The sun may tell a plant when it is time to do everything, but computing the functions that make it happen takes place in their roots. While you might think of plant roots as feet because they can’t stand up without them, this is more like the brain. Since this is where your harvest is being programmed, you definitely want to make sure you’ve got the right medium.

You can’t container grow any plant in regular soil from the ground – both indoors or outdoors. Why? There is little to no drainage or airflow to the roots.

Indoor Gardening with Potting Soil

The components of standard commercial potting soil, like you, would use to pot up begonias for the patio, are not inert materials and using them for hydroponics is possible, but they can mess with your nutrient levels. Peat and potting mixes shouldn’t be used with recirculating systems. It is wise to note that peat moss that creates the majority of commercial mixes is highly acidic.

You can use these easy to find, indoor-outdoor potting soil mixes with the more traditional type of indoor growing.

Hydroponic Growing Media

This is a soilless method of gardening and uses only inert materials for potting. Not only do these potting materials allow for total control of nutrients, they also have excellent drainage and provide good air flow to the roots.

The type of media you want to use totally depends on which kind of hydroponic system you are going to use. All of these media types work great with both recirculating systems and those that run to waste:

  • Drip irrigation
  • Flood and drain (also known as ebb and flow)
  • Passive

A Word About The NFT System

Being inexpensive and simple to operate, NFT is really attractive to those just getting started in indoor growing. It has some distinct disadvantages, like inadequate air availability to your plants’ roots. This can lead to loss of plant vigor and is a common source of failure for newbies. Another disadvantage directly related to root systems is that there is no protection from overexposure to air and heat from your grow lights. Should your pump quit working while you’re out taking care of business, it won’t be pretty. This, like all unexpected problems, might not be discovered until there is no hope for rescuing the crop. You’ll be far better ahead and have less cause for concern about equipment failure if you start out with a better type of hydro system.

Start out with a system that reduces destructive impact due to equipment failure. A growth medium gives your plants temporary protection against irreversible lethal injury.

Other Hydroponic Systems

  • You can use both inert materials and soilless medium using a drip irrigation system.
  • The ebb and flow or flood and drain system takes away the drawbacks of the NFT at a budget friendly cost. Starting seeds can be done with rockwool starter cubes and then transferred into larger rockwool slabs. A pod based system will let you propagate seeds and cuttings in a number of medium types.
  • Passive hydro systems, unlike the others, has no pump. These rely on deep water culture or a wicking system to deliver nutrients and moisture to your plants’ root systems.

Most Popular Hydroponics Medium

Clay pebbles have almost universal application and can be used with drip irrigation, flood and drain, passive and also with some NFT systems. The chunky texture provides the ultimate aeration, and great pH level stability. It is also recyclable and can be mixed with real soil to provide drainage and air flow.

Other Types of Hydroponic Media

Some are of organic origin, while others are man-made materials. Determining which you should use depends on the type of plants to be grown, your budget and what type of system you’re using. Here are some of the most commonly used hydroponic growing mediums: 

  • perlite
  • sphagnum peat
  • coco fiber
  • sand
  • vermiculite
  • sawdust
  • lava rock

Tammy Clayton

Content crafter and Senior Editor at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home. (Some feel she's got a perennial obsession, others say the problem is tomato plants.)

If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.