Hydroponic systems are a type of hydroculture used to grow plants with less water and without soil. They have been around since the 18th century but weren't popular until recently when people became more aware of how much water it takes to produce food.

Growing a hydroponic garden at home has several benefits. It will definitely save you the time spent driving to the supermarket.

The different types of hydroponic systems work differently. Every single system has its own distinct pros and cons (and cost, of course). Some hydroponic systems work better than others depending on plants' growth size and room there are available.

This article offers a thorough look at the six types of hydroponic systems. This should make it easy for you to determine which system is ideal for growing your plants and which is best.

What is hydroponics?

6 types of hydroponics systems

Hydroponics, in simple terms, is the process of growing plants without soil. A hydroponic system is filled with a sterile, nutrient-rich liquid that provides all the necessary nutrients for plant growth.

When a plant is thriving in the soil, its roots are constantly asking for nutrients. In hydroponics, the plant root system is exposed directly to water and a nutrient solution and requires no energy to sustain itself. The energy the roots used to gain food is converted to improve their maturation. 

With hydroponics, plants can grow 20% faster and produce 25% higher than soil plants. 

Learn MoreHydroponics vs. Soil

6 Types of Hydroponic Systems Explained

There are primarily 6 types of hydroponic systems that you can choose to utilize for your hydroponic gardening:

  1. wicking system
  2. Deep water culture (DWC hydroponic system)
  3. Nutrient film technique (NFT)
  4. ebb and flow systems
  5. aeroponic irrigation
  6. drip systems
types of hydroponic systems

1. Wick Systems

The wick system is the most basic hydroponic system, also called the "training wheels" of the hydroponics world.

It works like this:

wick system

The grower plants the seeds in water-proof containers filled with hydroponic growing media and then hangs them over a container of nutrient solution that has been wick-dipped into from below, ensuring steady contact between the plant's roots and nutrients. 

The wick soaks up the liquid as it drips downwards through the growing medium. It continues to drip until it reaches another container or, more typically, just run off onto the floor where it's collected by a drainage mat.

A simple wick system is a passive hydroponics - meaning there are no mechanical machines, like aerators, pumps, or electricity, for pump functions. Instead, nylon wicks are positioned about plants before getting direct in water. This doesn’t dictate that you can’t utilize any kind of machines, though. Rather, it just describes the basic functioning of the system. In fact, these simplest of all the hydroponics systems often include a pump to aerate the nutrient solution, but it’s not required for the system to work. The capillary action delivers the liquid to the roots all by itself.

Potting materials like coconut or perlite are ideal growth media. Vermiculite also is pH neutral and highly porous, making it perfect for wicking systems. 

Pros

  • wick systems are ideal for small garden plants and herb plants
  • it's great for plants that need extra oxygen, like lettuce and spinach;
  • This hydroponic method is designed to be low maintenance while still producing high yields;

Cons

  • A negative aspect of this growing system is that water and nutrition can't be absorbed fully. This will result in a buildup of toxic salts. When using this system, always flush any extra nutrients with fresh water once/every 1-2 weeks.
  • Another reason this hydroponic system can be ineffective is if the plant roots are deprived of oxygen. This can happen when hydroponic systems are overstocked or when the system is only partially flooded.

Which plants thrive in this system?

  • While this system is excellent for smaller plants, you should avoid growing plants like peppers and tomatoes. 
  • Plants suited best for this type: leafy vegetables, herbs, salad greens.

Cost

The wick system is low cost and easy to operate, and is not difficult to use, especially if you are a beginner.

2. Deep Water culture

Deep water culture, or in short DWC system, is the most straightforward and most popular method on the market and one of the easiest to use hydroponic systems.

It works like this:

deep water culture system

DWC systems consist of a reservoir that is populated with water and nutrient solution. The plants sit on top of the reservoir using net pots and a growing medium. The roots are completely submerged in the reservoir and provide a constant supply of water and nutrients. An air pump is used to move pump bubbles into water to oxygenate. This prevents plants from drowning in water.

An air stone is used to provide an air supply for supplying dissolved oxygen to the plants.

Deep water culture systems usually include everything you need. Like, growing media + nutrient solution + light source or fans, so there isn't much more required if not already have these things at home!

We recommend using reverse osmosis 'water' to get you started with a blank slate. When not doing so, your plants are sitting within hard water already rich in calcium. Many nutrient blends also contain calcium which promotes crop formation. As a result, the calcium found in our hard water may result in nutritional imbalances.

