Hydroponics might be better known for large-scale underground urban farming – or, ahem, mass-producing marijuana – but it’s also revolutionising horticulture at home. It’s easy to see why: growing hydroponically allows those without gardens to grow food inside, fuss-free, mess-free and all year round.
Hydroponics, quite simply, is the process of growing plants without soil. In most systems the roots are directly suspended in nutrient-rich and perfectly pH-balanced water.
You can grow a variety of plants in a hydroponic system, such as greens, vining plants, root crops, fruits, herbs and even flowers.
You might be thinking: this seems like a lot of effort… why not just grow plants in soil? Well, hydroponic plants grow around 30 per cent faster, they generally produce a higher yield, you don’t need to worry about over or under-watering your plants (meaning they won’t die if you forget to water them for a month) and you can grow seasonal plants, such as strawberries and tomatoes, all year round.
Hydroponic farming en masse is on the rise in urban areas, but now it’s entering the do-it-at-home market, with brands such as Seed Pantry and Ikea offering plug in and play kits.
We’ve tested nine of the best kits available in the UK. The most time-consuming part of growing hydroponically is the setup, and there are some important things to consider before you get growing.
Each plant is different (and a bit picky) when it comes to its ideal growing conditions, so do your research before you get set up. Some kits will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, such as automatically watering the plants and keeping the light on a timer. For more manual setups, you may need to purchase a grow lamp and a timer. Most kits provide nutrients and instructions on how often to feed your plants, and some come with a pH reducer as tap water can be a bit high for optimal growing (plants will still grow, just slower, if you want to avoid the scientific part).
A common problem to watch out for is algae. It’s not harmful to the plants, however, and there are different ways to prevent or remove it, such as keeping your nutrients in a cool, dark place like a cupboard, or refreshing the water and wiping down the tanks. Once everything’s plugged in, it’s time to sit back and relax.
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Akarina 01 starter pack: £169.99, Akarina
What’s included: 1 x 0.5g pack gourmet looseleaf salad seeds, 100ml bottle liquid nutrients
Grow cycle: approximately 40 days (5 weeks)
With minimal setup, three removable culture trays – which make seeding and watering extremely easy – and an LED light with an integrated timer and dimmer function, the Akarina 01 is the easiest plug in and play hydroponics kit for the beginner indoor gardener.
It is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing kits we tested and works well in any room as a lamp. The starter pack comes with gourmet looseleaf salad, which excels in a hydroponics system and takes around 40 days to grow (or fewer if you prefer babyleaf).
Younger plants only need watering once a week. Towards the end of the grow cycle, or during a heatwave as we tested recently, you will need to up the watering to twice a week – so it requires a bit more attention than some of the other kits we tested.
The light is timed to be on for 16 hours a day, and can get quite warm to the touch, but this can be adjusted, turned off or dimmed if you prefer. Due to the white exterior, discolouration from algae is more noticeable. Akarina recommends refreshing the water in the culture trays and wiping them down with a cloth if it becomes excessive. Akarina 01 is the flagship model, but there are two others available that are cheaper and just as aesthetically pleasing.
Seed Pantry grow pod 2: £65.00, Seed Pantry
What’s included: three seed packs (includes Italian basil, basket of fire chilli, sweet ‘n’ neat cherry tomatoes), advanced grow medium with nutrients
Grow cycle: around 7 weeks for chillis and tomatoes to appear
A bit smaller than some of the others we tested, Seed Pantry’s grow pod 2 is a simple and affordable kit that fits nicely on a desk or windowsill. The grow pod itself looks pretty hi-tech and the packaging is modern and 100 per cent recycled. We liked the adjustable LED light, which can be switched on and off and features an inbuilt timer, the smart controller, which beeps when it needs watering, and the seed spacer covers, which clip on the top of the grow pods and space out the plants as they grow. The kit only comes with enough nutrient-infused growing medium for one cycle, so you would have to purchase more (£3.50) for another harvest. Seed Pantry claims to be mess-free but we had some spillages of growing medium and water, so take care when filling the pods and watering.
You have a choice of Italian basil, basket of fire chilli or sweet ’n’ neat cherry tomato. We chose tomatoes and chillies, which took around 10 days to sprout, and around five weeks to grow to a foot high. No fruit has sprouted yet (at time of writing).Seed Pantry also offers a seed subscription box and a range of different grow kits, including starter kits for children.
