Best Hydroponic Systems: 2022 Reviews (Top Picks) & Buying Guide

Last Updated on June 15, 2023 by Georgie Smith

You can grow flowers, vegetables, and herbs up to fives times as fast indoors with a hydroponic system. Hydroponic gardens save space and water, they need less pesticide (if any), and they require no weeding. Let’s take a look at the best hydroponic systems to see which one will fit your needs.

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The basic parts of a hydroponic system

You can build your own hydroponic setup, or you can buy a complete kit with all the necessary parts. Here is a list to show you the basic things you need to raise plants in a hydroponic garden:

  • A space for growing, like a grow tent or converted grow room
  • Lamps that mimic sunlight, like HID or LED lights
  • Thermometer/hygrometer for temperature and humidity control
  • “Soil” like coco coir, Rockwool, or peat
  • Pots or containers
  • Water source (preferably not straight tap water) and emitters
  • Nutrients (minerals like nitrogen and calcium) to add to the water
  • Bubbler or way to oxygenate the water (for some setups)
  • pH tester to check the acid level
  • Carbon dioxide if the plants are isolated in a grow tent
  • Timer to control the lights if you don’t want to manage that yourself
  • Ventilation, especially if you use hot lamps like HID HPS or MH
  • Seeds or clones of plants you wish to grow

Unlike a regular soil garden outdoors, you won’t be spending as much time preparing the soil, weeding, or worrying about the weather. You can grow all year round!

Unfortunately, hydroponically-grown plants aren’t immune to disease. You may have to treat fungus, bacteria, or root rot while you care for your garden. But as long as you keep an eye on your plants, you can usually avoid losing a complete crop. Keep your reservoirs and pots sealed and protected. If you do deep water culture, keep those air stones bubbling so the water doesn’t stagnate.

You can take a deeper look into the world of hydroponic gardening with this free resource from Texas A&M University.

Kinds of plants to raise in a hydroponic garden

You can grow almost anything hydroponically, but some plants are easier to raise than others. Here are some popular choices:

Vegetables like beans, lettuce, spinach, beets, broccoli, artichokes, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, peas, and asparagus. Ones that grow underground, like onions, potatoes, and carrots, are a little more difficult to manage. Vined plants like tomatoes and zucchini are also a challenge unless you’re prepared to grow on trellises.

Lettuce and leafy greens like spinach and arugula are an especially common choice for first-time growers because they mature in about half the time as they would outdoors, plus they can be partially consumed while they are still growing. You can literally cut off a few leaves for a salad and leave the rest of the plant in the pot.

When raising vegetables in a hydroponic garden, you’ll still need to treat them like you would outdoors, respecting their needs for certain temperatures and so on. Flowering plants will require a more intense full-spectrum light, but greens can thrive under fluorescents.

Flowers are frequently grown hydroponically in greenhouses. They will need full-spectrum light with an emphasis on red light when they begin to bloom. Some do well in cooler temperatures, others need tropical heat.

Herbs are an easy way to grow in a small space, although some, like rosemary, can end up quite large. Basil, chamomile, mint, and parsley thrive in hydroponic gardens.

Types of hydroponic systems

There are 6 main types of hydroponic systems. The three easiest ones for beginning growers are Wick, Deep Water Culture, and Ebb-and-Flow.

  • Wick systems are plants potted in soil with an absorbent line running into a reservoir of water. Sometimes these are called “self-watering gardens.” They give about the same amount of yield and take about as long to grow as a traditional soil garden.
  • Deep Water Culture requires a bubbler or airstone to function. Plants rest with their roots in water, and the water is oxygenated with bubbles.
  • Ebb-and-Flow means the plants get nutrient-filled water doses on a schedule. The rest of the time they rest in a medium like clay pebbles. This system takes more water to operate.
  • Drip setups are efficient on water use. Astronauts grew plants on the Space Station with this method.
  • The nutrient film technique sends a constant, slow stream of nutrient-filled water over the roots of the plants.
  • Aeroponics uses misters to spray plant roots that are otherwise suspended in air.

The pluses and minuses of any hydroponic system come down to one factor: how much attention are you willing to pay to your garden? The last three methods listed above are prone to problems if their water emitters clog from the nutrient sediment in the water. With Deep Water Culture, you need to check for root rot. And if a disease strikes one plant in an Ebb-and-flow setup, they will be affected in no time at all. But if you’re willing to devote a few minutes a day to do some TLC on your garden, things should turn out just fine.

