Hydroponics is a clean, controlled, and often easy form of gardening that is becoming popular among many gardeners, especially those with limited space outdoors. Wick hydroponics is one of the easiest hydroponic methods, but how does it work, and is it a viable method you should implement?
Wick hydroponics is a method of growing plants hydroponically using a wick made of string or cloth to draw nutrients up from a nutrient reservoir using capillary action. The wick system is easy to use and requires little to no technology or electrical systems to run effectively.
Wick hydroponics has many advantages, but its limitations make it unsuitable for certain applications. Our guide on wick hydroponics will lay out the basic operation of this system, its benefits, and limitations so you can decide if it is a hydroponic solution that meets your requirements.
Is Using Wicking Systems True Hydroponics?
There are many ways of implementing wicking in to grow plants, but are all wicking-type systems hydroponics?
A wick-based system where the growing medium for the plants is not soil and the wick is used to deliver nutrients and water is a true wick hydroponics system.
The definition of hydroponics is a soil-less growing method, which excludes some wicking systems from the umbrella of hydroponics.
Wicking is a strategy you can use in soil or potting mix growing mediums as a method to create a self-watering system for your plants.
In the case of implementations where soil is used as the growing medium to provide nutrients to the plants, this cannot be considered true hydroponics.
My recent article explains everything you need to know about choosing the right hydroponic nutrient solution for your fruits and vegetables.
How Does Wick Hydroponics Work?
Wick hydroponics works by using the scientific principle of capillary action. The best way to describe this principle in action is if you take a dry piece of string and hold it above a glass of water with one end of the string in the water.
The water will travel up the piece of string, and in a short time, you will feel your fingers holding the top part of the string become wet with water.
This action seems to defy gravity as the water moves up the piece of string till it reaches the top part of the string. This principle works through the combination of surface tension of the liquid and adhesive forces between the fiber of the string and the water drawing the water up the string.
The capillary effect is sometimes referred to as wicking, which is from where this type of hydroponics system derives its name.
The water-nutrient solution is stored in a container or reservoir. The container with the growing medium and the plants, called the grow-tray, is located above the reservoir.
Wicks are installed in the upper container. They pass through a hole in the bottom of the upper container, with the lower end of the wick immersed in the nutrient solution in the reservoir below.
The most water efficient and fastest growing hydroponic method is aeroponics. I grow a large portion of my families greens, herbs and strawberries using the Tower Garden vertical Aeroponic System indoors and outside depending on the season.
The Tower Garden is self watering and only requires refilling the water tank once a week depending on the size of your plants. Check out my review of the Tower Garden growing system and find out how easy it is to be growing nutritious and delicious food at home.
What Does Wick Hydroponics Look Like?
So how is this principle of wicking applied to a hydroponic system, and what would this system look like?
Each plant in a wick hydroponic system needs a minimum of one wick, but preferably two for best results. If there are two wicks per plant, one can be positioned on either side of the root system, maximizing nutrient delivery to the plant.
If the wicks are too far down, plants with shallow root systems will be unable to access an adequate supply of nutrient-laden water and will not grow well or could die.
Wick hydroponics consists of a container housing a growing medium and the plants suspended over a nutrient reservoir. Wicks are embedded in the growing medium and hang from the growing container into the nutrient reservoir below.
The wick draws the nutrient-laden water from the reservoir into the growing medium for the plants to utilize as needed. The wicks must remain in contact with the nutrient solution at all times for the system to work correctly.
It is important that the top end of the wicks are located at an appropriate height for the plant’s roots to easily access the moisture and nutrients delivered by the wick.
Creating a wick hydroponic system can be as simple or as complex as you would like to make it. It is simple enough to implement as a starter system for growing a few plants to try the system out. It can also be developed into a larger scale system to produce higher growing density to produce higher crop yield.
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What Are Wicks Made From In Wick Hydroponics?
It is best to use natural material with a fibrous structure for the wick. This material selection will give the wick the most efficiency and reduce the risk of contaminants.
String made from natural materials, twine, yarn, or old cotton clothes, such as t-shirts, cut into strips, make excellent wicks for this type of system.
