Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State University
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Fact Sheets
are also available on our website at:
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service
Graduate Student, Ornamentals
Assistant Professor, Floriculture
“HYDROPONICS” is the growing of plants in a liquid
nutrient solution with or without the use of artiﬁcial media.
Commonly used mediums include expanded clay, coir, perlite,
vermiculite, brick shards, polystyrene packing peanuts and
Hydroponics has been recognized as a viable method
of producing vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and
peppers) as well as ornamental crops such as herbs, roses,
freesia and foliage plants. Due to the ban on methyl bromide
in soil culture, the demand for hydroponically grown produce
has rapidly increased in the last few years.
The word hydroponics comes from two Greek words
‘hydro’ meaning water and ‘ponos’ meaning labor. This word
was ﬁrst used in 1929 by Dr. Gericke, a California professor
who began to develop what previously had been a labora-
tory technique into a commercial means of growing plants.
The U.S. Army used hydroponic culture to grow fresh food
for troops stationed on infertile Paciﬁc islands during World
War II. By the 1950s, there were viable commercial farms in
America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
• It can be used in places where in-ground agriculture or
gardening is not possible (for example, dry desert areas
or cold climate regions).
• More complete control of nutrient content, pH and grow-
• Lower water and nutrient costs associated with water
and nutrient recycling.
• Faster growth due to more available oxygen in root area.
• Elimination or reduction of soil related insects, fungi and
• Much higher crop yields.
• No weeding or cultivation required.
• Some crops, such as lettuce and strawberries, can be
lifted from ground level to a much better height for plant-
ing, cultivation and harvesting. This gives much better
working conditions and hence lowers labor costs.
• Crop rotation/fallowing is not necessary.
• Transplant shock is reduced.
• Initial and operational costs are higher than soil culture.
• Skill and knowledge are needed to operate properly.
• Some diseases like Fusarium and Verticillium can spread
quickly through the system. However, many varieties
resistant to the above diseases have been bred.
Hydroponic systems can either be liquid or aggregate.
Liquid systems have no supporting medium for the plant roots;
whereas, aggregate systems have a solid medium of support.
Hydroponic systems are further categorized as open (once
the nutrient solution is delivered to the plant roots, it is not
reused) or closed (surplus solution is recovered, replenished,
Liquid Hydroponic System:
They are closed systems.
• Nutrient Film Technique (NFT): Plants are placed in a
polyethylene tube that has slits cut in the plastic for the
roots to be inserted. Nutrient solution is pumped through
• Floating Hydroponics: Plants are grown on a ﬂoating raft
of expanded plastic.
• Aeroponics: Plant roots remain suspended in an enclosed
growing chamber, where they are sprayed with a mist
of nutrient solution at short intervals, usually every few
Aggregate Hydroponic System:
• Rockwool Culture: It is the most widely used medium in
hydroponics. Rockwool is ground-up basalt rock that is
heated then spun into threads making wool. It is very light
and is often sold in cubes. Rockwool can hold water and
retain sufﬁcient air space (at least 18 percent) to promote
optimum root growth.
• Sand Culture
• NFT and Rockwool: Plants are established on small
rockwool slabs positioned in channels containing recycled
These system are further categorized into:
1. passive systems
2. active systems
1. Passive systems use a wick and growing media with very
high capillary action. This allows water to be drawn to
the plant roots. The Wick System is by far the simplest
type of hydroponic system (Figure 1).
2. Active systems work by actively passing a nutrient solu-
tion over your plants roots. Examples include:
The Water Culture System is the simplest of all active
hydroponic systems. The platform that holds the plants is
usually made of Styrofoam and ﬂoats directly on the nutrient
solution. An air pump supplies air to the air stone that bubbles
the nutrient solution and supplies oxygen to the roots of the
plants (Figure 2).
The Ebb and Flow System works by temporarily ﬂood-
ing the grow tray with nutrient solution and then draining the
solution back into the reservoir. This action is normally done
with a submerged pump that is connected to a timer. The
timer is set to come on several times a day, depending on the
size and type of plants, temperature, humidity and the type
of growing medium used (Figure 3).
Drip Systems are probably the most widely used type of
hydroponic system in the world. A timer controls a submersed
pump. The timer turns the pump on and nutrient solution is
dripped onto the base of each plant by a small drip line (Figure
NFT Systems have a constant ﬂow of nutrient solution,
so no timer is required for the submersible pump (Figure 5).
Figure 1. The Wick System.
Figure 2. The Water Culture System.
Figure 3. The Ebb and Flow System.
Figure 4. The Drip System.
Figure 6. The Aeroponic System.
Figure 5. The NFT System.
The Aeroponic System is probably the most high-tech
type of hydroponic gardening. A timer controls the nutrient
pump much like other types of hydroponic systems, except
the aeroponic system needs a short cycle timer that runs the
pump for a few seconds every couple of minutes (Figure 6).
Nutrient Management Techniques
The major disadvantage of a closed system is the dif-
ﬁculty of nutrient management. Four main techniques are
Water addition, pH and electrical conductivity (EC) control
are all automatic. The pH is a measure of the acidity of the
substrate and controls the availability of mineral nutrients;
whereas, the EC gives an estimate of the nutrient content.
The recommended pH for hydroponic culture is between
5.0 and 6.0 because overall availability of nutrients is optimized
at a slightly acidic pH, and the EC level should be 1.5 to 3 dS m-1.
