What is hydroponic gardening? This post explains simply what hydroponic gardening is and the most common methods to get started including: Deep Water Culture (DWC), Run to Waste or Drip System, Ebb and Flow or Flood and Drain, and Aeroponics.
HYDROPONICS 101 (Basics)
The world of hydroponic gardening can be a little daunting to the beginner grower. The terminology alone is intimidating at first, but we are here to help demystify the process and package it in a digestible manner so you can walk away informed and confident towards taking your first steps to the very rewarding hobby of hydroponic gardening.
So, what is hydroponics? Simply put, it is feeding your plants its nutrients via water (like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus otherwise known as the “N-P-K” on a bottle of fertilizer). You may ask what are the advantage of hydroponic gardening? Well, a couple of the main ones are: quicker grow cycles or turnaround between harvests, larger yields at harvest, the ability to grow indoors year-round (huge benefit in climates like ours in Chicago and the Midwest), more environmental control, and improved nutrient uptake and water efficiency. Now you may ask what are the drawbacks? Well, there are two primary ones, upfront investment and learning curve.
Ok but what are the methods and techniques used to do hydroponic gardening you may ask? There are many methods to deliver nutrients to your plants via water, but the most common ones you will encounter early on are:
1) Deep Water Culture (DWC)
2) Ebb and Flow or Flood and Drain
3) Run to Waste or Drip System, and
Each have their own benefits and draw backs, which we will touch on below.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
This method of hydroponic gardening is probably the easiest. The system suspends your plant over a nutrient rich and oxygenated water reservoir. The roots are submerged in this solution, and it provides a constant supply of food for your plant. Typically, this set up involves some sort of bucket or reservoir with a lid where the plants are contained in a net pot. Inside the bucket or reservoir is an air stone, which is a porous bar or disk, that is hooked up to an air pump that supplies oxygen to the water.
The components of DWC are as follows:
1) Air pump, air tubing, air stone (disk or bar) – to oxygenate your nutrient solution
2) Reservoir or bucket - Where your nutrient solution is
Some of the benefits of deep water culture (DWC) is that it is simple to set up and because of the high levels of oxygen that the roots receive, your plants will grow much faster. Some drawbacks are that the reservoir needs monitoring for oxygen and nutrient levels and the size of the plants grown with this method tend to be limited.
Ebb and Flow (or Flood and Drain)
This method of hydroponic gardening involves flooding your plants on a flood tray with a nutrient rich solution and then draining it back into a reservoir. Various factors will determine the frequency you will flood your plants each day, but the main ones are: 1) your grow medium and container size, 2) the type of plant you are growing, and 3) what growth cycle or stage your plant is in. Keep in mind growing media with higher water retention like rockwool or coco will require less flooding / feedings vs. more hard growing mediums like stone or clay pebbles (hydroton).
The components of ebb and flow system are as follows:
A couple of factors to be aware of when setting up this system is matching the reservoir to your tray size and matching your pump gph to these. One of the benefits of this system is that it is still easy to set up (although not quite as simple as DWC) and there is a level of automation that eliminates that daily need of watering. However, even though it has some automation with the pump and timer, the reservoir still needs to be checked for appropriate pH and temperature and it also needs to be changed out every week or two. Also, a thorough cleaning between grows is a must.
Run to Waste or Drip System
Run to waste is one of the simplest methods of growing plants hydroponically and is most akin to what you see every day around you, plants potted in containers or planters. The difference is that the container’s medium used is inert (rockwool, clay pebbles i.e. hydroton, coco) vs. a potting soil where there are nutrients pre-loaded in the medium. The nutrients fed to the plant are mixed and then hand watered one or more times a day. Some soils that are preloaded with nutrients though, only last anywhere from one to a couple of months, and then fertilizing with your hand waterings will be required too. This method can take on a more complicated, automated form called Drip System. In this set up, your plants are in containers sitting on a tray. In a reservoir you will have your nutrient solution, pH balanced of course, get pumped up to the tray and directly to your plants through tubing and finally through a woodpecker stake pierced into the plant or a ring or something similar placed directly over the plant medium. This gets cycled on and off through intervals based on your plants feeding needs through the day and period of growth your plant is in. In both hand watering and drip system, the nutrients flow through your plants, flushing out any stale items but also keeping the medium wet for the roots to feed on. The unused nutrient solutions drains out to waste, whether it be a saucer at the bottom of potted plant or a waste bucket / reservoir in a drip system.
The components of an Drip System are as follows:
The benefits of run to waste hand watering is the simplicity, cost, and high interaction with your plants. Nothing is as simple, cost as little, or is as intimate as this method.
This method of hydroponic gardening is more advanced than the others. In this setup the plant will be placed in container where its roots hang freely out and are suspended in air, unlike DWC and Ebb and Flow where the roots are submerged in a nutrient solution. The containers holding the plants will then be placed in some sort of tray like enclosure which will be lined with tubing and sprayers that mist and aerosolize your nutrient solution directly onto the dangling roots. The nutrient solution that mists your plants, sits in a nearby reservoir which utilizes a pump and tubing to deliver it to your plants during your feeding intervals regulated by your timer.
The components of an Aeroponic System are as follows:
Some of the major benefits of aeroponics is that it is efficient in water usage and by design with the roots being suspended in air, there is high oxygen absorption which promotes growth. The main drawbacks are initial cost to set up and monitoring. Just like Ebb and Flow, the reservoir still needs to be checked for appropriate pH and temperature and it also needs to be changed out. Also, a thorough cleaning between grows is a must.