One advantage of hydroponics is that you can adapt this growing technique to large or small-scale hydroponics growing. This flexibility gives the opportunity for anyone to grow healthy, organic vegetables with limited space. But what are the best small hydroponic systems to choose from when you have limited indoor or outdoor growing space?
The best small hydroponics systems are NFT hydroponics for shallow root plants and DWC hydroponics for shallow and medium depth plant roots. Ebb and Flow or Drip systems in a Dutch bucket allow you to grow the full spectrum of vegetables, including root crops hydroponically in small spaces.
Hydroponic growing is a soil-free method of cultivating plants which requires the gardener to provide all the plants’ growing needs.
This high level of control in these systems allows you to grow plants indoors, outdoors, and in small spaces.
Matching the type of hydroponic system to the plants you want to grow is the key to making small hydroponic systems work for you.
Best Hydroponic Systems for Small Spaces
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There are many hydroponic techniques to choose from when planning a growing system for small spaces.
While you can scale most hydroponics systems, other factors influence your choice of a small indoor hydroponics system.
The main aspects to consider when selecting a small hydroponic system for home use include the following.
- Your available growing space. Different hydroponic systems have differing space requirements to work effectively.
- Root space required for your plants. Each plant type has a depth requirement for its root systems. If the system you use provides insufficient space, the mass of roots can negatively affect the hydroponic system. Additionally, the plant will suffer stress and will not yield the harvest you expect.
- The size of the adult plant. Some vegetable plants become quite bushy. This requires a lot of lateral space for the plant to thrive and produce a harvest. Large plants may also out-compete smaller plants for light, shading them out which results in lower yields.
The main hydroponic types are suitable for small scale hydroponics for indoor use or in small outdoor spaces. These include deep water culture, ebb and flow systems, drip systems, and nutrient film technique hydroponics.
The best small hydroponics systems provide flexibility in the system’s vertical and lateral space requirements.
Each of the hydroponics techniques I have mentioned work for a small indoor hydroponic system. However, they are not all suitable for all types of plants.
NFT Hydroponics for Small Scale Hydroponics
Nutrient Film Technique hydroponics, or NFT hydroponics, is a scalable implementation ideal for small-scale hydroponics in the home.
The NFT system has several implementation forms. However, for a small indoor hydroponic system, the ideal form uses PVC pipes in a vertical arrangement.
NFT hydroponics has a constant flow of nutrient-laden water, the nutrient film, which constantly flows through the system. You store the nutrient solution in a central reservoir and pump it to the top level of the system of pipes.
The PVC pipes are the grow chamber for the plants and have holes created in the upper surface to accommodate plants in net pots for growing in the system.
One end of the PVC pipe is raised above the other to provide a downward slope for the nutrients to flow through the system. The NFT system can be as simple as a single pipe or multiple pipes vertically stacked to maximize vertical growing space.
You can also adjust the length of pipes in the system to use the space you have available for growing plants.
Pro Tip: Amazon has a wide variety of NFT Hydroponic systems in a wide range of prices.
The types of vegetables that work best in this system are vegetables with shallow root systems since there is not much depth in the PVC pipes to accommodate large root systems.
Large bushy plants are also not suitable for NFT hydroponics because they limit the number of plants you can accommodate in the system.
Larger plants generally have larger root systems which are unsuitable for NFT hydroponics.
DWC Hydroponics for Small Indoor Hydroponic Systems
Deep Water Culture Hydroponics, abbreviated to DWC hydroponics, is scalable. You can adapt DWC for small indoor hydroponic systems.
DWC hydroponics is one of the best hydroponics systems for small spaces because you can adjust the size of the grow chamber according to your available space.
The DWC hydroponic system has an advantage over NFT hydroponics because you can use it to grow vegetables with larger root systems and shallow-rooted plants.
DWC uses a container that houses the nutrient mixture. The plants growing in the system hang above the water. The system has an air gap between the upper level of the nutrients and the base of the plant. This gives the roots access to oxygen in this area.
The other longer roots stay immersed in the nutrient solution and absorb the food the plant needs from this mixture.
For growing vegetables with deeper root systems, you can use a deeper container to accommodate the plants’ need for root space. I like this 5-gallon kit that is available on Amazon.
Ebb and Flow and Drip Hydroponics for Small-Scale Hydroponics
I decided to include these two hydroponic systems in the same section because their implementation is similar. One style of hydroponic growing covers both options.
