Historical Roots: 6 Types of Hydroponic Gardening Systems and Countertop Planters

January 14, 2014 by


When my kids were little, they enjoyed a family hydroponic gardening project conducted on the kitchen counter. You may have done the same experiment with your kids. We put a few plant clippings into a clear glass of water so they could watch the roots develop.

Kids-hydroponic-science-project-growing-roots-in-water-glass Photo: Diana Baumen, via Indiana Public Media.

At the time, I didn’t realize we were experimenting with hydroponic gardening. Though they learned something by the observation alone, I may have missed an opportunity for all of us to learn more about hydroponics.

Hydroponic Roots in Ancient History
For those that don’t already know this, hydroponics is a form of soilless agriculture where plant roots grow in nutrient-enriched water. It’s not new, hydroponic gardening has its roots in ancient history.


Some believe that as far back as 600 B.C., gardeners at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon–one of the seven wonders of the world–may have employed hydroponic principles.



When the Aztecs settled on Lake Tenochtitlan during the 10th and 11th centuries, they developed a system of hydroponic floating gardens or Chinampas. Unable to grow crops on the lake’s marshy shores, these early hyrdroponic gardeners built rafts of reeds which floated on the lake where the plant roots descended through the rafts into the water.

A Hydroponics Scandal
According to a 1938 Time Magazine article, one of the first commercial uses of hydroponics was based on the research of several scientists from that period at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. One of the scientists, William Gericke, grew 25-feet high tomato vines in his backyard using only mineral nutrient solutions in a process he called “aquaculture.”


The professor is credited with coining the term Hydroponics, a combination of the Greek words for water (hydro) and labor (ponos.)  Gericke’s work led to a hydroponics scandal (can you imagine!) in which he claimed the research as his own then abandoned the university, leaving it no documentation of his theories. In 1940, he published the Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening which is still in use today with a few updates for technological advancements.

Hydroponics For Limited Space and Outer Space
Fast forward to today where NASA is currently experimenting with growing food hydropically in space. Growing the food in the cosmos may be represent the future, where astronauts, urban gardeners, and home farmers alike use hydroponic systems to grow food small indoor spaces using a relatively controlled system. It’s not rocket scinece. Oh wait, yes it is.

Photo via NASA.

Six Types of Soiless Gardening Systems
There are 6 or more methods of hydroponic or soiless gardening, and though they each function differently, in all cases the plants receive their nutrients via some form of water (hydro) delivery system.

1. Aeroponics
In an Aeroponic system, sometimes referrred to as Fogponics, the roots are not suspended in water but hang in the air where they receive a nutrient-rich growing medium via misting.


Click and Grow’s planters utilize areoponics and make the process very simple as the kit comes with everything, you just add water. They offer mini tomatos, chili peppers, basil, and you can pre-order their new strawberry planter. Mini tomato Click and Grow, 56.73 at Amazon.

2. Drip Growing Systems
One of the most common and simplest forms of hydroponics is the drip growing system, some of which recover and recycle the excess nutrient solution from the reservoir. As in some other systems, a timer controls a submersed pump which drips nutrient solution onto the base of each plant via a small drip line.


The Zero Soil System planter, above, is a pretty good looking one that will sit nicely on a countertop or table. $49.95 at Amazon.

3. Wick System
Possible the easiest hydroponic system, the Wick System involves no moving parts. This system can use a variety of growing media, but in all cases the nutrient solution gets released onto the growing tray and delivered to the roots through a wick.


Modern Sprout’s stylish system, above, comes in a variety of cool finishes including my favorite, the chalkboard, and to be even more eco-conscious, you can select one of their solar-powered planters.(My daughter is growing herbs in hers and I’ll let you know how it goes.) $129-249 at Modern Sprout.

4. Water Culture
Many classrooms use a Water Culture technique, an easy, inexpensive, form of hydroponics wherein the plant roots are suspended on a floating Styrofoam platform and can be observed hanging below the floating platform.


In the Hydrofarms Emily’s Garden planter,  it’s easy to rearange or replace plants as each plant has in its own one-quart container which stands in a reservoir filled with nutrient solution. $84.82 at Amazon.

Aquaponic systems are a form of water culture, whereby the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures delivers the nutrients to the plants which then purify the water and the cycle continues. The Back to the Roots Aqua Farm, below, has a compact system that doubles as an aquarium so it’s functional as well as decorative. $63.86 at Amazon.


5. Ebb and Flow or Flood and Drain
An Ebb and Flow or Flood and Drain system utilizes a submerged pump connected to a timer which controls the temporarily flooding the root zone’s grow tray with a nutrient solution that then gets drained back into the reservoir. The grow tray can also be filled with rocks, gravel, or granular Rockwool.


Hydrofarms Megagarden System is a flood-and-drain pump irrigation system which works by pumping nutrient solution up from a reservoir to a water tray where water levels are precisely controlled on a timed cycle. $143.80 at Amazon.


The Grobal planter is a colorful mix of function and style. Here’s how easy. Fill the Nutriport reservoir with water and contents of one Grobal Plant Food Hydropak, add your plant. When the water level indicator shows level is low, add more water.  $27.59 at Amazon.

6. Nutrient Film System
Whenyou think of hydroponics, may be thinking about a Nutrient Film System (NFT.) This system involves a continuous nutrient flow, so it doesn’t require a timer. The nutrient solution is pumped over the plant roots onto a grow tray, then drained into a reservoir. The plants are typically grown in small pots, their roots suspended into the nutrient solution without any additional growing medium other than air.

Want to check out more posts on hydroponics? Here ya go! And more cool finds on our Pinterest hydroponic gardens board.

Next: A very cool design for a Nutrient Film System hydroponic planter.


  • Renato Tan

    Thanks for sharing this column. I’m sharing it on facebook.

  • Robin Plaskoff Horton

    So glad you liked it. Thanks!

  • http://senua-hydroponics.co.uk/ Stephen Wadding

    This is like an epic article about hydroponic gardening systems. You have revealed some crucial facts about this famous way of gardening & planting. I was never so aware with those facts about history of this system. I am glad to came here.

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  • Growot

    What a great collection of tools that can make growing so easy! More people need to know about these possibilities which are available to them. Great insight on the history of hydroponics – thank you for this!

  • Ray Espiritu

    Hi. I just received the Zerosoil planting system and viewed the “Modern Sprout – how it works” video on their website. I believe you have the two reversed in terms of categories.

    The Zerosoil system does not have a pump. It merely monitors the water reservoir and tells you when it is low on water. 4 white wicking tubes are in the four corners of each pot and wick the water up through the growing medium.

    In contrast the Modern Sprout video definitely states that they have an air pump and do a drip feeding system. Just FYI in case readers get confused and wonder “Why does a wick system with no moving parts cost so much more than a drip system that needs a powered air pump?”

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