While growing in soil is an easy and straightforward process…
Growing hydroponically is a cultivation method that is bound to fail without the right knowledge and preparation.
But once you have the knowledge and take the right preparation steps, there are some amazing benefits:
- Quicker harvest cycles
- Increased yields
- Easier to get higher quality or more potent yields
- Higher density planting leading to increased yields per square foot
- An easier time controlling the whole growing process
This is why in today’s post we’ll look at the different hydroponic grow systems that you can use and give examples of some amazing complete hydroponic grow system kits that you can essentially just ‘plug and play’.
But first a quick explanation of what hydroponic growing exactly is…
What Is Hydroponic Growing?
For your plants to grow they need nutrients, water, and light.
In nature, these nutrients are provided by the soil in which the plant is rooted.
But for the plant, it doesn’t really matter where it gets its nutrients from…
It might as well get them through a different source like…water.
And that’s exactly what hydroponic growing is:
Hydroponic growing is the cultivation of plants in nutrient-enriched and oxygenated water, usually mechanically supported by an inert medium like pebbles, Rockwool, or coco coir.
Cultivating your plants in this way does bring some challenges with it…and if you’re a beginning grower, you have to realize starting with soil probably is a better idea.
Because growing a hydroponic system is less forgiving for beginning growers.
Especially mistakes like:
- Getting the wrong mix of nutrients
- Unbalancing the temperature, pH, or strength of your nutrient solution
- Growing in too high or too low humidity-levels…
…can mess up your crop in a very short period of time.
Soil is also quite a bit cheaper to start with…although hydroponic growing can earn its high initial capital cost back over time through increased yields and an increase in harvest cycles.
One study found that cucumber plants grown in a hydroponic system had a significantly higher growth rate than cucumber plants in soil (1).
Cannabis growers will tell you the same: hydroponically grown cannabis can provide higher yields than soil-grown cannabis. This especially holds true in colder climates. At least one study found that indoors and hydroponically grown cannabis had higher concentrations of THC than natural and soil-grown cannabis (2).
And even though it’s a harder growing process than soil…
Once you get through its learning curve…
Hydroponic growing is an extremely rewarding way to grow your plants. You’ll probably fall in love with it once you’ve got the basics down.
The Different Hydroponic Growing Systems
Although ‘hydroponic growing’ is the general term used for growing in water instead of soil…
There are different types of hydroponic growing systems all with their own pros and cons.
It’s important you really understand the differences well, so you can make the right choice for your space, specific setup, and personal requirements (do you have the time to be on top of your grow project daily, or do you only have time to check up on your project every few days for example).
Deep Water Culture (aka DWC or the Bubbler): Cheap & Easy
This is the cheapest, yet simplest to set up hydroponic system for a beginner to grow on a small scale.
Here’s how it works:
- You have a bucket(s) full of nutrient-rich and oxygenated water;
- Your plants are seated at the top of the bucket and held in place with an inert medium like clay pebbles;
- The roots of your plants hang in the nutrient-rich and oxygenated water 24/7.
Your plants having access to nutrient-rich and oxygenated water 24/7 obviously means your plants are going to grow extremely quickly.
They’ll grow faster than in most other hydroponic systems because it’s a continuous flow system.
A continuous flow system means that the roots of your plants are constantly exposed to nutrients, which sets the stage for a powerful growth curve.
Getting bigger plants is also easier because of this growth acceleration.
It’s not all roses though…
The main downside of DWC is temperature regulation.
In any hydroponic system, it’s important to keep your nutrient solution cool (70°F), this is to keep oxygen levels at an optimal level…
But in a DWC system, this is ESPECIALLY important since your plants are exposed to the nutrient solution 24/7…and this can be a problem if you’re living in a warmer climate.
Another downside is that maintenance can be a bitch:
- The water must be changed periodically to provide fresh nutrients and water for your plants and you need to do this manually.
- To prevent malnutrition of your plants, it’s also important to check the pH value of the water often…and if you really want to put all the odds in your favor, to check the nutrient strength/profile with a PPM meter…and more importantly adjust the pH and/or nutrient strength profile when things are out of balance.
But even with these downsides, DWC probably is the best hydroponic system to start with if you’re a beginner and you’re just going to grow 2-6 plants.
Great, I want to grow with a DWC system…where to start?
