What Is a Hydroponic Garden?

As both an avid gardener and hydroponics enthusiast, I’m excited to share everything you need to know to get started with hydroponic gardening. From understanding exactly what hydroponics is, to learning about the different systems and growing mediums, this beginner’s guide will provide you a comprehensive overview of soilless gardening and its many benefits.

Whether you want to save space with a small indoor system or maximize yields in your backyard greenhouse, hydroponics allows you to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers without the use of traditional soil. By optimizing nutrients and environmental conditions, it’s possible to achieve faster growth rates and higher yields compared to conventional gardening.

In the following sections, I’ll walk through how to build and maintain a simple hydroponic system using readily available materials. We’ll explore topics like: the best plants for hydroponics, different hydroponic setups from low-cost to more advanced, tips to maintain optimal nutrient levels, and common mistakes to avoid. No green thumb required!

From my own experience getting started with DIY hydroponic systems, I know how rewarding (and tasty) it can be to harvest homegrown produce weeks earlier than if grown in soil. Whether you’re brand new or looking to improve your existing hydroponic garden, let’s dive right in to growing plants without soil!

What Is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil by using nutrient-rich water solutions. The term comes from the Greek words “hydro” meaning water and “ponos” meaning labor. In hydroponic gardening, the nutrients plants need are directly dissolved into water rather than relying on soil as an intermediary.

While soil contains some essential nutrients for plant growth, it also comes with disadvantages that hydroponics helps overcome. Soil can harbor diseases, pests, and weeds that negatively impact gardens. It can also become compacted over time which restricts root growth and drainage. With hydroponics, these issues are avoided by growing plants in sterile, soilless mediums while precisely controlling the nutrient levels they receive.

Brief History of Hydroponic Gardening

While hydroponics may seem like a modern technology, its origins trace back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and Chinese cultivated food using primitive hydroponic techniques with rafts floating in shallow lakes to grow crops on the water’s surface. This allowed them to maximize use of limited arable land.

In the 1600s, scientist Jan Baptist van Helmont performed experiments that revealed plants gain mass from water rather than soil. This discovery laid the groundwork for solution-based plant nutrition instead of soil-based growth.

Modern hydroponic systems emerged in the 1930s when researchers developed nutrient film technique (NFT) and aeroponic systems. Following World War 2, hydroponics gained popularity when the military used these techniques to grow fresh produce for troops in places unsuitable for conventional farming.

The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of commercial hydroponic greenhouses kickstarted by two Dutch hydroponics pioneers, Wim Paternotte and Gericke. Since then, it has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry with both small and large-scale hydroponic farms across the globe.

How Hydroponics Works

Hydroponic Garden

At its core, hydroponics mimics how plants absorb nutrition in nature. Rather than extracting minerals and nutrients from the soil, hydroponic plants get everything they need directly dissolved in the nutrient solution.

There are two essential components in a hydroponic system:

  1. A growing medium like perlite, clay pebbles, or coconut coir that anchors the plant roots and retains some moisture.
  2. The hydroponic nutrient solution, which contains the ideal mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients specific to each plant variety.

With these two components, plants can grow healthily without soil. The growing medium simply provides anchorage and some hydration, while the nutrient solution delivers all the minerals plants need.

There are many types of hydroponic systems that utilize different growing mediums and circulation methods, which I’ll cover next. But all hydroponics essentially work by bathing the roots in oxygen and nutrient-rich solution. This allows the plants to focus energy on growth rather than root development and foraging for nutrition.

By precisely controlling the root zone environment, hydroponics enables plants to grow faster, stronger, and healthier than they would in soil.

Benefits of Hydroponic Gardening

As an avid gardener, I’ve discovered firsthand the many advantages of growing plants hydroponically compared to traditional in-ground gardening. By optimizing nutrients and environmental conditions specifically for each plant, it’s possible to achieve faster growth rates, higher yields, and use less water with a hydroponic system.

Faster Plant Growth

One of the biggest appeals of hydroponic gardening for me is being able to harvest weeks or even months sooner than growing the same plants in soil. The key factors that enable faster plant growth include:

  • Constant access to nutrient-rich water – Unlike soil, hydroponic mediums don’t hold onto nutrients. So the roots can immediately absorb what they need.
  • Optimized pH and EC – It’s easier to control the pH and electrical conductivity (EC) of the nutrient solution compared to soil. Plants thrive when these levels are kept in their ideal range.
  • Controlled environment – With an indoor hydroponic setup, you can precisely dial in temperature, humidity, lighting, and other variables perfectly suited to each plant variety.

I’ve consistently found leafy greens like lettuce and herbs like basil grow in nearly half the normal time in my hydroponic system. Getting multiple harvests each season is a major perk!

Higher Yields

In addition to faster harvests, I’m always impressed by how much higher my yields are growing hydroponically versus in soil. By providing optimal nutrients and growing conditions, hydroponic plants put more energy into producing foliage and fruits rather than developing extensive root systems searching for nutrition.