Now let’s take a look at the top hydroponic systems for indoor gardening.

The top hydroponic systems

If you wanted to grow with a Wick system, here is one component you’ll need.

1/6 Inches Self Watering Wick Cord String Cotton Rope for DIY Plant Automatic Watering Device (40 Feet)

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It may not look like much, but this polyester cord is 2mm thick and reusable. Run this between your plants and a reservoir to keep them watered.

If you prefer true hydroponics, let’s take a look at Deep Water Culture, also known as Hydro Pots, since that is one of the easiest methods.

Deep Water Culture is inexpensive and easy to put together and use. It has three parts:

  • a large bucket where the water-based nutrient solution is stored
  • a basket or mesh pot with peat or Rockwool “soil” for the roots to grow down to drink the nutrient solution
  • an air stone (like in a fish tank) and the air pump that stirs the water and adds oxygen to the nutrient solution (essential to keep water from going stagnant)

You need one Deep Water Culture unit for each plant you plan to grow. For example, picture a five-gallon bucket with about 3 gallons of water in it. There is an air stone at the bottom, burbling away. Suspended above the water is a basket filled with peat moss or clay pellets where the seedling will grow.

Then imagine that you have more than one plant, so you can link every individual bucket with irrigation tubes from a single reservoir that sends the nutrient water out to feed each plant. While you need to check each pot’s water and each plant’s roots, you can feed and water the plants from one location. You’ll need to change the water about every two weeks, which is why the next two kits we chose are so handy.

The Atwater HydroPod Waterfarm Complete Hydroponic System Grow Kit | GH4120

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The Waterfarm from General Hydroponics is a favorite among growers because it’s ready to use and easier than buying individual parts and assembling them. It can grow just about anything, from small to large plants. Each pot is square so you can pack them in tight in a grow tent. Each 2-gallon unit can work alone, or you can link them into a large configuration.

The kit comes with a 2-gallon container reservoir, a basket container, clay pellets for the substrate, an air stone with an air pump, recommended nutrients, and the necessary tubing including a drip feed. And each bucket has a drain at the bottom, which is very convenient when you need to change the water.

PowerGrow Hydroponic Systems Deep Water Culture (DWC) Hydroponic Bubbler Bucket

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The PowerGrow System is designed for organic growers because it comes with FDA-approved food-safe 5-gallon buckets, baskets, air pumps, air stones, tubing, and rock wool plugs to serve as a growing “soil” or substrate. Each bucket needs approximately 3.5 gallons of water for each plant.

The setup is also considerate of growers because it comes with a water level marker and a bucket drain. It’s covered by a 1-year warranty.

Owners have commented they love the PowerGrow system because it’s inexpensive enough that there’s no point in purchasing all the parts separately and building the system themselves. They say the parts included in this kit are of high quality and durable. Everything is easy to assemble and thoughtfully designed. One of their favorite parts is that the airlines come through the side of the bucket, not through the lid. That makes it easy to lift up the plant to check the roots.

Easy2grow 4 Pot System with 3.9 Gallon pots and 12.4 gal Reservoir Tank

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AutoPot’s system is built with one large 12-gallon reservoir and 4 smaller pots that hold 3.9 gallons each. It’s not a complete kit like the one from PowerGrow because it doesn’t come with air stones or a potting substrate, but you can add those according to your preference. This setup is gravity-fed so it only sends nutrients when the plant has used enough in its own pot to make room for more.

Now we can move on to Ebb and Flow, also known as Flood and Drain, systems. These soak and then drain the roots of your plants with a nutrient/water solution from a reservoir. You don’t need air stones because the water doesn’t stagnate. But you will need a timer if one doesn’t come with the system. One caution: if your central reservoir has a parasite or disease, all the plants will suffer.

Hydrofarm Active Aqua Grow | Flow, Ebb & Grow 12 Site 2 Gal Hydroponic System| GFO7KT

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The Hydrofarm Active Aqua Grow is ready to support up to 12 plants, but its controller can handle a total of 48 if you purchase more pots. The reservoir can be located on the same level as the pots. It comes with all the fittings and tubing you need, plus an LED control panel with an emergency shut-off valve that prevents spills.

Besides the equipment, Hydrofarm includes a quart bottle each of three of their nutrient solutions. This is the same Flora series used by scientists at the Antarctic station and on the International Space Station.

