Which Hydroponic System is Right for You?

Which Hydroponic System is Right for You?

How can you start a home hydroponic farm? Learn about the different ways to grow plants hydroponically and decide which hydroponic system makes the most sense for you.

If you’re a teacher interested in giving your class a unique learning experience on a hydroponic farm, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to get in touch!

At Vertical Roots, we’ve rigorously tested multiple styles of hydroponics (and aeroponics too) and custom-designed our system to grow the best, most delicious lettuce possible. But what works for our container farms probably won’t be the best option for your home garden. If you’re looking to grow herbs in your kitchen or tomatoes in your greenhouse but you don’t want to design high-tech software or undertake a major construction project to do it, you’ve come to the right place.

To get a better idea of your needs before you begin, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • How much space do I have?
  • What am I willing to spend?
  • How much time do I have to monitor my garden?
  • Do I really want delicious, home-grown produce year-round?!

Alright – ready to explore? Check out our roundup of the emost common hydro options below. 

Note: no matter what system you choose, you will need some basic elements like appropriate lighting and a growing medium (the material serving as your plant’s root-support system) 

Kratky

Pros: Easy to set up, a breeze to maintain 

Cons: Not suitable for diverse gardens, works best for growing individual plants

The Kratky method is the most basic of all growing approaches. This method doesn’t require any electricity, water-circulating equipment, or air pumps. It is, however, limited to smaller production. If you just want to grow a small plant or two for your house and you’re not sure you have the time to tinker with more complex setups, this is probably your dream. If you’re planning on growing a highly productive and robust vegetable garden, then Kratky is unlikely to get you there as it doesn’t support the hefty water and nutrient needs of larger plants.

To set up this system, you just need a container (even a mason jar will do), a net pot, and some nutrients. Instead of submerging the roots in oxygenated water, you simply fill your container until the water covers about a third of your net pot. Then you can let the plant do the work itself!

As your seedlings continue to suck up water/nutrients, they will create an air pocket in the tank, taking care of oxygenation for you. Think of this as self-watering and self-oxygenating. 

Some things to look out for: Even thought this system allows you to mostly “set it and forget it,” you can’t forget to test your pH levels and add nutrients intermittently. It’s also easier for plants to develop root rot in this setup and die before a sufficient bubble of oxygen is created between the base of the plant and the reservoir. If this system leaves you wanting, we suggest stepping up your hydroponic game just a smidge with Deep Water Culture.

Deep Water Culture

Pros: Easy to customize, effective for a broad range of plants

Cons: Plants are subject to root rot if oxygen levels aren’t closely monitored

Deep Water Culture (or DWC) is the godfather of hydro and is one of the more common setups you’ll encounter. In essence, this approach involves suspending plants in a nutrient system and waiting for magic to happen. Like Kratky, as your seedling sprouts roots, they will suck up nutrients and hit a serious growth spurt. Unlike the Kratky method, your net pots will be constantly submerged in nutrients with no gap between the plant and the reservoir. 

Just like you can overwater a plant in soil, you can “drown” your plants in a hydroponic system. You can solve the oxygenation problem in two ways: by adding an air stone to the container to produce oxygen bubbles, and by installing an air pump. There’s a reason DWC is such a commonly used system for home growers: it’s relatively simple, doesn’t require much space, and is more consistently successful than the Kratky approach.

Nutrient Film Technique

Pros: Ability to constantly adjust inputs for optimum growth 

Cons: Requires more time, money, and expertise to set up and maintain

If you want to dive right into the hydro deep end, you can go all out with the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). Like most setups, the basic idea is the same: you arrange your plants so that the roots have contact with oxygen and nutrients. But this next-level system ensures that your plants have a constant flow of both elements in ideal amounts.

NFT involves the use of a reservoir and a pump system. Plants are aligned in a row on a slight angle so that your nutrient solution can flow down the channel into the reservoir, feeding the roots in a steady stream as it makes the journey. Once the water reaches the end of the line, it’s re-dosed with nutrients and pumped back up to the starting point to begin again. 

NFT is awesome if you’re tech-savvy and can monitor the system the majority of the time. But as they say, with more complexity comes more opportunities for catastrophe. Since the roots are only getting a thin “film” of water and nutrients, if something goes wrong with the pump and you’re not around to troubleshoot, your roots can quickly dry up and you could lose the whole crop.

Ebb and Flow

Pros: High customizability, lower energy requirements than NFT

Cons: Additional expertise required to set up automation

This approach still requires a bit of engineering prowess on the part of the grower, but is more simplistic than NFT. If you choose this route, your efforts are rewarded with hyper-customizability. Ebb and flow systems work by flooding the growing medium with nutrients and water at predetermined intervals, after which the solution is drained back into a reservoir. 