You can implement Dutch bucket hydroponics as both an ebb and flow system and a drip system. It is one of the best small hydroponics systems for the home.
A Dutch bucket system ranges from a single isolated system, to connecting multiple buckets to the same nutrient source.
In its simplicity, a Dutch bucket system consists of two buckets stacked one inside the other. The lower bucket contains the nutrient solution, which is pumped up to the upper bucket where you grow the plants.
Pro tip: To save time and in some cases money, I find it best to buy all of the components of a Dutch bucket system in a kit, such as these you can find on Amazon.
The plants in the upper bucket use a growing medium such as perlite, vermiculite, or hydroton clay pellets (Amazon). Sometimes you use a mixture of these growing mediums, depending on the type of plants grown in the system.
A Dutch bucket is an ideal small indoor hydroponic system for growing large plants that require a deeper, more stable root system.
You can use Dutch buckets to grow all the types of plants you can grow in the other systems, as well as some plants, such as root crops, that do not do well in the other systems.
You can tuck away a single Dutch bucket in the corner of a room, or you can expand the system to use multiple buckets to grow more plants along an unused wall.
Commercial Small Hydroponics Systems
If you don’t have the ability or inclination to DIY your own small scale hydroponic system, I recommend purchasing a commercial counter-top hydroponic system.
Most of the counter-top systems use a version of the DWC hydroponics implementation. They are limited in the size of plants they can grow. This limitation is largely due to the small size of the system to make it viable placing on a countertop.
Two of the most popular commercially available small hydroponics systems for home use are iDOO, and AeroGarden. Both are available on Amazon.
While the iDOO systems tend to be cheaper than AeroGarden systems, I find that AeroGardens typically consist of better-quality materials and construction. In addition to that, all AeroGardens, regardless of the size, use the same grow baskets, sponges, etc. which you can get for a reasonable price on Amazon. In contrast, the iDOO accessories aren’t necessarily interchangeable from one garden to the next. Using the same grow baskets and sponges in my AeroGardens saves me money since I can buy them in bulk
Finally, AeroGarden does have some larger gardens available, which increases the types of vegetables you can grow with them.
Here are the different AeroGardens you can purchase on Amazon:
The AeroGarden Sprout is great for lettuce, baby bok choy, and herbs.
The AeroGarden Harvest line is the most popular for good reason. You can grow a lot in them, and they are reasonably priced. The most recent addition to the Harvest Family is the Harvest XL. It has more growing space and height than the other AeroGarden Harvest models. If you’re going to pick up just one model of AeroGarden, the Harvest is the way to go.
The AeroGarden Bounty is quite a bit larger than the AeroGarden Harvest Models. It’s good for growing vegetables that are too large for a Harvest.
For example, I’ve had good results growing peppers, eggplants, and ground cherries in a Bounty. You can technically grow those in a Harvest. However, especially with the ground cherries and eggplant, they typically grow too big for the Harvest.
With the Bounty you can get either the Basic or the Bounty Elite. The main difference between the two is that the Elite has more bells and whistles. However, if you’re strapped for cash, the Bounty Basic is the way to go.
The AeroGarden Farm family are the largest AeroGardens. They are typically too large to put on a countertop. The plus side is they work great for growing larger peppers, tomatoes, and so on.
Some varieties of tomatoes grow in every size AeroGarden, even a Sprout. But if you want to go big, the AeroGarden Farm models is the way to go.
Commercial hydroponic systems such as the iDoo and the AeroGarden are great if you want a more push-button approach to growing vegetables hydroponically. Especially with the AeroGardens, much of the process is automated, with alerts and alarms that let you know when to add food and water.
Pro Tip: Check out my AeroGarden reviews:
- AeroGarden Sprout Review (Apartment Gardening Made Easy)
- AeroGarden Harvest Review (and How it Compares to the Sprout)
- AeroGarden Bounty Review | Is it worth the extra cost?
- AeroGarden Harvest Vs. Harvest XL | Is the XL worth the price?
The scalability of hydroponics makes this growing technique ideal for homes of all sizes, including apartments.
For an in-depth look at the types of vegetables you can grow in these systems, take a look at our article The Best Hydroponic Vegetables to get an idea of the range of food crops you can grow in a small home hydroponics system.
Get started growing your own food in a small-scale hydroponics system and always have fresh, healthy food to put on your table!
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