How To Choose The Right Nutrient For Your Hydroponics or Indoor Garden - Nutrient Buyers Guide

9 minute read · July 9, 2012

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Choosing the right food for your plants is one of the most important decisions a grower can make, and the decision shouldn't be made lightly. We can help give you information to make an educated decision on what nutrients will help your plant reach it's maximum potential.

Nutrients are separated into a few main categories--which we will go over--that have different purposes. First there are your base nutrients. Base nutrients are like the entree for your plants' multi-course meal. They provide a wide range of elements that make up a more-or-less complete diet for your plants. Note that most base nutrients have multiple parts or bottles, often with those bottles denoted for either the Vegetative (growth) stage or Blooming (flower) stage. Secondly there are your additives. Think of additives as your appetizers, nutritious smoothies, and deserts. These nutrients can be added when your plant is either showing deficiencies in a certain element, or if you're trying to arouse certain characteristics out of your plant, such as taste or flower size.

Here are some of the most important questions you should ask yourself when considering different nutrients:

1. Soil vs. Coco Coir vs. Hydroponics: Before choosing a nutrient, you should have already chosen your method of growing (i.e., soil, coco coir, or hydroponics) because most nutrients are made to be used with a specific medium. For example, House and Garden has three base nutrients: Soil, Cocos, and Aqua Flakes. Botanicare CNS17 has two different base nutrients, bundling the soil and coco methods into one bottle that can be used on either medium, and their hydroponic nutrient. Most nutrient bottles state on the label what media the nutrient is safe to use with it.

When using soil consider the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels your soil contains before adding base nutrients. For instance, Fox farm Ocean Forest contains extremely high levels of guanos and castings, meaning your plant will be provided with many of the nutrients it requires without the necessity of supplemental nutrients; however, only for a period of time. Your plants will eventually eat all of the goodies your soil comes with, at which time supplemental nutrition is required. When using this particular soil we usually recommend using clean water for 3 to 5 weeks depending on how much nutrients your particular plant uses.

On the other hand-- when considering hydroponics or coco coir-- realize that you will be responsible for adding everything you wish your plant to eat. This is because the grow medium used in these systems is inert, and the plant obtains its nutrients only from the water/nutrient solution you provide.

2. Organic vs. Synthetic (non-Organic): Along the same vein as the previous note, organic nutrients tend to work best in drain-to-waste gardens (where water drains out of the bottom of a bucket and is not reused) rather than recirculating/hydroponics systems. This is because organic nutrients tend to have particulate matter in them that can clog up pumps, small tubing, sprayers, and misters. For these reasons it is common to use organic nutrients with soil, soiless media, and coco coir. Some companies are now coming out with organic nutrients that are said to work well with hydroponics systems, but we have yet to test any. Synthetic nutrients are the most common nutrients within the hydroponics industry, and in the food that we buy and eat at the grocery store. These nutrients work well with hydroponics systems, and can often be used in coco coir and soil, although consult the nutrient label to make sure :)

Another quick note about organic nutrients vs. synthetic nutrients. On the front of every nutrient bottle you will see three numbers often separated by dashes like this 3-4-1. These three numbers stand for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (N-P-K), respectively, and they correspond to the percentage of these materials found in the fertilizer that is readily available to the plant immediately. On synthetic nutrients these numbers are often much higher than on organic nutrients. This is because synthetic nutrients are broken down into smaller materials that are more easily absorbed by plants roots than organic nutrients, thus their N-P-K (readily available nutrients) is higher. This does not necessarily mean there are more nutrients, just that they are fast-release versus organic nutrients more slow-release characteristics.

3. What Is Your Budget: This one is pretty subjective. Do some shopping, learn what's within your budget, then start comparing the nutrients that fall into that budget you made for yourself.

Different Additive Types

1. Flower Boosters/Bloom Maximizers: These additives are used to increase the size of your yield and the density of your flowers and buds. These nutrients can almost always be used in conjunction with any base nutrient, and are usually high in Phosphorous and Potassium (P and K). You may want to watch for signs of nutrient burn with these nutrients because they are strong in the elements mentioned. These additives tend to be on the expensive side, but they are arguably one of the most effective. You only use these nutrients in the flowering phase of plant growth. Some of the flower boosters that we recommend and have had good success with include: Bud XL by House and Garden, Big Bud by Advanced Nutrients, Hydroplex by Botanicare, Fire by Heavy 16, Bloombastic by Atami, and KoolBloom by General Hydroponics.

