Hydroponic Systems: How They Work and the Best Ones in 2023
#1 Light Setup
for Indoor Gardens
If you’ve recently heard of hydroponics and wanted to get started with your very own hydroponic system, then this article is perfect for you! We go over not only what hydroponics is, but the reasons why you should consider it, and the six most popular types of hydroponic systems.
Hydroponics, most often defined as ‘soilless gardening,’ is an intensive method of growing that facilitates abundant yields and year-round harvests. It can be done low-tech or high, simply or not, indoors or out.
It’s easily adapted to growing a wide variety of plants: greens, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and even root vegetables, as well as flowering plants of all kinds.
But getting started with hydroponics can seem a bit tricky for beginners. Don’t worry, this complete guide to hydroponic systems goes over everything you need to know to get started, including what hydroponics is and how hydroponic systems work, and six popular hydroponic systems to help you figure out which one is best for you.
#1 SELLING HYDRO KIT
Affiliate Disclosure: Planet Natural editors review and select each product mentioned in the article independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn a commission which will help support our website.
What is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is the cultivation of plants without the use of soil. Instead, nutrient-rich water and oxygenated air are used to grow the plants. Compared to conventional gardening techniques, this enables faster growth and greater yields.
A hydroponic system can range in complexity from a simple container with a few plants to a fully automated system with many containers and pumps.
Deep water culture, the nutrient film method, and the ebb and flow system are the most popular types of hydroponics. Every system has pros and cons, so it’s crucial to do your research to find the one that will meet your needs the best.
Hydroponic growing is as much about the nutrients as it is about the water. It’s specifically described as growing in a liquid culture. Oxygen, ready for the plant’s taking, is in the culture. Solids, some in dissolved form, also play a role.
The process by which plants sustain themselves is called photosynthesis. Soil is not necessary for photosynthesis in plants. They depend on the soil to provide them with nutrients and water.
When nutrients are dissolved in water, they can be sprayed, immersed, or flooded directly onto a plant’s root system. Hydroponic innovations have demonstrated that direct exposure to nutrient-rich water is a more efficient and versatile method of plant growth than conventional irrigation.
In addition to the nutrient solutions that supply sustenance to plants, most hydroponic systems use growing mediums such as coconut coir, rockwool, pumice, clay pebbles, or mixes of natural and mineral components, to support roots and promote irrigation.
Some hydroponic systems, including nutrient film systems which use aeration and moisture-conducting matting, rely less on growing mediums than do top-fed, bucket systems filled with clay pebbles or coconut coir.
The mediums work hand-in-hand with the solutions, supplying and enabling the feeding of nutrients and oxygen to the plants.
What Does Hydroponics Literally Mean?
The Greek root word ‘hydro’ describes the technique’s liquid nature. ‘ponic’ suggests work, action, or labor, and so hydroponics literally means working water.
Dr. William F. Gericke, a plant scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, as he explored the possibilities of soilless growing, brought the terms together to form “hydroponic” in the 1920s. At the beginning of his classic 1940 text The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening, Gericke explained the origins of the word:
Hydroponics was really the second name to be applied to the science of soilless gardening. The first was ‘aquiculture,’ chosen because of its analogy to ‘agriculture.’
Later it was found that this word had already been used in another connection and so could not be employed again. ‘Hydroponics’ was then selected because of its parallel relationship with ‘geoponics,’ the Greek word meaning ‘earth working.’
How Do Hydroponic Systems Work?
Hydroponic systems function by allowing precise control over environmental conditions such as temperature and pH balance, as well as increased exposure to nutrients and water.
The fundamental tenet of hydroponics is to give plants what they require at the precise moment that they require it. Hydroponic systems tailor nutrient solutions to the specific needs of the plant being grown.
They give you complete control over how much and how long the plants are exposed to light. The pH level can be measured and adjusted. Plant growth is accelerated in an environment that is highly customized and controlled.
Hydroponic gardens, once established, make it simple to provide optimal conditions at all times for your plants’ development.
Systems are defined as ‘active,’ in which pumps move the solution between nutrient tanks and plant roots, or ‘passive,’ in which the solution is applied by mechanical means including hand watering.
The practice is widely adaptable in scale and complexity and can be made to work in basement corners, warehouse-sized commercial spaces, or outdoors on an apartment balcony or against the side of a garage.
As simple as it can be, growing indoors, like outdoor growing, requires work and attention. An oversight or mistake can have disastrous consequences.
While growing in soil provides a safety margin when it comes to moisture and nutrients, growing hydroponically means less, if any tolerance for missed floodings or false steps in nutrient measurement and application.
That said, a well-designed system makes efficient growing easy and even beginners can achieve success. Technology has reduced a lot of the guesswork and automated applications. Commercial nutrient solutions make for almost foolproof feeding.
Benefits of Using Hydroponic Systems
The advantages of hydroponic growing, some more obvious than others, are many. Let’s look at the main reasons why you should consider setting up a hydroponic system:
Gardening All Year-Round
We think the best reasons to invest in a hydroponic system are often found in winter salad bowls filled with fresh greens, herbs, and even tomatoes that have been raised indoors.
