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Hydroponics

Hydroponic Nutrients – The Essential Elements

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hydroponic-nutrientsThere are 17 essential elements needed for plant growth. Three of them (hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon) are non-mineral elements and are absorbed by plants through the air or water. The other 14 essential elements must be provided by the soil or fertilization. Since hydroponic gardening bypasses the soil, all 14 essential mineral elements must be furnished in the hydroponic nutrient solution.

These essential mineral elements are broken into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. The macronutrients are the nutrients used in higher concentrations relative to micronutrients which are absorbed in smaller amounts. When shopping around for hydroponic nutrients, a gardener will quickly notice three numbers on the nutrient solution’s label. These numbers represent the N-P-K values or ratios of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) in that particular formula. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the primary macronutrients. In other words, they are absorbed in higher ratios than any other essential mineral element. This is why it is important for fertilizer labels to disclose the N-P-K ratio. A closer look at all of the macronutrients found in hydroponic fertilizers will give growers a better understanding of how each element affects plant growth.

Macronutrients

Nitrogen (N)

A basic component of proteins and chlorophyll, Nitrogen is the main nutrient responsible for vigorous growth and luscious green coloration.

Phosphorus (P)

Plays an important role in root stimulation and establishment for young plants. Phosphorus also promotes flowering, fruiting, ripening, and respiration.

Potassium (K)

Promotes movement of sugars and other nutrients (via osmosis). Potassium is directly linked to stem strength and rigidity. Potassium increases a plant’s overall resistance to cold, drought and pathogens. Much like phosphorus, potassium plays an intricate role in the formation of flower buds and fruiting/blooming processes.

Calcium (Ca)

Builds and becomes part of the cell walls. Calcium is vital to plant structure and strength and promotes growth of young shoots and roots. Calcium is needed for ripening and seed production.

Magnesium (Mg)

Reinforces cell walls and is an important component of chlorophyll. Magnesium promotes the absorption of phosphorus, nitrogen, and sulfur. It also plays a vital role in the ripening of fruit and the germination of seeds.

Sulfur (S)

Contributes to chlorophyll production and is a necessary component of several proteins, enzymes and vitamins. Sulfur aids the plant’s absorption of potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients, although absorbed in lower amounts than macronutrients, play an equally important role in overall plant health.

Chlorine (Cl)

Involved in the stimulation of photosynthesis.

Iron (Fe)

Assists in biochemical processes, including the manufacturing of chlorophyll. Iron also contributes to the formation of some enzymes and amino acids.

Boron (B)

Essential for tissue growth within the plant. Promotes the absorption of water and helps regulate a plant’s metabolism. Boron also assists in the formation of fruit.

Manganese (Mn)

Plays an essential role in nitrogen assimilation and protein formation. Manganese can speed up a plant’s maturity and helps promote seed germination. It is also necessary for chlorophyll production.

Zinc (Zn)

Helps the development of enzymes and growth hormones.

Copper (Cu)

Plays a role in chlorophyll production and helps activate various enzymes.

Molybdenum (Mo)

It is needed for the production of nitrogen-based proteins and is essential for nitrogen assimilation by plants.

Nickel (Ni)

Regulates mineral metabolism, enzyme activity and other metabolic processes in plants.

Hydroponic Base Nutrients

There are many choices and it can become overwhelming trying to choose a brand of hydroponic nutrients (fertilizers). The first thing a hydroponic horticulturist should do is choose a base nutrient formula. A base nutrient formula will contain all the essential mineral elements, therefore providing all elements necessary for plant growth. Depending on the manufacturer, the base nutrients may be a one, two, or three part formula. Regardless of how many parts it is all base nutrient formulas do the same thing: provide the plants with the essential mineral elements. A good hydroponic base nutrient is all that is needed to get started growing hydroponically.

Can I Use my Hydroponic Nutrients for Soil Gardening?

Hydroponic base nutrients are designed specifically for use in hydroponic systems. Although they can be used in a pinch to fertilize plants in soil containers, they are designed for hydroponics which means the ratio of some elements will differ from fertilizers designed specifically for soil.

pH in Hydroponics

In order for the plants to absorb the essential elements in a hydroponic system, the pH of the solution must be in a particular range. A pH of 5.5 – 6.0 is the desired range for most hydroponic systems. If the pH gets above or below that range, the plants will be unable to absorb certain nutrients. This will eventually lead to a deficiency. Hydroponic growers will need to have pH buffers (pH up and pH down) on hand to make adjustments when necessary.