2. Mycorrhizae/Bacteria, Enzymes & Vitamins: Mycorrhizae are tiny fungal filaments that attach themselves to roots, spread out into the media and gather nutrients and moisture for the plant. Mycorrhizae like to hang around plants because they enjoy the sugars that the plant passes down to its roots. This relationship between plants and mycorrhizae occurs in nature, and by adding mycorrhizae (inoculating) your media you help restore this beneficial relationship. Although mycorrhizae tend to create fungal colonies better in non-hydroponic growing environments such as soil and coco coir, there are some mycorrhizae specially made for hydroponics like Great White by Plant Success, White Widow by Humboldt Nutrients, and Piranha / Tarantula both by Advanced Nutrients. Other mycorrhizae that can be used in soil and coco coir include Myco Maddness by Humboldt Nutrients, Oregonism by Roots Organics, and Mykos by Xtreme Gardening.

Enzymes break down nutrients into small components to make them easier for your plant's roots to absorb, especially of starches and carbohydrates. Enzymes are often also great for preventing the formation of pythium and algae. Some of the most popular are Hygrozyme or Sensizym by Advanced Nutrients. You can use mycorrhizae and enzymes at any time in your plant's life cycle.

Vitamins such as B-1(Thiamine) helps your plants use and create carbohydrates so your plants have enough energy to build strong vegetative growth and to power production of flowers and essential oils. It also facilitates your plants’ use of phosphate, which is an essential nutrient that fuels flower growth. B1 strengthens plant immune systems so they better stand up to disease and stress. B1 activates Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR), which is the same benefit that happens in humans when a vaccination produces a pre-emptively increased immune response to future disease attacks. What’s more, B1 assists in root development so your plants intake more nutrients faster, and are more resistant to shock, transplanting, cloning.

3. Root Stimulants: These additives help increase the growth rate and size of your plant's roots, which can help your plant uptake more nutrients and grow larger due to more structural support in the root zone. Root stimulants can also be helpful if you're encountering root issues, such as root rot. Our favorite rooting stimulant (unanimously among Growers House staff) is Roots Excelurator by House and Garden, although a good, less expensive option is Bio Root by General Organics. Although more important in the beginning stages of your plant's life cycle including germination and the vegetative stage, this can be used during the flowering phase as well.

4. Sweeteners: These additives are often used to enhance or manipulate the taste of your flowers, fruits, and buds. You only use these nutrients in the flowering phase of your plants life-cycle. Some examples of sweeteners include: Sweet Grape by Botanicare, Original Berry by Botanicare, Hi-Brix Molasses by Earth Juice, and Bud Candy by Advanced Nutrients.

5. Flushing: If in soil, about 7-10 days before you harvest you're going to stop giving your plant nutrients and just feed them water with a flushing agent. If in hydroponics you can cut this down to 4-7 days before harvest. You want to flush your plants because the nutrients you gave your plants gets stored in them, which can result in bitter, chemically, and artificial tastes. To prevent this you need to flush the heavy metals and chemical salts built up in your plant so that you're only left with the essence of your plant when you harvest it. Flushing agents help clear your plant of these materials faster and better than using water alone. If you overfeed your plants and see signs of nutrient burn, we also recommend using only water for the next two feeds and possibly using a flushing agent such as Clearex by Botanicare to help restore the plant to homeostasis more quickly. Other popular flushing agents include Final Phase by Advanced Nutrients and FloraKleen by General Hydroponics.

Other Helpful Notes and Tips

Use distilled or reverse osmosis (RO) water! The quality of the water we give to our plants plays a big role in the overall quality of not only the plant but the quality of the soil or hydroponic system as well. Different sources of water contain different risks, city water often contains chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride as well as the residue of a long journey through aging pipes. Well water can contain pesticide runoff, heavy metals, and above normal levels of calcium, iron or other nutrients. These contaminants can have any number of harmful effects, they wreak havoc on soil microbiology, throw off your nutrient balance, and can be toxic to plants and people. I’m not saying unfiltered water won’t work, it does, but it’s important to know what’s in your water and the better the water the better the plant.

We've found through our collective experience that just about every nutrient company over-recommends how much to feed your plant. We often recommend starting your young plants at 1/4 strength of the recommended dose of nutrients, and slowly working up as your plants mature, watching out for signs of nutrient burn. In general, underfeeding your plants is better than overfeeding.

Different plants and strains respond differently to different nutrients--that was a mouthful. What we mean is that one nutrient company may be great for one plant while worse on the next. While researching nutrients try to search for testimonials of people using a specific nutrient on a specific plant and/or strain.

Knowing and adjusting your pH levels is super important. If your pH is too high or too low then your plant won't be able to absorb certain nutrients, even though you're feeding it the right stuff. Measure your pH after you add your nutrients into your reservoir or liquid solution, not before. Also stir your reservoir or liquid solution very well and wait a couple minutes before you measure the pH. Nutrients tend to bring your pH down because they are slightly acidic. For hydroponics keep your pH at 5.5 to 6.5. For soil 6.2 to 7.2.

One of the most common nutrient deficiencies is calcium/magnesium AKA Cal Mag. Watch out for this deficiency especially if you're using reverse osmosis or distilled water in coco or hydroponic systems.

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