What is Hydroponics? Beginner’s Complete Guide

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If you’ve always wanted to get into sustainable gardening, but never had the land, space, or climate where you live, hydroponics could be your ticket to eating what you grow.

I’m going to answer the ever popular question: What is Hydroponics?

This will be a complete guide for beginners to understand hydroponics gardening systems. I’ll discuss the six different types of hydroponics system, and cover hydroponics advantages and disadvantages.

I want to explain how hydroponics works, so you can understand what you can grow and help you decide if hydroponics gardening is right for you.

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics may feel like a cutting-edge gardening technology that started in the last decade, when in reality it’s been around for almost 400 years.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil, in other words without using dirt. There are several different methods of hydroponic gardening, including deep water culture (DWC), drip irrigation, wick system, NFT (nutrient film technique), aeroponics, and aquaponics.

The earliest recorded history of hydroponics was published back in 1627 by Sir Francis Bacon. By 1699, researcher John Woodward had published his own “water culture” experiments revolving around spearmint plants.

And by 1842, “aquaculture” as it was known back then, had taken Europe by storm, with Germany, France, Spain, and Italy all starting to tinker with this new agricultural technology.

It wasn’t until the 1930s in the United States when modern day “hydroponics” came around, led by William Frederick Gericke and Dennis Robert Hoagland. Gericke coined the term hydroponics and has stuck ever since. 

While hydroponics has ancient roots, its modern applications are transforming the way we approach agriculture. The Aztecs, for instance, utilized a form of hydroponics to cultivate their crops on rafts in lake shallows.

Today, we see a resurgence of these techniques, not just as a hobby, but as a sustainable solution to global food challenges

At the end of the day, regardless of what hydroponics is called, it refers to one of the more popular indoor gardening solutions acting as a substitute for soil.  

Hydroponics Gardening System

How Does Hydroponics Work?

Unlike traditional gardening, which typically involves soil, hydroponics is a way of growing plants with only water and nutrients.

A system of pumps, pipes, and other equipment delivers water and nutrients directly to the roots of plants, which then absorb the water and hydroponic nutrients. This method of growing has a number of advantages over traditional gardening, including a greater growth rate and less space needed.

Instead of planting seeds in soil, seeds are instead “planted” onto a grow tray and placed in a container filled with water and plant nutrients. The water and nutrient ratios are carefully calculated for the plants being grown in the hydroponics systems. 

The seeds then start to germinate in this new environment and use 90% less water than traditional soil-based systems. Water doesn’t need to fight through the packed soil in. Hydroponics delivers water and nutrients directly to plant roots. 

As seeds continue to grow, the gardeners will be able to control the environmental conditions that will allow for optimal growing of plants:

No more hoping for sunlight and fair weather, as well as a bit of rain every now and again like with traditional outdoor gardens. The smart gardener using hydroponics can optimize for certain plants, vegetables, and fruits to be grown.

This is why those growing hydroponic citrus fruits in Alaska indoors are able to get better results than orange farmers in Florida dealing with droughts!

Obviously, hydroponic plants have their progress charted every step of the way. This is done not only to measure their progress and perfectly time their harvest, but also to better understand and optimize the hydroponic environment for future plant growth cycles.

You’ll learn how to optimize your hydroponic equipment, hydroponics fertilizers, and plant nutrients you feed your hydroponic garden, how to treat your water correctly, how much light your plants need from your UV grow light sources, and more.

Now that we went through the overview of how hydroponics works, let’s go through what you can actually grow. 

Hydroponics Gardening Big Farm

What Can You Grow With Hydroponics?

Theoretically, anything that can be grown in soil can be grown in a hydroponic environment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to want to plant rows and rows of corn on your kitchen countertop anytime soon!

Certain individual plants, vegetables, and fruits do better with hydroponics than others and some simply shouldn’t be grown in these kinds of environments for a variety of different reasons.

For example, lettuces, strawberries, spinach, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes do particularly well in even the most basic of hydroponic setups.

Leafy greens in general are always going to excel with hydroponics, giving you an opportunity to grow fresh salad greens indoors all year round, without much difficulty at all. Herbs can also be grown in a hydroponic environment without a lot of extra effort for focus, too.

On the flip side of things, all types of potatoes (including sweet potatoes), carrots, other root vegetables, and larger plants are not as suited for hydroponic gardening in small systems.  

Corn, crops that grow vines (like grapes, for example), and all different kinds of melons aren’t all that well suited to a hydroponic setup, either due to their root systems.

Some of that has to do with the size of the vegetables themselves. Some of it has to do with the impracticality of growing a patch of watermelons hydroponically, especially when it can be done much easier (and more efficiently) with a traditional approach.