Finding a hydroponic nutrient formula can be overwhelming for new growers. Just remember, a good base formula and pH buffers are all you need to get started. Once you feel comfortable with your base formula, you can begin experimenting with the plethora of hydroponic nutrient additives available at your local hydroponic retailer.

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Hydroponics

The Effects of Nutrient Pollution

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Nutrient pollution is a costly and challenging environmental problem, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen is also the most abundant element in the air we breathe. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water. But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment – usually from a wide range of human activities – the air and water can become polluted.

Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Large growths of algae are called algal blooms and they can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in the water, leading to illnesses in fish and the death of large numbers of fish. Some algal blooms are harmful to humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come into contact with polluted water, consume tainted fish or shellfish, or drink contaminated water.

This process is also known as eutrophication. Excessive amounts of nutrients can lead to more serious problems such as low levels of oxygen dissolved in the water. Severe algal growth blocks light that is needed for plants, such as seagrasses, to grow. When the algae and seagrass die, they decay. In the process of decay, the oxygen in the water is used up and this leads to low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. This, in turn, can kill fish, crabs, oysters, and other aquatic animals.

Nutrients come from a variety of different sources. They can occur naturally as a result of weathering of rocks and soil in the watershed and they can also come from the ocean due to mixing of water currents. Scientists are most interested in the nutrients that are related to people living in the coastal zone because human-related inputs are much greater than natural inputs. Because there are increasingly more people living in coastal areas, there are more nutrients entering our coastal waters from wastewater treatment facilities, runoff from land in urban areas during rains, and from farming.

Victor Krantz is a master grower for The Bucket Company. He has been involved with the agriculture industry for 30 years producing a wide variety of food crops and setting up commercial greenhouses in many different states. You can find them on Instagram @thebucketcompany or @cookiesandcreamfarm. Victor may be contacted directly at 727.424.0132.

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Hydroponics

Hydroponics System Daily Maintenance Check List

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Once a growing system is up-and-running, to successfully grow hydroponic plants, there are only a few tasks required. Check the system daily or every other day and do the following keeping in mind the 5 basic requirements of plants (light, water, nutrients, temperature and oxygen).

  • Most plants love humidity so mist them continually and they will be happy.
  • Watch the system and make sure it is performing properly. If it floods the plants and drains at a specific time – verify this. Small bits of growing medium can clog the tubing of a system in no time flat and either leave your plants ‘high and dry’ or continually flooded. This happened to me once.
  • As your nutrient solution evaporates, add tap water to refill it to where it should be. Do not ever add a touch more of nutrient powder to replace what you think has been used up. This is a really good way to kill your plants.
  • Keep an eye out for pests and disease as well as nutritional deficiencies.
  • Take care of any problems as fast as possible or they will grow into large problems faster than you will believe.
  • Take a look at the plants. Are they wilting and is the growing medium completely dry? Or is it continually soaked? Adjust the amount of nutrient solution accordingly (this is for systems that periodically receive nutrient solution most likely through a timer).
  • Dead growth saps the energy of a plant and can be a good beginning for a disease or pest problem so keep the dead matter pruned.
  • Keep track of the temperature if you are in a greenhouse and ventilate if necessary by opening doors, windows and turning on a fan.
  • In an enclosed area like a greenhouse, let some bugs and breezes get in. This not only helps with pollination but some bugs will actually protect your plants by eating the bad ones.
  • Learn to identify the good vs. bad bugs. Dragonflies, spiders and ‘daddy long legs’ are good to have around – they eat the bad bugs so encourage them. I personally love dragonflies – I’ve seen them dive-bomb horse flies and moose flies and eat them.
  • Keep a log. What becomes second nature to you now will probably be completely forgotten in a few months so write it down.

I know this seems like a lot of effort but once you get a routine down you may not need more than a few minutes a day to perform these tasks. Keep up the vigilance and you will grow hydroponic plants that are healthy and you will be amply rewarded with a large amount of vegetables and herbs.

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