Did you know that it's possible to get large yields in your grow room in a short amount of time without watering a speck of dirt? If you're tired of growing in soil, or you're interested in making the switch to soil-less growing, you may want to consider a hydroponic system.
If you've ever asked yourself, "Is a hydroponic system really worth it?" or, "How hard is it to grow using hydro?", we're here to help. The good news is: yes, it is worth it, and it's not that difficult. You just have to get used to the process — like you did when you started growing in soil.
While you may have heard the term "hydroponics" before, it's possible you haven't gotten a complete explanation of what it actually is and how it can benefit you as a grower. That's why we decided to break down hydroponic growing so you see what you're in for when making the switch from a soil garden to a soil-less one.
What Is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using nutrient-rich water in an inert medium. Sound a little complicated? All it means is that instead of taking in water and nutrients through the dirt (the "medium"), plants are given nutrient-rich water directly to their roots while passing through a medium with no nutritional value like clay pebbles.
Now, the biggest difference between soil and soil-less growing is the way the roots of your plants find food. The way your plants get their nutrition makes all the difference in how your plants grow and what challenges you'll face until harvest. With soil, your plants need to burrow through dirt to soak up the nutrients they need. In a hydroponic system, plants get the nutrients they need straight to their roots. With this direct route to nutrition comes a new set of advantages and challenges in the grow room.
A hydroponic system will give your plants a direct dosage of nutrition, which is great for a few reasons.
First, your plants won't have to build big root systems to find the nutrients they need. That means your plants will spend less time growing roots and more time growing their vital parts.
Soil tends to retain a few nutrients, but hydroponic growing doesn't hold anything back. When roots get water, they get nothing but nutrients, which shaves off around 1/4 of the time your soil plants need to grow. On top of that, you're likely to see about 25-30% more yields because of this intense level of nutrition.
Probably the most important advantage hydroponic growing gives you is control over your garden. When things go wrong in a soil grow, it'll take a while for your plants to let you know — and even longer to correct the problem (if at all possible). In a hydroponic garden, your plants will let you know if there's anything wrong right away, and you can give them everything they need to correct their problem.
Just like having a more control in your grow room is a benefit, that same level of control can also be tricky. Like Spider-Man's Uncle Ben said: With great power comes great responsibility. That saying is also true when it comes to hydroponic growing. While a hydroponic system does offer the most control you can get over your plants' nutrition, it also means you've got to keep a closer eye on your plants than with any other growing technique. Any misstep with nutrients or not catching a pH imbalance quickly will result in partial — if not total — crop failure.
For the most part, hydroponics are dependent on pumps, bubblers, and sprayers to move water to and from your plants. If the power goes out or a piece of equipment shorts, your plants are going to feel it fast. When plants don't get the oxygen they need in their water, they can drown and even die. If your plants don't get the water they need in time, their roots will dry out, and the plants will be greatly damaged.
Hydroponic systems aren't cheap. You may be able to make your own, but even if you do, you're going to be paying a good chunk of change and spending lots of time doing so. You should also consider the added costs to hydroponic growing — like the extra energy and water you're going to be billed for.
Hydroponic Grow Mediums
Before we dive into the types of hydroponic systems out there, let's take a minute to go over the grow mediums you'll be using. While there are plenty of mediums out there, there are four popular mediums hydroponic growers use which are perlite, rockwool, clay pellets (or pebbles), and vermiculite.
What sets hydroponic mediums apart from other mediums is that each of these mediums is inert, meaning they have no nutritional value, which is exactly what you'd need in a hydroponic garden. Each of these mediums allows your roots to establish a healthy root system while assuring access to plenty of nutrient-rich water.
Perlite is made from volcanic glass that's heated up and expanded, making small, ridged pebbles with tiny pockets in them. Used in both soil and hydro settings, perlite will help aerate roots and keep them safe. Perlite's great if you've got plenty of water hitting your roots regularly, but it doesn't do well with retaining water.
That's why if you're going to use perlite it's best to use it with a soil-less system that'll give you a consistent flow of water like deep water culture and nutrient film systems (more on those in a minute).
Rockwool is quite literally what it is: wool that's made out of rocks. It's heated up and spun to make a cotton-candy-like "wool" fibers that are then bonded together and shaped. Despite being made of rock, rockwool retains a good amount of water. It's commonly used in addition to other mediums like clay pebbles and perlite, and can be used in nearly any hydro system out there.
