Everyone loves the idea of hydroponics: No more dirt, bigger plants, all water. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Choosing the right hydroponic system — that’s what. There are hundreds out there, so it can be overwhelming trying to choose the best one for your grow tent or grow room.

That’s why we put together this guide on everything you need to know about hydroponics.

We’ll give you the necessary information on everything from the theory of hydroponics to breaking down each type of system, all the way through choosing the right medium for your plants. This guide is your key to unlocking the potential of hydroponics in your grow room.

Table of Contents

  1. The Best Hydroponic Systems for Growers
  2. What Is Hydroponics?
  3. Hydroponic Systems
  4. Hydroponic Grow Mediums
  5. The Right Nutrients for Hydroponic Plants
  6. How to Choose the Right Hydroponic System for Your Needs
  7. Frequently Asked Questions

Now, the foundation for any decision — especially in the grow room — is knowledge. So let’s talk about what hydroponics is and start breaking down the type of hydroponic system out there.

The Best Hydroponic Systems for Growers

You didn’t think we’d leave you hanging, did you? We know that even with all of the money, knowledge, and understanding about hydro, it’s tricky to find a system that’s perfect for you. That’s why we collected our favorite hydroponic systems and found the best for any grower, any skill level, and with any medium.

Greentree Hydroponics Multi Flow 6 Site Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System — Grower’s Choice

Greentree Hydroponics Multi Flow 6 Site Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System for indoor grow tents and grow rooms.The beauty of a hydro setup like the Greentree Hydroponics Multi Flow 6 Site Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System is that it’s enough for any grower in any medium-sized growing space (around 4x4ft to 5x5ft).

This hydro system is also modular. That means you can use one or all six of the buckets included with this system.

This hydroponic system has the ability to give you up to heavy yields with up to 6 plants each season. As such, this system’s simple enough to use successfully, whether you’re a novice or you’ve been growing with hydro for some time.

Our Recommendations

Recommended Medium: Coco and perlite

Recommended Plant Count: Up to 6 flowering plants

Recommended Method of Growing: Ebb and flow

Recommended Growing Area: 4x4ft to 6x6ft

Our Price: $529.95| Buy Here

Root Spa 5 Gal 4 DWC Bucket System — For Compact Growing Spaces

Root Spa 5 Gal 4 DWC Bucket System for indoor grow rooms and grow tents.If you’re looking for something to give your plants every bit of nutrition they need without taking up a ton of space, the Root Spa 5 Gal 4 DWC Bucket System is the setup for you.

Being a DWC, this bucket system is designed to give your plants nutrition 24/7, so they’ll be able to feed to their fullest potential

What sets this system apart from others, though, is its modular and compact design. You can connect one or all four of the buckets in this system and keep an eye on your plants. Better, you can tend to (and customize) each plant’s feeding cycle without disturbing the rest of your plants.

Our Recommendations

Recommended Medium: Clay pebbles; rockwool starter cells can be transplanted into pebbles for full growth

Recommended Plant Count: Up to 4 flowering plants

Recommended Method of Growing: Deep water culture

Recommended Growing Area: 2x4ft to 4x4ft

Our Price: $199.95 | Buy Here

Root Spa 5 Gal 8 DWC Bucket System — For Large-Scale DWC Growing

8-bucket deep water culture (DWC) hydroponic grow room system.When you want individual care for lots of plants, the Root Spa 5 Gal 8 DWC Bucket System is the hydroponic system you’re looking for.

This hydroponic kit has 5-gallon pots and the ability to grow up to 8 plants at a time. All you need with this system is the right nutrients and medium, and your plants will get all-day nutrition.

While you could scale this system down, it’s particularly good for large-scale DWC growing. This is because the larger your plants get, the more space you can give them.

Compared to flood tables and setups where buckets are connected together, this hydroponic system will let your plants grow as much foliage as possible for huge yields.

Our Recommendations

Recommended Medium: Clay pebbles; rockwool starter cells can be used in pebbles when transitioning clones/seedlings into large buckets

Recommended Plant Count: Up to 8 plants

Recommended Method of Growing: Deep water culture

Recommended Growing Area: 5x5ft to 6x6ft

Our Price: $199.95 | Buy Here

Greentree Hydroponics Multi Flow 12 Site Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System — For Large-Scale Ebb and Flow Growing

12-site ebb and flow hydroponic grow room system.If you’re looking for a powerhouse of yields, you’re going to want the Greentree Hydroponics Multi Flow 12 Site Ebb and Flow Hydroponic System.

With this system, you can grow up to 12 plants. Making things even better, the huge 60-gallon reservoir included can provide nutrition for even more plants.

The key factor that makes this system so effective for large-scale ebb and flow growing is its flexibility. This hydroponic system can be scaled as large as you can think of with additional sites (i.e., buckets) and a little extra tubing.

When you want to focus on a smaller number of plants, just remove as many sites as you need and you’re ready to grow. So while this hydroponic ebb and flow system is great for growing on a large scale, it’s versatile enough to allow you to put together smaller grows, too.

