What Types of Plants Can Grow in a Hydroponic Garden?

A mesclun mix grows at Two Guys from Woodbridge, an organic, hydroponic greenhouse in Hamden, Conn.
Kerry Sherck / Getty Images

One of the most common questions asked by beginner hydroponic gardeners is “What can I grow?” The simple answer is that given the right setup and nutrient balance, you can grow any plant hydroponically.

To choose the plants that are best suited for your home system, consider the following factors: what kind of system you have or wish to build, how much space you have, how much experience you have, and your reasons for choosing hydroponics.

What Kind of System Do You Have?

The two basic categories of hydroponic systems are solution (liquid or medium) or aggregate culture (sometimes called sand or gravel culture). In a solution system, such as aeroponics or Nutrient Film Technique, the plants grow directly in a nutrient-filled solution. This type of setup works best with fast-growing, shallow-rooted plants such as lettuce, spinach, radishes, and herbs.

Medium-based systems, such as Wick Systems or Ebb and Flow systems, use a growing medium such as gravel, sand, or Hydroton clay pebbles. Because the medium provides good support for heavy plants, these setups work well for vegetables and herbs with deep roots, such as comfrey, chicory, and beets, or those that are more top-heavy and need support, such as beans, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.

If you don’t yet have a hydroponic setup, considering what kind of plants you wish to grow can help you decide what kind of system would be best. If you love fresh herbs and salads, but only have a small amount of space to dedicate to your garden, you might do best with a small do-it-yourself (DIY) Wick System.

If you are somewhat experienced and are looking for more exotic options or a way to upgrade your hydroponic garden, you might want to consider going for a more high-tech system such as aeroponics.

How Much Space Is Available?

Space is an important factor to consider when choosing the plants to grow in your hydroponic garden. If you only have a small space to dedicate to your garden, you would do best to avoid squash, melons, and other large plants. Although technically you could grow these in a small system, you will never achieve the same quality of fruits or vegetables as those that have adequate space to grow.

For small systems, the easiest and most rewarding choices are leafy greens and herbs. These types of plants grow quickly, can be continually harvested, and do not need a lot of space to spread or develop fruit.

If you have a large space such as a greenhouse, garage, or patio, you can move up to a more advanced system and grow the plants that need trellises and deep root support. Large gardens are perfect for experimentation—you could also try producing multiple different varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables.

What Is Your Experience Level?

Your level of experience with gardening and your specific reasons for growing plants hydroponically will also influence your choice of plants that you want to grow. If you are an absolute beginner, it would be wise to stick to quick-growing, easy plants so that you can get the maximum benefit from your experience without becoming discouraged. Although hydroponic gardens are simple and easy to maintain once you know the basics, it is easy to get discouraged if you start out with an overly complex system.

If you are experienced with hydroponic gardening and are looking to experiment with more exotic or complex plants, your only true limit is yourself. Some gardeners even go so far as to grow whole fruit or nut trees hydroponically. If you have​ space and the desire to experiment, the sky is the limit. If you are a more experienced gardener, you could try large melons, pumpkins, quince, sunflowers, and tobacco; shrubs like blackberries and honeysuckle are also suitable.