A very important part of the growing process, nutrients are essentially the food for the plant. The pH level is how acidic or alkaline your solution or soil is. The pH level is probably the more important of the two, because if the pH level is too low or too high, then the nutrients won’t even be able to be taken in from the roots. If you are experiencing trouble with your plants in a hydroponic setup, likely the first thing to test is your pH level. This will solve most problems because fixing that will allow your plants to receive the nutrients they need. Monitoring these nutrient levels and pH levels are very important to prevent problems from occurring.
As stated before, pH is very important to your plant’s success and should be monitored regularly. pH stands for the power of hydrogen in the solution. It is based on a scale of 0 to 14 with 7 being the neutral number, or pure water. A pH reading of less than 7 is considered to be acidic and a pH reading higher than 7 is considered basic. Each number is a power of ten, so a pH of 6 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 7 and is 100 times more acidic than a pH of 8. This emphasizes the importance of having the right pH in your solution because just one number difference is ten times the acidity or alkalinity.
Different nutrients are up taken at different levels of pH, allowing you to fully customize your plants priorities. An advanced grower can make it so that nitrogen is taken up in large quantities in early vegetative growth and can switch the pH to allow high levels of phosphorus when it is time to flower or fruit. A good range to be in is 5.5 to 6.5 with hydroponic pH levels being more towards the low end of that range and soil based mediums towards the high end.
If the pH is too low, nutrients will bind up and become completely unavailable to your plants. Too high and your plants will have toxic salt build ups, also leaving them hindered when trying to uptake nutrients. pH will fluctuate very regularly, so it is important to monitor your levels. You can check your pH with inexpensive pH papers or a shaker tester, or you can get a precise pH meter. You can get a pH meter that is consistently mounted to your solution, giving you a consistent, measurable pH, or you can get one that should be kept in a calibration solution and have to be turned on each time you use them. These are less expensive than the consistent meters but require the purchase of a calibration solution.
The good thing about pH is that it’s relatively easy to adjust. Simply add some pH up or down solution found at your local hydroponic store and it just does that. Use a little at a time or else you may have to readjust it with its counterpart. Try to keep these handy in your grow area because you don’t want nutrient lockout.
There are many nutrients that are required for a plants ability to grow, bloom, and stay resilient under harsh external conditions. The main three that you hear about most and that are the numbers on every bottle/bag of fertilizer are N-P-K or Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium. The numbers are the percentage that they represent of the whole bottle.
Therefore, if you have a 10-10-10 ratio and you buy a 50 pound bag, there would be 5 pounds of each type of nutrient in the bag. You will likely find much lower N-P-K ratios in organic mixes because they don’t have synthetic additives, but these will also usually have all the micronutrients your plant requires.
Nitrogen is the element most needed during the vegetative growth stage, therefore, you will likely find a high nitrogen number on a “grow” bottle. If your plant is deficient in nitrogen older leaves will generally turn yellow, which is caused by the new leaves leeching the nitrogen from the old plants. They will also show slower growth than if they are receiving ample amounts of nitrogen.
Phosphorus is the element most needed during the blooming or flowering stage of your plant because phosphorus promotes root growth and growth in general. It is what the plants use to convert light energy into ATP and is very important. Plants deficient in phosphorus will display intense green coloration in their leaves.
Potassium is the element that helps plants develop their resilience and overall strength because it is used to build cellulose, or the cell walls of the plant. It also helps the plant retain water because it regulates the opening and closing of the stomata, and this makes them more resistant to environmental problems.
There are many micronutrients that are required for optimal growth, but they are usually taken up in adequate amounts if the soil or solution is kept at the proper pH. Micro and base products typically have these trace elements and will keep your plants more than satisfied.
Measuring the Nutrient Levels
Measuring the total number of nutrients is important for growing because you don’t want to either overfeed or underfeed your plants. Overfeeding can lead to burning or even death, and underfeeding will allow for less than optimal growth. There are two types of measurement tools on the market: TDS (total dissolved solids) and EC (electrical conductivity).
EC meters take out the extra step in conversion and give you readings in mS/cm or milliSiemens per centimeter. This is a measurement of the electrical current in the solution. A low conductivity means that there are not many nutrients in your nutrient solution and plants will exhibit weak growth. A high reading may mean that your plants are getting too many nutrients and may burn or die as stated before. A good reading is high but not high enough to burn your plants.
TDS meters measure in ppm or parts per million. One part per million is just that: each ppm is one part in a million of the rest of the solution.They actually measure through a conversion from the electrical conductivity (EC) to TDS. This is a somewhat useless step, and manufacturers may simply stop making TDS meters in light of EC meters.
There are continuous reading models and models that you dip in each time you want a reading. It's up to the grower to determine which type of metere will fit their setup the best.
These, although not absolutely necessary, will provide the most optimal root zone for your plants. They will set you up for a perfect grow if you research your specific plants preferences. They work simply by being set at a certain nutrient and pH level, and they distribute the solutions accordingly.
Two different delivery systems are currently in the market for these controllers. One is a gravity based delivery and the other is a pump based delivery. The gravity based type requires that the nutrients be above the reservoir.
You really shouldn’t consider them an option unless you are going to be growing for a lengthy period of time, or, if you want your crop to be the very best it possibly could. But if you do go with this option you can almost guarantee that your plants will be incredibly healthy and show powerful, consistent growth.
Metabolic Enhancers and Supplements
Hydroponics has come a long way since it was first conceived, however it is still a work in progress. Some metabolic enhancers have come into the market that try to make mineral gardening just like organic gardening, in the way that there are many unknown factors that still are being researched. Strides have been made though, and many benefits have come from these enhancers such as:
- Bigger plants
- Higher yields
- Improved seed germination
- Faster cloning
- Stronger seedlings
- Increased resistance to pests and disease
- Giant root systems
- Better vegetative growth
Improvements happen every day and new products are coming out all the time that will kick start your plants and give them the little things they could use to become exceptional.
Organic nutrients are great for soil, but can be hard to incorporate into a hydroponic setup. This is because they usually require beneficial microbes commonly found in soil to increase the rate of their breakdown. Therefore, it is important to mix mycorrhizal fungi into either your nutrient solution or the medium itself. This will speed up the breakdown of the nutrients and allow your plants to actually receive the nutrition.
Another problem you would find in hydroponic growing is the predisposition for the thick, goopy organic nutrients to clog your drip lines and cause a bunch of problems. An ebb and flow system would be a good choice of setup due to the large hoses that you would traditionally use.