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Nutrient Solution in Hydroponics

In this blog we are having a look at nutrient solution in Hydroponics, if you are new to Hydroponic gardening then this is a must read. If you are a seasoned grower then look at it as a refresher, sometimes it’s helpful to think back to basics. It’s not really possible to cover every aspect of nutrients and their uses in one article as it’s a huge subject so this is kind of a detailed overview.

There are various different methods of Hydroponic gardening but regardless of which system you are using you always need a nutrient solution. For the total newbies among us, in simple terms nutrient solution is simply water with added nutrients and enzymes and that’s about it, just because you are growing with Hydroponics doesn’t mean it has to be over complicated. The nutrient solution is either pumped or delivered by hand to the plants depending on what system and grow medium is used.

Water Quality

There are a few important things to consider when preparing a nutrient solution; water quality varies greatly depending on where you are in the world so one of the first things you need to consider is whether you are using hard water or soft water, a rule of thumb is that if you find it hard to get lather when using soaps or washing up liquids then you most likely have hard water. Usually your local authority will have advice on water quality or search online to determine which type you have. Many good hydro shops will be able to carry out a simple test to determine the acidity/alkalinity of your local water.

It’s important to find out which water you have as this will decide which type of nutrient you need to be adding, many nutrient companies supply both hard and soft water versions but it is also possible to buy universal nutrients but I wouldn’t advise it, putting a little effort in to determine which water you have will make balancing your CF and PH levels within your final solution easier so it’s worth the effort.

Using fresh clean tap water as a base for a nutrient solution is nearly always best; using filtered or bottled water is usually not necessary and can in fact cause a nutrient deficiency in plants. There is an exception to this rule, if your water is so hard or so soft that it is not possible to get a steady PH or CF reading then it is worth considering a reverse osmosis system but that is a subject on its own which I will try and cover at a later date.

Making a mix:

The principles for making a mix or nutrient solution is pretty much the same regardless of the actual system you are using but the steps below are based on using NFT system in a poly tunnel or indoor area.

You will need a CF truncheon and a PH meter to accurately measure the levels at the end. There is more on these tools below.

Fill the reservoir or tank with fresh water, cold is best as it contains more oxygen, warm water destroys the oxygen in water so if you need to add hot do it sparingly, you are aiming for a water temperature of around 60 degrees but as a guide tepid cold is ok but not freezing cold as it will shock your plants on circulation.

By this time you will have already decided which brand of nutrient you will use, some nutrients come as a single formula some are in A and B form. Add the nutrients before adding any enzymes or other additives.

If you are using A and B it is important that you do not mix them together in their undiluted form, add the A part to the water first then mix thoroughly and then add the B part and mix again. Rule of thumb here is don’t put too much in at once, it’s easier to slowly build up the levels than to put too much in and have to drain the whole thing and start again, checking as you go by dipping your truncheon/meter in the water.

Nutrients are measured using a CF truncheon or meter (readily available at all good hydro retailers), the level you need to set the solution at will depend on the plants you are growing  and the stage you are at within the grow cycle, many plants like different strength foods so it’s difficult to generalise this part of the process. You will most likely need to change from Veg to Bloom during the grow cycle but again it depends on what plant you are growing, the principle for mixing is still the same.

Adding Enzymes

Once you have added the nutrients whether in single pack or A and B you will need to look at adding some enzymes, unlike soil growing you have the control over which enzymes you use and how often. Enzymes are important to hydroponics as it puts all the micro-biological chemicals that plants need into the solution. Check with your hydro supplier to see which enzymes suit the plant you are growing best. My personal preference is Atazyme which is a highly concentrated liquid form of natural enzymes.

Follow the instructions on the back of the bottle with regards to dosage, usually about half a ml per litre in the reservoir, adding a small amount of luke warm water to the enzymes will help the solution break down the enzymes and make them more readily available to the plants quicker.

Checking the PH level

Once you have vigorously mixed the solution the final thing you need to do is check and maybe alter the PH level.  Depending on if your water is soft or hard you will need to stabilise your PH using either PH Up or PH down. Most plants like a PH of around 6.0 but again this varies from plant to plant. Add the PH stabiliser in small amounts, checking frequently with your PH meter. Once you have the desired PH you can then circulate the solution to your plants. See further info on PH below. In NFT and other hydroponic systems it is recommended that the PH is checked and adjusted on a daily basis to maximise nutrient uptake by the plants.

Nutrient Maintenance

On a NFT system and all Hydroponics system’s it is recommended that you totally replace all the solution at some point during the grow cycle, I strongly recommend that this is done on routine intervals once a week.  Replacing the solution every week means that you replenish everything within the tank or reservoir and are keeping the solution clean and fresh which should mean a healthier plant and bigger yields.