Our Recommendations

Recommended Medium: Coco and perlite

Recommended Plant Count: Up to 12 plants; additional sites for expansion available

Recommended Method of Growing: Ebb and flow

Recommended Growing Area: 6x6ft and larger

Our Price: $699.95 | Buy Here

Root Spa 5 Gal DWC Bucket System — For Single Plant Growing

Root Spa 5 Gal DWC Bucket System for indoor grow tents and grow rooms.When your dream is to grow a single plant you can give all your attention to, the Root Spa 5 Gal DWC Bucket System is the system for you.

This single-bucket hydroponic system is simple to set upeasy to use, and will have you harvesting a great yield off of a single plant.

Its DWC abilities allow your plant to receive water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without stopping. That means with the right amount of nutrition, your one plant can give you big yields each season.

Better yet, when you’re ready to expand your grow, just set up a second bucket, connect it to your bubbler, and you’re on your way to heavier yields!

Our Recommendations

Recommended Medium: Clay pebbles; rockwool starter cells can be used in pebbles when transitioning clones/seedlings into large buckets

Recommended Plant Count: 1 plant

Recommended Method of Growing: Deep water culture

Recommended Growing Area: 2x4ft to 4x4ft

Our Price: $52.95 | Buy Here

What Is Hydroponics?

By definition, hydroponics is a method of growing plants by using only nutrient-rich water. Compared to soil growing where nutrients are released by soil when watered, hydroponic-grown plants don’t wait for a medium to release nutrition. But that’s not the only thing that puts them at an advantage over soil grown plants.

Before we go into the advantages of hydroponic plants, though, let’s talk a bit about the differences between growing with and without soil.

Hydroponics vs. Soil

Grow tent with soil-grown plant.

When it comes down to it, the key difference between soil-free growing and growing with dirt is nutrient uptake.

  • In Soil, Roots Search for Water — When soil is watered, the nutrients in the soil become available for roots to soak in. When water and soil dries out, nutrients are held in by soil and root intake stops until it’s watered again. In turn, this results in some nutrition being held back altogether.
  • In Hydroponics, Roots Get Water Directly — When hydroponic plants are watered, nutrient-rich water is given directly for roots to soak in. Even in coco and rockwool, where minimal water is retained, all nutrition is available to your plants right away. This results in much more nutrition than soil.

So in a sense, soil plants have to work harder to get less nutrition than hydroponic plants.

What Are the Advantages of Hydroponics?

Spicy peppers growing in hydroponic system.

The key to what gives hydroponics the edge over soil-grown plants is the ability to quickly deliver nutrition to your plants. Soil-grown plants tend to hold a number of nutrients back, so when you grow with hydro, you’ll see some great benefits.

  1. Larger Plants — The water used in hydroponics contains a higher concentration of nutrients than most soil. That means your plants get many more nutrients than they would otherwise, which helps build a big, healthy plant.
  2. Faster Growth — In hydroponics, plants are watered at a faster rate than soil. That means their nutrition is not only higher in concentration, but it’s delivered to roots faster, too. That increases the rate of growth.
  3. Better Taste and Aroma — With hydroponics, your plants receive peak amounts of nutrients to enhance the flavor profiles of flowers, fruit, and foliage. 
    1. In soil, your plants receive as many nutrients as the medium will allow. Soil’s slow to release nutrients, so even when you add more nutrients to soil, it may take a while for your plants to receive them. Worse, it’s easy to overdo it with nutrients in soil, and difficult to fix quickly.

What Are the Challenges of Hydroponics?

Yellow leaves on seedlings.

As you can see, hydroponics offers some great advantages for your indoor grow tent or grow room. But that’s not to say hydroponics is free of any difficulties. In fact, there are a few key challenges you’re going to face growing soil-free.

  1. Nutrient Burn — If you mix too much of a certain nutrient in your water, you’ll end up “burning” the leaves of your plant because it’s unable to process the excess nutrients. Leaves will start to brown and die out, indicating much bigger issues at the root level that’ll lead to hindered or even halted growth.
  2. Nutrient Lockout — This is sort of like overwatering. Nutrient lockout occurs when you give your plants too much of every nutrient. When that happens, your plants can’t break down all of the nutrients they get. So not only will plants suffer from getting too much food, but whatever’s not used will start hindering growth.
    1. For more info, see our guide on identifying, preventing, and treating nutrient lockout in your plants.
  3. Tricky pH and PPM — Water used in hydroponics can spike in pH quickly depending on the source of your water. pH (how acidic/alkaline water is) will go up and down regardless of growing method. But with hydroponic-grown plants, pH levels can fluctuate quickly, so to balance that out you’ll need a pH adjuster. However, using that will throw off your PPM, meaning you have to add water to even it out, which will affect your pH.
    1. So while you shouldn’t go chasing pH and PPM in your garden, be aware that the pH and PPM of hydroponic plants can be altered in both positive and negative ways.
    2. See our in-depth guide to pH and PPM levels, so you can ensure you have healthy plants in your grow room.