A material made from intertwined fibers increases the capillary effect of the material and provides the best, most efficient wick for the transfer of nutrients.
The material the wicks are made from is an important aspect of the success of the system. You do not want to use a material that will introduce toxins or impurities to the grow-tray.
The choice of material will affect the efficiency of the nutrient delivery system and directly affect your plant’s growth.
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Is Wick Hydroponics Easy?
Wick hydroponics is one of the easiest hydroponics methods to use to grow plants. The main reason for this is that it is not complicated and does not rely on expensive or specialized equipment and technology.
Wick hydroponics do not use pumps to deliver the nutrients to the plant, and they only deliver as much as the plant needs. This removes the need for expensive pumps and a complex draining method to return unused nutrients and water back to the reservoir.
Some people implement wick hydroponics to include an aeration stone to add dissolved oxygen to the nutrient-water solution. However, in its simplest form, an aeration stone is not a requirement.
Wick hydroponics can be implemented without using any electricity, especially if you position your plants where they will receive natural sunlight. Positioning your plants this way will eliminate the need for artificial lighting for your plants to thrive.
The simplicity of the wick hydroponics method is attractive to many people as a way to get into hydroponics and experiment with this type of growing with minimal upfront cost.
Most of the equipment to build a basic wick hydroponics system can be sourced from materials and supplies that you already have around your home.
For a deeper dive into the cost of growing with hydroponic systems see my latest article.
What Are The Benefits Of Wick Hydroponics?
Wick hydroponics may be a simple implementation, but it also has several other advantages over more complex systems.
- Low cost of entry. Anyone can use wick hydroponics since the materials are cheap and, in many instances, free.
- Not reliant on electricity. Wick hydroponics can be implemented with no electricity required, making it useful in remote locations or off-grid applications where power is not available.
- Less water usage. Since the wick system only delivers nutrients as the plant uses it or evaporates from the growing medium, it is much more water-efficient than other hydroponic systems.
- Low maintenance. Wick hydroponics is easy to maintain, with less monitoring required than many other hydroponic systems.
- No specialized knowledge is necessary. The simplicity of the wick hydroponic system means that you do not need any specialized knowledge or training to implement the system at home.
These benefits of wick hydroponics systems make it a popular choice for people first getting into growing with hydroponics and for people with low volume requirements and limited space.
Is Wick Hydroponics An Effective Growing Method?
Wick hydroponics is an effective growing method for certain plant types and lower plant density growth.
A wick system is effective for certain plants, but for others, it is unsuitable because it has an inefficient nutrient delivery system. Wicking is a slow process that does not deliver large quantities of nutrients at a time, which can be problematic for some plants.
Wick hydroponics is often used as a beginner’s hydroponic system or by experienced growers to start plants before moving them into a more sophisticated system.
Due to the wick system requiring at least one wick per plant, the number of plants that can be accommodated in the system is limited.
Many first-time hydroponic growers trying the wick method use a homemade system that only accommodates one or two small plants.
Another simple way to grow with hydroponics at home is using a drip system. Find out more in my Guide to Hydroponic Drip Systems.
What Plants Can You Grow In Wick Hydroponics?
The best plants to grow in a wick hydroponics system are non-fruiting and non-head-producing vegetables. The types of plants that do well in this system are leafy herbs, spinach, swiss chard, leaf lettuce, and similar plants.
The type of plants suitable for wick hydroponics are easy to grow and plants that are not heavy feeders or plants that require a lot of nutrients.
Plants with relatively shallow root systems are preferable for growing in a wick system so you can position the wick to provide optimal coverage for the root system. Plants with deep root systems would require multiple wicks at different depths in the growing medium to cater to the plant’s needs.
What Plants Do Not Do Well In Wick Hydroponics?
Fruiting plants and plants that develop a head require large quantities of water and nutrients because the development of fruit and large head crops requires a lot of energy.
Examples of plants that do not do well in wick hydroponics are tomatoes, chilies, head cabbage, head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and any root crops like beetroot and carrots, and onions.
The slow pace of the nutrient delivery in a wick hydroponic system is too slow to sustain the growth and water demand of these heavy-feeding plants.