On top of that, there are certain plants that really struggle with artificial lighting technology. Even the best UV light setups are not as good as having direct sunlight, but artificial lights are consistent and controllable.

LED technology has helped to grow the industry, but plants like sunflowers, squash, and most berries are better grown outdoors with sunlight.

Understanding the Daily Light Integral (DLI) for each plant is crucial. It’s not just about brightness; it’s about duration and placement.

Hydroponics Farming System

Hydroponic Nutrients for Healthy Plants

Hydroponic nutrients are the lifeblood of any hydroponic system. I’ve often said that while water is essential, it’s the nutrients that truly make the magic happen.

In soil, plants hunt for their food, but in hydroponics, we bring the feast to them. It’s paramount to ensure they get the right mix. Too little, and they starve; too much, and they’re overwhelmed.

Over the years, I’ve meticulously curated my nutrient mix, ensuring each plant gets precisely what it needs. Dive deep into hydroponic nutrients and the needs of your plants. It’s a journey, but one worth every step.

While soil is absent, roots still crave support. Materials like vermiculite and coconut fiber have been my go-to. They offer stability without compromising on moisture retention and nutrient disbursement.

Water Quality in Hydroponic Systems

Water isn’t just water in the world of hydroponics. I’ve seen many a gardener overlook this, only to rue their negligence. The purity and quality of your water can make or break your system.

Remember, this is the environment in which your plants live and breathe. Any contaminants? They’re going straight to your plants. Regular testing and adjustments of the water, nutrients, and pH levels are very important.

Using pristine, filtered water with a pH level around 6–6.5 is essential. Adjusting the acidity ensures your plants get the perfect drink every time too.

It’s not just about feeding your plants; it’s about creating a sanctuary for them. Treat your water with the reverence it deserves, and it’ll reward you with lush, thriving plants.

One other thing to consider is how much oxygen the roots get. Ensure there’s space between your plant base and the water reservoir. Or better yet, oxygenate your container. Think of it as giving your plants a breath of fresh air.

Different Hydroponic Systems

One of the hurdles newbies to the world of hydroponics will need to clear right out of the gate is choosing a hydroponic system to start with and even eventually master.

With different system options to pick and choose from, this can be a confusing decision to make. I was once a newbie and unsure of which system is best for the types of plants, fruits, and vegetables I wanted to grow.

Below I’ll dig a bit deeper into six of the most popular hydroponic methods to give you a better understanding of your options.

Use the info inside in this guide to help you make the right decision and you’ll have a much better goal of things, even if you’ve never grown a garden before!

1. Wick System

Wick systems are a popular method for beginners and those living “off the grid.” The wick hydroponic system is simple, straightforward, and requires no electricity.

The general idea here is pretty easy to get a hang of. The plants you’re trying to grow are placed inside an absorbent growing medium, like vermiculite, on a grow tray.

There’s are wicks running from the root systems of plants down into the water reservoir where the micro-nutrients and food for the plants are. The nutrient-rich water is delivered to the roots through these wicks.

A 100% passive system, green thumbs can get their feet wet in the world of hydroponics without a lot of babysitting and monitoring. 

The wick system is better for smaller herbs, flowers, and tiny plants that don’t need a lot of nutrients. Those unsure of whether hydroponics is right for them can start with this system first as a trial into hydroponics.

2. Drip System

Hydroponic Drip System

Drip hydroponics are also pretty simple, but you will need electricity and a small water pump to get the system rocking and rolling. The general set up is as follows.

A water reservoir filled with nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer is positioned below the “drip tray” where your plants live.

The water pump pushes nutrient filled water from the reservoir up to the second level drip tray. The water is run through the top tray and feeds the plants. The excess water then drips down into the bottom of the tray and the system cycle starts all over again.

Scalability is the name of the game with this system. It can scale as large or as compact as desired to grow almost any of your favorite plants, fruits, and vegetables here.

3. Deep Water Culture System

Hydroponic Deep Water Culture System

Water culture systems (sometimes called Deepwater Culture Systems DWC) suspend the entire plant root system in nutrient dense liquid in a water reservoir tank, also called a bubble bucket.

The reservoir is filled with nutrient rich liquids, with the plants you’re trying to grow gently placed within the solution.

Perforated cups, also know as net cups or net pots, hold the root balls from sinking completely into the solution itself. That allows for the leafy green parts of the plants to stay above the solution, capture light, and go through the photosynthesis process necessary for growth.

An air pump can be included with this kind of system to oxygenate the water. Oxygenating water culture systems can increase productivity significantly. You’ll see your favorite fruits and vegetables grown in a fraction of the time it would have taken otherwise.