So now that you have an idea of what hydroponics will do for your garden, it’s time to start talking about the different types of hydroponic systems out there. While they all depend on virtually the same things (water, nutrients, and oxygen), each offer their own benefits and challenges.

Let’s explore each type of hydro system and get an idea of what’s best for your indoor garden.

Hydroponic Systems

In this section, we’ll go over three of the most common hydroponic systems around and a few not-so-commonly used (but still effective) systems. There truly is a system and style for every plant and every grower, so let’s check out your options across the board.

Ebb and Flow Hydroponics

What makes ebb and flow systems popular in the hydroponic game is their simplicity and effectiveness. Especially when used with coco coir and perlite, these systems offer a similar feel to watering your plants in soil, only automated.

Just like with soil, all you have to do when using an ebb and flow system is figure out the right feeding and nutrient plan for huge harvests.

How Do Ebb and Flow Systems Work?

How does ebb and flow hydroponics work?

Ebb and flow systems use a flood-and-drain style of delivering nutrients to your plants. The process goes like this:

  1. Nutrient-rich water is pulled from a reservoir and is pumped to your plants.
  2. The water floods your plant’s roots, and your roots soak in nutrients for a predetermined amount of time. This is how your roots get nutrients.
  3. After that time, that water is drained back into the reservoir, and your plants’ roots are allowed to receive the oxygen they need to sufficiently take in those nutrients. This is how your plants receive oxygen.
  4. Once it’s time to flood your plants again, the process starts all over. You repeat this as many times as your plants need in order to receive all the nutrition they’re looking for.

Advantages of Ebb and Flow Hydroponics

Ebb and flow is probably the most common way to grow hydroponically for a few reasons.

  • Air Pruning for Larger Yields — Air pruning allows roots to die off and create new root systems, which in turn grow much bigger plants and yields. Ebb and flow systems are one of the only hydro setups that naturally air prune roots, whether you’re growing in buckets or on a flood table.
  • Different Options for Your Grow Room — With ebb and flow systems, you have the choice to use bucket systems or flood trays. You can expand or shrink the size of your growing area from 1 bucket or a small tray, to a 12-bucket system or an 8x8ft tray — and that’s just a couple of ideas.
  • They’re Energy Efficient — Compared to DWCs and drip systems that are running virtually 24/7, ebb and flow systems only engage and disengage the amount of flood-and-drain cycles. This makes them efficient when it comes to energy and, ultimately, cost.

Challenges of Ebb and Flow Hydroponics

Now, even though anyone can use an ebb and flow system, we recommend this option for advanced growers. Here’s why:

  • Getting Flood Cycles Down Can Be Tricky — You can underfeed and/or overwhelm your plants with nutrients trying to dial them in, so unless you know how to fix nutrient and feeding issues, you may want to use a different system.
  • Setup Can Be Difficult — Knowing how to arrange plants on a flood table or bucket system is all about knowing how big your plants are going to get. It’s important to arrange your plants in the most efficient way possible with ebb and flow systems, which is an advanced technique that beginners may have a hard time grasping. This could in turn result in weak plant growth.

Should I Use an Ebb and Flow System?

All in all, ebb and flow hydroponics can be used by all growers, from novice to pros. Though they can be a little on the advanced end at first, ebb and flow systems are well worth the risk. So whether you’re growing a couple of plants or an indoor forest, these systems can be perfected by anyone.

Deep Water Culture (DWC) Hydroponics

The great thing about deep water culture (DWC) systems is that they give your plants large amounts of nutrients at all times. You don’t have to worry about watering cycles, either — just make sure your air pumps are working properly and you’re good to grow.

How Do Deep Water Culture Systems Work?

How does deep water culture (DWC) hydroponics work?

In DWC systems, plants rest their roots in nutrient-rich water. As roots take in the water, that water’s aerated with bubbles to make sure those roots can breathe and take in nutrients properly. Here’s how it works:

  • A plant is placed in a site on top of a bucket or a basin, with its roots hanging down into said bucket/basin.
  • That bucket/basin is then filled with nutrient-rich water, and that water is aerated with a bubbler.
    • The bubbler — whether it’s aerating one bucket, multiple buckets, or a basin — bubbles the nutrient-rich water in each bucket so that your roots can receive both water and oxygen.
    • Without oxygen, your plants’ roots can’t breathe, and roots sitting in water without any oxygen will drown, rot, and possibly even kill the plant entirely.
  • As your plants grow, their root system inside of the bucket will grow, too. Thankfully, unlike soil-grow plants, DWC plants don’t succumb to things like root bounding as easily.
  • When it’s time to change watering solutions, just dump out the existing water from each bucket, mix your new solution into the main reservoir/bucket, and start the bubbler.

DWCs may look a little intimidating at first, but the reality is that they’re actually pretty easy to work with. That’s why we recommend them for all levels of growers, from beginners to advanced growers.

Advantages of Deep Water Culture Hydroponics

Whether you’re brand new to hydro or you’re looking to switch your hydro game up, DWCs have a couple of key advantages over other systems.

