Choose the Best Indoor Garden System for You
Before you buy any hydroponic equipment, check out the pros and cons of the different kinds of systems you can choose from.
You have many options when starting an indoor garden, from very simple, even do-it-yourself setups to complex, highly efficient systems. All can produce a healthy crop of plants with an abundance of flower buds. The best system for you depends on your goals, budget, and experience. Here are the main choices, from the cheapest to the most costly.
Soil in Pots
How it works: Plants grow in large containers filled with a very light, quick-to-drain mix primarily made up of peat or coir (coconut-husk fiber) and a moisture-retaining mineral, such as vermiculite or perlite. Nutrient solution (fertilizer and water) is delivered to the plants directly once or twice a day, via a watering can or pumped to them through tubing that drips on the soil.
Pros: You can get all the materials you need to grow a dozen plants for less than $50 from any home center or nursery.
Cons: With a hand-feeding system, you need to remember to care for your plants every day.
Best for: Novices or anyone who wants to grow just a few plants.
How it works: Plants are held in specially designed buckets (also known as Dutch buckets) using clay pellets, perlite, or another inert media (not soil). A water pump and a drip line deliver a nutrient solution from a main reservoir to the plants. The solution runs over the roots, drains from the bucket, and returns to the reservoir, from which it is recirculated. The system can cycle the nutrient solution periodically throughout the day or may be set up as a continuous flow.
Pros: The buckets are very stable and able to hold plants that are 4 feet tall and even bigger.
Cons: The buckets take up a lot of floor space, which limits your yield per square foot.
Best for: Temporary grow rooms where the system must be easy to take down and set up.
Deep Water Culture
How it works: Plants are suspended in rock-wool cubes or mesh pots, and the roots hang down into a reservoir of nutrient solution. To ensure plants get essential oxygen, there’s a space between the nutrient solution and the base of the plant. An air stone pumps oxygen into the reservoir.
Pros: You need to check only periodically that the reservoir isn’t empty to be sure your plants have constant access to the water and nutrients they need.
Cons: The more advanced hydroponic systems are more efficient and productive.
Best for: Growers who aren’t able to pay daily attention to their indoor garden.
Nutrient Film Technique
How it works: Plants in cubes or plastic-mesh pots sit in tubes, or channels, through which a light stream (film) of nutrient solution constantly flows over the roots and is circulated again and again.
Pros: If you have basic construction skills, you can build your own with PVC pipes.
Cons: The channels can become dank and dirty, creating an environment where fungi grow. The system needs flushing every week with clean water.
Best for: Compact varieties of plants that won’t grow too tall and unstable in the tubes.
Flood and DrainHow it works: Plants rest in a bed of lava rocks, perlite, clay pebbles, or other inert media. A timer triggers a water pump to fill the bed with nutrient solution at regular intervals and then allows the fluid to drain back into a reservoir.
Pros: Roots (and plants) grow big and fast with consistent, alternating doses of nutrient solution and oxygen.
Cons: A power outage—even a blown fuse—can leave your plants high and dry.
Best for: A large indoor garden with big, productive plants.
How it works: Plants hang in plastic-mesh pots, and their roots dangle freely in the air; they’re sprayed with a mist of nutrient solution every few minutes.
Pros: Roots are protected from the rot that can occur when they never dry out.
Cons: Humid conditions are ripe for fungi and the fungus gnats that feed on them.
Best for: Grow rooms where the conditions can be carefully controlled.