Although rewarding, growing vegetables and herbs can be tough if you don’t have the right conditions.
If you live in urban environments where there isn’t enough space or the seasons don’t allow for traditional outdoor all-year soil-based growing. However, these conditions can be provided by hydroponic systems – a great way to ensure your plants get all the care they deserve without having to depend on soil, light, or other conditions.
Hydroponic systems also provide higher yield and use less water than soil-based gardening, require no pesticides, as well as save time and labor. Today, there are plenty of hydroponic kits available for purchase, we’ve reviewed the best hydroponic systems on our website but if you haven’t done it before, you might want to take some time and read this buying guide first.
What Is a Hydroponic System?
A subcategory of hydroculture, hydroponics refers to growing plants without soil, using only water and nutrient solutions, as well as a growing medium where necessary. The plants are usually placed in smaller cups or pots than those used in traditional, soil-based gardening.
While the earliest practice of hydroponics dates all the way back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the earliest known work on growing terrestrial plants in something other than soil dates to 1627 book by Francis Bacon, called Sylva Sylvarum or “A Natural History”.
After the publication of Bacon’s book, water culture experiments ensued, such as the one with spearmint, conducted in 1699 by John Woodward. The 19th century saw further development and advancement of the soilless cultivation technique.
More recently, in 1929, Dr. William Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley started promoting his idea that solution culture could be used in agricultural crop production, using the term “aquaculture”. He later learned the term was already used to denote culture of aquatic organisms.
Gericke managed to grow tomato vines twenty-five feet (7.6 meters) high in his backyard using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. In 1937, he started using the term “hydroponics”, suggested to him by a phycologist W. A. Setchell. The term was derived from Greek words for “water” and “cultivate”.
Things to Consider
1. How much space does it take?
A hydroponic set is a permanent or semi-permanent installation in your living space, so you need to carefully consider its size and how much space you will need for accommodating it.
Before purchasing, check the product’s exact dimensions and the dimensions of the space where you plan to keep it. You shouldn’t only look at its floor footprint, but also its height, or potential height if the hydroponic system is expandable or if you plan to grow taller plants.
2. How many plants will it hold?
Speaking of plants, one of the most important factors when choosing the hydroponic system should also be its plant holding capacities. In other words, think of how many plants you want to grow and check if the garden of your choice has enough pods or spaces for your plants.
Additionally, consider whether the plants will require open space above them, as some hydroponic systems have overhead LED lights that can or cannot be moved upward.
3. Can it be expanded?
If you’re just starting to get your feet wet in growing plants in a hydroponic setting, you’ll probably start small, with just a few plants. However, consider the possibility that you’ll like the taste of it and that you’ll want to grow more plants someday.
Will the hydroponic system of your choice be able to handle this? Instead of having to purchase an entirely new kit in the future, opt instead for one that can be easily expanded.
4. How much is automated and how much do I have to contribute?
Some hydroponic systems take care of the basics such as pumping water and/or nutrients, providing light and/or oxygen, while some automate everything, allowing you to sit back, relax, and watch your plants grow with minimum effort.
Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages and it all goes down to your specific preferences, requirements, lifestyle, and conditions. Simpler systems are ideal for those who prefer a more involved, hands-on approach, while the complex kits utilize modern technologies to provide full automatization.
5. Financial costs
The retail price of the system itself is important but there are also the so-called “hidden costs” involved when acquiring a hydroponic system. This means that the total amount of money you spent on the system will increase after the purchase itself.
These costs include setting it up, planting and feeding the herbs, as well as maintaining the entire system. For example, pumping water and/or oxygen into the system will consume electricity, so make sure to check its energy efficiency before purchase.
Additional Useful Features
- Timer/reminder: There are kits that will remind you to water your plants or add nutrients when needed, so you don’t have to keep track of it.
- LED lighting: Some hydroponic kits are equipped with LED bulbs, allowing your plants to receive the ideal amount of light for their growth, regardless of the season of the year and/or available sunlight.
- Display: More expensive systems have small screens that provide essential information about the growing process and/or allow you to set reminders for watering/nutrient adding.
- Easy setup: The easier it is to set up the system, the quicker you’ll be able to start growing your plants and seeing results. Some systems even offer setup guides through their built-in displays.
- Voice assistant: Some modern hydroponic systems even allow you to control them via Alexa or Google Assistant. While expensive, these enable multitasking and full automatization.
Types of Hydroponic Systems
There are several types of hydroponic systems, based on the method of growing and sustaining your plants. You should choose the one that suits your preferences and specific requirements.
Deep Water Culture (DWC) Systems
In a deep water culture system, plants are positioned in net pots with growing media. The pots are then placed and held on a floating platform on top of a container filled with nutrient-rich oxygenated water.
The roots are suspended directly into the water, while an air pump is used to oxygenate it. The best examples of a DWC hydroponic system are PowerGrow Hydroponic Bubbler Bucket Kit and SavvyGrow DWC Hydroponic System.