  1. Easy to Use — DWCs are straightforward. Just give your plants water and make sure the bubbles are strong enough to aerate that water. You run the bubbler all day and night, so there’s no need to worry about watering schedules.
    1. Setup consists of connecting a bubbler into a basin, a bucket, or a series of buckets, and then filling it up with water and your plants. Compared to every other system on this list, these have the simplest setup and are by far the easiest to use.
  2. Truly Made for All Growers — From one plant in a single bucket, to multiple plants in multiple buckets, to lots of plants in a single basin, you can grow as many plants as you can handle. That’s a key reason why DWCs are popular among beginners who want to eventually expand their grow, as well as pros with large gardens.
    1. DWCs are also great if you’re looking for something compact. Their reservoirs, basins, and buckets are much smaller than ebb and flows that take up lots of space with flood tables, buckets, and large reservoirs.

Challenges of Deep Water Culture Hydroponics

As simple as they are to use, DWCs have one big curveball:

  • They Shock Roots Easier Than Other Systems — When you change out your watering solution, you need to put your plants somewhere they can still receive water. Unfortunately, they don’t do well when they’re not getting water since they’re used to getting it all day.
    • If the roots don’t get the nutrition they need in the meantime — or if roots are left to sit in potentially germ-filled buckets — they’ll go into shock. This can cause a plant to die quickly, so it’s important to keep your plants fed.

Should I Use a DWC System?

We recommend DWCs for starters as well as advanced growers. While deep water culture hydroponic systems aren’t 100 percent error-proof, they’re a lot simpler to use than other hydroponic systems while giving you fantastic results.

Hydroponic Drip Systems

Drip hydroponics are great because they can work at any capacity with any medium. Whether you want to feed your plants drip by drip or figure out a stream cycle for them, a drip system will give your plants as little or as much water as you want them to have.

How Do Drip Systems Work?

  1. How does drip system hydroponics work?To begin, drippers or drip lines are placed near the base of each plant.
  2. Once the drippers are in place, nutrient-rich water is then pumped from a reservoir and comes out through the drippers and onto your plants.
  3. When water comes out, you can fine-tune the frequency and rate of feeding your plants.
    1. For a slower stream of water, you can adjust the rate of waterflow down so that water slowly drips out.
    2. For a faster stream of water, you can adjust the waterflow higher to give plants more nutrients at a higher rate. 
  4. Once you’re at a feeding rate your plants will thrive at, just look after them and maintain an optimal feeding schedule.
  5. When it’s time to change out your feeding solution, just stop the emitters, change the solution in your reservoir or basin, and start your feedings again.

Advantages of Drip System Hydroponics

If you think about it, drip hydroponics is a happy medium between ebb and flow systems and DWCs. It’s this ease of use and potential for big growth that gives drip systems advantages over other hydroponic systems around.

  • It’s Compatible with More Grow Mediums than Other Systems — Drip systems can be used with any type of medium, like rockwool, coco coir, pebbles, and vermiculite. Compared to other systems where the medium will make or break your grow, drip systems can work with any medium and give you the results you’re looking for — even soil!
  • Complete Feeding Customization — Did you know it’s better to have snacks and small meals throughout the day than to have fewer, larger meals? That’s the idea behind drip hydroponics, too. You can give your plants food all day little by little instead of stuffing them and then starving them. That said, you should still limit big streams of water for your plants to a few times per day.

Challenges of Drip System Hydroponics

While incredibly versatile, drip hydroponic systems come with a couple of challenges, too.

  • Drip Intervals Can Be Tricky to Dial In — Just like flood cycles, drip intervals can be difficult to get right. You have to figure out how much you want to feed your plants, and base that off the medium you’re using.
    • Pebbles, for example, can work with a steady stream of water all day because water rolls right off pebbles.
    • That same stream would overwater plants being grown in rockwool. In this case, you’d need to lower that stream to a drip, then measure out how saturated that rockwool should be for optimal nutrient uptake.
  • Clogged Drippers Can Cause Underfeeding — The drippers (or emitters) in a drip system can accumulate buildup from nutrients in your watering solution. If deposits build up, they can clog the flow of water coming from your system, so you may need to do more maintenance on these systems than you would with others.

Should I Use a Drip System?

All things considered, drip systems can be used by any type of grower. They’re highly adaptable and adjustable and can be used with any grow medium. They will take a little more maintenance than other systems, but they’ll grow plants just as great, if not better!

Aside from these three systems, there are a few lesser-used hydroponic systems out there. Let’s take a brief minute to go over your other hydroponic options.

Aeroponics

How do aeroponics work?

Aeroponics is pretty high-tech, which is usually why you don’t see these systems outside of large and high-end indoor gardens.

  • How It Works — Instead of sitting in nutrient-rich water or having a drip/stream of water, plant roots hang in a basin while a fine mist is sprayed onto them. This gives plants a steady amount of nutrients all day without overwhelming them.
  • Pros — Aeroponics lets your plants receive nutrients all day, and being delivered in a fine mist helps plants take in and process nutrition more efficiently than with larger amounts of water.
  • Cons — Aeroponics are pretty complicated to set up, and dialing in misting cycles can prove challenging. Not only that, but misters often clog and need to be maintained often.
  • Overall — While they’re absolutely effective for plants and great at growing big root systems, such an intense setup and rollout is best left to longtime and large-scale growers.