Although you can build your own DWC system…
There are some high quality and ready-made ‘plug and play’ DWC systems available that will save you a good amount of time and which I highly recommend:
- DWC Hydroponic Bucket Kit 5 Gallon, 6 inch
- DWC Bubbler Bucket Kit by PowerGrow Systems. (4) 5 Gallon – 6″ Buckets
- DWC Bubbler Bucket Kit by PowerGrow Systems. (8) 5 Gallon – 6″ Buckets
If you want to save yourself some time maintaining your system I recommend checking out a Recirculating Deep Water Culture System like this one:
In a system like this, you don't have to check each individual bucket for pH or ppm values, because there's a single control bucket from which the nutrient solution flows. And this will definitely save you some time.
Each bucket can hold a single plant. So get as many buckets as the number of plants you're going to grow.
Next up we have another hydroponic system that is well suited for beginners…
Ebb and Flow (aka Flood and Drain): Simple but Effective
Ebb and Flow is another GREAT hydroponic system for beginners.
It’s easier to maintain and a bit more forgiving than a DWC system in case you mess up the temperature, pH, or nutrient profile.
The downside is that it’s a bit more expensive to start with and if you’re into ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY), it’s a bit harder to set up than a simple DWC system.
Here’s how it works:
- Your plants are sitting in a pot, supported by an inert medium like Rockwool or pebbles.
- There’s a nutrient reservoir from which nutrient-rich water gets pumped to your plants' roots and then back into the nutrient reservoir, at set interval periods.
This means an Ebb and Flow system is not a continuous flow system like DWC where your plants are submerged in the nutrient-rich and oxygenated water 24/7.
Your plants only get exposed to the nutrient-rich water during the ‘flow’ period, which is a few times a day. The rest of the time they’re left to ‘air out’…and this is exactly what makes Ebb and Flow a much more forgiving system than DWC.
Let me explain.
Even if the temperature, pH, or strength of your nutrient solution is too high/out of balance, a few of these ‘out of balance’ flows to the roots of your plants won’t completely destroy your crop.
If you interfere on time and restore the temperature or balance of your nutrient solution, your grow will be fine.
Great, I want to grow with an Ebb and Flow system…where to start?
Just like with a DWC system it’s doable to build a ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) Ebb and Flow system…
But if you want to save yourself the hassle check out these pre-made systems:
- Hydrofarm MGSYS Hydroponic Megagarden System
- Viagrow Complete Ebb & Flow System, 3′ x 3′
- Active Aqua Grow Flow Ebb & Gro 12 Site Hydroponic Sytem + (12) Expansion Pots
Next up we have one of the more sophisticated hydroponic systems…
Drip Irrigation (aka Drip, Dripper, Top Feed Drip System or Recirculating Top Feed)
Although drip irrigation systems are still relatively simple in how they work…
If you’re a complete beginner to hydroponics, the sophistication of this system makes its setup and maintenance less simple than the previous systems. But more on that later.
Here’s how it works:
- Your plants are sitting in a pot, supported by an inert medium like Rockwool or pebbles.
- Nutrient-rich water gets pumped from the nutrient reservoir to the top of your growing medium.
- Then slowly the nutrient-rich water drips from a network of pipes/tubes and emitters to the roots of your plants
A drip irrigation system is a continuous flow system, which means it’s easier to get your plants growing FAST.
But if you’re a beginner, you really need to understand the things that can go wrong in a system like this…and prepare carefully.
For starters, if you're into DIY, setting up a drip irrigation system takes more time and care to set up than the previous systems (Ebb and Flow or DWC).
Then there’s the danger of emitters clogging up and potentially ruining your grow…if you don’t keep your water and/or emitters free of nutrient build-up.
You also need to find the perfect balance in how much you expose the roots of your plants to the drip/flow. Dripping too much can easily lead to root rot or fungus…while too little can result in stunted growth.
Lastly, if your power goes off for whatever reason and your pump stops dripping, you basically have only a few hours to notice, or else…you're screwed.
OK, so why would I want to go for a drip system then…?
Drip irrigation systems are way more efficient than the previous systems (Ebb and Flow and DWC). A properly set up drip system will need less water and fewer nutrients than Ebb and Flow or DWC…
But this benefit only really starts showing when you grow on a larger scale.
If you want to grow on a larger scale (10+ plants), and efficiency is important to you…by all means go for a drip system.
I wouldn’t recommend setting up a drip irrigation system yourself (DIY) if you’re new to hydroponics.
