Hydroponics—the practice of growing plants in water rather than soil—is popular because it offers the user a way to produce a bounty of plants in a relatively small area in an indoor garden. Hydroponic growing provides several other benefits, including a reduced risk of soilborne plant diseases, so even newbie growers are more likely to succeed.
Today’s commercial growers incorporate rows and rows of tanks and tubing to produce an increasing amount of vegetables for grocery stores, but hydroponic technology isn’t limited to mass producers. A wide range of consumer hydroponic systems are available for growing fresh produce indoors. Best of all, these systems often are all-inclusive: They provide the container for growing the plants as well as the tools and methodology for keeping plants healthy and robust.
When shopping for the best hydroponic system, consumers should consider the desired number of plants and the degree of automation. Ahead, learn which features are necessary for a hydroponic system, and find out why the following are well suited for indoor gardening.
- BEST OVERALL: AeroGarden Harvest Elite – White
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Moistenland Hydroponics Growing System Starter Kit
- UPGRADE PICK: AeroGarden Bounty Elite Indoor Hydroponic Garden
- BEST FOR BEGINNERS: iDOO Indoor Herb Garden Kit, Hydroponics System
- BEST IN DESIGN: Miracle-Gro Indoor Growing System, LED Side Table
- BEST FOR ROOTING: XXXFLOWER Bulb Glass Hydroponics Home Garden
- BEST LARGE-CAPACITY: Hydrofarm Root Spa 8, 5 Gallon Bucket System
- ALSO CONSIDER: AeroGarden Black Harvest Indoor Hydroponic Garden
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Hydroponic System
Plants need four essential elements to thrive: water, oxygen, light, and nutrients. A successful hydroponic system must supply an adequate amount of all four. For those new to indoor hydroponics, the options may seem confusing, but today’s manufacturers create hydroponic units that automate much of the process.
While all hydroponic systems supply plant roots with water and nutrients, the method varies. All six of the common types of hydroponic systems have strong points, but some are better suited to commercial than DIY home settings.
- Wicking: Also known as “passive hydroponics,” wicking uses an absorbent material, such as a natural fiber rope, to draw water from a reservoir to the plant’s roots. Wicking can be as simple as putting a plant in a soilless growing medium, such as perlite, and running a short piece of rope from the growing medium to water. This method is well suited for small plants or to teach children about how plants grow.
- Deep Water Culture: Often found in all-inclusive consumer hydroponic systems, deep water culture (DWC) involves growing plants in small mesh pots where the plants’ roots spread through the water in a reservoir. A DWC system comes with up to 20 mesh pots, depending on size, and it features a small pump for circulating and adding oxygen to the water. Consumer-friendly DWC systems also come with grow lights.
- Ebb and Flow: Also called a “flood-and-drain” system, the ebb-and-flow method involves flooding plant roots with nutrient-rich water and draining the water. By exposing the roots to water and nutrients every couple of hours, the plants receive all the nutrients they need, yet the roots don’t sit in water. Ebb-and-flow hydroponics is mainly reserved for commercial growing systems.
- Nutrient Film Technique: Similar to a DWC system, a nutrient-film technique (NFT) system circulates nutrient-rich water through the roots of the plants. Rather than placing mesh pots in a water reservoir, the pots are side by side in long channels. An NFT system can contain many or only a few connected channels. While this system is used extensively for commercial growing, a few smaller NFT systems are available to consumers for in-home use.
- Aeroponic: Rather than suspending plant roots in water, in an aeroponic system the roots sit above the water level, and a mister sprays the roots with nutrient-rich water. This type of hydroponics isn’t quite as popular as DWC for home systems, but a few models are available.
- Drip: Usually limited to commercial growers, drip hydroponics feature tubing with small drip nozzles located above every plant. Water circulates through the tubing, drips on each plant, and the excess water runs through a mesh pot containing soilless medium and drains back to the pump. The dripping cycle repeats every few minutes.
To operate a commercial hydroponic growing system, the operator must have advanced experience in monitoring water flow, nutrient levels, and the pump. Even a little downtime can result in plant roots’ drying out and dying.
Fortunately, with today’s consumer hydroponic systems, indoor gardening is simple and straightforward. Systems like the popular AeroGarden come with mesh pots and soilless medium (often coconut coir plugs) as well as a pump or mister that’s preset to turn on and off at optimal intervals for circulating water and keeping roots moist and healthy. Most of today’s in-home systems also feature grow lights on timers that provide the correct amount of light.