Nutrient Film Technique

How does NFT (nutrient film technique) hydroponics work?

This is sort of a mid-school technique that uses a combination of drip technology and gravity to feed your plants.

  • How It Works — Your plants sit in a long trough-style basin, and their roots hang down into a low stream of water. The trough is tilted, allowing nutrient-rich water to flow from the top all the way down to the end, where it’s dumped into the basin and circulated back to the top.
  • Pros — NFT systems are surprisingly easy to use and maintain. They also deliver a steady stream of nutrients to your roots at all times, so you don’t have to worry about feeding cycles.
  • Cons — NFTs need a lot of space to work efficiently. Their large size can really put a hindrance on your growing area, especially since you have to position them just right under lights.
  • Overall — These types of systems are great for growers with large spaces to work with, like outdoor greenhouses or even commercial grows.

Wick System Hydroponics

How does a wicking system work?

Interestingly enough, this is one of the oldest hydroponic techniques known to man. It’s the most natural and simplest system to work with, and it does a great job for a mostly passive system.

  • How It Works — Your plants sit in your grow medium (usually coco coir), and at the bottom of the medium sits a wick or a series of wicks. Each wick sits in a basin of nutrient-rich water. As the wick soaks in the water, it naturally travels up the wicks and soaks the medium. As the medium takes in water, the roots search for water and take it in as they grow.
  • Pros — Wicking systems are super simple and use the least amount of power out of all systems around because they only power a bubbler to keep water aerated.
  • Cons — Wicking systems work slowly, and the amount of water the grow medium receives can be used up quickly depending on the medium.
  • Overall — These systems are best for plants that don’t require a lot of water, like young plants, herbs, and veggies.

Hydroponic Grow Mediums

Now that you know the types of systems you can work with, let’s talk about the grow mediums you can choose from. A grow medium will help give your plants nutrients, and it will make or break a grow. That’s why it’s important to pick the right one for your hydroponic system. 

Just like picking the right grow system, there are a lot of medium options that make a big difference for your plants. That’s why we broke each medium down to give you an idea of what’ll work best for your plants.

Coco Coir and Perlite

Coco coir and perlite mix for hydroponics.

For growers who’ve mostly worked with soil, coco coir and perlite will be very familiar. Like soil, coco retains a lot of the nutrient-rich water it receives, and it makes nutrients available to plants little by little.

Advantages of Coco Coir and Perlite

  • More Nutrients for Your Plants — Coco coir doesn’t hold anything back like soil, so your plants get much more nutrition than soil could ever deliver. Better yet, the more perlite you mix in, the more drainage you get, leaving you with the potential for more frequent feedings. That means bigger growth at a faster rate.
  • Compatible With All Hydroponic Systems — From ebb and flow to DWC all the way to aeroponics and wicking, coco coir and perlite can be used in any system with success. Compare that to pebbles and rockwool that can only be used with systems that can drain water quickly, coco coir can be used in any system to give plants sufficient water.
  • Highly Adjustable — By mixing more or less perlite with coco, you can adjust how quickly water drains from the medium. The more water coco retains, the less feedings you need to give them, which means you can be a little more hands-off while growing. On the flipside, if you mix in lots of perlite and drain quickly, you have the potential for more feedings, larger plants, and better harvests.

What Growers Recommend

  • Coco coir and perlite mix is compatible with all hydroponic systems.
  • Coco coir and perlite mix is recommended for all levels of grower, from hydro newcomers to expert growers.

Rockwool

Rockwool grow medium for hydroponics.

Rockwool is a staple in hydroponics because of its porous structure. That structure will give your plants the room they need to create a huge network of roots for larger plants than you would’ve thought possible.

Advantages of Rockwool

  • The Perfect Structure for Huge Root Networks — Rockwool is made of rock material that’s spun in a way that creates crevices and pores for roots to travel through. This promotes strong roots (and lots of them, too), giving your plants a better opportunity for nutrition.
  • Minimal Retention, Maximum Drainage — Because of the way it’s spun, the fibers in rockwool retain a little water. Being made of rock, though, water wicks away relatively fast. That means roots are constantly ready to receive more water, but not always in need of it. This is also helpful for controlled feedings because rockwool can’t dry out or be oversaturated.
  • Diverse Compatibility — Due to its ability to both retain and drain water, you can use rockwool by itself or with pebbles for extra drainage. That’s what makes this grow medium popular among ebb and flow and drip system growers.

What Growers Recommend

  • Rockwool is most compatible with ebb and flow systems, and commonly used with drip systems.
  • Rockwool is recommended for growers with some experience and advanced growers.

Clay Pellets

Clay pebbles for hydroponic growing.

Made from hard clay, these pellets and pebbles are the premier medium for fast-draining systems like ebb and flow, as well as systems that run all day like DWCs. They don’t retain water, and that makes them perfect candidates for systems that give plants large amounts of water all day.

