Determining Which Hydroponic Grow System Best Suits Your Needs

Would you like to jump-start and extend your growing season and have access to fresh produce year-round? If yes, a hydroponic garden may be the answer.

There are hydroponic grow systems on the market to suit any type of gardener.  The bottom line is deciding:

• how much time you have to devote to the project
• what your budget is
• how much space you have
• what plants you want or need to grow

Once you have identified how much of a commitment you want to make, you will need to match your needs with a system that meets them. If you are just starting out, the Ebb and Flow and Drip Systems are great for beginners because they are not complicated and not too costly, yet they produce very good results. The first system that I ever tried was an Ebb and Flow (sometimes called Flood and Drain) and I was thrilled with the beautiful tomato plants that I was able to grow one winter in my sunroom.

The advantage of a hydroponically-based system is that it is versatile and can be adapted to any environment.  You can easily nurture an indoor garden so that it flourishes with a simple, inexpensive system and expand as your new hobby grows.

Let’s start with becoming familiar with how growing systems may be categorized. A hydroponic system can be identified as:

  1. Active: A hydroponic system that actively moves or circulates the nutrient solution (usually through a pump)
  2. Passive: A hydroponic system that relies on capillary action of a wet wick.
  3. Recovery: A hydroponic system that re-circulates nutrients
  4. Non-recovery: A hydroponic system that applies nutrient solution to the growing system, which is not recovered.
  5. Bare Root System: A hydroponic system that does not use a growing medium.
  6. Substrate system: A hydroponic system that uses a growing medium to support the roots, such as rockwool, perlite or vermiculite.

Now that we understand some of the characteristics, let’s apply it to some choices types of hydroponic systems on the market today.  Here are some variations:

The Wick System
This passive, non-recovery system does not require a pump. A candle wick or thicker oil lantern wick is used to move the nutrient solution from the growing medium to the root system of the plant. Passive systems are the more inexpensive route, but can be too wet for healthy plant growth thus tend to be less productive.

The Ebb and Flow System
Also called Flood and Drain, this is an active, recovery system that uses a pump to move the nutrient solution to the roots of the plant where oxygen depleted air is replaced with oxygen rich air. The pump stays on for about 20 minutes and when the nutrient solution reaches a certain level, the overflow tube drains the water back down into the reservoir. Low maintenace and with a higher margin for error, this is a good choice for beginners.

The Nutrient Film Technique
Characterized as an active, recovery system, an NFT consists of slanted grow tubes where gravity assists the solution back into the reservoir. Solution is pumped into a grow tube where the roots are exposed. This system is higher mainenance and requires more technical knowledge to troubleshoot. It is less forgiving as roots are completely dependent upon the constant flow of pumped nutrients for sustenance.

The Continuous Drip
This is considered an active system that uses a pump to push solution to nutrient lines connected to each plant. It may be reovery or non-recovery depending on whether a tray is used underneath to collect and re-circulate the solution. A growing medium, such as rockwool, is used to stabilize the plant. This is another good beginner system.

In aeroponic systems, plant roots are constantly misted with nutrient solution (active, recovery). In this bare root system, roots are suspended in midair and eceive air constantly; nutrient mist is 20% oxygen and plant can access maximum amount of oxygen possible resulting in tremendous growth. These are generally suited to the more advanced gardener.

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An Aerogarden is great introduction to hydroponic gardening suitable for someone who wants a simple way to grow herbs, small flowers and light-weight vegetables. They are small, efficient and low maintenance and treat the owner to the benefits of a complete hydroponic system without having to dedicate a lot of space or time to the growing process.

For more flexibility, if your needs are small-scale and you want an uncomplicated set-up for growing small tomatoes, herbs, lettuce and small plants, the Ebb and Flow and Drip Systems are a better choice. If your goal is to produce bigger plants or plants that carry a heavier fruit, a bucket system, such as the Waterfarm, is more efficient.

As you become more experienced you may want to try out an NFT (great for strawberries and herbs) or a more challenging but highly productive aeroponic system.


Ebb and Flow System (sometimes called flood and drain)


Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

(plants growing in nutrient mist)

Active, Recovery Active recovery or Non-recovery Active,
Active, Recovery
No pumps Pump submersed in reservoir, plants in upper tray Pump has tube
that runs to plant base
Pump submersed in reservoir Various designs
Some examples include:

• Plants suspended in baskets at the top of closed trough or tube

• A-frame with misters inside “A”

No moving parts Reservoir holds nutrient solution, water, and pump Drip tray returns water to reservoir (recovery) Plants in grow tube (suspended) Since roots are suspended in midair – Receive air constantly – nutrient mist is 20% oxygen – plant can access maximum amount of oxygen possible
Nutrient solution moves up to roots through wick
Usually use sand and growing medium
Pump turns on and delivers nutrients to roots in upper tray (flood cycle), usually lasts 20-30 minutes Nutrient system in reservoir Nutrient solution pumped into grow tube that is at slight angle so solution flows over roots and back into reservoir Plant roots are constantly misted with nutrient solution
Medium tends to stay wet, not allowing for great oxygenation of roots Once water gets to certain level, overflow pipe returns it to reservoir Less forgiving (no grow medium to hold moisture, roots can dry
Less productive system Flood cycle finishes, pump turns off, water drains back down to reservoir through pump Effective system