The water makeup of the holding tank is automatic, usu-
ally by ﬂoat valve, i.e. the tank level is held steady. Here both
water and nutrients are being taken, but only water is being
replaced. Therefore, the EC will fall until the tank solution is
brought up to strength by nutrient addition. The EC is periodi-
cally checked and adjusted to the required value by adding
nutrient to the tank by hand. The pH is adjusted if necessary
by adding acid (dilute sulfuric acid) to lower the pH or an alkali
(dilute sodium hydroxide (NaOH) solution) to raise the pH.
The holding tank is partly or completely run down then
reﬁlled as a batch by adding water and/or nutrient. The impor-
tant aspect of this technique is that the effects of the addition
The holding tank is partly or completely run down then
reﬁlled using a standard strength nutrient solution. However,
the resultant EC in the system is not checked or adjusted.
This technique can lead to disaster.
Nutrient Solutions for Hydroponics
Commercial hydroponic growers need a more accurate
control of the components in a nutrient solution to achieve
commercial success. Numerous ‘recipes’ for hydroponic
solutions are available. Many use different combinations of
chemicals to reach similar total ﬁnal compositions (Table 1).
Soil versus Hydroponics
There is no physiological difference between plants
grown hydroponically and those grown in soil. In soil, both
the organic and inorganic components must be decomposed
into inorganic elements before they are available to the plant.
These elements adhere to the soil particles and are exchanged
into the soil solution where they are absorbed by plants. In
hydroponics, the plant roots are moistened with a nutrient
solution containing the elements. The subsequent processes
of mineral uptake by the plant are the same (Figure 7).
Table 1. Major element and micronutrient ionic forms
and normal concentration range found in most nutrient
solutions (Jones, 2005).
Element Ionic Form mg/L, ppm
Nitrogen (N) NO3, NH4 100 to 200
Phosphorus (P) HPO4 , H2PO4 30 to 15
Potassium (K) K+ 100 to 200
Calcium (Ca) Ca2+ 200 to 300
Magnesium (Mg) Mg2+ 30 to 80
Sulfur (S) SO4 70 to 150
Boron (B) BO3 0.03
Chlorine (Cl) Cl- —
Copper (Cu) Cu2+ 0.01 to 0.10
Iron (Fe) Fe2+, Fe3+ 2 to 12
Manganese (Mn) Mn2+ 0.5 to 2.0
Molybdenum (Mo) Mo04 0.05
Zinc (Zn) Zn2+ 0.05 to 0.50
Figure 7. Origin of essential elements in soil and hydro-
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Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Robert E. Whitson, Director of Cooperative Exten-
sion Service, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. This publication is printed and issued by Oklahoma State University as authorized by the Vice President, Dean, and Director of
the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and has been prepared and distributed at a cost of 20 cents per copy. 0310 GH.
Nutrition and Hydroponics
There is no conclusive evidence that produce grown
hydroponically are more nutritious or healthier than produce
grown by any other method, although some small studies indi-
cate that it may be possible. Many countries, such as Holland,
do not differentiate whether the produce has been grown by
hydroponics or by any other methods; they just concentrate
on the quality of the produce. Produce quality is more likely to
remain consistent in hydroponic systems, as plants are often
less stressed than in other systems.
Hydroponics in the Home Garden
For the hobbyist, hydroponics is a highly technical special-
ized form of agriculture that has an ever expanding application
to everyday use. At the same time, home hydroponic gardens
have become so simple that people without a green thumb
can be successful in growing ﬂowers and vegetables in their
homes. Many of the advantages of commercial hydroponics
also apply to the home and hobby gardeners. In many indus-
tries, small systems are developed, then expanded for large
scale use. Conversely, in hydroponics, large scale commercial
production is becoming more common, while it is more of a
challenge to make smaller systems economically feasible.
Planning Commercial Hydroponics
Hydroponic systems are only one of the options available
when you are considering whether to grow a crop. Planning
for a commercial business should, therefore, follow the normal
sequence for considering any horticultural enterprise. Don’t
overlook soil growing. You need a worthwhile reason to use
a hydroponic system instead of soil.
If you do choose to go with hydroponics, you should
evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each type of
production system for your crop of interest. For short term
crops such as lettuce, the common choice is recirculating NFT
or ﬂood and drain gravel channels. For longer term crops or
those very vulnerable to root disease, the common choice is
nonrecirculating, media-based systems.
During recent years, there have been an increasing
number of companies offering a range of turn-key packages.
They sell a total package of protected structure, hydroponic
and support systems, and often include consulting and mar-
List of some Hydroponic Suppliers
American Plant Products and Services:
Horizon Hydroponics: http://www.hhydro.com/
American Hydroponics: http://www.amhydro.com/
GreenCoast Hydroponics: http://www.gchydro.com/
Eco Enterprises: http://www.ecogrow.com/
Hydroponics may be used in underdeveloped countries
for food production in limited space. It is even feasible to
grow hydroponically in areas of poor soil conditions such as
deserts. The desert sand serves as a good growing medium
and seawater can be used to mix nutrient solution once the
salts have been removed. The popularity of hydroponics has
increased dramatically in a short period of time leading to
an increase in experimentation and research in the area of
indoor and outdoor hydroponic gardening.
Jones, J.B. 2005. Hydroponics: a practical guide for the soil-
less grower. CRC Press. Boca Raton. Fla.
Mason, J. 1990. Commercial hydroponics. Kangaroo Press,
Resh, H.M. 2004. Hydroponic food production: A deﬁnitive
guidebook for the advanced home gardener and the
commercial hydroponic grower. Newconcept Press,
Inc. New Jersey.
Savvas,D. and H. Passam. 2002. Hydroponic production
of vegetables and ornamentals. Embryo Publications.