4. Ebb and Flow Systems

Hydroponic Ebb and Flow System

Sometimes called a flood and drain system, home hydroponic gardeners have fallen head over heels in love with everything that this system has to offer. It’s a dance of nourishment, where the grow bed is periodically flooded with nutrient solution and then gracefully drained back.

This rhythmic cycle ensures that the roots receive both nutrients and oxygen, a balance that’s crucial for optimal growth. If you’re looking to mimic the natural tidal systems that plants adore, this is your go-to.

Plants are placed inside grow beds that have been filled with a growth medium, like Rockwool. After that, the bed is put onto a grow tray that is flooded with nutrient-rich water by a water pump.

When the water reaches a certain water height threshold that’s determined by an overflow tube, the water pump stops pumping water and it starts to drain the water back down into the reservoir.

Automatic timers running on a schedule will tell a submersible water pump to flood the grow tray above again until the water hits the overflow tube threshold. Then it starts draining the nutrient solution again.

The ebb and flow cycle rinses and repeats over and over again, boosting oxygenation, nutrient retention, and growth rates.

5. Nutrient Film Technique System (NFT)

Hydroponic NFT Nutrient Film Technique System

Nutrient Film Technique Systems are usually for smaller plants, herbs, and leafy greens. It all starts with sloped, inclined trays that plants are dropped onto. Nutrient-rich liquids are then pumped up from a nutrient solution holding tank to the highest part of the sloped tray.

The nutrient dense liquid then flows from its high position down the slope, washing over the roots of the plants with the major nutrients before draining back down into the reservoir tank, only to be pumped back up again.

Incredibly scalable, blueprints and how-to plans for NFT hydroponic systems are easy to find and even easier to build.

These systems can be customized to just the right size for the types of plants you’re looking to grow without wasting any resources.

6. Aeroponics System

Aeroponics Hydroponic System

The aeroponics type of hydroponic systems is the most challenging to get a handle on, even if the concept is pretty straightforward.

The idea here is plants are suspended in the air and water is sprayed through mist/spray nozzles to the plant’s roots on a regularly. The top, leafy portions of plants are protected from the spray with a cover separating the top and bottom portions of plants. 

Aeroponic systems are great because plants won’t be drowning in nutrient solution. Like the other closed systems above, water isn’t wasted. 

One of the big disadvantages for beginners is the difficulty in building an aeroponics system. Maintenance with this kind of system is a bit of a nightmare.

7. Kratky Method of Hydroponics

Another easy hydroponic method is the Kratky Hydroponics Method. It’s a simple and passive system that was named after its creator, Dr. Bernard Kratky at the University of Hawaii.

Its simplicity makes it great for beginners who want to learn and try hydroponic gardening in water. No expensive, complex equipment is need and no constant monitoring either.

The great thing about Kratky hydroponics is it doesn’t need any electricity or use any pumps to circulate the nutrients. That makes it cheap and low-maintenance when you want small-scale hydroponic gardening.

The Kratky method is at its best when growing leafy greens, herbs, and smaller pumps.

It’s not a good option if you’re looking to grow plants that have high water requirements nor take a long time to grow.

Hydroponics Advantages and Disadvantages

Hydroponics Advantages

Hydroponics has a major advantage over dirt and traditional garden management.

  • Dramatically increased growth rate – Hydroponic plants grow and mature 20% to 30% faster than identical plants grown in traditional gardens, leading to higher yields from less. That’s due to growing in nutrient-enriched mediums, even compared to some soil fertilizers. 
  • Significant reduction in water usage – Researchers believe that almost 80% of all freshwater in the United States is used in traditional agriculture production. Hydroponics uses less than 10% of the water consumed by farms all over the country. That’s water efficiency and sustainability in action.
  • Zero soil needed for production – The ability to grow all different kinds of fruits and vegetables indoors, in climates not conducive to those types of plants traditionally, and without having to worry about the quality of soil is a game changer for the world of agriculture. 
  • Total control over the growing environment – Your average farmer has to hope for sun, rain, a little wind, and a decent growing season, because they have almost no real control over their environment. In the hydroponic world, however, farmers have total control over every aspect of the growing environment from top to bottom. Control leads to better results and more consistency.
  • Lack of pesticides – A big advantage of hydroponic growing is the absence of pesticides. Plants grow in a protected environment, free from the usual outdoor pests and diseases.
  • Troubleshooting growth issues is easy – Hydroponics offers clarity. When issues arise, isolating variables and finding solutions becomes straightforward. It’s about knowing your system inside out and ensuring every element works in harmony.
  • Green solution to farming – Traditional agriculture often leads to soil degradation and water waste. With hydroponics, we’re not just saving space and resources; we’re actively reducing our carbon footprint. The reduction in transportation costs, given that hydroponic farms can be set up anywhere, further underscores its eco-friendliness.
  • Rise of hyper-local food systems – Imagine dining in a restaurant where the salad was picked moments before being served, giving you the Farm-to-Table dining experience. Hydroponics is making this dream a reality, fostering hyper-local food systems that redefine freshness.