- Multiple growing sites
- Air pump
- Ideal for leaf lettuce
$30 – $250
Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain) Systems
Ebb and flow is a hydroponic method that floods the nutrient-rich water onto the tray with plants that are placed in the growing medium. The solution fully soaks the plant roots before draining back down into the reservoir.
This process is repetitive and typically automated by a water pump connected to a timer, allowing plants to receive water on a regular schedule. The roots are supposed to be moist at all times.
- Suitable for plants that require plenty of water, like spinach and lettuce
- Water pump
- Roots are always moist
$90 – $725
Drip Grow Systems
In the drip grow hydroponic system, the nutrient-enriched water is pumped through the tube that can end at a single plant or branch off into several drip lines ending at multiple plants.
Typically, a timer is used to activate pumping of the solution to flow over the grow medium and drip down over the plant roots. Examples of a drip grow system include Claber Oasis Drip Watering System and Moistenland Micro Drip System.
- One or multiple plants at the same time
- Ideal for strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, basil, mint
- Water is supplied through pump and drip lines
$40 – $100
Wick Hydroponic Systems
The simplest and cheapest hydroponic method, the wick system includes placing the nutrient solution in the reservoir from where it moves into the root system by the capillary action of a wick (rope, fabric, or candle wick).
This way, the roots are constantly hydrated and fed. Wick-based hydroponic gardening is passive, meaning there are no moving parts, no pumps or timers, no use of electricity, and you have to provide your own containers (like mason jars), growing media, and water solution.
One of the best examples is the Orimerc DIY Wick Hydroponic System.
- Simple and cheap
- Utilizes capillary movement
- Ideal for plants that don’t need much water
$10 – $16
In aeroponics systems, plant roots are suspended freely in the air. The roots are continuously misted (every few minutes) with water and nutrient solution through a timer-controlled pump.
No growing medium is used and plants are placed in small holes to stabilize them. A more advanced hydroponics system, aeroponics allows growing of vine plants like tomatoes or watermelons, leafy greens, and many herbs. Nowadays, many such systems also include LED lighting and display screens.
High-end, all-in-one aeroponic systems that include products like AeroGarden 903100-1200 Ultra or AeroGarden’s Alexa-enabled Bounty Elite Stainless Steel can almost fully automate your indoor gardening.
- Nutrient pump with a timer
- Mist nozzle sprays nutrients
- Often includes LED lighting
- More technically advanced
$100 – $800
A hydroponic system is the method of growing plants without soil, using only water combined with nutrients.
Hydroponic systems use electricity and water to provide the ideal conditions for growing vegetables and herbs. The plants are placed in a growing medium, in pots smaller than those used in traditional, soil-based growing. Some systems provide more growing automation than others.
Based on their underlying technology, there are several basic hydroponic system categories: wick, deep water culture (DWC), drip, ebb and flow, and aeroponic systems. There are hundreds of other hydroponic systems as well, although these are variations or combinations of these main types.
Almost anything! However, you’re limited by the size of your hydroponic system, be it in the width and depth of the pots or height that may be limited by the (sometimes moveable) LED grow lights.
That said, you should have no problems growing
- herbs like parsley, basil, mint, oregano, cilantro, tarragon, peppermint, sage, stevia, lemon balm, rosemary, chives, chamomile, coriander, dill, fennel, lavender, marjoram, thyme, catnip, etc.,
- vegetables and fruit like tomatoes, hot peppers, strawberries, lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, cucumber, cabbage, beets, asparagus, beans, artichokes, Brussels sports, peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, green onions, and celery,
- certain house plants like devil’s ivy, philodendron, peace lily, spider plant, and more.
Almost any. Aeroponic systems such as AeroGarden’s Bounty Elite Stainless Steel are increasingly popular due to their ease of use and deployment of various new technologies, including voice-control. If you’d rather go for something more old-school (and less expensive), then deep water culture (DWC), like SavvyGrow DWC Hydroponic System, is the way to go.
Some retail hydroponic systems come fully assembled or don’t require a lot of effort to set them up. However, you can build your own hydroponic system using several items: holding pots, a reservoir for the liquid, growing medium, natural or artificial lighting, water pump and hose for circulation, an air stone, opaque containers for plant roots. The whole assembling process can be observed in this video.
Hydroponic systems are ideal for growing plants in an urban setting, where soil-based growing is almost impossible or inconvenient. Their another advantage is that they take less effort, time, and space than other forms of growing, in addition to providing a certain level of automatization. Hydroponic systems also bring higher yield and use less water than soil-based gardening and require no pesticides.
You can replace the hydroponic solution and sterilize the tanks once a week. However, depending on the plant type, tank and reservoir size, and exposure to heat and humidity, you might be able to reduce the cleaning frequency.