Using Deep Water Culture to grow hydroponic tomatoes, peppers and fruiting plants is easy and one of the most effective ways to grow heavy-feeding plants. Read more about DWC in my article linked above.
How To Maintain Your Wick Hydroponics System
Wick hydroponic systems are low maintenance, but they still need periodic checking to catch a problem before it becomes a major issue and you lose the plant.
The most critical maintenance task is to check the nutrient reservoir every few days to inspect the level. Don’t let the nutrient solution get too low, as the wick may have trouble sucking up the liquid if the level is near the bottom end of the wick.
If the nutrient level becomes depleted, the plants will starve, and the roots will dry out, causing the plant to die.
Protect the reservoir from light to prevent the growth of algae in the solution. While algae development in the reservoir will not harm your plants, the algae will consume the nutrients, leaving less food available for your plants. You should be feeding your plants, not the algae!
Watch for the following problem signs with your plants in the wick system.
- Slow growth. If the plants are growing slower than you would expect, you may have the wrong nutrient mix, or the plant is not getting enough nutrients close to the roots. Adjust the nutrient mixture, or adjust the wick position or length to provide more nutrients close to the roots.
- Curling or yellow leaves. The plant’s root system may not be getting enough air. If the growing medium is very wet, lack of oxygen is a likely cause. An aeration stone in the nutrient reservoir may be needed, or a different, less-dense growing medium allowing more air to reach the roots.
- Drooping plants. This problem may signify that the plant is not getting enough water and nutrients or too much water and nutrients, which limits airflow to the roots.
- Dropping leaves. Leaves falling off the plants prematurely could indicate a lack of nutrients, not enough oxygen, or a buildup of dried nutrients in the growing medium.
As the water in the grow-tray evaporates, it can deposit a buildup of dried nutrients in the growing medium, burning the plants’ roots. Rinse the growing medium with fresh water every two weeks to dissolve these dried nutrients and clean the growing medium.
These few basic maintenance routines are easy to monitor and implement, making wick hydroponics one of the lowest maintenance hydroponic systems.
How To Build Your Own Wick Hydroponics System
You can build your own basic wick hydroponic system using an old 2-liter soda bottle, some string, coconut coir for a growing medium, a nail, and a nutrient solution.
You also need a sharp knife such as a box-cutter, or a pair of scissors to cut the plastic bottle, and a small amount of duct tape to line the cut edge of the plastic.
Any color soda bottle can be used, but dark green or brown plastic will help limit algae growth in the nutrient solution.
If you use a clear plastic bottle, you could cover the bottom part of the bottle with black paper or newspaper to limit the light penetration.
- Cut the circumference of the plastic bottle about 1/3 below the top of the bottle. The smaller top part of the bottle will be the grow-tray, and the larger bottom piece will be the nutrient reservoir.
- Tape the cut edge of the lower part of the bottle to provide stability for the inverted top piece.
- Use the steel nail to pierce a hole in the plastic lid of the soda bottle. Heating the nail can may the job easier, or you can drill a hole through the cap using an electric drill. The hole should be big enough to allow two pieces of string to pass through with a relatively tight fit.
- Cut two or more lengths of string at least 8-inches long. Thread the string through the hole in the bottle cap till the top of the string is level with the top, cut-edge of the grow tray. The balance of the string will hang in the nutrient chamber.
- Fill the top grow-tray part of the bottle with coconut coir grow medium and place the seed or the seedling in the coconut coir. Make sure the string is positioned near the plant root zone on either side.
- Fill the bottom of the container with nutrient solution until it is just below where the inverted bottle top will be positioned.
- Drop the bottom end of the string into the reservoir and position the inverted top section of the bottle in the nutrient chamber.
This is essentially a complete wick hydroponics system that you can use to grow herbs and leaf lettuce in your home, a balcony, or any other convenient, sunny location.
Wick hydroponics is a quick and easy way to implement hydroponics as a growing system for your herbs and leafy greens. You can scale the wick hydroponic system to suit your needs and use it as a permanent growing method or a starter method for your plants before placing them in a different system.
Whatever your reasons for choosing wick hydroponics, it can be a successful and effective method for growing food crops at home.