The tricky thing with rockwool, though, is assuring you don't over or under water your plants. Rockwool can retain water well, but it dries quickly, too. This leads growers to either over-cautiously water their plants to death or under-water them and dry roots quickly. When using rockwool, keep a close eye on your plants to assure they're being watered properly.
Clay Pellets and Pebbles are probably the most popular mediums used in hydroponic growing. Clay pebbles are usually used with rockwool and starter cubes, and all you have to do is fill a small basket full of pebbles, set your rooted plant down in them (with or without a cube or cell), and let your nutrient-water flow.
The roundness of the pebbles lets water easily flow back into water basins and reservoirs while also giving your roots an exceptional path to grow through. They do, however, need to be pretreated and thoroughly cleaned before and after using them because if left untreated, they can attract bacteria that'll ruin your plant.
Vermiculite is just like perlite in that it's a heated and expanded rock used to house and grow roots. There's one crucial difference between it and perlite, though: water retention. Vermiculite retains water much better than perlite by a mile, and when used with perlite you'll actually get a well-watered, well-aerated garden.
The problem with it, however, is that it generally has to be used with perlite. Vermiculite does such a good job at retaining water that it'll actually retain too much, and when used on its own it'll down your plant's roots.
Believe it or not, soilless growing is nothing new. From the hanging gardens of Babylon to feeding WWII soldiers in the 1930’s and 40’s to modern growing, hydroponics is centuries old and has been used in all sorts of applications. As technology and techniques advanced, hydroponic growing became even more efficient and well rounded.
To be honest, there's no one system that's better than the other, but that doesn't mean it's not important to weigh your options. There's a hydro system for any type of grower and any plant you can imagine, so the name of the hydroponic game- on top of practicing proper growing techniques- is choosing the right system for your needs.
Deep Water Culture (DWC) is a hydroponic growing technique where roots sit in a bucket, a series of buckets, or a reservoir/basin of nutrient-rich water that's oxygenated with an air pump and air stone. Because oxygen is vital to the growth of any plant, the air pump makes sure roots don't drown by creating bubbles containing oxygen that allow your roots to breathe while taking in nutrients.
Unlike other methods, DWC doesn’t require sprayers or drippers that can get clogged which makes it one of the more reliable and user-friendly techniques to use. However, you’ll want to make sure your pumps are always working and that the water you’re using is changed out safely and regularly. DWC’s are totally reliant on pumps, so if it stops working your plants will suffer immediately. Moreover, if you’re not careful with your plants’ roots when draining and refilling the reservoir they could experience shock, which will eliminate your crop altogether.
That said, we recommend DWC for beginner and small-scale growers because there’s very little equipment to set up and use, making it hands down the most efficient way to get into hydroponics and learn what their plants need in a soil-less growing environment.
Recommendation: Most DWC growers we’ve talked to recommend the Root Spa 5 Gal 4 DWC Bucket System for lots of growth because whether you just want to use one or you're trying to use all four buckets, you just connect the air pump as needed.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic setups work in a pretty interesting way. Instead of your roots being submerged in water, roots hang down in an angled tray that has a low, steady flow of water running down the tray into a larger reservoir, that’s then sent back into the tray by a nutrient pump. The tips of the roots pick up the nutrients flowing below them, and because the rest of the roots get oxygen there’s no problem letting roots receive the air and nutrients they need.
This is another system that’s pretty easy to use. All it involves is an air pump, a nutrient pump, a grow tray, and a reservoir- no sprayers, no drippers, no commanders, and only one tube from the nutrient pump to the tray. That’s less than half the equipment most other hydroponic systems require, saving tons of time on installation and making it simple to grow with.
Just like DWC, however, if a power outage happens your plants are in danger. Nutrient pump failure means water can’t flow up from the reservoir into the tray, and will quickly dry roots out and kill the entire plant.
Recommendation: NFT’s can be used in smaller grow rooms, but thrive in larger environments. If you’ve got lots of flowering plants or leafy vegetables and don’t want to worry about flood times or feeding cycles, NFT’s give you a virtually hands-off way to grow your plants.
Aeroponics is a pretty high tech hydroponic growing technique. The roots of your plant are suspended in the air sort of like in an NFT system, only instead of giving them a steady flow of water plants are fed by a mist of nutrient water onto their roots. Setup of an aeroponic system and is actually pretty simple, not too unlike other hydroponic techniques. However, it’s the little things about aeroponics that make it more geared toward professional growers.
