Hydroponics is the route to go if you don’t have soil and still need to grow your own plants. Hydroponic systems involve more than one technique so they’re suitable for beginners as well as experienced users.
The idea is to provide plants with the needed nutrients and guaranteed access to energy to activate the photosynthesis process. In this article, you’ll know all the details about hydroponics and what is the best way to grow different plants.
When Were Hydroponics First Used?
Do you think that hydroponics is a new method to grow plants? Think again.
In the 17th century, Francis Bacon talked about water culture and hydroponics as an alternative to growing plants without soil. Later on, in the 19th century, several botanists ran their research to explain the benefits of soil-less cultivation.
During the 20th century, more scientists kept on working to overcome the drawbacks of hydroponic systems by inventing innovative ways that would deliver nutrients to various plants. Moreover, NASA utilized this system to grow crops in order to come up with a life support system in outer space.
However, the earliest attempt of hydroponics goes back to thousands of years. The Floating Gardens of China and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are great examples of how this system succeeded.
Today, people use hydroponics to grow their culinary herbs, veggies, fruits, and flowers, in addition to cannabis and other plants. Regardless of your level of experience, you can easily set up a successful hydroponic system to grow any plant.
What Are the Advantages of Hydroponic Systems?
Although growing plants in soil is the traditional way, it’s not the most efficient one. As a matter of fact, hydroponic gardening gives you total control over the plants you’re growing. Here are some advantages of using a hydroponic system.
What are the Disadvantages of Hydroponic Systems?
Although these are extremely successful systems, they come with a few disadvantages.
What Are the Different Types of Hydroponics?
The name hydroponics is made up of two words; hydro which means water and ponics which means labor. There are typically 6 different types of hydroponic systems. Nevertheless, most people use a combination of several systems in their indoor gardens.
This is the most straightforward method and is more suitable for first-timers and beginners because it’s extremely easy to set up and maintain. The system simply relies on a growing medium and the nutrients are drawn to it from a reservoir using a wick.
Coconut fiber and Pro-Mix are among the most popular growing media in this passive system. Nevertheless, this system has a few drawbacks that might put you off. For example, if you use large amounts of water, they might affect the concentration of nutrients.
Water Culture System
This is an active system but it’s quite simple so it’s also suitable for first-timers. It depends on a platform that floats on a medium filled with nutrients. The platform is usually made of Styrofoam or Poly Foam and there is an air pump that delivers oxygen to the nutrient solution and then to the roots of the plants.
Very few plants will grow well in this system as it uses a lot of water. It doesn’t work with long-term plants but it’s very easy to set up.
Flood and Drain System
This is a versatile option that can be used with various plants successfully. It depends on flooding the grow tray with the nutrient solution and then draining the excess. Using a pump connected to the timer, you can do this successfully guaranteeing that the roots of the plants will get all the nutrients they need.
You have the ability to adjust the timer based on the type of plants you’re working with. However, you should be careful not to extend the dry periods as this can affect the health of the plants.
Users can use various growing media including gravel and grow rocks. However, it’s recommended that you stick to media that retain water like coconut fiber and Pro-Mix.
This is probably the most widely used hydroponic system. It depends on a pump that supplies the roots of plants with the nutrient solution. There are two versions of this system; the recovery system that collects the runoff for re-use and the non-recovery system that doesn’t collect the runoff.
Recovery systems are easier to use because you can utilize the nutrient solution one more time, so you don’t need an extremely accurate timer to control the watering cycles. However, some users prefer the non-recovery systems because they don’t require any maintenance as the excess nutrients won’t travel back to the reservoir.
Nutrient Film Technique System
The NFT system is another popular choice that most people prefer because it’s easy to operate and maintain. With no timer needed, the nutrient solution is pumped into the grow tray and then the excess travels back to the reservoir.
This is system is another good choice for beginners because you don’t need to use a growing medium. All you need is to keep your plants in plastic pots or baskets, keeping the roots hanging into the solution. Unless you have a reliable pump and timer, your plants might dry out easily because the watering cycle needs to be extremely accurate.
This is an advanced system that doesn’t depend on a growing medium. The plants are kept in plastic pots or baskets and the roots are sprayed with a nutrient solution.
