So, you are looking for a small hydroponic system to grow fresh herbs and vegetables in a small space indoors.
You are not too keen on the DIY part everyone harps about.
But you like the sound of hydroponics and using water instead of messy soil indoors.
If this is you, read on.
There is no ONE hydroponic system that is best for everyone. The best system for you depends on your available space, your tolerance for indoor light pollution and noise levels from pumps and fans, and how involved you want to be. And, of course, what you want to grow and how much you want to spend.
Choosing the highest-rated product blindly without understanding what you are buying is a mistake.
And whether you realize it or not, I started exactly where you are today.
I was also curious. Should I go the DIY route or opt for the plug-and-play hydroponic system?
I did both, and I learned a great deal along the way.
Today, we are pretty much self-sustainable for fresh herbs and leafy greens year-round. And it has a lot to do with hydroponics.
If you are looking for DIY guides, please check out these guides: - DWC hydroponics for beginners (A DIY Guide) - Build Ebb And Flow Hydroponics Grow Systems (DIY Intermediate)
To find the most suitable small space plug-and-play hydroponic system, you need to answer five questions:
- How plug-and-play do you want the system to be?
- What is your tolerance for light and noise pollution?
- What do you want to grow?
- Where do you want to place the system?
- What is your budget?
And yes, you can jump to my favorites, but I hope you take the time to read about each point to understand their importance.
- 1. How plug-and-play do you want the hydroponic system to be?
- 2. Tolerance of light and noise pollution from your hydroponic garden
- 3. Where you will place the system
- 4. Do you want to grow tomatoes, leafy greens, or maybe both?
- 5. Hydroponic systems and budget
- The small hydroponics systems I use and recommend
- Summary: best hydroponic system for small spaces
1. How plug-and-play do you want the hydroponic system to be?
Gardeners like gardening. But with hydroponics, you do not have to be actively involved.
Ask yourself how much you want to be involved, and then buy the matching hydroponic system.
– The true plug-and-play hydroponic systems
There are true plug-and-play systems where you fill the reservoir with water, add the pre-fertilized plant pods, and plug in the power cord.
The timer is pre-set and will run the full spectrum grow lights  perfectly.
The pre-fertilized plant pods will release nutrients as and when your plants need them.
As for ongoing maintenance, you must remove the germination pod when the seeds germinate and ensure water is in the reservoir.
And you probably guessed it. The system will show you when it is time to add water.
– The semi-plug-and-play hydroponic systems
The semi-plug-and-play hydroponic systems require more from you.
But not much more.
The systems are usually traditional hydroponic systems where you are responsible for adding nutrients.
And this is the main difference.
Once a month, you replace the water and add fresh nutrients.
Nutrients are usually supplied as a one-part liquid fertilizer where you measure the needed quantity and add to the water.
In hydroponics, there are one-, two-, and three-part nutrient solutions. One-part solutions cover the plants' needs throughout the plants’ life cycle. Three-part solutions come in 3 separate bottles, allowing you to custom-feed your plants what they need at the different stages of growth (vegetative vs. flowering and fruiting stages).
The system will tell you when to add more nutrients or adjust pH and water levels.
The instructions are easy to follow, but it is extra work and more “moving parts,” so to speak.
The first question to ask yourself is: how much do I want to get involved? A little, or do I want a true plug-and-play hydroponic system?
2. Tolerance of light and noise pollution from your hydroponic garden
A small hydroponic system can easily live inside the living area of your home.
It is a classic conversation starter and adds life to any home.
But regardless of what you read, not all systems are well suited for sitting in your living room.
There are 3 factors to take into consideration:
- Full spectrum grow lights do not just give off a pleasant soft white light. Many grow lights are more blue/red, and depending on the size of your home, this can cause problems with a system that may be on for 16 hours and off the other 8 hours per day.
- Water pumps may be quiet, but they do make some noise. Remember, if you are sensitive to background noise, not all systems require pumps.
- Fans also make noise; not all systems require fans to operate.
Your tolerance for lights and noise pollution is connected to where you will keep your plants.
Summary: If you are sensitive to background noise or live in a small apartment, a no-fan or water pump solution with a softer white light may be your preferred alternative.
3. Where you will place the system
Plug-and-play hydroponic systems are designed to be visually appealing and are meant to be placed inside your home.
Decide where the system will live and measure to make sure it fits.
If you plan to place the system out of sight, I would choose this one. It is effective and costs a lot less.
The system can live anywhere as long as there is an electric socket.
I would not recommend the bedroom, but any other room will work as far as I am concerned.
My two favorite places are the kitchen and the living room.
Granted, when I lived in an apartment, my kitchen, living room, and TV room were effectively one room. Still, the space had clear, invisible borders, if you know what I mean.
Avoid placing the hydroponic system on top of materials and products sensitive to water.
You will top up the reservoir with water, which is easy to spill. Home electrics like TVs or wood materials do not play well with water.
Summary: Measure to ensure the system will fit in the space you have in mind. And do make sure you have easy access to an electric plug.
It may not seem like a big deal when you are in shopping mode, but loose cables are no fun, and they will annoy you.
4. Do you want to grow tomatoes, leafy greens, or maybe both?
I am sure you have seen them.
The marketing shots of small hydroponic systems overflowing with herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and flowers.
This will not happen.
Even if the system has 9 holes for plants, the system cannot hold 9 large tomato or pepper plants simultaneously.
It just gets too crowded.
Do you want the truth?
Most of you reading this will grow aromatic herbs and leafy greens and vegetables. And they will be full of flavor and aroma.
You may start a couple of mini-tomato or smaller piri-piri chili plant varieties. But you will find that you can grow several rounds of greens for every tomato or pepper plant you grow.