Miracle-Gro AeroGarden Harvest: £170, Amazon
What’s included: six pods gourmet herb seed kit (includes Genovese basil, curly parsley, dill, thyme, Thai basil, mint), patented nutrients
Grow cycle: around a month/5 weeks
Miracle-Gro is known for its fertilisers and plant care, so it’s natural that it has branched out into hydroponics (multiple puns intended). It offers several different models but the Harvest, with 6 pods, a red/blue LED system with a timer function and control panel that tells you when to add water and nutrients, is definitely the elite of the bunch, while still affordable. The Harvest comes with a gourmet herb seeds kit, which includes pre-sewn plugs, featuring Genovese basil, curly parsley, dill, thyme, Thai basil and mint, grow domes for optimal germination and a full season of liquid nutrients. These will need to be purchased again for an additional season.
The kit is extremely easy to assemble and use: we particularly like the adjustable light panel, which can be moved up and down as the plants grow taller, the pre-sewn plugs, which can be placed straight into the unit and are mess-free, and the inbuilt pump, which circulates the water several times a day to prevent sediment buildup for healthier plant roots. We encountered a problem with some of the plugs: the parsley and thyme failed to sprout at all (on their website Miracle-Gro says it will replace dud pods free of charge), while both species of basil grew much faster and taller than the others, eventually blocking out the light for the dill and mint, stunting their growth. The basils also grew taller than the light panel, and were burnt where leaves touched the light.
Ikea Krydda/Vaxer grow kit: £63.50, Ikea
What’s included: growing media, nutrients
Grow cycle: 4-5 weeks
The Ikea grow kit has been doing the rounds on Instagram recently and inspiring a new generation of hydroponic gardeners. It comes with plenty of plugs, growing medium and nutrients for multiple cycles, but seeds are extra (£1.50 per pack). Instructions on how to clean the pumice stones for reuse are also provided.This kit takes a little longer to set up as it arrives flatpacked (it is Ikea after all) and must be assembled, and also requires you to germinate seeds in a nursery box (which is provided) before planting.
It can be a bit fiddly to replant the delicate seedlings, which are grown on plugs made from stonewool (absorbs water and provides a good base for the roots), into the baskets with pumice stones without damaging them. We found we didn’t plant the plugs deep enough and some of the roots were exposed, which meant the plants could not support themselves and fell over. However, things get easier once the seedlings have been replanted as there is a water level and a funnel to make topping up easy. The red/blue LED light means you can grow all year round, but doesn’t come with an integrated timer.
The plants grow well and quickly, but can become overcrowded, so it is best to use fewer than the eight provided grow pots and spread them out a bit. Ikea also sells a two-tier version.
Alicja Patanowska Plantation hydroponic plant grower: £19.50, Trouva
What’s included: ceramic planters
Grow cycle: varies – eg full-grown garlic bulbs takes months, plants around 6 weeks
Plantation, created by Polish artist and designer Alicja Patanowska, is slightly different to the other hydroponics kits we tested. It comprises four different ceramic pots that can be placed in or under a variety of standard-sized drinking glasses, and is ideal for growing plants such as garlic, onion, potato, herbs or even an avocado, or the perfect solution for rooting grafts. This method of growing allows both stem and roots to be seen so the entire process can be observed. One of the pots can also be turned upside down to create a mini greenhouse ideal for germination. Nutrients aren’t provided but they can of course be used.
The pots come with detailed instructions on the types of plants you can grow and the best methods of growing, but you are also free to experiment, and flowers work too, such as hyacinth. You can grow things to eat, but in smaller quantities than the other units. We think an assortment of the pots would look great arranged on a shelf. An added bonus: they’re dishwasher safe.
Hydromerce grow tub: £14.99, Amazon
What’s included: lettuce seeds, nutrients, pH adjuster
Grow cycle: 4-6 weeks
The Hydromerce grow tub contains everything you need to get started with a simple lettuce growing system, takes only a few minutes to set up and is the cheapest on this list. What the grow tub lacks in looks (it is quite literally… a tub), it more than makes up for in its simplistic design and ease of use. It comes with enough seeds, rockwool plugs and nutrients to run for five cycles, producing a total of 10 lettuces – far more than any of the other kits we tested. It’s also the only kit to provide a pH reduction solution and testing strips. The pH of tap water tends to be a little high for optimal growing, and this can be detrimental to the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. Hydromerce recommends testing the pH every week and adjusting as necessary, which is not complicated but does add an extra step compared to other kits. The grow tub doesn’t come with a lamp, but requires plenty of light and warmth so you will need to purchase one if you don’t have a suitable space. Watch out for algae – Hydromerce recommends using aluminium foil to prevent light hitting the box, which will reduce algae growth. It also advises keeping the nutrients in black bag and in a dark space such as a cupboard as the combination of nutrients and light can cause algae to grow.
