Hydroponics Systems – All Systems Explained

What a fantastic hobby, sideline or full time occupation hydroponic gardening is! Hydroponics has many advantages over gardening with soil. For instance, you won’t be passing on soil borne diseases to your hydroponic plants and none of those nasty insects will get close to them either. This means they grow more healthy. Hydroponic plants also grow on average 40% larger and quicker than their soil raised brothers. This is why hydroponics is gaining huge popularity especially while food prices are going up. Once you’re hydroponics system is in place, you’re costs are on average 20% lower than that of traditional gardening. To find out more about hydroponics systems, then read on!

The problem is that there are many hydroponic systems that beginners to hydroponics often don’t know where to begin! All hydroponic systems are distinguished from each other by the way the nutrient solution is applied! Some of the different hydroponics systems in existence are; wick systems, water culture, ebb and flow, NFT systems, aquaponics and aeroponics. The purpose of this article is to describe each system and give the pros and cons of each.

Hydroponic Systems – Wick System

Hydroponic systems are all classed as either ‘passive’ or ‘active’ depending on whether the parts move or not. The wick system is an example of a passive hydroponic system, since there is nothing moving. It’s also probably the easiest, most newbie friendly, most cost effective and simple system to set up.

Passive hydroponics systems rely on capillary action to transfer nutrient solution from the reservoir to the growing medium and the plants roots. Obviously, with a wick system the capillary is a wick. You can also use nylon rope which works great. If you use this then you can fray the last couple of inches for better effect. Since there are no moving parts, this makes the wick hydroponic system very simple and inexpensive. You can have a wick system on a very small scale and can scale upwards.

Wick systems are also called Luwasa hydroculture systems. The down side is that since there are no pumps to remove the used nutrient solution, the growing medium will stay wet for a long time. This means that some plants which don’t like their roots flooded for long periods will not thrive in a wick system. You can of course get round this issue by carefully choosing your grow medium. Clay pellets work very well as does vermiculite and rockwool. More slow growing plants will benefit more with a wick hydroponic system. Plants which drink lots of water may not get enough of it with this system as sometimes the wick’s delivery can be slow.

Hydroponic Systems – Water Culture System

Of all the active hydroponic systems, the hydroponic water culture system is the easiest and least expensive. There is only one essential moving part to the system which is a water pump. The water pump is used to keep the water aerated, the same water is also used as the plants growing medium.

The plants are held within net pots which you can fill with clay pellets. The net pots are then nestled within the lid that covers the reservoir. The plant roots will then dangle permanently into the nutrient solution. The roots should easily absorb the correct amount of nutrient solution while also receiving plenty of oxygen since the pump is aerating the water.

Because of this, water loving plants will thrive more than any other plant with the water culture system. If you’re growing lettuce, a vegetable that drinks water by the bucket load then you’ll grow very healthy and large lettuce with this system. The clear draw back is that plants which don’t require as much water, or plants that would suffer with constantly submerged roots would not flourish here.

The water culture system is easily set up and can be done with a modified aquarium or even with a simple bucket. These hydroponic systems are so simple by principle that they are often used in the classroom.

Hydroponic Systems – Ebb and Flow System

The ebb and flow system, also known as “flood and drain” works by using a submerged water pump within the reservoir to “flow” or “flood” the grow tray with the nutrient solution. The solution will then  stop flooding once it reaches a predetermined level, otherwise there is an overflow that will drain the water straight back into the reservoir.

The flooding is carried out using a timer which you can set to water your plants whenever they need it, once, twice or several times daily. Once the flooding has been carried out, the nutrient solution “ebbs” or “drains” away and back into the reservoir to be used again at the next flood. This dry period allows lots of oxygenated air to get access to the roots.

You should set your timer to flood the plants depending on what you’re growing, as each plant is different. In addition the type of growing medium you use will have an effect on how often the grow tray needs flooding as different types of medium dry out at different paces.

If you live in an area that is prone to power outages then this could be a danger to your plants as the pump won’t work. If this is the case with you then you should go for a grow medium that dries at a slower rate. Apart from that though, this system doesn’t have any disadvantages.