Pros

  • Dwc hydroponic system is inexpensive, easy to set up and maintain.
  • The best aspects of this water culture system are that it makes it very easy to build and works well with any type of plant.
  • Even plants with larger root systems will grow with this procedure quickly.
  • It seems quite possible to install a dwc system in a classroom at home or without expensive equipment. 

Cons

  • The only possibility associated with this hydroponic method is the growth of root diseases caused by dirty grow conditions.
  • Plus, this is an expensive system, and you will need a large space for it (at least 200 square feet).
  • Because plants need oxygen, they will require daily pruning.

Which plants thrive in this system?

  • Plants suited best for this type: leafy vegetables, herbs, salad greens
  • Most suitable crops for DWC systems include Lettuce, Kale, Chard Bok Choy Basil, and Parsley. 

Cost

Costs vary depending on what kind of deep water culture system you buy but expect to pay around $200-$500+ (It looks like pricing could vary greatly)

3. NFT Systems (Nutrient Film technique)

The NFT system has a simple design but is widely used (typically for commercial growers, but recently, many are adopting it indoors. This is because it can scale to a large size (100 ft long). 

This method mimics how plants grow using natural soil. It gives roots access to moisture-laden air that encourages root growth while also supplying them with nutrients and hydroponic style.

It works like this:

Nutrient film technique

A thin stream of hydroponic solution (nutrient rich water) is constantly pumped into the top of an irrigation channel. This solution then trickles down through channels in the hydroponics tray. It is collected at the bottom, flowing to another irrigated system or reservoir for recycling back into the hydroponic system.

You have many different options in this hydro system when allocating space for your garden, including shelves or towers, pots/trays, etc... 

Pros

  • NFT is a low waste recirculating system.
  • It is relatively low-cost and can be scaled up easily by increasing flow rates, making it ideal for large commercial applications.
  • It works well with some types of plant matter as they do not dry out quickly like in other hydroponic systems because there is always a hydroponic solution.

Cons

  • The system can get clogged with roots which are not good because it restricts the flow of nutrient solution through the channels in the tray.

Which plants thrive in this system?

NFT hydroponics systems are generally more suited to roots than others. This includes lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes, but you can also grow hydroponic systems with plants such as peppers and cucumbers.

Cost

NFT hydroponic growing systems have different starting price point depending on how many trays or channels the kit contains. The least expensive is usually NFT hydroponics kits which start at $100 for one tray and go up from there according to your needs. And then they have commercial grade hydroponics kits that range in price anywhere between $500 - $2500USD.

4. Ebb and flow systems (Flood and Drain systems)

The ebb and flow system is another hydroponic system primarily used by home gardeners.

It works like this:

ebb and flow system

It is a hydroponic system that uses a reservoir to supply water and nutrients to plants. The tray of plant roots is located above this "reservoir," which floods with a fresh solution during each cycle, upending the plant's root system for maximum exposure. Then gravity drains the solution back into the reservoir.

The pump that inundates the grow bed is equipped with a timed switch that switches the pump off at a specific time.

The air pump can oxygenate the reservoir as the pump waits for the next flood cycle. The cycle of flooding depends on the nature of the plant, water sampler weathering, air temperature, the growth cycle, and more. 

Grow rock, and expandable clay pebbles are some ebb and flow-based growing media used. 

It is intermediate level in difficulty, relatively low-cost to set up, and highly versatile.

Pros

  • This system tends to be cheaper than other options. It doesn't require expensive equipment or air pumps; you can get everything needed at your local home improvement store like Home Depot.
  • Some growers find the system beneficial because it never continually exposes roots to the nutrient solution. 

Cons

  • A significant issue with this system is to allow the controller of the pump to fail, which will halt its operation once the air pump is repaired or replaced. 
  • It is less widespread because it's not much flexibility with plants' needs. 
  • This system works well if you have efficient monitoring of plant nutrition intake.
  • With an ebb and flow hydroponic systems, there will be periods when oxygen levels in hydroponics tanks may become too low because all air bubbles have been removed from 

Which plants thrive in this system?

  •  Ebb and flow hydroponic systems work great for almost all types of plants, including some root vegetables. 
  • It is recommended to not grow large plants.
  • Tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, carrots, and peppers are among the most common vegetables planted in hydroponic systems. 

Cost: 

Ebb and flow systems are generally more expensive than other hydroponic systems because they require more equipment. A system can range from $500 to $1500.

5. Aeroponic Systems

In an aeroponic system, the plants are suspended in the air. Aeroponic plants are never placed into water.

