If you’re new to hydroponics, being introduced to dozens of unfamiliar terms and acronyms can be overwhelming. Below we’ve defined some of the more common systems and concepts to act as a sort of hydroponics for beginners guide in choosing the best hydroponic system for beginners to get started. Hopefully this will help you discover the system that you feel is best for you.
Which is Best Hydroponic System for Beginners?
A simple note up front: most beginners to hydroponics will want to know “which system is best for hydroponics?” If you want the quick and dirty answer,we recommend a simple deep water culture system (they’re cheap, simple, and low maintenance).
However, as with most things in life, the full answer is: it depends. Some systems are easy to set up but can’t be easily expanded or can’t be tweaked into an exact science. Others can be optimized from A to Z but will require a better working knowledge than many beginners will possess.
Start Simple (Why the DWC is Best for Beginners)
We can’t stress this enough: hydroponics systems can get extremely complex, but they don’t have to be. You can start small, and gradually upgrade and expand your system in order to optimize growth and vegetable output. In fact, we recommend it.
We go into the pros and cons of each system below, but the reason we recommend the Deep Water Culture is because they are low maintenance, not complex, and can be cheap. In fact, we sell a six plant Deep Water Culture system that is the cheapest hydroponics system around.
Keep in mind that doing is the best learning, so getting into a system and playing around with it is ideal. (That being said, we try to make it even easier with our guides, tutorials, walk-throughs, and articles). Also keep in mind that it’s not necessarily difficult for plants to grow. As long as moisture and light are present, plants will usually show some kind of growth. As you learn more about your plants, you will be able to gradually optimize your system to produce impressive results. It’s okay to start with one system, learn a bit, and move on to another! With that in mind, read on to discover more about the best hydroponics system for you.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
The Deep Water Culture method of hydroponics is one of the more simple systems. It involves having a reservoir of water, with plants growing above and having their roots grow down into the water reservoir itself. An air pump is usually used to aerate the water, providing plenty of oxygen to the roots. The only things required for this method are usually an air pump, grow media, and lights.
Deep Water Culture systems are one of the easiest hydroponics systems to maintain, because the only thing you really have to do is replace your nutrient solution. The interval to replace your nutrients will depend on the plants themselves and user preference.
Advantages of Deep Water Culture Systems:
- Easy setup
- Low cost of materials
- Minimal maintenance
- Low noise levels
Disadvantage of Deep Water Culture Systems:
- Low space efficiency: This system uses more water than other systems, and it can often be burdensome to find space for the reservoir.
- Low mobility: These reservoirs are heavy and difficult to move, so it’s important to keep this in mind. Trying to change out the water of a 15 gallon reservoir is no easy task.
- Expandability: If you want to expand your system, you’ll almost be building a new one from scratch. Any addition will need a additional reservior, air stone, and pipping. Pretty much the only thing you won’t have to buy an extra of is the air pump, and that’s only if your current one can handle being split.
Read more on deep water culture systems
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
Nutrient Film Technique hydroponics systems involve using a series of “channels” on a gentle slope, through which water (your nutrient solution) is pumped and drained on the other end. Plants will grow out of the top of these channels, with their roots resting on the film of water flowing through.
The concept here is that with a thin film of water, about half of the root system is exposed to the air above, which allows the delivery of vital oxygen. These channels can get up to 30 feet long for massive production, but most hydroponics hobbyists have channels that are about 4 feet long. Channels may consist of PVC pipe, vinyl fence posts, or if you want to get artsy, some have used bamboo or other long, easily hollowed wood.
These systems are awesome in that they are very expandable with a lot of different configurations. Want to build one vertically along an interior wall? No problem. Want to build one on an A-frame? Spiral shape? All have been done before. The bad news is that these systems are decidedly not the best hydroponic system for beginners as they have a lot of configuration involved compared to some of the others, such as drainage system, pump power, water level height, channel selection, etc.
Advantages of NFT Hydroponics:
- Space efficiency. People often stack NFT systems vertically, which is much more difficult to do with DWC.
- Modularity. As you add more channels and plants to an NFT system, your reservoir doesn’t have to increase in size by very much. Usually you will just add a splitter onto your water line to accommodate an additional channel.
Disadvantages of NFT systems:
- NFT systems are a little more tricky to build from scratch. You have to build a system that is comprised of pump(s), inlets, drains (taking into account drain height that needs to be modifiable), etc. However, pre-built complete NFT hydroponics systems are available for purchase.
Read more on NFT systems
Ebb and Flow System
Ebb and Flow hydroponic systems are among the easiest to maintain. The basic idea is pretty simple, a reservoir will pump water into your various plants until it reaches a certain height of water, after which the water drains back out of your containers and back into the reservoir. This may only need to happen a few times a day and will depend on the size and water needs of your plants. Essentially, these system mimic flood irrigation techniques to keep plants well-watered.
The growth medium will determine the flooding cycles. The more absorptive mediums will need to be watered fewer times per day. Some systems will have sensors that trigger the cycle when appropriate, which is super convenient because it means less work for you. Is this the best hydroponic system for beginners? If you’re planning on buying a kit, then maybe, if you’re thinking about building a system of your own, we’d suggest steering clear.
Advantages of Ebb and Flow Systems:
- Not too complicated. The system is fairly straight forward
- Flexibility that allows pots of any size to be used. This is nice for when you want those larger plants to have their own space to grow.
- Reliable setup. Once it is ready to go, the system takes care of itself.
Disadvantages of Ebb and Flow Systems:
- The larger the setup the more difficult for cleaning and sterilizing between uses.
- Medium choice is important for getting the cycles correct.
Read more on ebb and flow systems
Drip Irrigation System
Drip Irrigation hydroponic systems use the same technique that farmers have been using for thousands of years. Instead of soaking a large area, as is the case in flood irrigation, drip irrigation uses a network of feeder lines to deposit the water and nutrients directly to the plant and its root zone. This is done slowly, over time, dripping from nozzles or emitters.
While drip systems are some of the most efficient systems for outdoor plants, as a lot of water is conserved from evaporation or runoff, it doesn’t hold the same advantages against other forms of hydroponics. Of note: the system isn’t on a continuous drip, as many beginners assume, but instead is active 2-3 times throughout the day. This can be nice as it saves electricity compared to some systems. That being said, it’s not without its disadvantages. Here are the basic advantages and disadvantages of a drip system:
Advantages of Drip Irrigation Systems:
- Nutrient efficiency. Since the water is going exactly where it needs to be there isn’t any significant loss of nutrients.
- Moisture maintained within growth zone
Disadvantages of Drip Irrigation Systems:
- Cannot control the flow rate. However, the root zones will have uniform application of nutrient solution.
- Initial setup, esspecially of the network tubes, can be laborious.
Read more on drip irrigation systems
The Verdict on the Best Hydroponic System for Beginners: Deep Water Culture
Deep Water cultures are relatively cheap, whether you’re looking to buy one or build one. They are basic in their concept, not requiring cycling, drainage, etc. They require few components and most of those components are inexpensive, and because they have so few components, there’s less you, as a beginner, can do to mess things up. If you’re starting out as a beginner to hydroponics, try your hand at this system. Remember, you can always graduate to another system down the road.