Advantages of Clay Pellets

  • Ideal Root Systems — The way pebbles and pellets naturally lay on each other creates the ideal space for roots to grow through. In fact, clay pebbles are among the best mediums for hydroponic plants because they’re more malleable than others. As such, root systems can grow as needed (compared to other mediums that can restrict root engorging, thus limiting growth).
  • Maximum Nutrient Availability — Clay doesn’t retain water, so your plant’s roots don’t have to search for it through a medium like they would with coco and rockwool. Nutrients are available at all times, maximizing growth beyond other mediums. This also helps if and when you have to make nutrient adjustments, like pH balances or correcting nutrient dosages.
  • Easy to Reuse — Unlike many other mediums, all you have to do with clay pebbles is sanitize them after each cycle and you’re ready to use it all over again. Compared to rockwool, for example, which is a one-and-done type of medium, you can use clay mediums for at least 2 to 3 grows before they deteriorate.

What Growers Recommend

  • Clay pebbles are usable in every type of hydroponic system out there, which makes them super compatible with a wide variety of setups.
  • Clay pebbles are unforgiving, though, so we recommend them for experienced and advanced growers.

A Note on Vermiculite

Vermiculite for hydroponics.

While not as common as other hydroponic grow mediums, vermiculite is a great option if you can get your hands on it. It’s made of volcanic material, sort of like perlite. The difference, though, is that vermiculite can retain water much more.

  • Vermiculite can retain more water than perlite, so if you need to retain water longer than coco will, you can mix that instead of perlite.

Vermiculite isn’t as popular of a mix because most growers that need quick drainage will use perlite instead. However, most will utilize vermiculite by itself in place of an all-perlite medium for ebb and flow systems. So if you happen to have vermiculite and you’re growing hydroponically, throw some in a pot and start those watering cycles!

The Right Nutrients for Hydroponic Plants

Hydroponics depends on three things: water, medium, and nutrients. The system is what delivers water — you’ve already checked out various grow mediums, so now it’s time to talk about nutrients.

We recommend nutrients with the following elements:

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sulfur (S)

These elements are the building blocks of roots, cell walls, stems, and leaves. They make up the foundation of all healthy plant growth at any point during its life cycle. So at the very least, these need to be in your plant’s nutrition cycle.

Dyna-Gro nutrients for hydroponics.

Thankfully, nutrients like Dyna-Gro Foliage Pro and Dyna-Gro Bloom offer these nutrients in spades.

  • Dyna-Gro Foliage Pro helps develop the branches, leaves, and root zones needed for vegetative growth.
  • Dyna-Gro Bloom develops and strengthens leaves, branches, and flowers to help support fruits.

In addition, nutrient brands like Dyna-Gro have the following vital micronutrients, too:

  • Iron (Fe)
  • Boron (B)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Chlorine (Cl)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Cobalt (Co)
  • Nickel (Ni)

These micronutrients essentially help the metabolism of plants, aiding in the breaking down, transmission, and absorption of nutrients while growing.

So be sure that whichever brand of nutrients you go with, they have all of the elements we’ve outlined above. From there, it’s just a matter of measuring and adjusting your nutrients and feeding schedule.

How to Choose the Right Hydroponic System for Your Needs

Clay pebbles used for hydroponics.

The great thing about choosing a hydroponic system is that there’s a system for any grower of any level — whether you’re starting out and need a little buffer or you’ve got hydro down and want maximum nutrition. You just have to know where to start.

We can actually determine what you need by answering three questions:

  1. How often do you want to water plants? This is related to your grow medium.
  2. What style best suits your watering requirements? This establishes the type of system you should choose.
  3. How many plants do you want to grow? This determines how large of a system you will work with.

These questions will help you determine the perfect grow medium to work with, as well as the best size and type of hydro system for your gardening experience and harvest goals.

So let’s go step by step through these questions. We’ll start by figuring out how many plants you want to grow, that way we can get an idea of how large of a system you should be working with.

Step 1: Determine How Often You Want to Water Your Plants 

When you establish how often you want to water your plants, you’ll get an idea of the medium that’s best for your style of growing. Once you know what sort of medium to work with, you’ll have a better idea of what style of hydroponics is best for your plants, and the size of the system you’re looking to get.

But why would it matter how often you feed your plants? Well…

  • The more frequently you feed your plants, the more nutrition they receive.
  • The more nutrition your plants receive, the bigger they’ll grow.
  • The more nutrition your plants can process, the faster they’ll grow, too.
Root Royale grow mediums for hydroponics.

