May 1, Hydroponics Growing Systems Explained One by One

Each of the hydroponics growing systems has its own way of supporting the plants. Plants require food, water, and Oxygen for the roots to keep them from drowning. You can scroll down the page to see how each system works, one by one, or you can use the menu below to jump to any system. The main types of hydroponics growing systems are…


People often do not realize that hand watering can be one of the simplest hydroponics growing systems, but hydroponics boils down to this…the food is in the water.

If you mix perlite, vermiculite, and coconut coir (all nutrient free) and use this to grow your plants in a container garden, you will HAVE TO add some plant food in the water when you hand water. By definition, this is an example of hydroponic gardening. A 50/50 mix of perlite/vermiculite would work just as well.

Coconut coir and vermiculite retain quite a bit of water. By using more of them in the soilless mix, the containers will stay moist between hand-waterings (every day or two). Sphagnum peat is the base of many commercial potting soils and can be used as a substitute for this purpose also.

Because of its simplicity, this is obviously an easy home method. This is one of the hydroponics growing systems that will easily support organics. No matter what type of system you choose, you will need to learn some hydroponics feeding tips.

In a DWC system, the plants are grown directly in nutrient solution, which is kept Oxygenated with an air bubbler.

The deep water culture method, also known as the reservoir method, is one of the easiest of all the true hydroponics growing systems. A container holds about two inches of nutrient solution. Several plant containers sit down in the nutrient solution. An aquarium air pump constantly bubbles in the nutrient solution, keeping the plants roots from drowning.

Often, small holes are made around the bottom 2 inches of the plant pots, allowing the roots to grow out into the nutrient solution. As in the example above, an effort is usually made to keep light from getting to the nutrient solution. Wherever there is light and nutrients, algae will grow. Algae eat the nutrients you are trying to feed to your plants, and when pieces of algae die they attract fungus gnats. Fungus gnats lead to many other problems.

Because of its simple design and simple function, the reservoir method is a good choice for homemade hydroponics. Since there are no drip or spray emitters to clog, it is also a good choice for organic hydroponics growing systems.

This system is well suited for volcanic lava chips media, or else a mixture of one part vermiculite to 5 parts expanded clay pellets. As with any hydroponics growing system, you will want to brush up on your hydroponics feeding tips before beginning.

Water pumps flood the grow media, which absorb the nutrient solution. Clay pellets need to soad for much longer than perlite or rockwool.

In the flood and drain method, the plants sit in their own container separate from the nutrient reservoir. From time to time, a pump will kick on. The nutrient solution from the reservoir floods the upper container for a while, soaking the plant roots and the grow medium. The pumps than turn off, and the solution drains back into the reservoir.

Your choice of grow media determines how often and how long you flood the container for. Fast draining, clay pellets may be flooded for a half hour 4 times a day, while the slower draining rockwool can be watered less. This system is also well suited for growing in straight perlite or lava chips.

The parts and function of this hydroponics growing system are pretty basic, making it another good option for a homemade hydroponics system. With a good water pump, you can also use this method for organic hydroponics. It is always a good idea to have a filter before the pump in any system. Of course, you will make any hydroponics growing system work its best with the right hydroponics feeding tips.

You can use a drip system with any media....clay pellets will need more water, while mediums like vermiculite or rockwool require less water

With the drip hydroponics growing system, the plants are again in their own tray, separate from the nutrient reservoir. A pump pushes nutrient solution through many small tubes, which feed each plant from the top. Different emitters can be placed on the end of each tube to make the drip slower or faster.

Once again, a faster draining medium (like clay pellets) will need faster dripping emitters (or more of them per plant). Slower draining media (like rockwool) would use slower dripping emitters. The standard media for drip systems is rockwool, although clay pellets and lava chips are also sometimes used. Straight perlite should work well in this system also, although I’ve never tried it myself.

The flow rate can sometimes be difficult to control in a drip system, and the emitters are famous for clogging. These problems are often worse when you try to make your own drip system. There is a learning curve. You will probably spend a little money and have a poorly working system your first try, if you try to build a homemade drip system (I know this from personal experience).

Furthermore, organic nutrients are full of small particles that ALWAYS seem to mess up and clog the drip emitters. If you are trying to do organic hydroponics, this is not the system for you….unless you are able to make some clever modifications to the system to address these problems.