Botanium: £59.00, Botanium
What’s included: growing medium, pipette bottle with liquid nutrients, seeds are extra (basil, chilli pepper, cherry tomato, coriander, £3.30 extra)
Grow cycle: 2-3 weeks for coriander, 4-5 for tomatoes (but no fruit)
Botanium is a “smart” plant pot that automatically waters your plants for you several times a day, meaning no over or under watering, and less fuss and more growth. The water tank lasts several weeks, and features a handy window on one side so you can easily see when it needs topping up. Instead of submerging the plants in water, Botanium uses a porous growing medium that retains a lot of water without draining the roots, while also providing an aerated environment for the roots, meaning faster growth and more control.
The Botanium is suitable for vegetables or flowers, but recommends you plant dwarf varieties that won’t outgrow the container. Seeds (it recommends basil, chilli pepper, cherry tomato and coriander) are extra and cost £3.30 each. The seed packets come with handy instructions for how to plant and maintain, including how much light and nutrients are needed, how long they take to sprout and how tall they will grow. We grew tomatoes, which take around a week to germinate but 1-2 weeks to sprout. So far (at time of writing), growth has been slow – Botanium recommends carefully removing all but the tallest seedlings to avoid competition and maximise growth, and helping the plant pollinate once flowers have bloomed (after a few months). We also tested coriander, which grew much faster and excelled in a sunny spot on a windowsill.
Botanium doesn’t come with a growing light. In summer, this doesn’t matter too much as there is plenty of light, but if you don’t have a sunny spot in your house or you want to continue growing in winter, you will need to purchase a grow lamp.
Harvy cultivation box: £51.44, Blomster Landet
What’s included: 6 sewn plugs (includes 3 lettuce, 3 basil), 250ml bottle special nutrients
Grow cycle: 5-6 weeks
The Harvy cultivation box, a collaboration between Nelson Garden and Hemmaodlat, is the largest of the kits we tested, measuring around 80cm long and with space for six plants. It’s perfect for a windowsill as the LED light can be fixed to the glass with suction cups and moved up and down as plants grow. The kit comes with six sewn plugs made out of peat and coconut fibre and containing lollo rossa lettuce and Emily basil, and a 250ml bottle of liquid nutrients. There are a variety of other sewn plugs available, or empty ones so you can grow your own. When the plants first sprout, they are very delicate. We accidentally broke the stem of one and it stopped growing, so take care. Once set up, the box does not need refilling with water for around three weeks – much longer than the other kits we tested. However, it is large and heavy, so be sure to fill it when you’ve found a good spot for it. Nelson Garden also claims the box can be used daily for many years, and all elements are recyclable.
Growgreen hydroponic tube: £44.99, Amazon
What’s included: only equipment
Grow cycle: 2 weeks (but no seeds provided)
The EasyIn-06 system from Hong Kong-based Growgreen is a bench-top, tube-shaped hydroponic system with space for six plants. The kit can be purchased on Amazon, but unfortunately does not come with nutrients, seeds or instructions, though it does provide a demo video on its website to guide you through the setup and growing process. The kit comes with an external pump (with a USB port), which helps to save water and prevent sediment and algae buildup by circulating water (and nutrients, if using) through the tube. Growgreen recommends leaving the pump on for 12 hours a day. It doesn’t come with an LED lamp so must be placed in sufficient sunlight. The tube itself is double-layered, providing thermal insulation in heat and cold.
The kit comes with 12 sponge plugs, but recommends germinating seeds on a damp piece of kitchen paper in a plastic box before transferring to the tube – which can be quite fiddly. We decided to grow spinach and watercress and found the EasyIn-06 was the perfect environment – we had fully-grown crops within two weeks, which is faster than some of the other kits we tested.
The Verdict: Best hydroponic kits
For easy setup and maintenance, a modern style that will suit any room in the house, and fully-grown lettuce in around a month, the Akarina 01 is our best buy. For a more hands on experience, and Instagram fodder, choose the Ikea Krydda/Vaxer. If you want something fuss-free, that you can forget to water for a month, the Botanium is for you.