One aspect of aeroponics that’s tricky is the sprayers. If it’s too small you’ll likely clog the nozzle with nutrient solution (drying out roots and killing your plant); and if it’s too big you could possibly give them too much water and not enough oxygen (suffocating your plants’ roots and killing them).
Aeroponic systems also run on a timer, and knowing when to turn your misters on and how often to run them will take time and adjustment to make sure you’re giving your plants what they need. And of course, if your power goes out your timers and misters won’t work, leading to dry and/or infected roots and ruining your crop.
Recommendation: I recommend having a good amount of experience in hydroponics before diving into aeroponic growing. That said, there are systems out there for any grower in any space. For example, we recommend the PLATINIUM Pots Aerostar (40 Series) for single or dual plant growers and recommend the Platinium 120 Series AeroStar for growers interested in growing more than 8 plants.
Wicking is probably the oldest and easiest hydroponic technique you can use. All you really need is your plant, a basin/reservoir, and material that’s capable of soaking up water like cotton rope or even strips of cloth known as the “wick”.
With this hydro method, you’ll put your plant in its medium, then put that into a grow tray. Below the tray is a reservoir of water, and coming up from the water going directly into the medium is the wick. The wick soaks up water that then travels up and into your medium. From there, your roots will find the water and take it in through its roots.
Recommendation: While the setup and use of a wick system are simple, it’s unfortunately not very effective for plants larger than small herbs. Wick systems usually don’t have the ability to give your plants all the food they need to grow flowers, so while it’s great for very simple plants and inexperienced growers, we recommend staying away from wick systems if you’ve got plants like or anything that has to produce flowers.
Ebb & Flow hydroponic systems come in a variety of styles, from big flood trays and tables to multi-bucket setups, ebb and flow hydroponics is by far the most popular style of soil-less growing there is.
Just like the ebb and flow of the sea, in this technique, your plants receive water by letting water “flow” into the tray or bucket then “ebb” back into the reservoir and water tank. Unlike NFT, DWC, and drip systems, plants don’t get a consistent stream of water to their roots. Instead, your grow media is flooded for a certain amount of time (allowing your plant to soak in nutrients) and drained until the next feeding. Not only is this super effective for plant growth, but it also makes these systems flexible with nearly any type of setup. From a big flood table to a bucket system, ebb & flow’s can be tailored for nearly any grow room environment.
Now even though these systems are more than effective they take a good amount of work to set up and run.
First, you’ll need to set up the trays or buckets, all necessary tubing, and each pump for draining and flooding water. Unlike other hydroponic methods, these tend to have the most parts necessary to work correctly.
Second, you’ll need to know how often you need to flood your plants for. This is probably the trickiest part of it all because flooding your plants with too much water for too long will cause nutrient problems, and giving them too little water will dry out roots and kill your plants. Whether that’s by your own hand or due to a pump failure, you’ve got to keep an eye on ebb and flow’s to make sure your plants grow the way you need them to.
Recommendation: When it comes to ebb and flow systems, Oxygen Pot Systems makes some of the best quality soil-less systems around. They have plenty of potential to grow any size plant you want, so click here to learn more and check out your next ebb and flow system.
Drip Systems are so simple to use it’s really no wonder why hydroponic growers have been using them for decades. Whether it’s your first time growing or you’ve been growing for years, drip systems are adjustable to any skill level and only need a bit of getting used to before you start growing huge yields.
First you start by setting a timer for how long you need to drip down on to your plants. After that, your plants get a slow, constant drip of solution directly to their roots through a drip tube. Your plant sits in a slow draining medium like rockwool or coconut coir, and a dripper helps feed your plant roots drip by drip instead of flooding, misting, or submerging them like in many other hydroponic growing techniques. Imagine eating lots of small bits throughout the day versus stuffing yourself a few times a day with lots of food- that’s what this technique is sort of getting at. Instead of trying to eat lots of food at once, your plants get little bits of the same amount of nutrition they need spread over the day.
A big issue, however, is that there are two hydroponic styles that lead to clogged water emitters: aeroponic and drip systems, and unfortunately, drip systems tend to clog pretty frequently if you’re not using organic nutrients. Organic nutrients have more elements that don’t build up in spray nozzles and drip tubes, but when it comes to inorganic nutrients it’s not a matter of if you’ll experience clogs, but when. Drip systems may be simple to run, but with that simplicity comes a little sacrifice: either biting the bullet and buying organic nutrients, or spending more time devoted to cleaning emitters after each feeding.
