While it is evident the hydroponic gardening space has no shortage of technological innovations, there is always room for the do-it-yourself hydro grower. Yet, for many modern gardeners, the ease and simplicity of purchasing a pre-fab hydroponic grow system makes perfect sense. These horticulturists, who are more interested in horticulture than garden design, find comfort in the fact that hydroponics equipment companies supply abundant troubleshooting information, as well as spare parts, for their systems. Nonetheless, prebuilt hydroponic systems are quite expensive, with basic nutrient film technique (NFT) setups.

More technically inclined growers prefer the challenge of creating their own hydroponic setups, as many indoor and greenhouse cultivators are notorious tinkerers by trade.

For industrious gardeners, it is possible to design a hydroponic garden setup up that is highly-functional, while simultaneously not breaking the bank. For these DIY growers, all that is required is a logical set of plans, some gumption, and easy access to a hardware store. To illustrate some basic concepts on hydroponics system design, Maximum Yield broke down the key points of popular hydro methods as a starting point: NFT and ebb and flow. We have included some easy-to-understand advice on designing these systems yourself. After reading this brief survey of homemade hydroponic systems, you can decide which may be the best for your home gardening needs.

A Nutrient Film Technique system utilizes a constant gentle flow of nutrient solution over the bottom of the plant root systems. This allows roots to breathe air and take in nutrients at the same time. Ample oxygenation of the nutrient solution is necessary to ensure successful root respiration.

Nutrient Film Technique

Nutrient film technique is one of the most popular hydroponic system designs in use today; its versatility makes it extremely applicable in commercial settings, such as vertical farms and greenhouses. This type of cultivation is characterized by plants situated single-file, in rectangular shaped canals, often made of a PVC-like material.

Commercial operations often favor NFT because the thin canals make the system easy to scale, as the single-file rows can be strategically placed to utilize every square foot of available light. In an operational sense, NFT systems pump nutrient-rich water out of a reservoir and through the canals which house grow mediums, or nets, as well as plants. The defining characteristic of NFT hydroponics is a constant, recirculating source of water that is continuously moving past, and in contact with, the root systems of plants while not totally submerging the roots. Essentially, this moving nutrient water leaves a film on the root system, giving NFT its name.

If you are interested in designing your own NFT system, it is important to note these setups have a good amount of moving parts, and all must work in unison to achieve ideal garden conditions. Either way, most of the required parts can be procured at hardware and grow stores and aquarium shops. The primary elements of an NFT hydroponics system are reservoir, air pump, tubing, air stone, water pump, timer, canal, and grow medium.

As previously mentioned, PVC-like canals are the defining characteristic of NFT hydro systems and hobbyist growers can utilize PVC in the construction of their gardens. For starters, you will cut holes into the PVC that snugly fit your chosen cultivation medium — ideally stonewool or nets — which houses the plants. These PVC canals are then mounted on a wood frame which positions them a few feet off the ground, and at a slight angle. After that, place a rectangular shaped reservoir (that mirrors the garden size) underneath the PVC/wood frame. The water pump will pump the nutrient-rich water solution through the PVC pipe and through the root zone of the plants, which will then filter back to the reservoir by the angled PVC and gravity. While the water can directly drain from the PVC into the reservoir in a sort of waterfall, many prefer to rig a hose that uses gravity to feed it back to the holding tank. Finally, the air pump and air stone are used to aerate the recirculating reservoir water.

Ebb and Flow Systems

Ebb and flow hydroponic systems are defined by the large, rectangular “hydro tables” seen in many indoor grows. For small-scale, home-based growing, these systems are a safe bet as they have less parts than NFT. To illustrate, ebb and flow systems house all the plants on a single table (or several tables) in a grid formation, essentially sharing the water and garden space. This method is characterized by the periodic flooding of the hydro table in which grow mediums and plants rest. Ebb and flow is set apart from NFT by the fact that with this process, the grow medium and plant roots are almost entirely submerged in nutrient water in static flooding cycles, unlike the continuous film flow seen with NFT. For purposes here, we will be looking into rearticulating ebb and flow systems.


An Ebb and Flow system involves a timed flooding of the grow tray with nutrient solution in cycles. A Bell Syphon allows the grow tray to drain automatically once full. This allows roots to breathe air and take in nutrients in turn, while minimizing energy input. Oxygenation of the solution is not necessary but can be beneficial.

To design an ebb and flow system of your own, many of the NFT system principles are still at play, with some larger emphases on efficient timing and accurate flooding. With this notion in mind, the constituent part of an ebb and flow system generally mirrors those of an NFT system, with a hydro table replacing the canals, plus reservoir, air pump, tubing, air stone, water pump, timer, table, and grow medium.

The most basic, as well as affordable, infrastructure for a DIY ebb and flow garden begins with two symmetrical plastic containers, with one being a good deal deeper than the other. The crux of the setup is the deeper container will act as the reservoir while simultaneously supporting the upper shallow container, which houses the grow medium and plants. Using a drill, two holes should be drilled into the bottom of the shallow container — one will receive nutrient-rich water and one will expel it. Moving forward, you will connect the water pump to a plastic hose that penetrates the water entry portal to fill the shallow grow container. This will be your intake irrigation hose. Next, another plastic hose will be set to penetrate the bottom of the shallow container as the water outtake portal. This water expulsion tube should be lined with a screen and penetrate about two inches into the grow medium off the base of the flood container, this will act as an overflow when irrigation water gets to the ideal point. Interestingly, when the pump and water shut off, excess water is sucked back into the main holding reservoir with a siphoning effect, effectively letting the grow medium and root zone dry out. The water outtake system should ensure that medium is adequately drained after each flood, otherwise there will be a plethora of overwatering issues. Timing is essential with ebb and flow systems, and an accurate timer must be implemented to allow for precision in flooding, as most plants like their root systems to at least partially dry out between irrigation intervals. This rhythm can only be achieved by trial and error, so a watchful eye will be helpful in getting your ebb and flow setup off the ground.

Homemade hydroponic systems are not only affordable they can also be quite educational. As many experienced horticulturists know, the only way to truly master a grow technique is to understand every facet of the system. While DIY hydro systems are likely not dependable enough to employ on a commercial scale, they can be extremely helpful for the novice grower interested in understanding the ins and outs of hydroponics. Whether it be with NFT or ebb and flow, building your own hydroponic system is a fun and practical way to begin amassing a knowledge base on modern gardening techniques.