Hydroponics Disadvantages

It’s not all sunshine with these hydroponic systems though. There are a few disadvantages. 

  • Initial investment is a bit steep – The odds are pretty good that you don’t have the parts you need for a hydroponic system just lying around your home or garage. Getting your hands on all the hardware you’ll need can be expensive if you buy it piecemeal – hydroponic pumps, lights, air filters, fans, containers, growing mediums, etc.

    On the other hand, smart garden devices like the AeroGarden garden kits and the Lettuce Grow Farmstand are great option for home growers, because they come with everything needed to start growing.
  •  Not a “set it and forget it” kind of approach to farming – Many people think of hydroponics as a bit of a lazy man’s approach to farming, but nothing could be further from the truth. With total control over the growing environment, you have a lot more to worry about. There’s more responsibility when it comes to ensuring all systems are working correctly.
  • Power failures can kill entire harvests – One lightning storm, one downed wire, or one significant and prolonged blackout can potentially lead to nutrient-deficient plants. 

Final Thoughts on Hydroponics

At the end of the day, there has never been a better time than right now to get into the world of hydroponics and gardening in general. 

As more and more people are looking to grow organic plants for food, the technology is more accessible than ever before with smart gardens and homes. 

The knowledge we have about what works and what doesn’t is more complete than ever before. And the opportunity and incentive to grow our own fruits and vegetables without consuming more resources from the earth than necessary has never been greater than ever before. 

Sure, there are likely going to be some bumps in the road if you’re getting into hydroponics as a total newbie.

For the DIY route, Deep Water Culture Systems are the best for beginners because of their simplicity and scalability in materials and setup.

For those who want to purchase a home hydroponics system that’s easy to set up and maintain, take a look at the AeroGarden and what they have toe offer. 

If you’re interested in potentially having your own home business, hydroponics could be a market to look at. Here’s one couple who started their home business at home growing microgreens and now making $20,000 a month.

From Basement to Bankroll: Jaw-Dropping $20,000 Monthly Income of a Microgreen Farmer!

The economic implications of hydroponics are profound. As urban areas continue to expand, the demand for locally sourced produce is on the rise. Hydroponics offers a solution to this demand, reducing the need for long-haul transportation and its associated costs. With the ability to grow crops year-round, irrespective of external weather conditions, hydroponics promises consistent supply and pricing in the market.

FAQs Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Does Hydroponics Cost?

There are many ways to create a hydroponic system, but all of them have one thing in common: it’s an investment. Hydroponic systems can range from the super simple, do-it-yourself $20 setup to the high-end commercial systems that can cost $10,000 or more. Usually, home gardeners will purchase smart gardens like the AeroGarden Harvest with online retailers that has everything you need to start quickly and easily. 

Setting up a hydroponic system will depend on a few factors, such as: The type of plants you want to grow your current growing space, the types of nutrients you want to use, the type of system you want to use, the cost of obtaining that system, and the cost of maintaining that system. 

Hydroponics vs Aeroponics vs Aquaponics

Hydroponics, Aeroponics and Aquaponics all grow plants in a soilless system. In traditional hydroponics systems, plant roots are suspended in nutrient-rich water solution, where the roots are able to absorb nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Aeroponics and Aquaponics are different in the way they deliver the nutrient-rich solution and create the nutrients. Aeroponics systems suspend plant roots in the air and mist spray the nutrient-rich solution periodically. Aquaponics systems breed fish in a connected aquarium to produce fish waste that turns into nutrients in a recirculating system. The fish produce ammonia, which is converted into nitrates by bacteria and then absorbed by plants in their roots as they grow.

Fast Growing Trees and Plants

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Written by:

Henry Bravo
Henry Bravo, a University of California, Davis graduate with a BS in Plant Sciences, combines his expertise in horticulture with a passion for smart technology. He specializes in smart gardens, hydroponics, and robotic lawn care, aiming to enhance gardening practices for families. Henry's articles focus on integrating cutting-edge technology to make gardening more efficient and enjoyable, reflecting his commitment to merging natural greenery with innovative solutions.

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