And come winter, we want a steady supply of fresh homegrown greens.
- A small system with three holes supporting three plants works great for an indoor kitchen countertop herb garden,
- To grow vegetables, tomatoes, or peppers, choose a system holding nine or more plants
You will grow herbs, leafy greens, and maybe 1 or 2 flowering and fruiting plants.
And you will find that overcrowding the system leads to mold and fungal diseases on leaves.
5. Hydroponic systems and budget
Brand name solutions like Click and Grow, iDOO, and AeroGarden are not the cheapest but have been around for a while, which is important to me.
Any system can break, and then you need to find spare parts.
My best tip is to spend your money with an established brand.
And when you do, focus on getting more space for plants instead of choosing the latest technology-laden system.
From my experience, the less moving parts, the better.
Sure, fancy control panels look great, but do you need them?
- Do you really need to control your small hydroponic system via an app?
- Is it necessary to have a control panel to indicate the water level in the reservoir?
Nah, spend your money on getting a larger system holding more plants.
As for nutrient and pH levels, it is easy to read the level using a manual testing kit.
I am all for technology, but here it is not worth it.
Summary: I recommend sticking to established brands and spending money on a system holding more plants rather than focusing on high-tech whiz-bang gadgetry.
Things do go wrong, and it is nice to have a company to talk to if they do.
The small hydroponics systems I use and recommend
I have two different small hydroponic systems, and both work great. They are both used for small-scale hydroponics, as in feeding my family.
They both make it easy to grow fresh herbs and vegetables year-round.
But I like them for slightly different reasons.
- My Click and Grow Smart Garden 9 is oh-so easy to operate and works a treat. It is completely silent and gives off a pleasant white light with minimal pollution.
- The 10-pod iDOO indoor hydroponic garden is a true hydroponic system and is a bit bigger. It is cheaper to buy and run but makes a bit more noise (fan and pump)
Read on for a bit more detail:
1. My true plug-and-play Click and Grow Smart Garden 9
The Click and Grow Smart Garden is the easiest to operate and is completely silent.
The Smart Gardens use plant cups with a wick to transfer water from the reservoir to the plant pod.
This means that there is no pump (or fan).
The plant pods are pre-fertilized; you do not need to add nutrients to the water in the reservoir.
But it also means that the root system is limited to the size of the plant cup.
I was a bit worried about this, but no more. You do not want big plants indoors. And the plant cups are big enough to grow mature plants that I can harvest.
The only negative I can find is the cost of the plant pods. Click and grow often run campaigns, but it is still more expensive than starting seeds.
I think it is worth it as they come pre-fertilized with a termination guarantee. But it is only fair to let you know.
This system is ideal for anyone who wants to bring gardening into their home in an easy, no-hassle way.
Because it is oh-so-easy to operate.
Is it worth it? I think so.
The system is solid, and I see myself using this system for many, many years to come.
It may sound superficial. But one of the main selling points is how stylish the Smart Garden is.
- Works great
- As easy as it gets
- Prefertilized plant-pods
- No unnecessary technology
- Great for seed-starting using other mediums
- No pump means no noise
- No fan means silent
- Pleasant soft white full spectrum grow light
- Looks great and can live anywhere as it is silent
- Built-in timer
- It costs a bit more than the iDOO
- Fixed height grow light fixture
- Root development is restricted by the size of the plant cup (wick system)
- Replacement pods are more expensive than seeds
2. My semi-plug-and-play 10-pod iDOO indoor hydroponic garden
The 10-pod iDOO indoor hydroponic garden is cheaper to buy and operate. Minimal light and sound pollution.
The iDOO is a traditional Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic system.
Still, it is easy to set up and run.
- Fill the container with water and nutrients (included)
- Place 3-3 seeds in plant sponges (included)
- Place plant sponges in the net pots (included)
- Place net pots in the allocated holes
- Turn on the full spectrum grow light
It is that easy.
The system has a built-in pump in the reservoir and a fan mounted in the light panel. Both can be shut off, but I recommend letting the pump run.
What is the fan good for? Seedlings grow stronger if subjected to a mild breeze, and the fan also helps with pollination if you are growing flowering and fruiting plants like tomatoes or peppers.
And even though it is a silent water pump circulation system, it is not completely silent. It does not bother me, but there is a noise.
Why is there a built-in pump? The pump helps recirculate the nutrient solution in the reservoir. You do not want stagnant water around the roots.
- Works great
- Easy setup
- Cheaper to buy
- Cheaper to run as you can use regular seeds
- Flexible-height full spectrum grow light
- A true hydroponic system with unrestricted root growth
- Two grow light settings, vegetative and flowering/fruiting
- Easy to add fertilizer to the reservoir
- Built-in water/air pump
- On/off setting for fan
- No unnecessary technology
- Great for seed-starting using other growing mediums
- Built-in timer
- Change the water and add fertilizer every month
- Pump and fan mean “more” background noise
- Not as easy to integrate into your home as the Smart Garden
Summary: best hydroponic system for small spaces
The main differences between the two systems are cost and noise level.
Both these systems are the real deal.
And I do not say this lightly. I have built several much larger Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), Deep Water Culture DWC), and Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain) systems from scratch and have quite a lot to compare with.
I feel confident recommending both systems to grow plants hydroponically indoors.
If you are on a tight budget, the iDOO offers better value. But as it is a Deep Water Culture system, the pump and the fan make more noise. I do not find the noise level disturbing, but it is there. I will make a video so you can decide for yourself.
The iDOO is also a bit cheaper to operate as you can use regular seeds.
And yes, I do consider that you will need to buy a replacement liquid fertilizer for your iDOO when it runs out.
But nothing beats the Click and Grow Smart Garden if you live in a small space and find background noise disturbing.