Hydroponics Systems

Design choice

Hydroponics enthusiasts are driven by the ability to create life from a single seed. Part art, part science, growing plants without soil breaks open limitations that traditional farming has endured since the beginning of time.

Threat of harsh winters and brutal summers…weeds …drought...pests ...planting cycles.


Choosing the design of a hydroponics system—what to build or how to build it—is part of the creative challenge. Simple. complex. Automated. Primitive. Whatever the choice, it’s a reflection of the grower. It’s personal.

Experts recognize six basic designs. Making a choice—among the six systems—can be mind numbing to a person who is already diving into a new way of life.

Deciding which design is best can delay the project. Don’t let indecisiveness be an excuse. Dig in and push through.


The Wick System is the most basic—even primitive—design of the six options. With no moving parts, the system uses a wick to soak up the nutrient solution from the reservoir into the growing medium (Vermiculite, Perlite, Pro-Mix and Coconut Fiber are typically used).

Something to consider: plants that require more water may use the nutrient solution faster than the wick can supply it—a risk that may outweigh the reward of this simplistic design.

Water Culture

The Water Culture System is also relatively simple. Plant roots are submerged in nutrient solution and held atop water with Styrofoam.  An air pump connected to air stones—via tubing—creates air bubbles with life-giving oxygen that are delivered to plant roots.

Dissolved oxygen in the water also nourishes plants. For smaller bubbles, switch out air stones for a soaker hose.

Before going to the store, head to the garage or unfold the attic’s ladder and make the climb—systems are often made from old aquariums, or other household items, easily accessible.  

Ebb & Flow (Flood & Drain)

The Ebb & Flow system works by temporarily flooding the grow tray with nutrient solution, then draining the solution back into the reservoir. Typically done with a submerged pump, a timer turns on throughout the day. Frequency? Depends on numerous factors—the size and number of plants, humidity, et cetera.

The Ebb and Flow is a flexible system. It can be designed to hold plants in separate pots. It can use a variety of growing mediums—grow rocks, gravel, granular rock.

But the design is prone to power outages, pump and timer failures. If the power goes out? Roots are at risk of drying out—so be prepared to begin again.

Drip Systems — Recovery/Non-Recovery

Drip Systems are—arguably—the most popular design. A timer activates a submersible pump and nutrient solution is dripped onto individual plants by a drip line.

With two types of drip systems—recovery and non-recovery—this design offers options. In a recovery drip system the runoff nutrient solution is collected in the reservoir for reuse. The non-recovery does not collect runoff. It requires minimal maintenance—excess nutrient solution isn’t recycled so nutrient strength and pH don’t need to be adjusted.

Nutrient Film System

This system is quintessential hydroponics. With a submersible pump and nutrient solution—no timer needed—nutrient solution is pumped into the growing tray, flows over the roots and drains into the reservoir. This design hosts no growing medium—air does the trick. Each plant is housed in a plastic pot, with roots dangling into nutrient solution.

It is imperative to avoid power outages or pump failures—plant roots will quickly dry out.


The Aeroponic system is a tech-driven design with air serving as the growing medium. Roots hang in the air, misted every few minutes. Because the roots are exposed to air, an interruption to the misting cycles should be avoided.

A timer controls the nutrient pump. It’s on a short cycle that runs a few seconds every couple of minutes.

Hydroponics systems are part science fair, part art installment. System architecture dictates budget, time—even risk. Hydroponics systems—no matter which design—allow for creative expression and experimentation. Hybrid systems are appreciated. Even failure is viewed as one more step towards success and a more sustainable way of life.