Besides the Deep Water Culture kits at the beginning and this one that does Ebb-and-Flow, there are Top Feed systems, too. They use reservoirs and emitters that send nutrient solution raining down over the plants or roots. Anything extra that drains away goes back into the reservoir for use later. You can imagine that this is very conservative of water and nutrients, but if the solution gets contaminated, it’s a disaster.

Bloom Brothers GGWR06 Hydro Halo Water Ring 6-Inch with 3-leg support

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Bloom Brothers Hydro Halo Water ring is a drip irrigator used in some Top Feed systems. This one piece has 54 pores to water only the interior of a pot, not drip on the outside. Even if you weren’t growing with hydroponics, you could place this ring in your garden to water plants in soil. Just hook it up to an irrigation line and you’re ready to use it.

The next type of hydroponic system we’ll review is Nutrient Film Flow Technique. These systems use something called a capillary mat instead of moss or clay as the “soil.” The porous mats keep the nutrients constantly circulating around the roots. The plants get fed, but not drowned, and nothing goes stagnant.

Biostrate Hydroponic Growing Mats – Pack of 10 – For 10″ x 20″ Halatool

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This is one kind of capillary mat used for germinating seeds and growing wheatgrass. Combine these mats with the trays below and you can raise bean sprouts or catnip for your cats. All the Biostrate growing mats are biodegradable and can be composted after use.

Aquaponic Capillary Mat & Cover from Agralan

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Self-Watering Capillary Mat, 3 Yards

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These capillary mats are a big help in dry environments. Neither brand is good for vertical wicking, but both are made to maintain water across a horizontal surface.

Living Whole Foods 10 Plant Growing Trays (No Drain Holes) – 20″ x 10″ – Perfect Garden Seed Starter Grow Trays

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These are the trays that fit the Biostrate germination mats above. They are made of plastic and are reusable. They don’t have drain holes so they won’t leak.

With the final type of hydroponic gardening, you’ll create a rainforest-like atmosphere for your plants. It’s called Aeroponics. Plants hang in baskets while their roots get misted on a regular schedule. Surprisingly, this makes for really fast growth.

HTG Hydroponics RainForest 6 Aeroponic System for Medium to Large Size Plants

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The HTG 6 Aeroponics System from General Hydroponics is an all-in-one setup to grow almost any kind of plant. It comes complete with a 17-gallon reservoir, a sprayer, 6 plastic containers with CocoTek (coconut fiber) liners for substrate, plus three bottles of Flora nutrients. The system aerates the nutrient solution before spraying it over the plant roots. If you wanted to try aeroponic gardening, this is the best kit to get.

But what if you really just want to start small? Try the next product on your kitchen counter this winter and see what you think.

AeroGarden Harvest Elite – Indoor Garden with LED Grow Light, Stainless Steel

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AeroGarden is a complete kit for someone who wants to try out hydroponics and indoor growing on a small scale. It has a 20W LED light, nutrients, and seed pods with non-GMO Genovese Basil, chives, cilantro, Curly Parsley, dill, and mint. You can grow up to 6 plants at a time. The control panel helps you set up everything, including a schedule for “daylight”.

But if you don’t purchase an all-in-one kit, here are some of the substrates you can choose instead of traditional soil for your plants.

Growing substrates for hydroponics

There are a wide variety of “soils” you can use in place of real dirt. All of the following materials are top choices for hydroponic growing.

Peat 

Peat is a popular base because it’s inexpensive, but loaded with minerals. The most common types you’ll see are peat moss and humus.

Root Naturally Jiffy-7 36mm Peat Pellets

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You’ll get 100 peat pellets in this package from Roots Naturally. Once you water the pellets, they expand in size. Why buy a package of pellets when you might find your own peat outdoors? Pests and disease are the reasons why. The Roots Naturally peat is treated to keep its mineral composition without bringing along any unwanted surprises to your garden.

Hoffman 15503 Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, 10 Quarts

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Canadian Sphagnum Moss is very popular because it’s very lightweight but it holds a lot of water. This particular brand, Hoffman, is almost 100% organic. It’s mostly peat moss with a little perlite for aeration.

General Hydroponics CocoTek Bale Coco Growing Media, 5kg

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We mentioned coconut fibers called CocoTek. This is a 5kg bale of coco coir fiber and pith—basically, shredded coconut husk. It holds water well, but it also drains well so you avoid root rot. Roots get plenty of air when they’re planted in coco coir.