Automation is the name of the game here. To effectively manage your ebb and flow setup, install a submersible pump with a timer and set up your watering schedule in accordance with the plant size, number of plants, base temperature, and so on. Technically, you can simply fill a tray with water and nutrients and drain it by hand after an appropriate amount of time. However, this sort of hands-on upkeep would keep you tethered to your system all day, which isn’t likely to be sustainable! 

This is an awesome approach if you’re looking for a versatile setup to support a variety of plants. If you don’t have the space to place your plants in a long row but you still want a high level of customizability, you may want to try this next variation instead.

Drip

Pros: Flexible setup to fit any space, can easily be used for a single plant or many plants

Cons: High maintenance requirements if you want to recycle the water in your reservoir

A drip system uses two pumps, a reservoir, and a series of hoses to keep your plants healthy and happy. Here’s the deal: the air pump keeps the water and nutrient solution moving and oxygenated, while a second pump moves the solution up through perforated hoses that drip nutrients onto your plants. In this approach, since the water moves from the top down instead of the bottom up, roots are totally embedded in a growth medium instead of hanging free to gather food from a reservoir below. 

This method works best if you sprout your seeds in a smaller container with a growth medium like coconut coir and then transfer your “teenage” plants to larger pots filled with a more porous medium like vermiculite.

So, which system is the winner for you? Have tips for other new hydro farmers?

Let us know how things go by sharing a picture of your setup on Instagram and tagging @verticalroots!

The What and Why of Hydroponic Farming

The What and Why of Hydroponic Farming

What is hydroponics? How does it work? How does hydroponic farming compare to traditional farming? 

When we tell people that we grow our produce using hydroponics, we usually get something close to this response: 

“Sounds cool…sounds like it has something to do with health food maybe? What even is it?”

For all the hydro-curious folks out there, we’ve put together a primer on the basics of hydroponic farming. 

We suggest you start here to learn the essentials of hydroponics, and if you’re inspired to try growing some hydroponic plants of your own, click over to this page to see what kind of system would work best for you!

So What is Hydroponics?

Put simply: Hydroponics is a way to skip the soil, sub in a different material to support the roots of the plant, and grow crops directly in nutrient-rich water. 

There are multiple approaches to designing hydroponic systems, but the core elements are essentially the same.

What you need: 

  • Fresh water. Were talking primo, filtered stuff with a balanced pH. Most plants like water with a pH level around 6–6.5. You can adjust the acidity of your water with over-the-counter solutions found at your local hardware, garden, or hydroponic store.
  • Oxygen. Don’t drown your plants! In traditional farming, roots can get the oxygen needed for respiration from pockets of air in the soil. Depending on your hydroponic setup, you will either need to leave space between the base of your plant and the water reservoir, or you’ll need oxygenate your container (think of bubbles in a fish tank), which you can accomplish by buying an air stone or installing an air pump.
  • Root Support. Even though you don’t need soil, your plant’s roots still need a little something to hold on to. Typical materials include vermiculite, perlite, peat moss, coconut fiber, and rockwool. Stay away from materials that might compact (like sand) or that don’t retain any moisture (like gravel).
  • Nutrients. Your plant is going to need plenty of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and other nutrients to stay healthy and productive –– just like plants growing in the ground need healthy soil and fertilizer. When you’re growing plants without soil, this “plant food” must be included in the water that’s feeding your plants. While you can technically make your own nutrient solution, it’s easy to buy mixtures online and in stores.
  • Light. If you’re growing your plants indoors, you might have to invest in some special lighting. Each kind of plant will have a different requirement for the amount of light it needs and for the placement of lights (typically referred to as Daily Light Integral or DLI).

While there are other elements to consider as you increase the sophistication of your hydroponic farm (for instance, things like CO2 supplementation), the five listed above are the most foundational elements of any hydroponic system. 

By monitoring and adjusting these key variables, you can begin to discover precisely what your plants need to thrive, and replicate those conditions for every grow in the future.

Why Grow Without Soil?

This seemingly subtle shift in how we make food (skipping the soil, that is) is actually revolutionary –– it allows growers to produce food anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, and to net higher yields with fewer resources. 

Grow Anywhere

Yep. Take that, climate change. Growing seasons and regions are in major flux right now as temperatures change and growing conditions change along with them. Even in “normal” conditions, there are plenty of places where the ground just isn’t conducive for farming (like deserts, concrete jungles…you get the gist).

Right now, most of the vegetables you come across in a store have been shipped in from afar, and have lost nutritional value along the way. 

Using hydroponics, we can create hyper-local food systems – and we are! Our container farms are set up right in the communities and regions that we serve. It’s even possible to put a farm directly behind restaurants that want ultra-fresh produce! And when you’re growing hydroponically, you don’t have to hit pause for a season or risk crop loss from inclement weather.

Higher Yields

Plants grown in well-managed hydroponic systems are living the good life. Since roots are bathed in all the nutrients they need, plants spend more time growing upward and less time and energy growing extensive root systems to search for food. 