In hydroponics, users can grow more plants on a smaller footprint because the roots don’t need to spread out to seek nutrients. A typical home hydroponics system can be as large as a few feet deep and wide or as small as a few inches deep and wide, depending on the type of setup and the number of plants. The most common models can fit on a kitchen countertop or a table and take up no more than 1 to 2 square feet of space.
When growing plants indoors, opt for dwarf and small plant varieties. The most suitable types of plants for a home hydroponics system include herbs such as dill, chives, and basil; leafy greens; bush-type cherry tomatoes; and small peppers. Flowers also can be grown in hydroponic systems.
Consistent temperature is essential to plant growth, so commercial hydroponic growers often have water heaters to regulate the water temperature, usually between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In-home hydroponic systems don’t require the same temperature control level because they’re usually placed in a home where the temperature remains between 60 and 80 degrees.
Substrates and Nutrients
Soilless growing medium is normally used in hydroponics. In-home systems often come with small coconut coir plugs that fit into mesh pots. The user puts a seed in a hole in the plug and inserts the plug into a mesh pot. The bottom of the plug sits in the water or is misted regularly with water, which triggers germination. As the plant grows, its roots extend below the mesh pot into the reservoir or channel beneath.
The nutrients in hydroponic systems are usually in liquid form, so they disperse quickly in the water. Some manufacturers provide a small bottle of this plant food with the initial system purchase, but users can order or purchase liquid nutrients in garden centers. Most liquid nutrients, which have a pH value between 5.8 and 6.3, contain the minerals necessary for robust plant development.
Today’s automated hydroponic systems require minimal maintenance, although the user should clean the unit thoroughly after each harvest before starting another crop. Plants grow quickly in hydroponic systems; in fact, they may reach the end of their useful lives in just 3 to 4 months. During the growing cycle, simply wipe down the unit’s surface with a clean, damp rag to maintain its appearance. If local tap water contains a lot of minerals, such as calcium and iron, consider filling the reservoir with filtered water to reduce mineral deposits in the tank.
Our Top Picks
To qualify as a top pick, a hydroponic system should feature a circulation system that keeps the water fresh. If it’s an all-inclusive system, it should come with a bright grow light that can be adjusted in height as the plants grow taller. The following hydroponic systems vary in design and size, but each is well suited to growing healthy herbs and plants indoors.
Start an indoor herb garden with the AeroGarden Harvest Elite Hydroponic System, which features six growing stations and comes with preseeded pods. The system includes a reservoir and an adjustable grow light that extends up to 12 inches above the reservoir’s top deck as plants grow. Control the LED grow light with a timer; it can run for 18 hours per day. Once seeds are sown, the digital display tracks the number of days since planting and reminds the user when it’s time to add liquid nutrients (included). The Harvest Elite also tracks the water level, and the display flashes on and off when the water is getting low. Buyers receive six mesh pots, six preseeded coconut coir seed pods, and six plastic domes to cover newly sown seeds before they sprout. The preseeded pods include two types of basil, dill, thyme, parsley, and mint seeds.
The Moistenland Hydroponics Growing System offers 12 growing stations, yet it costs less than many six-station systems. The system includes a water reservoir, an overhead LED grow light, and a fan to circulate air through the plant foliage. It comes with a 12-station grow deck and a see-through water level window, so with a glance, users can see how much water is in the reservoir. The grow lights are on an 18-hours-on, 6-hours-off timer, and water circulates every 30 minutes. Buyers receive 12 mesh pots, 12 coconut coir seed plugs, and 12 clear covers to protect seeds until they sprout. Seeds and nutrient liquid are not included.
The AeroGarden Bounty Elite Hydroponic System features nine growing stations and comes with a powerful LED grow light that extends up to 24 inches above the grow deck to accommodate tall plants. The Bounty Elite’s grow light features dimming/brightening modes that simulate sunset and sunrise. It comes with nine preseeded pods: three basil, two parsley, and one pod each of thyme, chives, dill, and mint. No sowing is necessary—just drop the preseeded pods into the mesh pots, insert them in the grow deck, and set the display—the system automatically operates the grow light and circulates the water. The Bounty Elite syncs with a home Wi-Fi system and Alexa or a smartphone app to notify users when it’s time to add water or nutrients. Liquid nutrient is included. The system also tracks the number of days planted.