Yes, it’s great picking lettuce or basil from a downstairs grow room in February. But it’s also great to be gardening. No longer are the winter months a time of waiting, planning, and going through seed catalogs.
Gardeners with even small systems can be actively involved in planting, raising, and harvesting in the dead of winter.
Allow Gardening Even in Small Spaces
Indoor hydroponic systems that extend the gardening season also provide a place for it. They allow apartments, condominiums, and urban dwellers without access to a traditional garden plot space to grow plants, from orchids to tomatoes, indoors, any season they might choose.
Faster Growth and Higher Yields
Hydroponic how-tos always cite the speed and abundance of the results. Yes, growing in controlled hydroponic conditions will yield harvests more quickly than any outdoor, soil plot can, even under the best conditions. This is especially important to commercial growers.
Hydroponic systems make managing staggered planting and harvesting more exacting, no matter the season. They also make it easy to control light exposure and temperature making it easy to control flowering and yields.
Fewer Pests, Diseases, and Other Problems
Hydroponic gardening has a few of the problems that come with soil growing. Because you start with a sterile growing medium, weeds are eliminated. There are no soil-borne pests or diseases to cope with.
HPS GROW LIGHT KIT
There’s seldom a need for pesticides because there are few pest problems in enclosed systems. When problems do occur, they’re easier to recognize and put down because of the controlled conditions (some indoor pest problems can get out of hand if not dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Large operations have significant advantages, making for more production in less space than soil farming. Recirculation of liquid means more efficient use of water than in outdoor, soil growing.
Growing on tabletops or in stacked shelf hydroponic systems makes plants more accessible for inspection and harvesting.
Small, countertop hydroponic systems make growing herbs or greens (even radishes) a great family activity during the winter months. Having your young students keep journal records on what and how they’ve grown hydroponic gardens can be the basis of a great science project.
Types of Hydroponic Systems
There are many different hydroponic systems. Let’s look at the six most common types and how they work:
1. Wicking System
The simplest kind of hydro system is a wicking system. Although it wasn’t recognized as a hydroponic system until recently, it has been in use for thousands of years.
It is a form of passive hydroponics, which means that neither air pumps nor water pumps are required for its operation.
A wick, which is frequently something as straightforward as a rope or piece of felt, transports nutrients and water into the root zone of a plant.
Utilizing a growing medium that efficiently transports water and nutrients is one way to achieve success with a wicking system. Vermiculite, perlite, or coconut coir are all suitable options for growing media.
Wick systems are ideal for smaller plants that do not require a large amount of water or nutrients. However, with a simple wick system, it may be difficult for larger plants to receive adequate amounts of either nutrient.
2. Deep Water Culture System (DWC System)
The simplest hydro system to operate is deep water culture or DWC. A reservoir is used in a DWC system to store a nutrient solution. The roots of your plants are suspended in this solution, so they can get water, oxygen, and nutrients all the time.
Using an air pump and an air stone, bubbles are pumped into the nutrient solution to oxygenate the water. This prevents your plant’s roots from being submerged in water, which may sound like a ridiculous problem but actually affects many people’s first attempts at hydroponic gardening.
Most of the time, you’ll put your plants in net pots that are placed on a foam board or on top of the reservoir you’re using. With some hydroponic growing medium added to your net pots, they become a home for your plant’s earliest roots and stems.
3. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) System
The Nutrient Film Technique, or NFT for short, is a common hydroponic system used in commercial agriculture.
Plants are grown in channels where a nutrient solution is continuously pumped through them and flows along the channel’s bottom. After the solution has traveled all the way through the channel, it will spill back into the main reservoir and be recycled back into the system. Consequently, it is a recirculating system, similar to deep water culture.
The ‘film’ in NFT refers to the fact that, unlike in deep water culture, your plant’s roots will not be completely submerged in the medium.
4. Ebb and Flow System (Flood and Drain System)
Ebb and Flow systems, which are also called Flood and Drain systems, are not as common as other systems. However, they are still highly efficient, and may even be your best option for you depending on your needs.
The roots of your plants are not continuously exposed to nutrient solution in an ebb and flow system, unlike the previous two hydro systems we have discussed.
Instead, you cultivate in a tray containing a growing medium. The nutrient solution is ‘flooded’ into the tray several times per day, depending on variables such as the size of the plant, its watering needs, the air temperature, the growth cycle stage, etc.
Flooding is done with a water pump, a reservoir under the tray, and a timer that sets the flooding cycle.
After the tray is filled with water, gravity pulls the solution back down into the reservoir, where an air pump and air stone add oxygen to the water. It waits for the next cycle of flooding, and the process continues.
Ebb and flow systems are a good option for hydroponic growers due to their adaptability. The majority of them will add net pots to the tray along with their preferred growing medium to better organize their plants and manage the roots.
