Why is hydroponics a whole world and not just a gardening technique? Well, to start with, hydroponic gardeners are a bit like sci-fi “geeks”, very much enthralled by this “high tech” field of farming.
But there is more; there are a lot of scientific studies on it; it is so revolutionary that it can change the future of the planet…
Last, but not least, there are many hydroponic techniques, from deep water culture, ebb and flow, the wick system, aeroponics and finally a favorite by hydroponic gardeners: the drip system.
But what is drip system hydroponics?
Drip system is a hydroponic method where the roots of the plants are in a growing medium and not immersed in the nutrient solution (water and nutrients); instead, the solution is pumped to them regularly thanks to irrigation pipes.
This guide will give you everything you need to know about the drip system of hydroponics how does a hydroponic drip system work, pros and cons and how to setup your own drip system.
What Is The Drip Irrigation System?
In a drip system you will keep the nutrient solution in a reservoir (or sump tank) which is separate from the grow tank, where you plants will live.
Then, with a system of water pipes, hoses and a pump, you will bring the nutrient solution to the roots of the plants in drips.
There will be a hole, dripper or nozzle in the hose at the base of each plant that allows to irrigate each individual specimen evenly. Each plant will get the same amount of nutrient solution.
The plants will be in mesh pots with a growing medium in them (like expanded clay) and this will allow the nutrient solution not only to spread more evenly to the roots (by trickling down through the pebbles), but also to be available to the roots for long, as it gets absorbed by the growing medium and then released to the roots.
The excess solution is then collected at the bottom of the grow tank and drained back into the sump tank.
This is the key principle of the drip system.
Nutrients, Water And Aeration In The Hydroponic Drip System
To understand the key dynamics of hydroponics you need to appreciate how each system ears with the roots’ need for water, nutrients and aeration.
In fact, one of the big problems with early hydroponic methods was how to bring oxygen to the roots.
Plants’ roots, you may know, do not only absorb water and nutrients; this was solved early on by mixing the right amount of nutrients to water, and getting what we all call now “the nutrient solution”.
Hydroponic pioneers were scratching their heads trying to come up with a good way of giving air to the roots.
First came air pumps, a bit like the ones you use in aquariums. But there is a problem here; an air pump in a deep water culture system can only aerate the water to a point.
What is more, if you put the air stone on one side of the grow tank, the plants on the other end will get no oxygen.
If you put it in the middle you will get better results, but still the plants in the center of the grow tank will get much more air than those around the edges.
A perfect solution to this problem came from rediscovering an ancient irrigation technique already used in ancient China and new technological developments in the 50s:
Using drip irrigation means that the roots will be surrounded by air primarily, and not immersed in the solution, which gives perfect aeration, as in fact, roots need lots of oxygen.
How Does The Drip System Work?
The basic idea of the hydroponic drip irrigation system is fairly easy. There are a few ways in which this can be varied, but let’s look at a standard system to start with:
From here, you will then be able to start the cycle again. As you can see, it is very efficient when it comes to using the nutrient solution.
What Elements (Or Parts) Do You Need In A Drip Irrigation System?
On the whole, you won’t need much more than what is necessary for most hydroponic systems, mainly a few more pipes and hoses… And they are as cheap as dirt if you excuse me the pun:
This Is What Is What You Absolutely Need, But There Are A Few Other Elements You Will Want To Add:
Of Course, If Your Garden Is Indoors You May Need LED Grow Lights As Well.
It may look like a lot, but you can literally build a fair size garden with between 50 and 100 dollars. The most expensive part will be your pump in most cases, and you can get a good one for less than 50 dollars, but there are much cheaper ones (down to less than 10 dollars) if you only want a small garden that fits in your kitchen or on your small balcony.
Variations Of The Drip System
Did I say that hydroponics is a whole world? Like with most hydroponic methods, even the drip irrigation system has many variations and a range of solution from the simplest to the high tech and futuristic.
There are several adaptations of the key concept in fact, including:
To be fully correct, even aeroponics is in fact a development of the drip system; however, it is regarded as a separate method for a few reasons:
Passive And Active Drip Irrigation Systems
You may have seen drip irrigation used also in soil gardening; it is becoming very common in hot places.
Why? It saves water, it irrigates very homogeneously, it discourages weed growth and finally it prevents water evaporation.
But small soil gardens often use what is known as passive drip irrigation, while there is also active drip irrigation. What is the difference though?
Which Drip Irrigation System Is Better For Hydroponics, Passive Or Active?
You can use a passive drip irrigation system for your hydroponic garden, and some people do.
This may work well on condition that you have a small garden and you will also save some money on your electricity bills as you will not need a pump.
However, there are two major problems; a passive system is not suitable for big gardens as it cannot guarantee that all the plants will receive an adequate quantity of nutrient solution.
What is more, you will not be able to collect the excess solution.
This is why most hydroponic gardeners by far prefer an active irrigation drip hydroponic system; this way, you have full control on the distribution of the nutrient solution and you can put the reservoir under the grow tank to collect the excess solution through a hole at the bottom or even a pipe.
This Way, The Solution Is Irrigated Actively And Collected Passively.
Low Pressure Hydroponic Drip System
This is when the pump you use is only sending the water through the pipes at slow speed and without putting pressure into the pipes themselves.