Those new to hydroponics are likely to succeed with the iDOO Indoor Herb Garden System, which offers 12 growing stations, an automatic LED grow light, and an automatic water recirculating system. The grow light features full-spectrum lamps that simulate natural sunlight, and users can choose between two different light modes (vegetable or fruit) for a custom light sequence that best suits the type of plant. The reservoir comes with a see-through water level window that lets users see at a glance when it’s time to add more water, and the system features an overhead fan that offers gentle air circulation to increase pollination and reduce foliage moisture. The automatic lights turn on for 16 hours per day, and the circulation pump cycles every 30 minutes. Liquid nutrients are included.
If space is an issue, this Miracle-Gro Indoor Growing System is built into a chic side table that complements the living room, family room, or even the bedroom. The Miracle-Gro system features four growing stations, which can be used to start plants from seeds or to accommodate four mature plants. On the tabletop’s underside, an integrated LED grow light automatically turns on for 14 hours per day to keep plants happy and healthy. The Miracle-Gro hydroponic system features a large 2-gallon reservoir and an automatic water recirculation pump. The unit syncs with a Bluetooth-capable smartphone, PC, or tablet to remotely configure the light and circulation system. Nutrients are included.
Nothing is more straightforward than taking cuttings from existing houseplants or vines and starting them in water. The XXXFLOWER Hydroponic Garden doesn’t have LED lights or a water-recirculating pump, but it includes three see-through glass bulbs to fill with water to encourage root development while also serving as an attractive decor touch to a sunny windowsill or countertop. This tried-and-true method of plant propagation is simple but effective. For best results, change the water in the bulbs every 3 to 4 days to keep it fresh. When roots develop, the plants can be transplanted into pots or to an outdoor garden spot.
If you’re looking to get into serious home hydroponics, check out the Hydrofarm Root Spa Bucket System that comes with eight 5-gallon buckets, each featuring an 8-inch grow basket that holds a variety of soilless growing mediums, such as perlite or coconut coir. Each bucket connects to a central pump that circulates air through the water. This system requires a larger growing area, such as a spare bedroom or a three-season enclosed porch. Users must supply their own grow lights or use the Root Spa in a greenhouse to have adequate lighting. The pump is designed to run continuously or can be manually turned on and off by the user. No growing medium, nutrients, or seeds are included. In the Root Spa hydroponic system, users can grow larger plants, such as tomatoes, squash, or even sunflowers.
From a manufacturer known for hydroponic systems, the AeroGarden Black Harvest Hydroponic Garden provides everything necessary to care for the six growing stations. Like other AeroGarden systems, the Black Harvest automates both lighting and water circulation. This unit comes with six plastic pots and six seed plugs. Buyers receive preseeded pods, including two types of basil, parsley, dill, thyme, and mint. Liquid plant nutrients are included. The Black Harvest system turns the LED grow lights on for 15 hours per day, though users can turn the lights on and off manually as well. Water circulation is automatic, and the unit features both a low-water and a time-to-add-nutrient indicator to take the guesswork out of indoor hydroponics.
The Advantages of Owning the Best Hydroponic System
Without soil, plant roots can develop up to five times quicker by accessing nutrients directly in water. With an all-inclusive hydroponic system, growing herbs, fruits, veggies, or flowers indoors doesn’t have to take a lot of time or require a sunny window.
- Hydroponics allows users to grow herbs and vegetables indoors year-round.
- A quality system provides notifications that alert users when to add water and nutrients.
- Hydroponic systems with grow lights don’t require a sunny window.
FAQs About Hydroponic Systems
Because hydroponic systems automate the growing process, users don’t need a lot of hydroponic knowledge to enjoy fresh herbs and produce. For those new to growing indoors, some questions are to be expected.
Q. What is the best hydroponic system for beginners?
For those just developing a green thumb, an affordable hydroponics system automates lighting and watering, offers several growing stations, and makes it simple to monitor water levels.
Q. How do you aerate hydroponics?
Inclusive systems come with built-in aeration via a pump, or they position the plants high enough above the water to expose the upper portion of the roots to air.
Q. Do I need to test the pH of my nutrient solution?
No. Nutrient solutions are pre-formulated to offer the best pH level for a wide variety of plants and herbs. However, you may want to test the pH level of the water in the reservoir with a pH test kit, and add pH adjusting liquid to raise or lower the pH level to between 5.5 and 6.3.
Q. How do I adjust the pH in my hydroponic system?
To maintain a strict pH level, pH adjusting liquids are available, and a couple of drops of either “pH Up” or “pH Down” can change the level.
Q. Do I need to clean my hydroponic garden system?
After removing spent plants, thoroughly clean the unit before using it again. Apart from that, wipe it down with a clean, damp rag as necessary to remove dust or grime.