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Insights into Plant Nutrition

Plant nutrition is an interesting subject matter. For millions of years, plants thrived without our help, but now that we have begun raising our own plants, the issue of nutrition has come up and has been debated by experts in the industry. So, what do you need to know about plant nutrition and could changing the way you are feeding your plants make them even healthier? This guide will discuss the current school of thought on plant nutrition and open the door on what has been shown to keep plants the healthiest.

tomatoes in the gardenWhat Nutrients do Plants Require?

There are four categories of nutrients that plants require. All of these nutrients are essential to healthy growth and continued life, and the categories come from the type of nutrients or the method by which they are consumed by the plant. For example:

Primary Macro-nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium

Secondary Macro-nutrients: calcium, sulfur and magnesium

Trace Minerals: boron, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, nickel, molybdenum and chlorine

Air Macro-nutrients: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen

As you can see, there are two ways that plants get their nutrients. Most of them come from the soil, (or another grow medium in the case of a specialized method like hydroponics) and the rest come from the air. All are vital to plant health. Most of the nutrients are absorbed through the roots of the plant, but the ones like nitrogen and oxygen are absorbed through the leaves.

What Happens When Plants Don’t Get Enough Nutrients?

If a plant doesn’t get enough nutrients, it is known as a nutrient deficiency, something that humans can also get if they don’t get all of the vitamins and minerals that they need. Plants can show all sorts of symptoms of nutrient deficiency: stunted growth, discoloration, deformity and death. Most of the time, it is nitrogen that plants aren’t getting enough of, but it usually takes several nutrient deficiencies to cause serious problems.

hydroponics green vegetablesA Breakdown of Plant Nutrients

Nitrogen: Nitrogen is a part of the energy systems and amino acids inside the plant that forms its proteins. It is necessary for the process of chlorophyll photosynthesis and without it the plant will not be able to use sunshine as an energy source.

Phosphorus: A deficiency of this nutrient can make some plants show deformities. Corn is a good example of this. Phosphorus is vital for converting captured sunlight into a form of energy that the plant can use.

Potassium: Potassium is very important for plants because it boosts many of the enzyme actions inside the plant, and without it, plants are not able to reach their growth potential. Lack of potassium can affect size, shape, color, taste and many other features of the plant.

Calcium: Calcium is part of the material that makes up the plant cell wall, something that is vital to protecting the plant and keeping it strong. It also is a key factor in activating many of the plant’s enzyme systems.

Sulfur: Sulfur is vital to the process of photosynthesis; it also helps to protect the plant when the season turns cold. Without it, many plants are not able to survive winter conditions. Also, sulfur can affect taste in some plants with strong odors: onions for example.

Magnesium: Magnesium is required to capture the energy of the sun and use it for growth. It is also a factor in the process of photosynthesis and magnesium has the ability to move throughout the plant, from old tissue to younger tissue.

Boron: Boron improves seed set. It is also a vital component in cell walls, which help the plant keep its structure, even though it is in a small amount. However, boron does have the distinction of being a nutrient that can be toxic to the plant if too much is introduced into the soil.

Manganese: Manganese is important to the process of photosynthesis because it aids in chlorophyll synthesis, but some plants require more of this nutrient than others do, so you really have to know the plant that you are growing in order to know how much to give in artificial grow environments.

Iron: Plants that are suffering from an iron deficiency will often have paler leaves than healthy plants, and it is important that iron be balanced with other metals like copper and manganese. In some plants, like legumes, iron acts as a carrier for the oxygen that the plant needs.

Zinc: Since zinc is unable to move very easily, you will first notice a zinc deficiency by the wilting of younger leaves.

Copper: Copper has even more difficulty moving throughout the plant than zinc does, and in fact, is the least mobile of all seventeen of the plant nutrients. It is a catalyst for several different chemical reactions within the plant.

Nickel: Some of the fruit that trees bear and some plants in a nursery setting can have nickel deficiencies. You can tell if a plant has a nickel deficiency if the leaves have a small curl in them and if the plant has stunted growth.

Molybdenum: It is easy to see when a plant has a molybdenum deficiency. The first thing you will notice is stunted growth (if next to a healthy plant) and then the plant will turn a sickly, yellow color.

Chlorine: Chlorine helps both to break down the water that the plant receives, and to help the plant process sunlight. Also, chlorine is instrumental in the process of controlling the release of moisture so they can survive dry periods.

Hydrogen: Hydrogen is present both in the soil and in the air, and hydrogen has many jobs in the plant, not the least of which is helping with structure and photosynthesis.

Carbon: Carbon is the number one energy source that the plant uses. It is also necessary for the plant to build more tissues, so stunted growth, or no growth at all, can be a result of carbon deficiency.

