Hydroponic garden basics

Hydroponic gardening is a method of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution instead of soil. The minerals that the plants need to grow are added to water that is generally pumped around the system.

Most hydroponic systems include a container for the plants (usually a tray or cups), a soil-less growing medium (usually perlite, coco coir, or peat moss), a fluid flow system for the nutrient solution (usually including a pump, pipes, and a tank), and a plant light (usually LED, but sometimes HID or fluorescent).

Let’s learn all about hydroponic gardens!

Hydroponic garden basics

A hydroponic garden is a garden system that grows plants without soil. Instead, plants are grown in a nutrient-rich water solution. The word “hydroponics” comes from the Greek words “hydro” (water) and “ponos” (work), essentially meaning “water-working.”

In a hydroponic system, plants receive their nutrients directly from the water, which allows them to grow faster and often healthier than traditional soil-grown plants. Plants growing in soil also take up their minerals that are solution with water, but the input in hydroponics is so tightly controlled, that they can often be healthier (or at least less growth-restricted) than soil-grown plants.

The advantage of hydroponics is the ability to precisely control and adjust the environment to the needs of specific plants. As a result, with careful management, a wide variety of plants can be successfully cultivated in a hydroponic system.

Hydroponic gardening at home

Types of hydroponic garden systems

There are several types of hydroponic systems, including:

  • Nutrient Film Technique (NFT): In this method, a thin film of nutrient solution flows over the roots of the plants, which are suspended in a sloping trough or channel.
  • Deep Water Culture (DWC): In this method, plants are suspended with their roots submerged in a nutrient-rich water solution. Air stones or diffusers provide oxygen to the roots, preventing them from drowning.
  • Wick System: A simple passive system where a wick, often made of cotton or other absorbent material, draws the nutrient solution from a reservoir to the plant roots.
  • Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain): Plants are placed in a grow bed, and periodically the nutrient solution is pumped in, flooding the bed. After a set period, the solution is drained back into the reservoir.
  • Aeroponics: In this system, plant roots are suspended in the air and are misted with a nutrient solution at regular intervals.
  • Drip Systems: The nutrient solution is delivered to each plant through a drip line, providing a slow feed of nutrients to the root system.
Pvc leafy greens

Pros and cons of hydroponic gardening

Advantages of hydroponic gardening include:

  • Faster Growth: With optimal nutrient and oxygen levels, plants can grow faster.
  • Water Efficiency: Hydroponic systems generally use less water than traditional soil gardening.
  • Space Efficiency: Without the need for traditional soil beds, more plants can often be grown in a smaller space.
  • Reduced Pest and Disease Pressure: Without soil, many pests and diseases that thrive in it are eliminated.

Hydroponics also has challenges, such as the need for constant monitoring of nutrient levels and pH, the potential for system failures (like pump failures), and the initial setup cost. Despite these challenges, hydroponics is used around the world in everything from home gardens to large-scale commercial operations, especially in areas with poor soil or limited space.

Hydroponic tomatoes

What can you grow in a hydroponic garden?

While you can grow just about anything in a hydroponic garden with a custom setup, there are certainly some crops that are better suited to a hydroponic system than others. Here are some great plants to consider growing in a hydroponic garden.

Hydroponic gardens are very well-suited to growing salad greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, and arugula. These plants have small root systems which don’t require a large volume of growing medium. Growing hydroponically also allows for controlled inputs, year-round production, efficient use of space, and isolation from soil-borne diseases and pests.

Certain fruiting plants are also well-suited to hydroponics, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, and even watermelons. Fruiting plants have specific nutrient requirements and often need quite a lot of water. A hydroponic system can be closely monitored to ensure the plants receive optimal amounts of water and nutrients.

Many green leafy herbs are perfect for home hydroponic systems. This includes basil, parsley, cilantro, and mint. Even a small countertop hydroponic system can often grow enough fresh herbs for a single household.

Many plants can thrive in a hydroponic garden, but some are especially well-suited to the conditions hydroponics provides. Here’s a list of plants that are commonly grown hydroponically:

  • Leafy greens:
    • Lettuce
    • Kale
    • Swiss chard
    • Arugula
    • Spinach
  • Herbs:
    • Basil
    • Mint
    • Cilantro
    • Parsley
    • Dill
    • Oregano
    • Thyme
    • Rosemary
  • Fruiting vegetables:
    • Tomatoes
    • Cucumbers
    • Bell peppers
    • Chili peppers
    • Strawberries
  • Flowers
    • Orchids
    • Roses
    • Marigolds
    • Pansies

It’s essential to note that the specific requirements—like nutrient concentrations, pH levels, and lighting—can vary depending on the plant species and even the specific cultivar. Some fruiting plants, like tomatoes and peppers, also require longer light periods and might benefit from supplemental light in certain settings.

Mason jar hydroponic herbs

5 ways to start hydroponic gardening

  1. Buy a small hydroponic smart garden like an AeroGarden or a Click and Grow. This can be expensive up-front but is the simplest way for most households to get started.
  2. Build your own hydroponic passive wick system at home. This can be quite affordable if you reuse containers from around the house. You’ll need a large tub to hold the nutrient solution and a smaller bucket or tray for the plants. You can use fabric rope (cotton, nylon) as a wick, along with soil-free potting media for the plants.
  3. Build your own hydroponic Kratky Method system at home. This is another passive system, but the plant roots are suspended directly in the nutrient solution. You can build it in anything from a large tub to a small bottle.
  4. Start a countertop aquaponic system. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture. At home, this usually means bitting a small fish tank with a growing tray that sits above the water. Mini systems that include a built-in pump, bio filter, and plant light are becoming readily available.
  5. Grow a tray of microgreens. Microgreens can be grown in a tray on the countertop, with or without potting mix. Some systems have a fabric grow mat, but you can also use a sheet of paper towel to hold in moisture so the seeds can germinate. Most microgreens take so little time to grow that you don’t have to add fertilizer/nutrients, as the seeds themselves contain the initial nutrition for the first tiny sprouts.
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

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