Check then check again

It is worth taking time to get your solution correct before you circulate it, remember that although you can add some additives in between the weekly pump out and clean cycle like Oxygen and PH stabiliser and even fresh water to your solution after you have circulated it, you cannot add nutrients once the nutrient solution has been mixed and circulated, so if it’s too low you cannot adjust it mid-week, to adjust a low nutrient level (CF) you will need to replace the whole solution. After circulating the solution for a few days it’s possible that the nutrient level will rise, often due to the plant taking up the water and leaving the heavier salts in the tank and perspiration. If this is the case fresh water can be added to lower the level back to an acceptable one, you will also need to re adjust the PH level.

Nutrients will not breakdown if you add them afterwards, even by one day later, adding nutrients to a circulated solution will usually give you a nutrient imbalance and quite possibly a high and possibly toxic amount of salts to the plants. So rule of thumb is to get it right before circulation.

About CF’s and PH in Nutrient solution

When you add the nutrients to the solution you are basically adding salts, these are measured in PPM or parts per million. Different plants thrive at different CF levels so it’s important that you do your research on the actual plant you are growing and find out what levels of CF they thrive on. If your CF is too high and not corrected the plants are likely to perform poorly and possibly die due to high levels of toxic salts.

PH Meter and CF Truncheon

PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of the water; this can vary greatly from area to area. If your PH is not within the acceptable range then the plant will not be able to take up the all-important nutrients and enzymes. One of the positives of hydro gardening is that both the PH and CF can be easily monitored, controlled and corrected, something not possible when soil gardening, well at least not to the same consistent accuracy. A CF meter or truncheon and a PH meter are both must have tools for the hydroponic gardener.

For information about Aeroponics click the Green link highlighted in this text.

Hydroponics All You Need to Know

Hydroponics is regularly used by growers around the world to produce fast growing crops with a high yield. Although the name sounds quite high tech and modern, soilless growing has been around for centuries, researchers as far back as the 18th century realised that soil itself was not essential to plant growth. In plant growth soil is simply a medium or reservoir, something to hold the nutrients that the plants need to grow, hydroponics replaces the use of soil with other mediums such as rockwool, coco scuff or pebbles. Replacing the soil with other mediums has many benefits as it allows the grower to be in total control of not just what nutrients are available to the plants but when, in soil growing it takes a very experienced gardener with a keen eye to know just how much nutrient a plant might need and how often, with hydro-systems the nutrient can be closely monitored using meters to measure the CF (salt minerals content) and the PH(acidity) all which are vital to premium plant growth.

There are many different types of hydroponics systems used today, much research has been done to advance the science of hydroponics into a simple but effective growing system that can grow pretty much any many plant to great success. With a little know how and some simple materials available at most DIY stores it is possible to make a Hydro system but before we get into that lets have a brief look at the ready made systems available and how they work.

NFT

Nutrient Film Technique is amongst the most commonly used hydroponic systems.

To set up an NFT system you would need:

  1. Purpose built trays or gulleys to sit the plants on.
  2. Reservoir or tank to house the solution
  3. Submersible pump and piping system for irrigation.
  4. Spreader mat.
  5. Growing Medium
nutrient film technique

So how does it work? Plants are suspended in a medium, most commercial growers use rockwool blocks for this but baskets of clay pebbles are also favoured. A nutrient mix of specially formulated liquid fertilizers is mixed in the tank (A) because the solution is based in clean water there are a lot of basic enzymes missing from the solution, these are added separately usually in liquid form, there are many different brands on the market and experienced growers tend to have their own formula or mix, this is often a closely guarded secret as the correct solution mix with the correct enzyme additives can make a huge difference to the final yield of the plant. The solution is circulated from the tank using the submersible pump(B), up to the growing tray and is pumped in at the top (C) the nutrient solution then runs down the tray(which has a layer of spreader mat on top) creating a film of nutrient, this is known as nutrient film technique. As the film runs down the trays the nutrients pass over the roots of the plants (D), the solution then falls back into the tank (E) to be re circulated back to the plants. Some growers use the same system but only pass the nutrient solution over the plants once; this is known as Run to waste NFT.

