Hydroponics 101 – Different types of hydroponic systems

There are many different options when it comes to hydroponic systems it can be hard to decide what method may work best for your hydroponic garden. Some hydroponic systems work better than others depending on the plant our growing and the space you have. Here’s a quick overview of some of the different types of hydroponic systems. 

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT hydroponics)

With NFT hydroponics, the nutrient blend is pumped into channels that can hold a varied number of plants. The channels are somewhat slanted, so the nutrient blend flows through the channel, over the plant’s roots, and back into the hydroponic reservoir. NFT hydroponic systems often use grow medium such as Clay Aggregate or Rockwool and net pot inserts are typically used to secure the plants.

Due to the size of the channels, NFT hydroponic systems work best for plants that have a small root system, like leafy greens.

Of the different kinds of hydroponic systems, NFT hydroponic systems are the most scalable. The simple concept makes it easy to set up a system to grow a lot of plants, which makes it one of the go-to methods for commercial growers.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

With DWC hydroponic systems, the plant’s roots are suspended in the nutrient solution and the nutrient solution is oxygenated using “air stones.”  Air stones are made from porous materials that, when air is pushed through, creates bubbles. As the bubbles float to the surface, diffusion occurs, and the surrounding water is oxygenated. Plants are placed in Mesh pots with grow medium to help secure them. Because the plants are sitting in nutrients and being supplied with unlimited oxygen, they grow like crazy.

Deep water culture works great for almost all plants but works especially well for large plants with big root systems or ones that grow an abundance of fruit. One advantage that DWC systems have over other forms of hydroponics is that plants may be re-spaced during the growth period, optimizing the growing area regarding canopy cover and light-use. At germination and transplantation, the seeds and seedlings are far closer together than later in their life cycle.

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

Wick System Hydroponics

The wick system is the most simplistic type of hydroponic system requiring no electricity, pumps, or aerators. Among the different types of hydroponic systems, it’s the only one that can be a completely passive system, meaning no electricity is needed.

 In most systems, plants are placed in an absorbent grow medium like coco coir, vermiculite, or perlite, with a nylon “wick” running from the plants into a reservoir of nutrient solution.

Since wick hydroponic systems don’t supply the plant with a lot of nutrient solution, these systems only work well for small houseplants and herbs. Plants that don’t require much water grow well in wick systems.

Wick Hydroponics

Ebb and Flow system /Flood & Drain System

Ebb and flow hydroponic systems (also called flood and drain), are popular with many home hydroponic gardeners.  In ebb and flow systems, plants are placed in large grow beds filled with grow medium. The grow bed is flooded with nutrient solution until it reaches a certain point. A drain allows the water to only get a few inches below the top of the grow medium, so it doesn’t overflow. The power to the water pump is controlled by a timer. After running for a predetermined amount of time, the timer shuts off the pump which allows the water to run back down through the pump, draining the grow bed completely.

Ebb and flow hydroponic systems can also be set up to drain with an automatic drain, removing the need for the pump to be set up with a timer. Automatic drains allow you to flood and drain the system quicker and more frequently, increasing nutrients, oxygen, and growth.

Ebb and flow hydroponic systems work great for almost all types of plants including some root vegetables. Though it’s possible and they would grow well, I wouldn’t recommend growing plants that get really large in ebb and flow systems just because of the real estate they take up. In addition to the grow bed space, you also have to account for the depth of the grow bed for a larger plant’s root system and the grow medium/water it will take to fill it.

Ebb and flow hydroponic systems are popular with hobby hydroponic grower because they work so well and are also customizable.

Ebb & Flo

Drip system Hydroponics

Drip hydroponic systems are easy to use, set up, and can be tailored in several ways making them ideal for those who are commonly making changes. With these systems, the nutrient solution is pumped through tubes directly to the base of the plant. At the end of the tubes are drip emitters that allow the nutrient solution to drip at an adjustable flow, saturating the grow medium.

Drip hydroponic systems can be non-circulating or circulating systems. Non circulating systems drip slowly to provide the plant with enough nutrients at a consistent rate. Circulating systems drip more often, with excess nutrients flowing back into the reservoir like in the image below.

Drip hydroponics systems work great for a variety of different plants. With the ability to tailor both the system setup and flow rate, drip hydroponics can be set up to work with whatever plant you want to grow.

Drip Hydroponics


Aeroponics isn’t the easiest method of hydroponic gardening, but it’s a simple concept. Plants are suspended in the air and nutrient solution is sprayed over the plant’s root system.

The nutrient solution is pumped into piping that’s fitted with mist nozzles. As the pressure builds the misters spray the plant’s roots and the solution falls back into the reservoir. You could have a system that looks similar to the one below which looks similar to a DWC tote hydroponic system, but instead of an air stone in the reservoir, you have a water pump. The smaller the solution particle size, the faster the absorption by the plant’s roots.

With the right setup, aeroponic hydroponic systems can grow just about any type of plant. The difficulty lies with making sure the mist nozzles are able to spray the entire root system. Plants with larger root systems can make this difficult.