Hydroponic nutrients are the bread and butter essentials of any hydroponics setup since, after all, how will our green friends survive without sustenance? We take these modern miracles in a bottle for granted. There’s a lot to them starting with how they are made!
Hydroponic nutrients are made from either organic or inorganic sources that undergo chemical or mechanical processes to extract the desired nutrients. Afterward, these are either made as a standalone product or mixed with other nutrients to create 1) liquid or 2) dry nutrients.
Nutrients can definitely make or break your plants. It is important to know what is in your nutrients to make the best use of what they offer and what your plants can take. Higher concentrations of a certain nutrient such as phosphorus might be better on your fruiting and flowering plants rather than more nitrogen or potassium.
Table of Contents
- 1 Soil Fertilizer vs Hydroponic Nutrients
- 2 How Are Inorganic Hydroponic Nutrients Made?
- 3 How Are Organic Hydroponic Nutrients Made?
- 4 Organic vs Inorganic Hydroponic Nutrients
- 5 Are Inorganic Hydroponic Fertilizers Environmentally-Friendly?
- 6 Summary of How Hydroponic Nutrients Are Made
- 7 Sources
Soil fertilizer and hydroponic nutrients – organic or inorganic – can be used interchangeably, given that they are modified to adapt to soil or soilless cultivation. However, despite being theoretically possible, soil fertilizer should be avoided in hydroponics since these are conventionally made to run sterile.
The interchangeability is because plants do not care for the form their nutrition comes from. If it is in an ion that can be consumed by plants, it will be consumed regardless if it is from an organic or inorganic source.
In fact, soil fertilizer and hydroponic nutrients are manufactured through similar processes. Organic soil fertilizers and hydroponic nutrients are made through composting organic matter or through plant extracts. Inorganic soil fertilizers or hydroponic nutrients are made by extracting the desired chemical compounds from host materials.
Soil fertilizer is made either 1) through composting to create organic fertilizer or 2) through mixing different chemical components to create inorganic fertilizers. These are the two main kinds of soil fertilizer.
Organic fertilizer is made through the process of composting. Composting is the natural process of transforming decaying, organic matter into nutrient-rich fertilizer. This can be done by simply placing the organic matter in a ditch on the ground to allow the elements to break it down.
Inorganic fertilizer is made by extracting the desired chemical compounds from host materials. These are either sold on their own or combined with other chemicals to produce an all-in-one formula.
Hydroponic nutrients can be either organic or inorganic. They come in 1) liquid solutions or 2) dry powders.
Liquid solutions are some of the most beginner-friendly options in the market. These are often premixed and have all the macro and micronutrients. They also come with detailed instructions that prescribe the proper solution to water ratio in your system.
Dry powders can either come premixed with all the macro and micronutrients or just a single chemical compound. The premixed dry nutrients are more user-friendly as they allow for a simpler fertilization process. However, for more advanced gardeners, dry powders with one chemical compound allow for finer control in nutrient uptake.
Inorganic hydroponic nutrients are made by extracting the chemical compounds from host materials – often mineral deposits. These materials go through chemical and mechanical processes such as acidulation, crushing, purification, and are mixed with other materials to produce nutrients in either liquid or dry form.
These are either left on their own or mixed with other chemical compounds to make a formula that has all the necessary macro and micronutrients. Most hydroponic nutrients available online and in stores are already mixed which makes the gardening process easier by not having to think about what chemicals combine safely with other chemicals.
Inorganic hydroponic fertilizers are man-made products specifically aimed at providing the essential macro and micronutrients to plants. They are made similarly to inorganic soil fertilizers. Their manufacturing process and chemical composition ratios differ however the primary macronutrients – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium (NPK) – are always present.
Nitrogen is sourced from natural gas through the Haber-Bosch process. Nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas is heated and pressurized to create ammonia – the base component necessary for ammonium nitrate (AN), urea, or urea ammonium nitrate (UAN).
Ammonium nitrate is produced when ammonia is mixed with nitric acid. Urea is produced when ammonia is mixed with liquid carbon dioxide. Urea ammonium nitrate is produced when ammonium nitrate and urea are mixed with water.
Nitrogen has a critical role as it is a major component in chlorophyll, the compound responsible for photosynthesis. Nitrogen is also necessary for protein production, plant growth, and plant regulation.
Phosphorus is sourced from mined phosphate rock treated with sulfuric acid. Other sources include mined igneous rock deposits that are treated with sulfuric, phosphoric, or nitric acid.
These rocks on their own cannot provide sustenance to plants as they are not soluble hence not available for nutrient uptake by plants. The choice of the acid in the acidulation process also plays a role in the phosphorus content of the final product.
- Sulfuric acid method — produces the low phosphorus content fertilizer.
- Phosphoric acid method — produces higher phosphorus content fertilizer.