Growth rates vary based on the type of system and quality of care, but hydro plants can mature up to 25 percent more quickly than the same plants grown in soil, with increased crop yield, to boot.

Fewer Resources

We bet you didn’t see this coming: hydroponic systems actually use less water than traditional soil-based systems. This is because closed systems aren’t subject to the same rates of evaporation. Plus, the water used in hydroponic systems can be filtered, re-populated with nutrients, and fed back to plants again so that water is constantly being recycled instead of wasted! 

At Vertical Roots, our systems use up to 98 percent less water than traditional soil-based systems. 

Other “resources” indoor hydroponic plants don’t need? Pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals, since the hydro crops are protected from many of the pests and plant diseases found outdoors in soil-based farms. 

Easy Troubleshooting

How many times have you walked out to your garden and seen one of your plants thriving while its next-door-neighbor is drooping? In that situation, it’s almost impossible to know which variable is negatively affecting your poor plant. Is it a pest problem? Are the nutrients in the soil different in that spot? Has this plant become your dog’s urinal? 

With a hydroponic system, you know exactly what conditions your plants are being grown in. As such, you can easily isolate variables and experiment! Once you find the perfect formula of light, pH balance, and nutrients, you can replicate success without always getting hit with curveballs.

Think you’re ready to try it out?

Click here to see what setup makes the most sense for your space and lifestyle.

And send us a snap of your new garden! You can hit us up on Instagram @verticalroots.

We can’t wait to see how it goes for you.

What does it mean to be a farmer?

What does it mean to be a farmer?

Agriculture is an ancient tradition. As such, it’s not entirely surprising that our mental image of “the farmer” is badly outdated. Agriculture may be ancient, but farmers aren’t historical artifacts! 

For many, a farmer is an older, overall-clad man with a 5 o’clock shadow and sun-weathered cheeks, standing in a field as dawn breaks over his crops. In this image, we find our nostalgic ideals of rugged individualism, hard work, and simplicity represented within a beautiful natural backdrop. 

The “hard work” part is definitely an enduring truth. But farming is a highly collaborative effort, and the business of farming is hardly a simple one. Farmers don’t just have to be skilled in the already challenging task of crop management, but also in business development, marketing, technology, and more. Farming is a business, not a professional association of modern-day Thoreaus!

(Okay, at our farm team’s insistence, I will admit that we have a lot of lovers of Walden)

When we only think of farming in the past tense, we stop imagining the radical possibilities for the future of food production. 

It’s time to lift the veil on farming and get to know the real people who produce our food so we can build a more just, vibrant, and sustainable food system. 

You can get to know one of our Vertical Roots farmers right here!

Farming doesn’t have one face, or one approach: from the commodity farms in the Midwest to the container farms in our backyard, diversity abounds. 

Our Vertical Roots farmers don’t exactly fit the farming stereotype. But they’re out in our farms every day planting, managing, and harvesting crops like they were born to do it. On the job, they see firsthand exactly how things are changing and how they are staying the same.

For instance, there’s a unique drive that motivates farmers to team up with nature and do the fundamental work of feeding one’s community. That doesn’t change, soil or hydroponic, ancient or modern. But some things have changed. For the newest generation of farmers, there is a tremendous sense of urgency about designing and implementing environmentally friendly practices that can sustain the food system for the long haul. Farming has always been an industry of ingenuity, and with a growing global population and limited resources, the creativity required to create a workable, scalable model has increased exponentially. 

To feed roughly 10 billion people by 2050, we’re going to need all the perspectives we can get. 

By putting our unconventional farmers front and center, we want to blow open assumptions about the industry and allow space for sustainable innovation. We’re not a food company that works with farmers. We’re a farming company that makes good food, and we’re tired of farmers being hidden away, admired but under-valued. When we bring transparency to farming, we aim to foster the next generation of farmers and open the doors for people from all walks of life to consider their role in the future of food. 

AmplifiedAg represents a turning point in farming where getting back to the fundamentals is more critical than ever, and so is finding newly efficient ways to do so. Our team embodies traditional values of productivity and ecosystem preservation, executed with a game-changing approach that allows farmers to grow in any climate at any location throughout the year. Our tech-enabled hydroponic container farms thrive without pesticides and use 98 percent less water than conventional methods; and since they’re portable, we can grow food right in the communities we serve. No more shipping thousands of miles between the farm and the grocery store and losing essential nutrients in the process. 

Our farms may not look the same as conventional farms, but they’re built from the same place of love for people and the planet. And our farmers may not all fit the stereotypical image, but each one of them carries the resourcefulness, gumption, and skill that has carried this tradition throughout millennia. 

Modern farming doesn’t look like any one thing, and that’s a good thing. That means that the modern farmer might just be the person looking back at you in the mirror. 

To learn more about our approach to farming, click here.

And if you’re one of those people with the drive to grow food and change the food system, apply to farm with us here

Overalls are not required.