For example, one tomato plant in my backyard soil garden produces around 5-8 lbs per season. My hydroponic tomato plants typically yield over 12 lbs each! I attribute the increased production to:

  • Abundant access to nutrients and oxygen
  • No nutrient deficiencies
  • Avoiding pest, disease, and weed pressure
  • Careful control of lighting and temperature

With the right setup, many gardeners report doubling or even tripling yields of common crops like lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs hydroponically.

Water Efficiency

A common misconception is that hydroponic gardening requires massive amounts of water. In reality, growing plants hydroponically uses significantly less water than conventional gardening when done properly.

Here’s why hydroponics have better water efficiency:

  • No water lost to runoff or evaporation from soil – it recirculates in a closed-loop system.
  • The porous growing mediums retain just a thin film of moisture around the roots.
  • Less transpiration – plants grow faster so their life cycle transplant to harvest is shorter.

On average, hydroponics use 10-20 times less water than soil gardening. You can even create nearly waterless systems using wicking beds with coconut coir or perlite grow mediums that retain moisture well.

By maximizing yields in a smaller footprint, hydroponics can produce more food using less water overall compared to traditional farming.

Hydroponic Growing Mediums

While the nutrient-rich water solution provides the essential minerals for plants to grow, they still need some type of medium to anchor their root systems. Choosing the right hydroponic growing medium is crucial, as it anchors the plants, retains moisture, and supports healthy root function.

Through extensive personal testing, I’ve narrowed it down to a few of the best mediums for hydroponic gardening based on factors like aeration, moisture retention, and ease of use.


Rockwool is a lightweight growing medium made from spun volcanic rock that has been melted and spun into fibers. It offers these advantages:

  • Excellent aeration from plenty of tiny air pockets between the fibers. Roots need oxygen!
  • Holds 10-30% of its weight in water to stay moist between irrigations.
  • Mold resistant since it rapidly drains excess moisture.
  • Can be reused for several crop cycles if sterilized between plantings.
  • Comes in starter cubes, blocks, and slabs to fit any system.

In my experience, rockwool is one of the most versatile and forgiving options for beginners. It provides great aeration while also retaining moisture well. Just be sure to rinse it thoroughly before use to stabilize the pH.

Coco Coir

Coco coir is a sustainable and eco-friendly option made from the fibers surrounding coconut shells. Here’s an overview of coco coir as a hydroponic medium:

  • Excellent water holding capacity, retaining 8-9 times its weight.
  • Promotes healthy root growth thanks to natural root growth hormones.
  • Environmentally friendly since it’s a recycled waste product.
  • Tendency to compact over time so requires more frequent flushing.
  • May harbor some fungal spores so rinse before use.

I often use coco coir for seed starting and as a component of soilless potting mixes. It holds moisture exceptionally well for germinating seeds and cuttings.


Perlite is a natural volcanic glass that has been superheated into lightweight, porous pebbles. Here are the main benefits of perlite:

  • Lightweight and provides great aeration for roots.
  • Retains little moisture, requiring more frequent irrigation.
  • Helps improve drainage in soilless potting mixes.
  • Very affordable and available at most garden stores.

In hydroponics, perlite is often used in combination with mediums like coco coir to help increase aeration. It’s too lightweight when used alone and won’t provide sufficient anchoring for larger plants. But it’s an excellent addition to potting mixes.


Like perlite, vermiculite is a mineral that expands when quickly heated to create many air pockets. It offers these pros:

  • Lightweight and absorbs 4-6 times its weight in water.
  • Provides good aeration for healthy roots.
  • Often added to potting mixes to retain moisture while improving drainage.
  • May compact over time so requires periodic flushing/stirring.

I like to use vermiculite to help retain moisture in seed starting mixes and propagating cuttings. It holds more moisture than perlite while still providing lots of air space.

With some trial and error, you’ll find which mediums perform best for the types of plants you want to grow hydroponically. Test different options to learn their moisture retention and aeration properties.

Common Hydroponic Systems

When starting hydroponic gardening, choosing the right system for your goals and budget is key. Through years of experimenting with different setups, I’ve learned the pros and cons of some of the most popular hydroponic systems out there.

Wick System

Wick systems are one of the simplest and most affordable ways to start growing hydroponically. Here’s an overview:

  • Ideal for small plants like leafy greens and herbs.
  • Nutrient solution is passively wicked to roots through an absorbent grow medium.
  • Very low maintenance, no pumps or electricity required.

I suggest wick systems for beginners since they are so easy to set up and maintain. All you need is a reservoir filled with nutrient solution, and a pot filled with a medium like perlite or vermiculite that sits partially submerged in the reservoir. The medium wicks moisture through capillary action.

Downsides are limited customization and only suitable for smaller plants. But wick systems are a no-fuss way to start enjoying homegrown produce with hydroponics!

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

For larger plants, I often use ebb and flow systems:

  • Nutrient solution is periodically pumped into the grow tray and then drained back to the reservoir.
  • Provides an oxygen-rich wet/dry cycle that plant roots love.
  • More customizable than wick systems and can accommodate larger plants.