Flood and Drain

To set up a Flood and Drain hydroponics system you will need:

  1. Purpose built trays or gulleys to sit the plants on.
  2. Reservoir or tank to house the solution
  3. Submersible pump and piping system for irrigation, with one way valve.
  4. Growing Medium
flood and drain

Flood and Drain is a passive system as is NFT but there are differences in how the solution is delivered to the plants.The nutrient solution is mixed in a tank (A). As we have seen above NFT provides a film of nutrients that passes over the roots to allow them to absorb the solution, with Flood & Drain the plants are set in the chosen medium and then they sit in the tray or gulley without any solution, the nutrient is usually pumped up to the trays or gulleys from the tank using a submersible pump, not all F&D systems use a pump some are gravity fed but either way the mechanics are the same.

The pump will allow the trays or gulleys to be flooded with a predetermined amount of solution through a one way valve(B) but unlike like NFT or other passive systems the solution is held in the tray or gulley for a time to allow the medium to soak up the solution and feed the plants(C). The solution then drains slowly back into the tank and the process starts again.

Dripper System

To set up a Dripper hydroponics system you will need:

  1. Purpose built trays or gulleys to sit the plants on.
  2. Reservoir or tank to house the solution
  3. A timer controlled submersible pump and piping system for irrigation,.
  4. Growing Medium
drip system

As with all the systems we have looked at so far the dripper system has a tank to store the ready made solution(A).The solution is pumped up to the growing area using the submersible pump(B) but with this system the pump is timer controlled with flow controls added to the irrigation pipework(D) to allow a predetermined amount of solution to be delivered to the plants(C), this time rather than run down the tray in a film or as a flood the solution is dripped directly on top of the medium(in this case Rockwool is used) and over the roots of the plant, it then makes its way back to the nutrient tank and the whole process starts again(E).

Deep Water Culture (floaters)

To set up a Deep Water Culture floater system you would need:

  1. Purpose built pots to sit the plants in.
  2. Polystyrene Floater boards
  3. Reservoir or tank to house the solution
  4. Growing Medium
deep water culture

A deep water culture system is pretty similar to a standard flood and drain system, a tank is filled with a premixed solution, the plants are sat in a pot with a medium for support and to absorb the solution.The pots are inserted into a polystyrene floater board which keeps the pot floating on the solution rather than sitting on a tray or gulley. Smaller growers would  empty the tank manually periodically but larger growers would adapt the flood and drain system to automate the delivery and drainage system. An air pump is defiantly needed in this system as the roots tend to be totally submerged within the solution so will struggle for oxygen, as we will see later on oxygen is vital to all growth whether its hydro or soil based.

Aeroponics

To set up a Aeroponics system you would need:

  1. Purpose built baskets to sit the plants in.
  2. Purpose built Aeroponics chambers.
  3. Reservoir or tank to house the solution
  4. Growing Medium.
  5. Pump
  6. Irrigation pipework with atomiser fittings

An Aeroponic System

Aeroponics is quite different in one way but also similar in other ways to any of the systems we have looked at so far, with Aeroponics you still need a tank to hold the nutrient solution like Hydroponics, you still need a medium and the unused solution still runs back into the tank but that’s where the similarities end. With this system the plants are planted into a medium held in a basket rather than a pot, this allows the roots to grow freely and hang below the basket. Rather than sitting in a tray or floating in solution as with other systems in Aeroponics the basket is suspended in a growth chamber (some are like a large drain pipe sealed at either end) with the roots hanging freely within the chamber, the solution is pumped from the tank but this is where this system becomes quite unique, instead of just running down the chamber the solution is injected in a mist into the chamber and over the free hanging roots, this has great advantages as it provides oxygenated solution directly where the plant needs it, the negative side to this is that if their is any kind of failure in the delivery system the plants are pretty much doomed; because the roots are free hanging there is no medium in direct contact with the roots so the will quickly dry out and die.
Aeroponics is quite a technical way of growing plants, the expected yields are greatly improved but the margin of error is much smaller, this and the added cost of Aeroponics systems is probably why only the experienced and committed grower use these systems.

DIY Hydroponic systems

To build a simple Hydroponic system you will need:

  1.  3×3 timber to build a frame.
  2. Black Plastic guttering with end caps
  3. Small irrigation hose/pipe and junctions (available at all good garden centres)
  4. A submersible pump
  5. Tank to hold the solution
The wood is to build a frame for the gutters to sit on, the measurements would vary depending on the size of the system you were building.
The plastic gutters would need to be trimmed to the desired length and the end caps added to the top at one end to stop the solution from running back.
Place the gutters on the frame you have just built with one end over the tank to allow for the solution to drain back.
Trim the pipe to the desired length, it would need to have a single pipe up from the pump, using the junction connectors split the pipe so each length of guttering has its own flow of nutrient solution, junctions and end caps for irrigation pipes are available from all good garden centre’s and growing shops.
Voila! You have a just built a very simple but effective Hydroponics system.