The medium you choose will effectively let you know how big of a plant you can grow. That’s why it’s important to know how much you want to feed your plants each day. And that starts with your grow medium:

  • Coco coir and perlite have the most water retention, so this is a perfect medium for growers who want to run a strict number of grow cycles a day. 
    • Preferred Watering Cycles — Coco coir lets you space out your feedings because it’s great at retaining enough nutrition to last hours between feedings without drying out.
    • Harvest Potential — A limited amount of feedings will give your plants their recommended amount of nutrition for a healthy, standard size harvest.
  • Rockwool has a minimal amount of retention, which means it can be used by growers with both all-day watering cycles and limited watering cycles, too.
    • Preferred Watering Cycles — Rockwool can be used with a slow dripping, all-day watering cycle or with limited watering cycles.
      • All-day cycles prefer a slower drip so that you don’t oversaturate your medium while you give it nutrition all day.
      • Limited watering cycles require more frequent feedings, because while rockwool can retain water, it can’t retain too much and will dry out if not regulated.
    • Harvest Potential — Because this medium requires frequent feedings, rockwool has the potential to give you larger-than-normal harvests due to the nutrition it’ll give your plants.
  • Clay Pebbles have the least amount of water retention, which means they’ll need to be used in systems where plants are fed all day.
    • Preferred Watering Cycles — Plants growing in clay mediums need to be fed all day because there is nothing to hold onto water for roots to absorb.
    • Harvest Potential — All-day nutrition (especially with clay) can lead to bigger plants and larger harvests than any other medium.

Once you’ve figured out what sort of medium you want to grow with, it’s time to choose what type of system you want to use.

Step 2: Determine the Type of Hydroponic System for Your Watering Needs

After you’ve determined how often you want to water plants and how big you want them to be, it’s time to figure out what type of system will help you do that.

Grow room setup with hydroponics and grow lights.

  • Ebb and Flow systems are perfect for coco coir and rockwool mediums because of their ability to retain nutrient-rich water for extended periods of time.
  • DWC systems perform best with clay pebbles because they don’t retain water, so oversaturating the medium isn’t an issue (though undersaturation in your roots is).
  • Drip systems can be used with all three mediums, believe it or not.
    • Coco coir can stand minimal slow drips that saturate the entirety of the medium, as well as longer, limited drips.
    • Rockwool can use constant drips because of its ability to wick most water away, yet retain a little.
    • Pebbles can be watered with as fast or as slow of a drip as you’d like, so long as your roots are always being saturated.

So now that you know what sort of medium you need and what type of system works best for your watering needs, the last thing to do is figure out what size system you need.

Step 3: Determine the Size of Your Hydroponic System

Figuring out the perfect size hydro system is the last piece of the puzzle. And just like a puzzle, you already have the foundation of info you need, so this is probably the simplest part of the process.

Now, when we talk about sizing your system, it’s important to take a three-pronged approach:

Multi-site hydroponics.

  1. How large are your plants going to grow? The larger the plant, the more room their roots will need to grow. So the overall size of your plants will determine the size of your buckets, reservoir, or flood tables.
    1. 2x4ft to 4x4ft growing spaces can house herbs, veggies, or a couple of 5ft tall plants.
    2. 5x5ft to 7x7ft growing spaces can house bushy plants, larger flowering plants, and fruit-bearing plants.
    3. 8x4ft, 8x8ft, and larger growing areas can grow large fruit and flowering plants, bushy flowers, and even smaller trees intended to be planted outdoors.
  2. How much growing space do you have to work with? This will help you make sure the system you want to use will fit comfortably in your growing space.
    1. 2x4ft to 4x4ft growing areas can fit a small flood table and up to four 5-gallon buckets. However, reservoirs will take up space unless you have somewhere outside of the growing area to store it.
    2. 5x5ft to 7x7ft growing areas can fit a flood table up to 5x5ft or up to eight 5-gallon buckets comfortably.
    3. 8x8ft and larger growing areas can fit multiple smaller flood tables, a 7x7ft flood table, or twelve 5-gallon bucket systems.
  3. How many plants do you want to grow? Given the size of your growing area, the next idea is figuring out how many plants you want to grow in that space.
    1. 2x4ft to 4x4ft growing areas can usually house around 2 to 4 mature, flowering plants no matter the system.
    2. 5x5ft to 7x7ft growing areas can house around 5 to 8 mature, flowering plants regardless of system.
    3. 8x8ft and larger growing areas can grow up to 10 plants depending on the type of system, and more than 10 with others.
      1. Flood tables can only house so many plants, but because there’s lots of room, you can use multiple tables to get up to 10 plants.
      2. With 12+ site systems fitting in such large growing areas, you can grow more than 12 plants with bucketed systems.

So there you have it, growers! With all the information we’ve provided in this guide, you’ll be able to accomplish your hydroponic goals in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why should I grow with hydroponics instead of growing in soil?

Hydroponic system showing root growth.

While soil is the oldest and most tried-and-true grow medium out there, hydroponics offers quite a few benefits over growing in soil. Despite the trickiness of getting hydroponics down, once you do, you’ll find that you probably should’ve started growing hydroponically earlier.

  • Much Better Nutrition — Most soil you buy has a good estimate of what plants should get, but that may not be the best for your plant. With hydroponics, the content and quality of your plant’s nutrition are in your hands, so you know exactly what your plant’s consuming.
  • Faster Delivery of Nutrition and Faster Growth — Your plants have to search for nutrients in soil, but with hydroponics, your plants are given nutrition directly. That means your plant can receive more nutrients in the same time it takes for soil-grown plants to get theirs, resulting in faster growth.
  • Bigger Plants and Harvests — Because plants grow faster with hydro than soil, their size will be larger, too. And the larger the plant, the larger the harvests!