Ebb and flow systems require a submersible pump to flood the grow tray, but are still relatively low-cost and low-maintenance. I’ve had great success growing tomatoes, peppers, and even cucumbers with this setup!

The main drawbacks are the need to check water levels and the pump regularly. But overall an excellent stepping stone to more advanced hydro systems.

Drip System

Drip hydroponic systems continuously drip a small amount of nutrient solution onto the root zone:

  • Provides a constant source of water and nutrition through drippers/emitters.
  • Highly customizable for expert gardeners seeking maximum yields.
  • Requires more maintenance than wick/ebb and flow systems.
  • Higher upfront cost for pumps, tubing, and other supplies.

In my experience, drip systems excel at delivering customizable nutrition to each plant’s exact needs. Daily plant monitoring is advised to check for clogged drippers or leaks. The initial investment is also higher. But prolific plant growth can justify the extra effort for devoted hydroponic gardeners.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

NFT systems offer a unique approach:

  • A very shallow stream of nutrient solution constantly flows through the grow channels.
  • Roots dangle directly into the moving solution.
  • Provides abundant oxygen and rapid nutrition to plant roots.

NFT systems demand close monitoring as power or pump failures can quickly damage exposed roots. But impressive growth rates are possible under optimal conditions. I suggest NFT only for experienced hydroponic growers.

No single system is inherently superior. Consider factors like your gardening experience, space constraints, plant varieties, and maintenance commitment when selecting hydro equipment. With patience and practice, spectacular results are achievable with any system!

Hydroponic Gardening FAQs

When I first started growing plants hydroponically, I had so many questions! Here I’ll answer some of the most common frequently asked questions about hydroponics based on my own trial and error experiences.

What plants grow best hydroponically?

Pretty much any vegetable, herb, flower, and houseplant will thrive hydroponically if you provide the right conditions. Through experimentation, I’ve had great success growing:

  • Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula
  • Herbs like basil, mint, cilantro, dill, parsley
  • Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, beans
  • Strawberries, dwarf fruit trees
  • Orchids, peace lilies, pothos, ferns

The keys for any hydroponic plant are:

  • Quick-growing varieties that reach harvest size rapidly
  • Small to medium sized plants that won’t get rootbound
  • Not heavy feeders that deplete nutrients rapidly

Be sure to research each plant’s ideal nutrient levels, light needs, and growing temps when creating your hydroponic garden.

Is a hydroponic garden expensive?

It can be! Buying a fully automated commercial hydroponic system with the works – irrigation system, grow lights, ventilation, etc. – can easily cost thousands. But with a bit of DIY ethic, you can create starter systems for less than $100.

For a budget set up, try:

  • 5-10 gallon plastic bucket or tub for a reservoir
  • Growing medium like perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir
  • Starter seedling pots, net cups, or grow plugs
  • Air pump, tubing, and air stone for aeration
  • CFL or LED grow lights if indoors
  • Seeds!

Check secondhand sites for discounted hydroponic gear. Scale up over time with better lights and more plants. Advanced systems with multiple grow beds or NFT channels do require more investment upfront. But start simple and upgrade later once you’re experienced.

Is hydroponic gardening difficult?

Hydroponics introduces more equipment and variables to monitor compared to soil gardening. For first-timers, I recommend starting with a simple wick or ebb/flow system using forgiving mediums like rockwool or coco coir.

Here are some tips to simplify success with hydroponics:

  • Test and adjust pH, EC, temps, regularly to find each plant’s sweet spot
  • Use air pumps/stones for great oxygenation
  • Prevent light leaks and algae growth
  • Monitor for clogs in irrigation system
  • Change reservoir water weekly to avoid salt/nutrient buildup

While hydroponics takes diligence, with proper care it’s very manageable. I find the fast growth, higher yields, and ability to grow indoors/year-round well worth the extra effort. Don’t be intimidated – start small and you’ll get the hang of it!

Have a question I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments! I’m always happy to help fellow gardeners with the transition to hydroponics.


After covering the core concepts of hydroponic gardening, hopefully you now feel equipped to start growing plants without soil. While it takes some extra effort compared to traditional gardening, the faster growth, higher yields, and ability to cultivate produce year-round indoors makes hydroponics a worthwhile investment.

We explored what hydroponics is, the benefits it offers, different systems and growing mediums, suitable plants, and common questions beginners have. The key takeaways are:

  • Hydroponics provides optimal nutrition and growing conditions for vigorous plant growth.
  • A range of inexpensive to advanced system options exist for any budget and space.
  • Monitoring and adjusting parameters like pH, EC, and oxygenation is important.
  • Nearly any veggie, herb, flower or houseplant can thrive hydroponically if you dial in its needs.

Don’t let the technical considerations intimidate you. Start with a simple wick or ebb/flow system and a hardy plant like lettuce or basil. Learn your system’s quirks through trial and error. Part of the fun is tweaking and experimenting to maximize growth!

Gardening hydroponically unlocks new potential for what you can cultivate at home, any season. I hope this guide provided a helpful introduction to soilless gardening. Let me know if you have any other hydroponics questions – happy growing!

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