Aeroponic research led by NASA took off in the 1980s and has since shown that this method works well with various plants. 

It works like this:

aeroponics system

In an aeroponics system, plant cuttings or seeds are suspended mid-air in a growing chamber. A mist of nutrient-laden water is continuously sprayed on the plant's roots. 

Aeroponics systems are often used in a protected environment like grow tents, where environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity can be regulated. Sunlight is the primary light source, with some supplemental lighting.

Pros

  • This water system is more efficient than other hydroponic systems that use less water for their use. It takes 95% less water to grow crops aeroponically than in irrigated fields. 
  • This system is perfect for growing herbs because they require little light and water. Aeroponics systems usually run on timers so you can control when your plant gets watered or sprayed with nutrients.
  • No need to worry about water spills because the hydroponic system does not contact soil or water whatsoever.

Cons

  • If you intend to grow a lot bigger plants, the water reservoir will need depth.
  • Aeroponics allows greater flexibility and reproducibility within confined space.
  • Aeroponics systems tend to be more expensive than other types of hydroponics units because this particular system has high initial investment costs (most only cover part of the root system, so hydroponic tank sizes may need to be increased)

Which plants thrive in this system?

  • Avirulent and nightshade-like tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants also thrive in aeroponic areas.
  • Tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, carrots, and peppers are among the most common vegetables planted in hydroponic systems. 

Cost

Aeroponics systems are more expensive than other hydroponic setups because it uses electricity and an automated air pump. It's possible to spend upwards of $500 just on parts alone!

A home aeroponic system can cost $200 to $1500 whether you prefer to build your own or buy a Ready-to-Grow system and avoid the learning curve.

A typical starter kit will cost around $200-$400

6. Drip Systems

A drip system is a hydroponics at its most simplistic. 

It is an easy-to-use hydroponics system that can be easily transformed for various plant species. These are systems that could be small or large, circulating or non circulating systems.

A drip system utilizes a hydroponic nutrient solution, water pump, and timer to provide plants with the proper dosage of nutrients without any human assistance required.

It works like this:

drip system

In hydroponic drip systems, water and nutrient solution flows directly to the base of your plants using a specialized emitter nozzle. The constant dripping prevents the plant's roots from drying while reducing water usage and wasteful evaporation.

It has an overflow tray that catches any excess water and then returns it to the hydroponics tank (usually called a reservoir)

A timer will turn on for set periods at regular intervals to spew out more hydroponic nutrients into your planting container whenever they are needed. This ensures a consistent supply of hydroponic nutrients, which equals better plant growth over time.

Pros

  • Drip systems are great for beginners who don't want to have any input over how much nutrients go on which plant as long as everyone gets what they need;
  • Low initial cost
  • A low-maintenance method to grow plants. You can go away for two weeks without anyone having to help irrigate these plants because everything is automated from start to finish.

Cons 

  • The hydroponic environment must remain humid all the time. If not maintained adequately, this type of hydroponic setup will negatively affect your plant's health by causing 'root rot.'
  • You have to be highly aware of monitoring pH and nutrient levels.

Which plants thrive in this system?

This type is best for growing herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, and leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, and kale. Anything more

Cost:

This hydroponic system is the most affordable option. You can buy a hydroponics kit for about $350-$1000+, and it will last you 20 years or more depending on how often you use it.

What's the best Type of hydroponic system for indoor Gardeners?

The best hydroponics system is different for each producer. Hydroponic systems may be housed inside a grow room, grow tent or grow cabinet. You can also find microhydroponics. In addition, you have to consider the system extension and accessory that goes along with those systems.

In general, we strongly advocate a DWC system. They are thought to be the most straightforward hydro systems to use, even for beginners.

The hydroponic system that fits your individual needs the best will depend on how much space you have available and what types of plants you're growing. Each hydroponic technique has its own strengths and weaknesses regarding water efficiency, ease-of-maintenance, nutrient delivery rate, crop yields, etc. So it's worth researching each one before deciding which hydroponics techniques are proper for you!

In conclusion

There are many hydroponic systems available for hydroponic gardening. The type that is right for you will depend on the size of your operation and budget and which types of plants you prefer to grow. One thing is sure, though- these hydroponics systems offer a method of producing leafy greens more efficiently than traditional farming methods and with less water usage!

All hydroponic systems can have spectacular plants. Remaining based on the variety of plants you plant, the area to grow, and the size of the plant. Please check some research before selecting the best solution that works for your indoor garden. 

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