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Hydroponic systems allow growers to exercise an unprecedented amount of control over their plants’ immediate environments. With a well-designed hydroponic setup, growers can control everything from the pH of their water to what nutrients the plants absorb through their roots, and much more. Here’s what those who are used to soil-based grow media need to know to make the switch.
All plants require a careful blend of macro- and micronutrients to grow and thrive, and their needs change depending on what growth stage they are in. Recreational and medicinal marijuana growers need to be especially careful when purchasing and administering nutrient mixes. That’s why companies like General Hydroponics produce different solutions for each stage of plants’ lives.
In a soil-based grow, plants get access to nutrients by absorbing decomposed organic matter and minerals already found in the soil or added via amendments. Hydroponic systems don’t use soil, though, so growers need to provide everything their plants need to thrive.
There are two primary advantages to soilless growing. First, the plants have to expend less energy on extending their root systems and seeking out nutrients, so they can devote more of it to producing thick stems, verdant leaves, and dense, potent buds. Second, growers have complete control over what they feed their plants, which means it’s possible to create a perfectly balanced environment that eliminates the possibility of growth-inhibiting nutrient deficiencies.
Since plants grown in hydroponic media get all the resources they need to grow from nutrient solutions, growers need to make sure they are offering balanced nutrition. Only use plant foods designed for hydroponic systems. They include a diversity of micronutrients ordinarily found in the soil that aren’t present in fertilizers and liquid plant foods designed for soil-based grows.
If a hydroponic system has alkaline or severely acidic water, it doesn’t matter how many nutrients growers apply. The plants won’t be able to absorb them. Since everything from hard water to liquid nutrients and even some hydroponic grow media alter pH, hydroponic growers need to measure and adjust it constantly.
The ideal pH range for plants grown in a hydroponic system is between 5.5 and 5.8. As long as growers keep the pH generally between 5.0 and 7.0, their plants shouldn’t suffer too much. A pH below 4.5 or above 8.0 will disrupt the plants’ abilities to absorb nutrients, and if the pH falls below 3.5 or rises above 9.0 for even a short time, it will cause irreversible damage to the plants’ roots.
It’s harder than novice growers might think to ensure a proper balance of pH throughout their plants’ life cycles. Each time they administer nutrients, growers need to check the pH of the water in their hydroponic setups and the nutrient solution first. Adjust the nutrient solution as needed using proven, plant-safe General Hydroponics products like pH Up and pH Down, then measure the pH in the entire setup again after administering the nutrients.
Optimal EC and TDS
Electrical conductivity (EC) and total dissolved solids (TDS) measure concentrations of dissolved salts and dissolved solids. Everything from lighting to plant size and even drip time can alter the EC in a hydroponic setup, as can the hardness of the grower’s water and the humidity in the grow room.
Finding the right EC level takes some trial and error. Some growers prefer to use nutrient solutions with a low EC value between 1.2 and 1.5 mS, especially if they have hard water. Others prefer to apply solutions with a high EC level of around 3.0 mS or to alter the EC to be higher as their plants mature.
Use an EC/TDS meter to keep track of levels and pay careful attention to how the plants respond. It’s also important to pay attention to manufacturers’ recommendations when applying nutrient solutions and to keep track of the EC and TDS of tap water if that’s what growers use to water their plants. Hard water has higher concentrations of minerals, so it has a higher EC.
Some growers use distilled water in their setups. Distilled water is treated using reverse osmosis to remove all salts and other minerals. This makes it easier to keep track of EC levels, but it also creates a new problem for growers since it is devoid of essential nutrients like calcium and magnesium. Growers who use distilled water may need to apply a product like FloraPro Calcium + Micro or FloraPro HardWater + Micro to ensure that their plants don’t suffer as a result.
Symptoms of high EC levels include nutrient deficiencies. Hydroponic plants grown in water with high total dissolved solids can’t take up nutrients as efficiently as those grown in more favorable conditions. The best way to deal with excessive mineral buildup is to flush the system completely using pure, distilled water before applying a more balanced mix.
If keeping track of EC and TDS sounds hard, that’s because it is. Don’t get discouraged, though. Over time, growers will get a better idea of what EC and TDS levels to use in their unique setups and environments.
Some hydroponic media, such as coco coir, are actually better at trapping oxygen than soil. Most growers still need to aerate their hydroponic setups, though. They can either install a Dual Diaphragm Air Pump or use an air stone to ensure adequate oxygenation. Many novice growers prefer to purchase complete hydroponic systems that come with everything they need to ensure proper oxygenation, such as the General Hydroponics AeroFlo System or the WaterFarm Complete & Modular System.
The Bottom Line
The whole point of installing a hydroponic system is to allow growers to exert more control over their plants’ immediate environments to optimize growth and increase yields. Maintaining optimal pH, EC, and nutrient levels requires some work, but the payoff will make it all worthwhile. When they use General Hydroponics products designed specifically for use in hydroponic systems, growers will find that it’s much easier to provide everything their plants need to grow and thrive.