- Nitric acid method — produces two fertilizer products, Nitrophosphates (NO6P-2) and calcium nitrate (Ca(NO₃)₂). Despite being a cleaner process, the phosphate content of the fertilizer cannot exceed the nitrogen content.
Phosphorus stimulates cell division and plant growth. It is also a vital component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy-carrying molecule necessary for most living organisms.
Potassium is sourced from natural deposits of potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, or potassium nitrate that are crushed and purified, separating other rocks and salts from potassium.
Potassium is responsible for the movement of water, nutrients, and energy in the plant’s body. It also aids in photosynthesis, affects protein and starch production, and regulates carbon dioxide (CO2) intake.
Organic hydroponic nutrients are similar to how organic soil nutrients are made. Compost materials such as guanos, worm castings, kelp, plant extracts, and other organic material are mixed with other conventional inorganic nutrients to make liquid nutrients.
Due to the nature of some organic components being non-soluble, organic hydroponic nutrients are difficult to implement in hydroponics systems. The most common organic hydroponic nutrients are those made from plant extracts due to their soluble nature.
Plant extract nutrients are made by sourcing seaweed, duckweed, Azolla, or water hyacinths and then blending them into a fine, filtered mix whose particles are small enough to be absorbed by plants.
Plant extract nutrients offer a unique alternative to inorganic nutrients due to how accessible and abundant their source materials are. These sources, being organic plant matter themselves, are rich in nutrients conducive to plant growth and development.
They are also eco-conscious options. On one hand, seaweed and duckweed grow rapidly without much need for sunlight or nutrients, making them a renewable source. On the other hand, water hyacinths are considered invasive alien species (IAS) in some parts of the world so their harvest is desirable to cull their population.
Compost tea is produced by steeping organic compost with other additional organic matter with water. The mixture is then strained using a filter to extract the essential nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.
Compost tea is a simple fertilizer to implement in a hydroponics setup for an eco-conscious or budget-conscious gardener. It can be used as either the primary nutrient solution in a system or just a nutrient amendment.
Note: Due to the nature of compost tea using organic matter, it is recommended that the drainage and piping system of the hydroponics are adequately prepared for possible clogging, damage, or microbial growth. Ebb and flow systems are best suited to this task.
The truth of the matter is that there is no difference when it comes to nutrition between organic and inorganic-based nutrients. Plants are not concerned about whether they get their nutrients from decaying organic matter or from processed inorganic matter.
This debate online and in real life is stemmed from the belief that inorganic or “chemical” fertilizers are worse for not being natural. However, the debate is moot since it disregards the fundamentals of nutrient uptake of plants.
Being organic or inorganic only means a difference in the means of delivering nutrition to the plant. Plants do not consume the decaying guano, kelp, or worm castings but rather the inorganic constituents of these materials. Regardless of the source, plants consume the materials when it is available in a form they can uptake (usually inorganic).
Organic hydroponic nutrients are a completely safe and sufficient means of delivering nutrients to hydroponic plants. However, it is harder to maintain cleanliness and consistent nutrient content in the system due to the nature of organic matter.
For a commercial grower, organic hydroponic nutrients have the benefit of giving consumers perceived peace of mind on what goes into their food. They have great potential in increasing the adoption of hydroponics in the mainstream market due to being more attractive to consumers for being “organic.”
Note: The best way to ensure your hydroponic nutrients are organically sourced, make sure that your choice has an OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) Certification.
Inorganic hydroponic nutrients are the conventional means of delivering nutrients in hydroponics. They have the benefit of running a clean, sterile system where the content of the nutrient reservoir can be fine-tuned for optimal growth.
Inorganic hydroponic nutrients are often the cheapest, most accessible, and hassle-free means of sustenance for a hydroponics gardener. These nutrients often come in liquid or dry forms that contain the entire nutritional needs of a plant.
More experienced gardeners can source single chemical components to make their own nutrient solution formulation. The use of inorganic materials allows a gardener to supplement nutrient deficiencies or further boost beneficial nutrients tailored to the plant being grown.
Inorganic hydroponic fertilizers do not have any negative influence on the plants grown or on the system. Compared to inorganic fertilizers that may have an effect on the soil when overused, inorganic hydroponic fertilizers are confined within the nutrient solution.
However, given that many materials in inorganic fertilizers are sourced through mining and the use of fossil fuels, they do produce a negative environmental impact when unregulated. These impacts include soil contamination, increased fossil fuel consumption, increased water consumption, and air pollution, among others.
- Hydroponic nutrients and soil fertilizers are quite similar and only differ in the medium where they are applied. Hydroponic nutrients come in either dry or liquid form and are specially formulated for soilless cultivation
- Inorganic hydroponic nutrients are made by processing the source materials to extract the chemical compounds or elements desirable in plant cultivation. These have the benefit of running a sterile and controlled system.
- Organic hydroponic nutrients are made using the same way organic soil fertilizer is made. These are capable of sustaining a hydroponics system but may be more difficult to clean and control.
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