Recommendation: When growing using a Drip System, we recommend assuring you’ve got the time to clean your emitters at least once a day, or you’ve got the money to spend assuring your nutrients won’t clog your hoses and drippers. Growers love using the 10 Pot Hydroponic VersaGrow Drip System to get plants started growing your next harvest.
Why Choose Hydroponics for Growing?
Believe it or not, while plants can grow in both soil and soil-less mediums their yield will not be the same, in both grow times and harvest:
- Growth Time- Soil-grown plants need to look for their nutrition in the dirt, which means it takes them longer to get the nutrients they need versus hydroponic plants that get nutrients directly to their roots. Quicker nutrient acquisition means faster growth, so hydro plants tend to grow faster than soil-grown plants, giving you’re a faster yield, too.
- Bigger Plants- Because plants don’t need to focus on root mining too much, they’ll be redirecting their growth energy to branches and leaves instead of intense root zones like soil plants will. (Note: hydro root zones are pretty crazy, too, but not as intense as soil-grown plants)
- Tasty, Aromatic Yields: While some argue that plant taste, size, and scent all comes down to genetics, it’s how you grow your plants that makes the difference between a good tasting harvest and a scrumptious one. The quicker your plants receive food the faster their build their terpenes, and with the potential for more growth at a higher rate, your yields will be even more flavorful than ever.
A Few Tips Before Starting Your Hydroponic Grow
By now you may think that hydroponics is the most confusing thing in the world, and it honestly can be. That’s why we’ve covered everything you need to know about growing without soil before you start looking for your next grow system.
If you’re still a little unclear about what hydroponic growing is, leave us a comment and we’ll clear up any confusion. In the meantime, here are a few last tips we know everyone needs before going soil-less:
Follow your nutrient’s suggested feeding schedule. Don’t eyeball your nutrients, and don’t skip feedings. Feed your plants the exact amount of nutrients the manufacturer recommends, adjusting only if you see negative reactions from over or underfeeding them.
It’s also important to mention that there are nutrients made specifically for hydroponic applications, some that are made only to be used in soil, and nutrients that can be used in both hydroponic and soil solutions. No matter what nutrients you use in your hydroponic grow room, make sure you follow the instructions for hydroponic use and do not use soil-specific nutrients, as those nutrients take significantly longer to break down than nutrients made for hydroponic use.
Water temperatures should be between 65-75° F. Water heaters and chillers can be used to adjust temperatures when needed, just be sure to keep a close eye on them because roots are extremely sensitive and will burn or freeze if you’re not careful.
Even if your particular hydroponic system doesn’t need an air pump to function, using an air pump with an air stone in your reservoir or basin will keep your nutrient solution oxygenated. Non-oxygenated water will go stale, rendering nutrients useless, so it’s a good idea to use an air stone and pump to keep your water fresh.
Keep a close eye on your pH levels and the NPK ratios of your nutrient solutions. When plants are discolored or look damaged or disfigured, chances are you’re looking at a pH imbalance or a nutrient deficiency. Correcting pH and nutrient issues can be as simple as adding a buffer or a little more of the solution your plants need, or as tedious as flushing your plants, draining, remixing and refilling your reservoir.
Read what your pH and PPM levels should be in a soil-less grow here.
DO NOT LET LIGHT INTO YOUR RESERVOIR or BASIN! All algae needs to grow is light and a moist environment to grow in, and your reservoir and basins are the perfect home for algae. Algae will feed on the nutrients and water your plants are supposed to use, which will kill your entire crop. When it comes to soil-less growing you’ve got to make sure there’s no way light can get into your water.
Clean and sterilize your entire system after each grow. From hoses to buckets to your reservoir, and everything in between, make sure your reservoirs are clean.
- Start by draining your reservoir and basins, flushing and removing any dirt, debris, and nutrient solution left over
- Run your system for about a day using a sterilizing solution of 1/8 of a cup of non-chlorine bleach and to 1 gallon of water, then thoroughly rinse your system when you’re done.
- After that, do another day of flushing your entire system with clean water.
- When it comes to nutrition, we recommend using organic nutrients whenever possible. Inorganic nutrients will work just fine, you just may need to watch your water emitters (spray nozzles, hoses, etc…) to assure they don’t get clogged.