Instead, check out one of these pre-made systems:
- General Hydroponics Waterfarm Complete Hydroponic System Grow Kit
- General Hydroponics EcoGrower Drip Hydroponic System
- General Hydroponics GH4720 Farm Controller, Terra Cotta
Next up we have the most sophisticated hydroponic system in our list…
Aeroponic System: Highest Risk, Highest Reward
If you’re a complete beginner…
Skip aeroponics and choose one of the earlier ones.
If you have some practical experience, let’s continue.
Aeroponic systems are the most sophisticated hydroponic systems.
If you get everything right, it’s also the system with will give the largest rewards in terms of yields and is the most efficient in terms of water- and nutrient use.
Here’s how it works:
- Your plant’s roots are sitting in a closed dark chamber (pot)
- Tiny drops of atomized nutrient solution get periodically sprayed over your plant’s roots while they sit in this closed and dark chamber
Just like the drip irrigation and DWC systems, this also is a continuous flow system. And because the oxygen levels are so high in an aeroponic system…
It has to potential to outgrow and out-yield any other hydroponic system.
But this potential comes with a price…literally:
Aeroponic systems are the most expensive hydroponic systems, they’re harder to maintain and unforgiving in case of mistakes.
Just like with the drip irrigation system, with an aeroponic system, it’s extremely important that you keep the sprayers from clogging up.
A few hours of blocked sprayers can completely kill your crop.
How to keep an aeroponic system clean?
Just keep EVERYTHING through which your nutrient solution passes clean: filters, tubes, pumps, etc.
PLUS get some high-quality nutrients like those from General Hydroponics. Low-quality nutrients can leave a lot of undissolved salt residue behind, which is bad news for your sprayers.
It’s also extremely important that you keep the temperature of your nutrient solution and humidity in the root chamber at optimal levels:
- Nutrient solution: 64°F
- Humidity in the root zone: 100%
- Humidity in the growth zone during veg stage: 60-70%
- Humidity in the growth zone during flower stage: 30-40%
If you don’t keep your temperature and humidity levels in check, you risk things as root rot, algae, and stunting the growth of your plants in general.
As you can see an aeroponic system is one of the harder hydroponic systems to maintain properly, you really need to be on top of your grow and constantly check your system.
But once you get through the learning curve and don’t mind the constant maintenance…
It’s the most rewarding hydroponic system there is.
The bottom line is:
Even though an aeroponic system is the riskiest and least suited hydroponic system for beginners in our list…
It’s also the highest-yielding system with the quickest harvest cycles.
If you do decide to go for an aeroponic system, I would really advise starting with a pre-made system like the:
There are just so many things that can go wrong with building one yourself. But hey, if you like a challenge…go for it.
What Else You Need…
Even though you’ve learned the basics of each hydroponic system in this list…
There are some general principles you need to keep in mind when growing hydroponically
First of all, always keep a close eye on the growth of your plants. Specifically, check whether there’s any slowdown in their growth or whether they look like they’re suffering in any way.
And when it looks like they’re losing strength or suffering in any other way…
Always first check your growing environment:
- Nutrients-strength (ppm)
- pH values of your nutrient solution
Then check for diseases like root rot and/or pests. But always start with the growing environment. Because that’s usually the cause.
Secondly, if you're serious about growing hydroponically, I would really recommend investing in a quality PPM + pH meter so you can actually objectively check your growing environment.
High-quality PPM + pH meters can get pricey, but they'll last you a long time, are easy to use (calibrate), and are extremely reliable in measuring values.
This is the one I recommend:
The Bluelab Guardian Monitor will last you a LONG time and is easy to calibrate…which means you'll have an easier time keeping your plants happy and increasing yields.
For a cheap backup meter I would recommend this one:
If you're going to grow inside, you will also need other equipment. A basic guide on the essential equipment you need to successfully grow cannabis can be found below:
If you're specifically looking for a tent to grow inside check out:
If you're looking for a powerful light to yield high-quality buds, check out:
If you're looking for genetically superior cannabis seeds, read:
And lastly, if you want to brush up your knowledge on how to exactly grow cannabis in its various growth cycles, check out:
- Gashgari, R., Alharbi, K., Mughrbil, K., Jan, A., & Glolam, A. (2018). Comparison between Growing Plants in Hydroponic System and Soil Based System. Proceedings of the 4th World Congress on Mechanical, Chemical, and Material Engineering. Published. https://doi.org/10.11159/icmie18.131
- Poulsen, H., & Sutherland, G. (2000). The potency of cannabis in New Zealand from 1976 to 1996. Science & Justice, 40(3), 171–176. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1355-0306(00)71972-1