2. What should I look for in a hydroponic system?

Full hydroponic grow room setup.

A brand name (or lack of one) shouldn’t be the only thing you base your hydroponic decisions on. It’s important to do what’s best for your budget, your skill level, and most importantly your plants. So here’s what you’ll want to look out for when you’re choosing a hydroponic system:

  • Optimal Containers — Whether you’re using buckets, a basin, or flood trays, your plants and their roots need to be in quality conditions. That means they should be the right size for your plants’ roots to grow without too much binding.
  • Proper Controllers and Pumps — You’ll want to make sure that the pumps and controllers you need are suitable for the system you wish to use.
    • For example, if you have a 12-site system with a 100-gallon reservoir, you’ll want a controller and pumps that are capable of moving around 100 gallons of water. If you go with a 60-gallon controller, some plants will receive enough water but the majority will suffer because water won’t be able to reach them.
  • Durable Reservoirs — Reservoirs hold tons of water, and can even house roots. That’s why it’s important to make sure that the reservoir your system comes with is durable — this will ensure your plants get proper nutrition. Not to mention, it’s never fun coming back to a flooded grow room — trust us…
  • Strong Water Connections — Much like durable reservoirs, you’ll want to make sure the hoses that connect your reservoir to your plants are strong. Otherwise, you’ll leak water out from them and your plants won’t be sufficiently fed.

3. How much do hydroponic systems cost to run?

Grow room with hydroponics, grow lights, and fans.

This part is important because the type of system you get will determine how much water, nutrients, and energy you’re going to be using while you grow your plants.

Now, depending on how much water and electricity cost in your area, pricing will vary. However, here are the cost factors you’ll want to take into consideration when running a hydroponic system in your grow room:

  1. Nutrient Cost — Everyone has their own favorite brand of nutrients, but nutrients are used more frequently in hydroponics than in soil. It’s up to you whether you want simple or complex nutrition — either way, the more nutrition you want (and the higher the quality), the more expensive it’ll be.
  2. Water Usage — Keep in mind that you’re going to be filling up reservoirs with gallons of water. The larger the system, the more water you’re going to use, which is going to raise the water bill.
  3. Energy Usage — Anything that uses electricity will cost you money. It’s important to understand how many watts of power your pumps and controllers use each hour to figure out your electricity costs. Thankfully, the energy coming from most systems is minimal, but you’ll still want to make sure you’re within your power limits.
    • Controllers and pumps for ebb and flows only operate a minimal amount of time. Usually they only use 12 hours of electricity a day (at most) at their respective rates.
    • Bubblers for DWCs and drippers for other types of hydroponic systems will run 24/7.

4. How many plants can I grow in a system?

Hydroponic lettuce grow room.

The awesome thing about hydroponic systems is that it’s really up to you how many plants you want to grow. With spacial limitations in mind, you can grow as many plants as you have sites in your system.

  • DWCs are modular, so you can set up as many individual buckets as you have room for.
  • Ebb and flows in buckets can grow as many plants as the buckets you’d like to connect together.
    • In a flood table, you’re limited by the space your rockwool or buckets take up. For example, if you have a 3x3ft flood table, you could fit 2 to 3 plants in 3-gallon buckets from veg through harvest.
  • Drip systems often have multiple sites on one larger reservoir/system. As long as you maintain your roots’ environment, you can grow as many plants as the system will allow.

Now, does that mean you should max out your system? Of course not. Just because you can grow up to 12 plants in a given site, doesn’t mean you should. In fact, it might not be the best idea to do that, because if your roots become entangled or you don’t have controllers to handle a lot of water, your plants won’t grow to their full potential. Worse still, they can develop root issues.

In short, the amount of plants you can grow in a system is limited by the amount of sites included. That said, you can expand your garden by adding the right equipment, or scale back for an easier-to-manage grow room.

5. How do I maintain a hydroponic system?

Hydroponics in large grow room.

After each harvest, you’ll want to get those plants out of your system and get ready to clean it. A thorough cleaning (and drying) will ensure a healthy grow.

  1. First, flush your system with clean water thoroughly so that all nutrients, salts, and buildup are out of the system. From your buckets to your reservoir to all of the hoses — if there was nutrient-rich water running through it, you should run clean water through it after you’re finished growing.
  2. Next, let it dry thoroughly and clean it from top to bottom. Feel free to rinse again after you’ve cleaned, especially if you’ve used soap or chemicals to clean.
  3. Lastly, sterilize your system with a sterilizing solution. Then, dry it, and store your system in a safe location until you’re ready to run your next grow.

Don’t forget that eventually wear-and-tear will happen to any hydroponic system. So on top of routine cleaning, get familiar with the individual parts of your system — from hoses to buckets to controllers and reservoirs — and be ready to replace them when necessary.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published