Hydroponics Systems – A Complete Guide

Indoor gardening can be done in many different ways. Some are deceptively simple, others feel overly convoluted at first. And then some seem like they come straight out of a sci-fi movie. 

For many people, Hydroponics systems look like the latter.

So, here we’ll show you exactly how simple these gardening systems actually are and why you might want to consider them for your garden or crops.  

What are Hydroponics systems and how do they work? 

What is hydroponics

Lettuce grown using hydroponics

Lettuce in soil

Lettuce grown traditionally in soil

Hydroponics systems come in several different types but they all work on the same basic principle – they nourish and grow your plants without using soil. 

Essentially, Hydroponics systems revolve around the idea that the soil isn’t actually a requirement for plant growth. Instead, it’s just a medium for the roots to acquire their nutrients and water from. As a result, Hydroponics systems remove the soil from the equation and deliver the nutrients, water, and oxygen to the plants’ roots in other ways. 

The exact delivery system depends on the type of Hydroponics system you’re using but it’s always carried out with water in one way or another.

That’s what “Hydroponics” means – hydro stands for water and ponos means labor or works. 

As for the water and nutrients solution and its contents – what you put in it will depend entirely on what your particular plants need. 

Why use a Hydroponics system? 

Before we explore the different types of Hydroponics systems, let’s explain why you should even bother with them in the first place. 

As you’ll see from our summaries of the different systems below, these plant-growing methods can be a little complicated and hard to operate at first. Furthermore, they are more expensive than just pots and soil and they don’t have the same “natural” look and feel as potted plants, veggies, and greenery. 

However, Hydroponics systems are extremely effective at growing all types of plants that they more than make up for the initial extra effort they require. With a well-working Hydroponics system, you can easily expect a ~20% increase in growth speed and a ~25% increase of the overall production. 

This is because Hydroponics systems make it easier for the plants to get what they need. 

These benefits will almost always outweigh the higher initial investment as well as the extra effort that goes into figuring out Hydroponics at first. And the more you use your Hydroponics system, the easier they get to operate and the more extra produce you’re going to get. 

These key benefits are why Hydroponics systems are used more and more in commercial plant growth and why you might want to consider them for your home garden too, as opposed to traditional gardening.

Hydroponics vs soil pros and cons

The different types of Hydroponics systems

All Hydroponics systems aim to nourish your plants’ roots via water but they do that in several different ways. None of the different types are really “better” than the others, at least not overall. Instead, the different types of Hydroponics systems are better or worse for specific types of plants and for your personal preferences. 

1- Deep Water Culture (DWC) 

Deep water culture

Deep water culture is an even simpler method for Hydroponics. With it, the plants’ roots are directly suspended in the water. The plants themselves are typically kept above the water in net pots afloat on a foam board. Before the plants’ roots are developed, their required nutrients can simply be provided with wet cotton inside the net pots themselves. 

As for the water beneath them, it’s simply full of all the nutrients the plants require for a healthy growth. The one trick here is that the water must also be constantly oxygenated with an air pump. Otherwise, the plants’ roots might drown. That’s also the one main drawback of this system as if the pump fails, your plants can die in a matter of hours.

Then again, most other hydroponic systems are so usually dependent on their components always working properly. 

2. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) 

Hydroponics or soil

With NFT systems your plants’ roots aren’t directly submerged in the water but are instead placed in a slightly tilted water channel as they are in their net pots and nutrient medium. The water tank with its air stone pump is beneath the channel and a water pump periodically pumps some water to the upper end of the channel. From there, gravity does its job and gets the water through the plants’ roots and back into the water tank. 

This type of hydroponic system is very convenient to use and is great for a vast array of plants. It does have a lot of components, however, which can make it look complicated for the novice user. And it’s true – if either the water or air pumps stop working you’ll risk losing your entire crop. However, as long as you keep an eye on the system and you’re prepared to fix it if anything goes wrong, the NFT is arguably the easiest hydroponic system to work with. 

3. Wick Systems

Wicking system hydroponics

Wicking is the oldest, most simple, and most affordable type of Hydroponics system. It’s also the most passive method as it requires no water pumps or ventilators and that’s another reason why a lot of people prefer this method. 

Wicking systems work by keeping the water and nutrients container separate from the roots of the plants and connecting the two via a wick. Essentially, the roots are kept in a growing medium such as perlite or vermiculite, and that medium gets moisture and nutrients from the wick. Avoid using things such as coconut coir, peat moss, or Rockwool with this method as they tend to be too absorbent for it.

As for the wick itself, it can be as simple as a piece of cotton rope. In fact, you can also skip the wick altogether and just lightly dip the very bottom of the soaking medium into the water solution. 

The one major drawback of wicking is that it only works for smaller plants such as spice. That’s because wicks can only transfer so much water and nutrients. 

4. Drip Systems

Drip hydroponic system

Drip systems are similar to DWC systems with the difference that there is a second water container under the main one. The plants’ roots are still dipped in the main water tank but its water drips down into the lower tank and is pumped back up with a water pump. 

This makes drip systems recirculating and helps you maintain the perfect water pH and conditions. They also produce a lot of water waste, however, and are usually preferred for commercial applications. 

5. Aeroponics


For a system that’s both high-tech and simple, aeroponics keep the roots of your plants suspended in the air above a water tank. There, the system simply mists the roots with both water and nutrient solution either constantly or periodically (depending on the plants’ needs). 

Essentially, aeroponic systems are similar to NFT systems but instead of using a nutrient medium and a water “slide” they just mist both on your plants’ roots. As long as you make sure the device works well, the results are usually very effective. 

6. Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain) systems

ebb and flow systems

Ebb and flow systems, also known as Flood and Drain systems, work similarly to NFT and drip hydroponics. Instead of constantly keeping the roots flooded, however, ebb and flow systems will only flood the roots and their nutrient medium periodically. After that, the water drains back into the tank for a period of time. 

The main advantage of ebb and flow hydroponic systems is their flexibility. As they allow you to choose when and how much to flood your plants they can be used for a lot of different types of plants. These hydroponic systems are still rarely used, however, because most people view the periodic flooding as unnecessary. 

How to make your own Hydroponics system? 

Pretty much any of the six types of hydroponic systems above can be created as a DIY project. They are also commercially available but if you don’t want to overspend or you want a device that’s perfectly tailored to your needs, you can just make your own hydroponic system. 

Depending on your preferred type you’ll need to get some different items, of course. The basics are usually similar, however:

  • An air stone pump to keep the roots from drowning. 
  • A water pump for NFT, drip, or ebb and flow systems. 
  • Spraying nozzles for aeroponic systems. 
  • A timer for hydroponic system pumps that need to work only periodically. 
  • The right containers, tubes, trays, net plant pots, and other additional items. 
  • The right nutrients for the particular plants you want to grow. 

And that’s about it. Once you get to know your hydroponic system and you understand how it works, you’ll be surprised by how much easier it can actually make your life. If you want to maximize the amount of produce you can grow over a limited indoor space – hydroponics are definitely something to consider.

The Bottom Line

Hydroponics might seem like a complicated topic, and they can be, but it’s well worth the time it takes to learn about these systems. When well implemented, a hydroponics gardening system can save you money, time and resources, offering up higher yields and better crops compared to traditional gardening.

To learn about the difference between hydroponics and soil, check our detailed article here.

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