A lot of considerations go into the process of growing your own plants without soil. Needless to say, you’ll need a different set up from traditional gardening. We’re going to talk about a few common hydroponic systems and some of their pros and cons to help you make an informed decision about what works best for your operation.
Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Systems (DWC)
The first type of hydroponic system for us to talk about is called Deep Water Culture or DWC. In particular we’re going to talk about bubbleponics, one of many DWC hydroponic systems. With this system, you use a larger reservoir of water in which the roots of the plants are fully submerged all the time, hence the name “deep water.” The name “bubbleponics” is because oxygen is pumped into the water which causes little bubbles.
This is a fairly common hydroponic system because it is simple and inexpensive. It also doesn’t require a ton of maintenance for your plants. With this type of system, plants grow quickly because they are constantly watered. One of the best things about the system is that it is easily manipulated to fit the needs of the grower.
As with anything, there are some disadvantages. Root disease is a common problem because bacteria and fungi can attach directly through the water. It’s also difficult to maintain the correct water temperature unless you buy additional equipment. If the water is too hot, the dissolved oxygen dips too low. If it is too cold, plants think that the “seasons” are changing and will slow their metabolism. Another drawback to this is the lack of a backup plan if the pump or another mechanical piece fails. Your plants will die within a few hours because they will essentially drown without the oxygen being pumped into the water. This hydroponic type it Is best for any type of hydroponic grower from beginning to advanced and it is one of the easiest systems to accommodate your parameters.
Another hydroponic type is referred to as aeroponics. Some consider this completely different from hydroponics while others consider it to be a subset. What makes this system special is that the plants are suspended in the air while the nutrient solution is misted on the roots.
This system offers you more control over the root systems because they’re not immersed in liquid, allowing you to monitor root health closely. There is also faster growth in the system, due to an abundance of oxygen. Aeroponics requires very little space and can also be moved easily. It’s a relatively simple to set up and it is considerably less energy and conserves water.
Unfortunately, it is one of the most expensive systems to set up. You must thoroughly understand your plants’ biological and nutritional needs. If the sprays are not set up correctly, roots can dry out quickly. Aeroponics systems are great for urban gardeners who have very little space, but are still considered more advanced.
Ebb & Flow
Ebb & Flow systems are another common type used. They can also be called flood and drain systems. With this system, the nutrient/water solution is pumped through tubing from a reservoir into the main part of the system where the plant roots are located. The “flow” continues to fill the system until it reaches an overflow tube. This tube drains the solution back into the reservoir where it can be pumped back into the system.
Ebb & Flow systems are easy to build yourself, if you’re feeling especially dedicated. That option also means that you can build your operation to fit the space that you have available. Another great cost-saving point of this system is that you reuse the nutrient solution so you don’t have to keep buying new. A great thing about using this kind of hydroponic system is that you can use any type of popular growing media that you prefer for your plants.
A negative aspect is that the minerals from the nutrients can build up on the roots and cause nutrient deficiencies from being not being able to be absorbed into the roots and used by the plant so close attention has to be paid to avoid that. There’s also a higher risk of malfunction because of the number of parts that are absolutely vital for the system to run smoothly.
Another common problem is unstable pH levels caused by the draining which in turn can cause toxicities for your plants. This is also a more technical hydroponic system, which means that more advanced growers generally find more success with this type of set up. The grower needs to understand their plants’ needs on a very detailed level in order to give them the best yield. This is also a great system for the more DIY/crafty hobby grower.
One of the most interesting types of hydroponic system is aquaponics. Many people are immediately intrigued by this hydroponic system because of its novelty. What is this novelty? Aquaponics uses a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. This system is based around growing your plants on top of a fish tank. The plants clean the water for the fish and the fish, in turn, provide nutrients for the plants in the form of their waste. The only thing you really need to add to this system is food for the fish, unless there’s an abundance of algae in the tank which the fish will eat.
A great advantage to this system is that you don’t need to use any kind of fertilizer since the fish provide plentiful natural fertilizer for the plants. This hydroponic type also reduces water usage through the recycling and reusing of the water through the system. You can also rest easy about cleaning the system (or your fish tank) because it will naturally clean itself. A small benefit is that you can also raise fish to eat in the same tank as the plants that you’re growing and maximize/diversify your profits.
The major downside is that it’s very expensive to set up. You may also need a greenhouse depending on the climate you live in, in order to give your system the best chance at success. This system also requires a great deal of technical knowledge; it’s not something you can just wing and hope it all works out. There are several places in the system that could malfunction and ruin the whole system, potentially hurting the fish as well as your plants.
There are also a lot of variables that make it very hard to predict your yield and to pinpoint a problem, if one arises. Due to these reasons, this is one of those hydroponic systems more commonly implemented by advanced growers. It can be beneficial to drought prone climates because it conserves a great deal of water.
The Nutrient Film Technique, or NFT, is sometimes called the Old School Method by some hydroponics shops and growers. This system uses a long grow chamber (sometimes a PVC pipe or channel) with holes evenly spaced along it. Collars, baskets, and grow media are used to keep the plants in place just above these holes which the roots hang down into. The system uses a pump to run a “film” of water across the root tips, delivering nutrients and water to the plant. The constant flow keeps the water from stagnating and becoming dirty as a product.
The great thing about this hydroponic system is that there are no parts that will get clogged, as the grow media isn’t supposed to be in the water/nutrient tube and only the tips of the roots are touching the water. It’s very easy to see the quality and health of the roots as a product of this method. NFT is also very easy to expand based on the amount of space you have. It’s relatively cheap starting cost and to maintain. NFT also has one of the most efficient nutrient delivery systems of the common hydroponic systems.
The main problem with this system is that sometimes pumps fail and plants that need a lot of support (things with vines like tomatoes or cucumbers) don’t typically thrive unless the time is put in to make a support for them. There’s also limited space for root mass which in turn limits the size that the plants can attain. NFT is a system that is favored by commercial farmers because of its versatility and effectiveness in promoting plant growth.
NFTs are great hydroponic systems for more leafy plants as the constant water helps vegetative plants but hinders flowering or fruiting plants. Hobby farmers can find innovative ways this system work for them but doesn’t require an extensive prior knowledge of hydroponics.
While not technically its own system, cloning systems are definitely worth mentioning in this article. A “cloner” is a machine that makes the process of cloning your plants exponentially easier by ‘forcing’ the cuttings to root. They have special sites on the machine that you place the cuttings onto with a rooting solution. From there, a pump forces a water/nutrient solution through spray nozzles, covering the cuttings in a highly oxygenated mist. Of course, you could just transplant your cuttings without a (usually expensive) machine like these. But without a cloner, it becomes very difficult to create the perfect environment to promote cuttings to root.
These machines also drastically speed up the cloning process as a result of that perfect atmosphere. And, because it’s a very controlled environment, the success rate of rooting tends to skyrocket, often up to 100%. These hydroponic systems can be used by any type of grower, at any time since it’s faster to grow plants from a cutting than from seeding. Plus, cloning means that you can take the traits of your best plants and continue those great qualities for an indefinite amount of time. Be aware that some quality degradation can occur if you continue to clone the same plants again and again.
Other Considerations Regarding Hydroponic Systems
Of course, these are only a few of the most common hydroponic systems that are used. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages, so finding something that works for your specific operation is important. Everything from startup and maintenance cost, to the amount of space you have available, to even what accommodates the time you have available to care for your plants are all important things to consider before committing to one system. On top of that, you’ll want to be familiar with specific details surrounding your hydroponic systems, like what growing media works best for the hydroponic setup you’re running and how best to regulate the pH of your system.