Oxygen: Not only do plants give off oxygen so that we can breathe, they also acquire it from the carbon dioxide that they break down.

The Pros And Cons Of Hydroponics

HydroponicsThe word hydroponics technically means working water. The term hydro is a Latin word meaning water and ponos meaning labour.

Modern hydroponic gardening was introduced back in the 1920s as a method of commercial plant production. It instantly became a big hit, and many people were trying this method. This method uses water and nutrient systems to grow plants. This method provides alternative means of food production where there are reports of poor soil conditions. Back during the World War II, USA troops used to use this system of gardening to grow fresh fruits and vegetable while they were stationed in infertile areas of the Pacific.

There are 6 different types of hydroponic growing systems, which include:

Wick: This is one of the simplest of all hydroponic systems because there are no moving parts.

Water Culture: this is another easy to understand and to use hydroponic system. However, there are moving parts. The roots of the plants are totally immersed in the water.

N.F.T: “Nutrient Film Technique” is one of the most common of all hydroponic systems. Anytime hydroponics is mentioned, people automatically think of this method.

Ebb And Flow: This system can be modified in many different ways. It works by temporally flooding the growing tray. This method is similar to the way rice is planted.

Drip: This is the most widely used type of hydroponic system. Using controlled water and a pump, water is supplied to the plants through drips.

Aeroponics: this system is considered high-tech. Like the N.F.T system, instead of using water as the medium of growing, air is used instead.

Well, it does not matter which method you prefer to use: all the same, they all offer the similar benefits and limitations.

young tomato plantHydroponic Pros

This plant growing system offers a lot of benefits to many farmers today. At the same time, it makes it possible to grow high-quality plants in locations where it could generally be grown in soil. The system can make it more efficient use of resources such as space, water, and plant nutrients. Its benefits include:

1. The method allows crops to grow in small areas. As you know, plant density is limited only by available light under controlled conditions. This makes it very possible to increase crop production without worries.

2. Plants can grow and mature faster compared to those found elsewhere. At the same time, they can grow more evenly without the need of soil. Under the perfect condition, you can harvest your products easily and regularly.

3. All soil-borne insects and diseases are reduced 100% under soilless production.

4. There isn’t any worry of plant diseases. Actually, research has shown that planting using the hydroponic system there are less pesticide invasion. Outside growers have to rely on herbicides, fungicide, and even insecticides to protect their plantation.

5. Nutrient application and water can be customized to increase production. At the same time, water stress is normally not experienced if it is monitored properly.

6. This system makes efficient use of water and fertilizers compared to growing crops outside.

7. Hydroponics is efficient. This is one of the biggest advantages of hydroponic systems. The main principle of this method is to use water that is only used by the plant and nothing more. This method of minimizing water makes this system user-friendly. At the same time, using fertilizer is also minimal and hence making it very affordable.

The Disadvantages Of Hydroponics

Just like any other thing around us, hydroponics has its own limitations as well. However, while the list of advantages is long, its disadvantages are quite the opposite. Well, everything cannot be perfect without its problems and, in this case, hydroponics has its own. Its disadvantages include:

1. Setting up cost is a primary concern.

Well, the initial amount required to set up this system is quite high especially if you are looking to do it on a large piece of space. If you compare this method to the old traditional way of planting, you will quickly realize that hydroponics is expensive. This is because special tools and equipment are needed.

2. Maintenance

Whereas it might be expensive to invest in this method, maintaining is another limitation by itself. Apart from the cost, maintenance is another issue. More than often you will spend time and cost to maintain your systems. For example, if you are using a drip system, you will need to maintain the pipe supplying the water to your plants often. At times, these pipes clog up and unclogging is a big challenge as well. At the same time, in some hydroponic systems, you will need pumps that will pump water to your plants.

3. Skill

Unlike the traditional methods, the hydroponic systems require skill and skilled personnel to work on them. Knowledge about the plant nutrition, system operation, and plant caring skills are required for anyone to be successful.

Whereas in the normal old traditional way, all you have to do is dig, plant your plants and then water it. After all this, you have to play the waiting game for the plants to grow. With hydroponics, problem arises during production and growing systems are required to be monitored closely.


Well, even though this method offers few limitations, it is a great way to grow plants today, especially in places considered as not fertile or where plants of that kind do not grow.

A Step By Step Approach to Creating Your Hydroponic Garden

Hydroponics allows you to grow plants in water that has nutrients in it, and without the use of soil. It is necessary, however to give some means of support to root systems and this is provided by things like vermiculite, peat moss, clay pebbles, rock wool or perlite. Plant roots come into direct contact with the nutrients and also are able to access oxygen, both of which are needed for their growth.