The ebb and flow system is extremely low maintenance and can be used to grow literally anything. You can also have extremely small systems and upscale to very large systems indeed.

You can get custom made ebb and flow tables with holes to fit rockwool blocks. Plants living in these rockwool blocks are easily and painlessly transported.

Hydroponics Systems – NFT Systems

NFT stands for Nutrient Film Technique and is used by many expert hydroponic gardeners around the world.

You site the plants in a small basket or net pots which fit in holes over the grow tray. Please note that the plants need to already have developed a strong root system. A submersible pump is then used to continuously pump the nutrient solution in to the grow tray. The clever part about this hydroponic system is that the grow tray is on a very slight tilt which immediately runs the water down the side of the tray and back into the reservoir. Since this is a constant cycle, the pump often in operation for 24 hours a day, you will not require a timer with the NFT system. With this hydroponic system also, no grow medium is required, other than air. This means that the roots are constantly oxygenated as well as having constant access to nutrient solution which in turn is oxygenated.


Again, the only down side to this hydroponic system is the possibility of any power shortage which will stop the pump and therefore the nutrient flow. Since the roots are suspended in air and not any nutrient solution they will dry out quickly and could thus be damaging to your plants. You will also need to ensure regularly that your pump is in fine working condition as malfunctions can be bad for your plants.

Having said all this, the hydroponic NFT system especially a fine tuned system will probably give you the fastest growth out of all the hydroponic systems. This is why most commercial hydroponic farmers tend to opt for the NFT system whenever possible.

Hydroponics Systems – Aquaponics

The word aquaponics is a morph between the words aquaculture and hydroponics. Being realistic, very few gardeners use this hydroponics system, partly due to the science of aquaponics still being in its infancy. Aquaponics systems are complex and costly and at this time are more of a novelty than being of practical use. You can probably see them in operation in a few of the very large and more grand garden centres. Prepare to be amazed!

The principal behind it is fairly simple! The aquaculture section contains fish, which provide waste to feed the plants in the hydroponic portion. The plants take the nutrients from the fish waste, thus cleansing the water which then returns to the fish. This works in a continuous cycle. This simple idea and beautiful concept will only grow in the future especially in areas where food sources and ground water are becoming tainted. This method is 100% organic and at one with nature.

One advantage of this hydroponics system over all other hydroponic systems is that there will be no need for the farmer to buy in any nutrient solution since the nutrients for the plants is in fact the fish waste. This will cut down on expenses and provide more profit once the system is up and running. Even if you’re a fish farmer by trade, it would make perfect economic sense to add a hydroponic system into the mix as this will reduce the costs associated with the filtration of fish waste.

Yes you can get small systems for the home which go all the way up to industrial sized aquaponics systems which can grow absolutely anything.

Hydroponics Systems – Aeroponics

The aeroponics system is an extremely high-tech form of hydroponics which produce the highest performance possible. The system works on a similar principle to the NFT system.

The roots are suspended in air, the plants being held once more in small baskets or net pots. The roots, being kept in a dark growth chamber are misted with oxygenated nutrient solution at regular intervals. Since air is effectively used as the growth medium, they would dry out quite quickly which is why they need misting at regular intervals. This hydroponics system provides lots of oxygen for the roots as well as easy access to nutrients. Also, because the chamber will be extremely humid, the roots really do get immense access to nutrient solution which really kicks the growth process up the behind!

However, yet again this system will be susceptible to breakages with the misting mechanism or to power failure. If the roots don’t get the mist, they will dry out and effect the plants. The best thing to do would be to purchase a high quality aeroponics system or a ready-made all-in-one system, some of which are fantastic!

All of the above systems come in many variations, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of what hydroponic system is the right one for you.

The table below shows quickly which hydroponics systems will be right for you based on your experience, skill level and budget:

Hydroponic Systems Table

RankCountryProduction (Tonnes)
1Cote d'Ivoire1,449,092
10Dominican Republic68,121
12Papua New Guinea41,300
16Sierra Leone14,950

If you have any further points to make on this article or if you have any questions about any of these hydroponic systems then please leave a comment below!

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