Spraying the roots is done every few minutes to guarantee that the roots won’t dry out.
In this system, the timer plays an important role to keep the roots moist. The watering should be done every few minutes to keep the plants healthy.
Which Plants Can Grow in a Hydroponic System?
Surprisingly, most vegetables and fruits can grow successfully in a hydroponic system without soil. This allows you to enjoy your special yield regardless of the season and without the use of harmful chemicals. Here are some of the best plants that you can experiment with in your hydroponic garden.
This is probably the most common crop in the world of hydroponics. They don’t need much space and can be supported on stalks so they perfect for growing at home, even if you have no space to set up a big system. Tomatoes contain several vitamins and are full of antioxidants so you can enjoy your yield all year long.
This is another popular choice as it loves the high water content so it’s an excellent choice for a hydroponic system. Moreover, it grows very fast so you can have fresh lettuce all year long.
Growing lettuce and other leafy greens in your home guarantees that you can enjoy a healthy salad without the risk of chemicals and pesticides regardless of the season. These plants have a shallow root system so they work beautifully in a hydroponic system.
When the nutrient solution is rich in oxygen, you’re likely to experience the first growth of spinach within a month. A hydroponic system is more efficient because spinach needs more water than other plants.
Growing your own weed at home gives you total control over the quality of the yield. Cannabis grows successfully in a hydroponic system because it doesn’t have a complex root system like other plants that need soil for support. However, you should make sure that you’re maintaining the correct PH level and providing your cannabis with all the needed nutrients for the best results.
Strawberries naturally grow in a very short season, so you can grow them in a hydroponic system to enjoy your favorite fruit all year long. However, strawberries might take about 2 months to grow, so you should be patient while waiting for them to grow.
Just like strawberries, blueberries grow very well in a hydroponic system. Blueberries need highly acidic soil, so maintaining the acidity of a hydroponic system is usually easier and more convenient.
Growing culinary herbs is very common in a hydroponic system. You can grow several varieties at the same time, and they will be full of flavors and aroma. Mint, oregano, dill, basil, and cilantro are just a few examples that you can grow in a hydroponic garden because they don’t have complicated roots.
Herbs are usually very easy to grow and there are lots of online instructions that can help you master the art of growing them in your hydroponic system. Moreover, they work in almost all types of systems so you can expand and customize your hydroponic garden several times a year.
This is another water-loving plant that can grow successfully in a hydroponic system. All you have to do is to give cucumbers enough space and support and they will grow full of nutrients and vitamins.
- 9Spring Onions
Spring onions can grow very fast in three or four weeks so you can enjoy a healthy salad any time of the year. They can grow in a hydroponic garden so you can have a healthy yield, full of antioxidants and other important nutrients.
- 10Bell Peppers
While they might not suit first-timers, bell peppers can grow successfully without soil. They take a few months to be able to grow successfully, but you must not let them grow to their full potential, especially if you have limited space.
Do Hydroponics Work Really Work?
Yes, they do. For a plant to grow, you should provide it with all the needed nutrients and this is possible with a well-managed hydroponic system. Whether there’s a growing medium or not, you can have total control over the PH level which might be difficult to achieve when you’re growing plants in the soil.
In the soil, the plant has to do a lot of effort to gain access to the soluble nutrients, unlike a hydroponic garden. You can add all the needed nutrients that are adequately delivered to the roots of the plants in a highly soluble form.
All the energy that the plant uses to search for nutrients in the soil will be used for growth and flowering. This is why hydroponic plants usually have a higher nutritional value.
Why Do People Choose Hydroponics?
There are lots of reasons why hydroponics are extremely popular.
What is a Growing Medium?
A growing medium is where the roots of the plants grow. In some hydroponic gardens, there might be no medium and the plants can grow in the water or air. However, if you choose to use a medium, there are several types of available.
A growing medium is a substance that supports the roots and allows the nutrient solution to flow, so it plays the role of dirt or soil in traditional gardening. However, it doesn’t provide any nutritional value to the plants grown in a hydroponic system. This medium should be made of a material that doesn’t obstruct the growth of the roots, won’t decay or affect the PH level of the nutrient solution.