Even a passive drip irrigation system can be called “low pressure”; that is, unless your reservoir is so high up that the gravity puts lots of pressure on the nutrient solution.
In a low pressure system, the nutrient solution simply travels through the pipes at slow speed and without fully filling the pipes usually.
This system is not optimal with big gardens, but you will still get excellent results. In fact:
High Pressure Hydroponic Irrigation System
In this case, the nutrient solution is pressed into the pipes, pushing out all the air first and creating high pressure.
If you have seen sprinklers on lawns, you will have witnessed a high pressure drip system in action.
With this system, you can reach optimal levels and uniformity of irrigation even over a large area.
This makes it ideal if you are “thinking big” and professional. But for a small, home garden, this system has some great disadvantages:
Thus, unless you want to set up a large professional hydroponic garden, your best choice is to go easy and safe with a low pressure drip irrigation system.
The Dutch Bucket System
This is an extraordinary method, where you keep the roots of your plants in individual buckets working as grow tanks, as we have seen.
By far the best system to grow even small trees, like lemons, oranges, fig trees, pear trees etc.
It is sometimes considered its own method, but because the principle is exactly the same as that of the drip irrigation system, I think it falls clearly within this wider method.
The Dutch bucket system has great advantages:
On the other hand though, it is more expensive than a standard drip system. Still, if you want to grow mangos, papayas, bananas (yes you can!) and other big plants or fruit trees, this is by far your best option.
The Best Plants For A Drip Hydroponic System
Of all the hydroponic systems developed so far, the drip system is one of the most flexible systems.
Apart from the fact that it adapts even to big trees, as we have seen already, it is also suitable for plants that like to keep “their feet dry”, like Mediterranean or tropical and subtropical plants.
You cannot, for example, grow lavender in a deep water culture system; this plant does not stand humidity on its aerial part (stem, leaves and flowers) and it does not like too much moisture around its roots.
So, the drip system allows you provide nutrients with plenty of air and limited moisture.
Other plants do not like stagnant water; for these, you can only use ebb and flow, aeroponics or a drip irrigation system. Watercress is a prime example of this.
For root vegetables, if you use any system that keeps the roots permanently in the water solution you will risk that when you harvest your carrots, turnips or potatoes, you will throw them straight into the compost heap as they have rotted away. On the other hand, a drip system will be fine for them.
There are many plants that suit a drip system, in fact, almost all the plants you can grow hydroponically, if not actually all of them. However, if you want a “best pick” list…
As you can see, you can pick vegetables and fruits from many different categories if you use a drip system.
Why Choose A Hydroponic Drip System?
I must admit that this is one of my favorite hydroponic systems. There are many reasons why you may choose one in fact:
I think it makes for a nice list of points in favor of choosing a drip system.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Hydroponic Drip System?
No hydroponic method comes without some disadvantages; and the drip irrigation system is no exception. Still, I find that the problems we face with drip irrigation are never big enough to put people off using it and always easily solved:
On the whole, as you can see, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
How To Set Up A Hydroponic Drip System For Indoor Gardening
Now, let’s see how you can set up a standard hydroponic drip system at home, even fitting into a small and unused corner of your kitchen for example.
You will need all the elements and parts we mentioned before: a grow tank, a reservoir, pipes, a water pump and possibly also the pH and EC meter, a thermometer, a timer and an air pump, just to remind you.
In terms of plumbing, you will need pipes, hoses, fittings (90 degree elbows, caps, barbs, hose clamps etc.) I would suggest you plan your plumbing ahead, so you will know what you need.
Now you are almost ready to plant, but you need a little trick first.
How Do You Close Hoses At The End? There Are Two Ways:
Very importantly, only connect the pump, timer etc. and start it only after you have mixed in the solution. Do not get your pump to dry run.
You can now plant and set the timer!
All this is, of course if you want to build your garden yourself, and you like to spend a good afternoon DYIing with your kids…
Otherwise you can just buy a kit! They are quite affordable indeed.
How often should you irrigate your plants?
This very much depends on a few factors:
This may vary a lot, from 15 minute cycles after a 15 minute pause (15’ on and 15’ off) to a cycle every 3 to 5 hours.
Remember that at night you should reduce or in some cases even suspend cycles, in case it is humid enough. Plants have a different metabolism at night, but they still breathe through their roots.
You will soon get used to what your system, plants and place need. But there’s a little “trick of the trade” I want to share with you…
Plant an adult tomato and keep an eye on it; when the top leaves droop, it means that it needs water and of course, nutrients.
You can use it as a living “gauge” get to know your garden’s irrigation needs.
Now you have all the facts, I think we can agree that a hydroponic drip irrigation system must be very high up on the chart of your favorite systems.
It does have a few small disadvantages, but it is very functional and economical; it provides perfect watering, nutrition and aeration to the roots of your plants; it is adaptable to any situation or garden size; it is suitable for virtually every crop and it can easily be changed and adjusted.
This explains why the drip system has quickly become a favorite with hydroponic gardeners and growers, and why, even if you don’t fancy a kit, and you want to build your own.
It could only mean spending a fun day and some quality time with your kids, doing something useful while learning some handy skills and a lot about the life of these wonderful companions of ours on this planet we so much need and love: plants…
Updated on by Amber Noyes
After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.