Homemade NFT channels can be made very cheaply from 4 inch PVC, gutters, or square PVC fence posts.

In this hydroponics growing system, plants are placed in a tray or gutter separate from the nutrient reservoir. One end of the tray is lower than the other, to encourage the flow of water. A pump delivers a steady flow of water at one end, creating a constant stream of nutrient solution in the bottom of the tray.

Capillary mat is a material that sucks up excess water and slowly releases it back to the plants in between watering cycles.

In order to make sure the water flowing through the bottom of the tray is nice and even, a layer of absorbent material (called capillary mat) is placed in the bottom. No capillary mat is needed if the nutrient solution level in the pipes are kept deep enough. The system would be operating as a deep water culture at that point (or a combination of DWC and other techniques).

NFT is another method that is both easy for the homemade hydroponics do-it-yourselfer and also a good choice for organic hydroponics growing systems. Once again the parts, the design, and the function are all simple. In a pure NFT system or a NFT-DWC hybrid system there are no drip or spray emitters to clog.

A cheap drip system can be used in a lot of different ways in a homemade hydroponic system.

There is one thing to consider, however. You must start with plants that have a root system large enough to hang down into the nutrient solution. Otherwise, you need to top feed the plants with a drip system until their roots grow long enough. NFT systems are very often used in combination with drip systems. With a little capillary mat and a cheap drip system, you can make a very affordable and effective hybrid NFT system.

It doesn’t matter what type of media you start your plants in. Once they are in place in the system, the roots will be growing right in the water! This system, when the proper hydroponics feeding tips are followed, works very nicely.

Nylon rope, felt, coconut coir, vermiculite, and other grow media all draw moisture up like a wick.

In wick hydroponic growing systems, the plants are again in their own container, separate from the nutrient reservoir. Pieces of absorbent material (usually nylon rope) are buried partially in each plant container. The other end of the rope is allowed to dangle in the nutrient solution. The absorbent material pulls the nutrient solution from the reservoir up into the growing medium. Another way to do it is to allow the bottom 1/2 inch of a container to dip into the nutrient solution, and be sure to use an absorbent media in the bottom of the plant container.

4 1/2 inch containers are just about perfect for growing small plants. Square containers are often easier to use in a homemade system (compared to round pots).

The system is easy to make as a homemade hydroponics system, and will support organic hydroponics without any problems, but there are a couple of things to consider. Sometimes it is difficult to get the right moisture level in a wick system. You will have to experiment a little with more absorbent growing mediums (vermiculite/coconut coir). Also, I have seen the wicks suck up less and less water over time (especially when using organics).

If you want to give this method a try, I suggest a 50/50 mix of perlite/vermiculite. Perlite and coconut coir would work as well. Altogether, I think other systems are just as easy to use, and produce better results.

Homemade aeroponic system reservoir

In these hydroponics growing systems, a large container like this contains several gallons of nutrient solution in the bottom. A pump pushes nutrient solution through spray heads that constantly soak every inch inside the container with a fine mist of nutrient solution.

Roots grown directly in air, sprayed constantly or frequently with nutrient solution.

As you can see, there really is no growing medium in this method. The plants roots hang down into the container and grow mostly in air, except for the few that grow long enough to make it into the nutrient solution in the bottom. The pump used is a high-pressure pump, and the spray emitters are made specially to deliver a very fine, highly oxygenated spray.

It is often very hard to assemble individual parts into a well-working system, and the individual parts can be expensive as well. Also, the fine-spray emitters will instantly clog if you try to use anything except high quality hydroponic fertilizers (no organics).

If maintained properly, an aeroponic system will give you the maximum performance (results) of any hydroponic system.

Of all the hydroponics growing systems, this is the most difficult to master and the most temperamental. PH changes and nutrient imbalances occur more quickly because of the increased absorption rates and high levels of Oxygenation. Furthermore, with no grow media to protect the roots, the plants react negatively to these changes much more quickly.

More recently, some innovative gardeners have begun to push this new area. Systems are beginning to pop up that are much simpler and that do not rely on pumps. Check out this homemade aeroponics cloner, for example. Aeroponics does offer faster growth rates, which continues to drive the demand for it. The newest example of this innovation is this homemade aeroponics system #1 that uses no spray nozzles, and this other homemade aeroponics system #2 that is even easier to make!

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