There are many options when it comes to choosing growing media for your soil-less garden. Non-porous materials like gravel are used but the watering or feeding cycles should be more frequent so that the roots don’t dry out.
Porous materials are also used when setting up a hydroponic garden because they retain some of the moisture. This will help the roots stay moist and well-nourished. Here are some of the most popular growing media.
This is a sterile and porous material that doesn’t degrade. It’s made of heated and melted granite that is later shaped into fine threads that look like cotton candy. The threads are later shaped into sheets or cubes that suck the water easily. While working with Rockwool, you should be careful not to overly saturate the system as the excess water can damage the roots of your plants.
These rocks are made of porous clay that is heavy enough to support the roots of your plants. These grow rocks are sterile and soak up the moisture easily.
You can easily clean the rocks and use them in another system so they’re good value for money. However, cleaning and using them is not the most efficient solution as it takes a lot of time.
This looks a lot like grow rocks but they’re made of clay. They’re lightweight and come in uneven shapes. They hold a lot of water, so you should be careful with the drainage system to make sure that the roots aren’t suffocated by water.
This is made of the outer shell of a coconut, so it’s biodegradable material. However, it degrades very slowly so it doesn’t affect the level of nutrients in your hydroponic system.
There’s another medium made of the coconut’s outer shell; the coco chips. The chips are bigger and look like wood chips.
Coconut chips allow for bigger air pockets that provide the roots with the needed air. Moreover, they’re more suitable for hanging baskets and pots. Coconut fiber particles are small so they can fall through the holes.
This is an open-cell material that holds air and water in your hydroponic system. As a result, they allow the roots of your plants to grow and expand fast. They look like Rockwool but they don’t carry too much water.
This is another porous material made of minerals that have been heated to very high temperatures. Perlite can be used alone or with other growing media as it retains water very well.
However, because it’s very lightweight, it might float in the water if you’re using a flood and drain system. This is why it might not be the best choice for all hydroponics.
This medium is made of silicate which gets heated to a very high temperature. However, this material is different because it can also hold some nutrients, and not just water like other growing media. It’s very lightweight just like Perlite and might float if you’re using a flood and drain system.
Although this is an affordable material, it’s not that common in hydroponic systems. It comes in the shape of sheets and you can cut them into cubes to retain some moisture in your hydroponic system.
Water Absorbing Polymers
Even when you’re growing plants in soil, you might mix some of these crystals with soil to retain more moisture. These polymer crystals expand and hold much water to retain moisture.
These crystals are reusable because they return to their shape once they’re dry. Larger crystals work better in hydroponics because they retain air to prevent the roots from getting suffocated.
They will work even if you don’t have a pump to increase the oxygen level in your system, especially when they’re mixed with grow rocks. Although they’re not found in shops that sell hydroponic essentials, you can find them in home improvement shops and pet shops.
Sand can be mixed with other media like rocks and stones to increase the air pockets in your hydroponic system. You should stick to large-grain size as this will help aerate the roots and prevent suffocation. However, sand isn’t the most appropriate choice for all hydroponics as it becomes very heavy when it gets saturated with water.
How to Choose the Best Growing Medium for Your Hydroponic System?
There isn’t a single growing medium that is better than the rest. However, each one of them can work successfully in a specific hydroponic system.
Since there is no pump, you’ll need a growing medium that holds moisture easily so the water can travel to the root and other parts of the plants.
Water Culture System
You can have a water culture system without a growing medium since the roots are supposed to be submerged in water saturated with nutrients. The roots don’t get suffocated when they’re submerged in water but they shouldn’t be submerged in the nutrient solution.
If you choose a growing medium, it should stay dry at the top and retain some of the moisture at the bottom. With the help of a pump, the roots will get the needed oxygen to grow healthily.
Flood and Drain System
Since there’s a big amount of water in this system, you need a growing medium that doesn’t float easily like Perlite. This medium will cause the roots to lose their support and become weak.
You should make sure that there’s a potent drainage system that prevents the growing medium from getting overly saturated. Grow rocks and grow stones are suitable for this system.
Any growing medium will work in this system as long as you have a good drainage system. Grow rocks and stones are suitable because they don’t hold much water.
