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How to Grow Hydroponically – Overview of Grow Systems

By Sunny Datko

One of the first choices you’ll have to make in your life as a gardener is settling in on the system that you’re going to use to grow your plants in.  It can often be difficult to choose which type of system to use because there are so many different systems available.  In this article we will take a look at various grow systems, including drip systemsebb & flow, deep water culture (DWC)Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)Aeroponics and Aquaponics. There are hundreds of variations on these basic types of systems, but all hydroponic methods are a variation (or combination) of these.

Drip Systems

drip systems hydroponics how toWith the drip hydroponics growing system, the plants are in their own tray, separate from the nutrient reservoir. Plants are fed individually by a connection of feeding tubes, which is connected to a pump. The pump is controlled by a timer, which activates it to pump nutrient solution through the tubes and feed each plant from the top. Different emitters can be placed on the end of each tube to make the drip slower or faster. The waste is then either recirculated or discarded, depending on how the system is configured and what growing medium is being used. Use House & Garden’s Drip Clean to prevent salt and mineral build up, keeping your drip system running cleanly.

  • Versatile – The water application rate can be tailored to fit each plant. This is accomplished by the use of different quantities of emitters and emitters with different discharge rates.

  • Suitable for Any Grow Medium – Drip systems can be run using any type of grow medium, ranging from coconut coir to rockwool to expanded clay pellets, even in a specialty soil-based medium.

Ebb & Flow (Flood & Drain) Systems

ebb and flow systems advantagesEbb and Flow is a form of hydroponics that is known for its simplicity, reliability of operation, and low initial investment. Also called ‘Flood and Drain’, it is a system of arranging containers filled with inert growing media. The medium anchors the roots while a hydroponic nutrient solution is alternately flooded and allowed to drain.

  • Simplicity – An ebb and flow hydroponics system is quite easy to build, use and manage, as it doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge to set it up and keep it running. Even better, if you’re not building it yourself, it’s almost plug-and-grow easy.

  • Aeration – The ebb & flow method supplies fresh oxygen to the root system of plants in two ways. First, as the tray is flooded with nutrient solution, carbon dioxide rich air is pushed out from around the root system. When the pump is turned off, the tray is drained and oxygen rich air is drawn down to the roots. The plants then use this oxygen until the next cycle begins

Deep Water Culture (DWC))

DWC hydroponic systemsDeep Water Culture (DWC) is a hydroponic method of plant production by means of suspending the plant roots in a solution of nutrient rich, oxygenated water.  With this system, the roots of the plants are submerged in the nutrient solution. The plant is then held in the proper position through the use of a net, which ensures that the top of the plant is not in the nutrient solution, only the roots. As the roots are constantly submerged, it is crucial that the air pump is on 24 hours a day. If the pump is allowed to be off for any length of time, the roots will suffer.

  • Highly Oxygenated – Plants exposed to greater levels of oxygen in and around their roots will subsequently enjoy unparalleled root development and prolific overall plant growth. This is because aerating the root zone radically improves water absorption, nutrient uptake and cell growth/activity within your plants.

  • Low Maintenance – DWC hydroponics systems are simple by design and require very little attention – the pumps are on all the time, so no timers or controllers are needed. There are no spray nozzles, return lines, feeder lines, or water pumps to clog, and no reservoirs or float valves to overflow or jam.  Other than grower error, the worst thing that can go wrong is if the air stone stops working. This can be easily avoided by checking your stones, pumps and lines daily.  Always keep a spare air pump in case of an emergency.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

NFT hydroponic systems The nutrient film technique (NFT) is a widely used hydroponic method for production of short harvest vegetable crop, such as lettuce and basil. The basis of the NFT method is a network of shallow pipes, tubes or trays that contain plants and deliver a continuous flow of a nutrient solution over the enclosed plant roots. The plants are housed in net cups suspended in the tube, set on a slope to assist in the flow. The roots will then grow into the nutrient film that passes over them.  The level of the solution is kept just high enough to maintain a thin film of nutrient-bearing water moving over the roots.

  • Versatile – NFT systems are easy to move around, modify, expand or contract the system configuration.  Because channels are on sliding bench, they can be moved closer together or further apart to accommodate seasonal plant size fluctuations and/or crop modifications.

  • Easy to Use – This system isn’t very complicated at all. The limited amount of equipment means that there is a lot less that can go wrong. Simply run your pump 24/7, day and night. There’s no need to work out irrigation cycles and frequencies. Your plants will simply absorb as much or as little nutrient as they require.


aeroponics systems hydroponics grow guideIn an aeroponic system, nutrients and water are sprayed onto the roots in an atomized or mist form by a high-pressure pump. This creates quickly moving water, which is capable of delivering more oxygen because it is well agitated, like a waterfall. The presence of more oxygen also discourages bacterial and fungal growth.

  • Less Need for Nutrients & Water – Aeroponic plants need less nutrients and water on average, because the nutrient absorption rate is higher, and plants usually respond to aeroponic systems by growing even more roots. The operating costs for an aeroponics system also tends to be lower.

  • Requires Little Space – You don’t need much space to start an aeroponics garden. Depending on the system, plants can be stacked up one on top of each other.  Aeroponics is basically a modular system, which is perfect for maxing out limited space.


aquaponics how to guideIn aquaponics, the nutrient-rich water that results from raising fish provides a source of natural fertilizer for the growing plants. As the plants consume the nutrients, they help to purify the water that the fish live in. A natural microbial process keeps both the fish and plants healthy. This creates a sustainable ecosystem where both plants and fish can thrive. In this symbiotic relationship, fish waste provides a food source for growing the plants; and the plants supply a natural filter for fish.

  • Natural Approach – Instead of adding toxic chemical solutions to grow plants, aquaponics uses highly nutritious fish effluent that contains almost all the required nutrients for optimum growth. This method provides a truly organic, natural form of nutrients for the plants.

  • Supports Symbiotic Relationships – The symbiotic relationships formed in an aquaponic system create very complex ecosystems that actually increase the level of production when compared with the individual methods.

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