupled with hydroponic cultivation’s economic benefits, have created an unprecedented boom in the hydroponic growing system. The forecast is that the global hydroponics market is looking at a whopping growth of US $725 million by the year 2023.

As a home gardener, hydroponic systems provide a great way to grow your own vegetables, even if you don’t have a backyard or outdoor garden. And with the variety of options out there, you can select a system that best matches your budget, space, and plant needs. 

Here are Some of my Favorite Gardening Products and Tools

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful for growing some new plants in your home or garden. Here are some products I like that I hope you’ll also find helpful. These are affiliate links, and I am compensated for referring traffic. But in all honesty, these are the exact product that I use or recommend to everyone.

Soil: For high-quality soil, I really like Fox Farm Ocean Forest. I do all my growing in containers and this soil has worked great for me. I like how they use nutrient-rich contents like earthworm castings, bat guano, and composted crab and fish.

Fertilizer: Currently I am using a seaweed-based organic fertilizer call Neptunes Harvest. This is a great milder fertilizer option if you want to use something organic. If you want a more powerful fertilizer, I recommend Fox Farm Liquid Nutrient Trio, lots of people have had great growing success with this product.

Pruning Shears: Pruning shears are one of the most useful gardening tools to have because it’s important to prune your plants to keep them healthy. The pruning shears I recommend are the Gonicc 8’’ pruning shears. I like them because they are built sturdy and work both on bigger and smaller plants, so you don’t need to have multiple pruning shears.

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Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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