It’s recommended that you don’t pick a growing medium that doesn’t hold much water easily to prevent the roots from becoming too soggy. The roots of the plants will hang from baskets into the water so they don’t have to be continuously wet.
An aeroponic system might not need any growing medium at all. However, when you’re growing the seedlings, you’ll need a growing medium that retains some of the moisture like grow rocks.
What are Hydroponic Fertilizers?
Your plant need nutrients whether it’s growing in soil or a hydroponic system.
However, in the soil, the plants keep on looking for these micronutrients that might not be present in the soil or might have depleted over time.
Micronutrients are the elements that plants need to grow. These include several elements like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. When the plants don’t have access to the recommended amount of these nutrients, they’re likely to suffer from diseases and be subject to pest infestation. They also don’t deliver the best yield and the highest nutritional value.
Organic fertilizers depend on bacteria and other microorganisms that break down different nutritional substances and make them more suitable for absorption by the plants. You might need to supplement your soil with ready-made soil fertilizers to increase the quality of the soil and help plants grow faster.
In a hydroponic system, you get to control the amount of nutrients available in the nutrient solution. These nutrients are more refined and contain fewer impurities. They’re also soluble in water so they’re absorbed faster and better by the roots of the plant.
You can buy the soluble nutrients from any store that sells hydroponic essentials. Just mix a few tablespoons with water, and your plant will have access to all the nutrients it needs. Most of the time, these liquid fertilizers work for a specific growth stage, so you might need a special one for the vegetation period and another one for the blooming period.
Powder fertilizers are more affordable but they require more attention. You need to mix the powder with water while paying attention to the PH level so plants can have all the nutrients they need.
How to Control the PH Level in Your Hydroponic System?
Whether they’re growing in soil or a hydroponic system, plants need a specific PH level to be able to absorb the nutrients. Most plants can grow well when the growing medium is slightly acidic.
It’s a lot easier to control the PH level in a hydroponic system than in soil. There are lots of good tests that you can use to maintain the recommended PH level. You can also add some soluble substances like Potash to increase the PH level or phosphoric acid to lower the PH level.
Do Plants Need Sunlight in a Hydroponic System?
All plants need access to direct sunlight for a few hours per day and access to bright light most of the time. However, if you’re growing your plants in a room or basement, this won’t be possible.
Plants need light for the photosynthesis process so they can build energy. Controlled access to light will keep the plants in perfect health.
Unless you have a window next to the grow tent or your hydroponic setup, you’ll need an artificial source of light. Here are some of the light options that you can use to grow your plants in a hydroponic system.
Compact Fluorescent Lighting
CFLs are quite affordable so they’re suitable for beginners. They provide low heat and suit leafy plants like lettuce and spinach.
However, they don’t provide the same light spectrum as sunlight, so you might need to place your plants near a window. They won’t suit any plant that has flowers or fruits.
HIDs include High-Pressure Sodium HPS bulbs and Metal Halide MD bulbs. MH bulbs produce blue-white light while HPS produce amber-white light. MH lights also produce fewer lumens.
They are very powerful and produce sufficient energy so they’re perfect for flowering plants and those that have fruits. However, they use lots of energy and heat up very quickly. As a result, you need to install fans to keep your hydroponic plants in perfect health.
LEDs represent the most energy-efficient light source so they’re suitable for beginners and experienced users. They produce a full-light spectrum by combining red, blue, and white light. Some of them are designed to provide your plants with IR and UV for the best results.
Although some models are quite expensive, you can still find the best option for your hydroponic system regardless of its size. LEDs usually last for a very long time.
Should You Buy or Build a Hydroponic System?
Most first-timers ask this question because they don’t know which option is more practical. For a beginner, you might need to buy the first system so you can know how things work. Some systems are extremely affordable so you can try with various options until you can master the art of hydroponic systems.
If you decide to build your own system, there are lots of online plans that you can follow. It’s a matter of trial and error, so you probably won't master it upon the first attempt.
With the right information and enough enthusiasm, anyone can set up and maintain a hydroponic system. There are lots of options that you can experiment with until you find a system that works for you.
As a beginner, you can start experimenting with a straightforward system to grow an easy plant and take notes to learn from your mistakes. In no time, you’ll be able to master the rewarding art of hydroponics.