Grodan Rockwool Plant Plugs, Macro, 50-Pack

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Rockwool is very popular, and probably the gold standard for many growers, but there are two factors you need to consider. One, this material will slice up your hands, and breathing in its dust is not healthy. Please wear gloves and a dust mask when handling it.

Two, it’s alkaline by nature, so you’ll need to check the pH levels of your water and nutrient solution. You can also treat the Rockwool before you use it. Soak it for an hour in a mix of water and lemon juice that has a pH of 5 so that its naturally alkaline nature is neutralized.

Rockwool is made of minerals spun into fibers and shaped into blocks. It holds water well but lets the roots get plenty of air. It can hold up to 16 times its weight in water.

GROW!T GMC10L Clay Pebbles 10 Liter Bag, 4mm-16mm

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HEC, or hardened expanded clay, pebbles make a good substrate for hydroponics because they drain well and are heavy enough to keep young plants in place during watering times. These aren’t ordinary clay that would become soggy and mushy when exposed to water.

Espoma RP8 8-Quart Organic Vermiculite

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Vermiculite and perlite (below) are sometimes mixed with other substrates like coco coir. They keep soils from compacting, help hold in water, and help roots get plenty of air.

The best pH acid levels in hydroponics

Having the right pH, or amount of acidity, means nutrients get absorbed properly by plants. The whole scale of pH ranges from 1 to 14, with 1 being very acidic and 14 being very alkaline, and 7 being neutral. The ideal for plants grown hydroponically is usually just a little acidic, between 5.8 and 6.4 It’s smart to check the recommended acidity for each plant you’ll raise if you want the best results.

You can test the levels in two places—the nutrient solution itself, and the substrate where the plants are growing. Use a tester pen, strips, or a liquid solution and take samples of both to see how the levels look. Experienced growers can usually fix acidity with baking soda or vinegar, but new growers might want to use a control kit like this one from General Hydroponics.

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How to stop root rot, a common problem in hydroponic gardens

Root rot is a fungus that can attack all of your plants in a hurry if they are on an interconnected system. You’ll see signs like wilting leaves that turn yellow. The roots will not look white or creamy-colored, they will turn brown and smell like mildew.

You can prevent root rot by making sure you don’t overfeed or overwater your plants. Make sure your reservoir is protected from light and too much heat. If it’s properly sealed, the fungus has a harder time invading. Keep the water temperature below 72 degrees. Clean your system according to the manufacturer’s instructions after each harvest (sometimes by using a 3% hydrogen peroxide mix) and remove any dead plant matter while plants are still growing.

If you have many plants, you may choose to remove the sick plant and keep an eye on the others to make sure they don’t get the disease. You can add beneficial bacteria to your nutrient solution, or there are products called “root controls” that kill the root rot fungus. It’s not the best idea to use hydrogen peroxide directly on your plants because it kills beneficial bacteria and can damage plant tissue.

Tools to make your hydroponic garden as automatic as possible

Depending on the size of your setup, you may want more than a simple timer to control the light or the watering. Check out these other options for your hydroponic garden.

Intermatic DT122K 15-Amp Two-Outlet Heavy Duty Digital Indoor Timer

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This easy-to-read digital timer from Intermatic has two outlets so you can program separate times for two devices, like grow lights and a fan for ventilation, or a heater and humidifier. It can handle a lot of current at once.

Titan Controls Hyperion 1 Wireless Environmental Controller

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Titan Controls Hyperion 1 is a top-of-the-line hydroponics controller. It’s wireless so you can mount the panel up to 150 feet away from your grow tent or room and still check on things. It keeps track of temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels. If you add on a lighting controller (sold separately), you can also manage your grow lights.

Autopilot MDT Master Digital Combination Recycling & Lighting Timer | APCTMDT

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The Autopilot Master Digital Combination Recycling and Lighting Timer is made by Hydrofarm. It can schedule your lights as well as a CO2 injection setup (You may not have a CO2 injector if you have a small garden, but this is something to contemplate for the future if you expand).

Conclusion

Raising vegetables, herbs, and flowers in a hydroponic garden means you can enjoy fresh food and greenery all year round. A good hydroponic setup can save you time, money, and effort but still give you the pleasure of gardening indoors. We hope we helped you find the perfect hydroponic system today. Check back soon for new reviews of the best gardening, outdoor, and home products that make life easier.

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