5. Drip System
In a drip system, each plant receives solution through a network of tubes from the aerated, nutrient-rich reservoir. The roots of the plants are surrounded by a growing medium that is slowly dripped with this solution, keeping the plants moist and well-fed.
This is the most common and widely used hydroponics technique, particularly among commercial growers, is drip irrigation. Drip irrigation can be used for a single plant or on a massive scale.
They aren’t as popular with recreational hydroponics gardeners because they’re easiest to operate on a larger scale.
6. Aeroponics System
The most high-tech way to grow plants with hydroponics is with an aeroponic system. However, once you understand how they work, they aren’t all that complicated.
Aeroponic systems are comparable to NFT systems in that the majority of the roots are suspended in air. Instead of applying a thin layer of nutrient solution along a channel, an aeroponic system accomplishes this by continuously misting the root zone with a nutrient solution.
Some growers prefer to mist in a manner similar to an ebb and flow system, but the cycle is much shorter and the intervals between mistings are usually only a few minutes. To ensure that more oxygen reaches the root zone, you can also mist continuously and use a finer sprayer.
Although it has been demonstrated that aeroponic systems grow plants more quickly than some of the more straightforward ones, such as deep water culture, this has not been verifiable in all cases.
Best Hydroponic Systems in 2023
1. Best Affordable System for Beginners: SuperPonics 8 Hydroponic System
The renowned fully automated SuperPonics 8-Plant Hydroponic Grow System Complete grows plants up to five times more quickly, safely, and easily than any conventional hydroponic system.
Through the use of automated top feeding, deep water culture, bubble and AeroPonics, this particular hydroponic system fuses the best aspects of hydroponics all in one system.
It grows more quickly and safely than any other hydroponics method by combining different systems because there are always two separate hydroponic grow systems running simultaneously. Even if one of the systems fails, your plants will still thrive!
Growing your plants with both top-fed watering and bottom-fed oxygenation will result in extremely happy plants with rapid growth rates and massive yields.
The system includes everything you’ll need to get started including 8 net pots, a premium air pump and air stones, a 132-gallon water pump, and a smart timer to keep everything automated.
It’s a great one for beginners since it not only comes with everything you need at an affordable price but because the dual grow systems will ensure your plants grow perfectly even if there’s an issue with one system along the way. We highly recommend you check this one out.
2. Best System for Larger Plants: 32-Site Super Flow Hydroponic System
By combining Ebb N’ Flow and NFT, SuperPonics technology combines the best of hydroponics. This system is well-known for its fast growth rates and ability to grow plants up to 5 feet tall!
The 32-Site Super Flow Hydroponic Ebb & Flow System is easy to take care of and has trays that can be moved and rearranged to fit any space. Due to the exclusive use of large-diameter tubing, this is the first system capable of delivering 100 percent thick organic nutrients.
This is the best and safest hydroponic grow system because the trays and reservoirs are all made of UV-resistant, thick gauge, HDPE food-grade plastic that has been custom molded.
The 32-Site Super Flow Hydroponic Ebb & Flow System also has snap-on lids that make cleaning easy and an easy drain valve and tube that makes changing the water a breeze.
With the Super Flow Hydroponic Grow System, you will obtain the easiest, largest, and finest yields. Your plants will grow up to 5 times faster, safer, and easier with this renowned fully automated SuperPonicshydroponic grow system than with any conventional type watering system.
3. Best DWC System: 12-Site Bubble Flow Buckets Hydroponic System
By combining DWC and Constant Current technology into one fully automated, recirculating hydroponic grow system, SuperCloset 12-Site Bubble Flow Buckets produce the highest and most consistent yields of any bubble buckets system on the market.
Put your young starts or clones into this simple-to-use system and enjoy unmatched growth and enormous yields!
Standard bubble bucket designs do not adequately address the need for a complete bucket and reservoir circulation, resulting in ongoing pH and nutrient ‘hotspot’ issues.
Every plant site in your bubble flow bucket will have the same pH and TDS readings, so you won’t have to keep an eye on your grow’s most important numbers all the time.
You can now rest assured that your hydroponic garden is reaching its maximum potential without additional effort.
Each of the bubble flow buckets is hyper-oxygenated to stimulate growth and promote strong root development. The reservoir is conveniently located, so you can take care of all of your water and food storage needs in one place.
It’s now easier than ever to cultivate a sizable indoor hydroponics garden. We highly recommend you check out this system.
Soil Aerator (GS-2)
Made from 100% recycled glass to significantly improve aeration and drainage.$24.95Read more
Einstein Oil (Neem)
All ingredients are 100% non-toxic and will keep leaves clean and plants healthy.Read more
Exhale CO2 Bags
Supplies a 4 x 4 garden space (128 cf) with CO2 for SIX months guaranteed.$29.95Read more
Bluelab® pH Pen
Use to accurately measure your nutrient solution's acid/ alkaline balance.$114.95Read more
Digital HPS Special
Pssst! Tell your friends that you got this WICKED GOOD deal at Planet Natural.$369.95Read more
Includes a fluorine coated stainless steel blade that's slanted for precise work!$26.95Read more