HydroponicsHydroponics ensures an increased growth rate in plants and this can be as much as twenty five percent, while produce also increases by about a third. The plants do not have to work hard to draw the nutrients from water and can manage this even with smaller root systems, thus allowing growth to concentrate on other parts of the plant. It is necessary to control the pH levels and nutrients carefully. Less water is also used, as most hydroponics systems are in enclosed spaces, where evaporation losses are then reduced. Hydroponics systems may take time to set up and can be expensive to set up with the right containers, root support mediums and pumping systems for providing water.

You need to pick up some basic supplies like containers, a light source, support medium for the roots, plant food and of course, the plants you want to grow. You can get plants that produce all the year round, so that you always have greenery around your home. One of the first steps in starting hydroponic gardening is to prepare the plant holder. This can be a smaller container, which you may have to place in a bigger one, so that water is retained. This smaller container needs to have some drainage so that the roots of your plants do not get too wet. A few holes at the bottom of the plant container will serve this purpose. It can also help if holes for drainage are also made on the side of the pot and these are properly spaced out. The second step is to create some space at the bottom of the larger container. You can do this, by laying down a layer of clay pebbles or other hard material, which is the support medium that will give some space between the larger container base and the base of the smaller one, so that water can also fill up this space. The roots will sometimes find their way through the holes and also access this lower space and have more supply of nutrients from the water there.

You are now ready to start planting as the next step of your hydroponics garden. It is best to buy plants from the nursery that are past the seedling stage and have sprouted sufficient roots and leaves. These plants will most probably be in soil and may come to you in plastic bags. Carefully remove the plant from the bag, and then clear the soil from its roots. Use water at room temperature to gently remove the soil from the roots, and see if you can do this without touching the roots themselves. You now have to prepare your smaller container, with the holes to receive the plants. You need to create a layer with clay pebbles or any other growing medium you have decided on similar to the base you prepared in the larger container. The next step is to actually place the plant in this prepared container. Hold the plants so that you support the roots with one hand and put it down on the medium base you have created, so that some of the roots sit along the bottom. Let the other roots remain at higher levels, so that they have to find their way down to the water. Once the plant is stable and supports itself, fill up the container with the support medium that you have decided on, so that the base roots are covered.

cucumber plant cultivated in greenhouse.Your next step has to be to place this container that contains the plant into the larger container in which you have prepared a base with the support medium. Make sure that the container is stable and rests firmly on the base that you have prepared as support. You can use any material for this support, just as long as it is firm enough, as it has no other function rather than acting as a support. Your plant is now ready for growth. You can leave this larger container with the smaller one that has the plant, in the sun, if you have such an area in the home. Alternatively, you can set up a light with a proper reflector, so that light is directed on to the plant. You can also use sensors that keep the light switched off during the day, so that your costs for electricity remain in control. Let your nursery advise you on the wattage of the bulb you will require for the plant in question and the distance that you need to keep between the light source and the plant. You may have to create a separate support structure for your lighting. Just make sure that it is sturdy and position it in such a way that it does not require you to move it around. It should not obstruct you in the future when you are tending to the plant or providing it the required nutrients.

You now need to move to the final stage of feeding your plants with the nutrients that you have purchased when you first arranged for supplies. Mix this nutrient in water and pour it into the smaller container till the roots in the plant container are not fully submerged.  Get in a kit that allows you to check the pH level in the water and maintain the suggested level by changing the water once a week. Your plant is now on its way to growth.

Is Hydroponic Gardening Organic?

Everyone these days is obsessed with the idea of being ‘organic’ and ‘green’ and that is no bad thing. In general, the pursuit of a more organic and natural way of doing things is to be applauded. Under some circumstances however, the term organic can be a little misleading and far too simplistic and it’s in these situations where it becomes a bad thing.

Take hydroponic gardening for instance. Is this type of indoor gardening ‘organic’? Can it be?

And does it matter if it isn’t?

These are all important questions but the answer isn’t quite so straightforward as you might expect or hope.

Read on and we’ll take a look at what hydroponic gardening is and at why it’s overly simplistic to categorize it as either organic or ‘not organic’.

HydroponicsWhat Does Organic Mean?

Perhaps a good place to start is with what the term ‘organic’ really means.

Already we stumble upon something of a problem seeing as the term can be interpreted differently depending on context.

If you were to ask a biologist what the term organic means for instance, then they would tell you that it means ‘biological’. In other words, something organic is something made from carbon. It could be a single molecule but as long as it had its roots in living tissue, it would be considered organic.

Speak to a gardener though and they will often give you a very different description of what ‘organic’ means. To them, organic means ‘not synthetic’ and ‘not processed’.

In other words, it means not using any chemical fertilizers, any chemical pesticides… etc.

A good example of this would be to compare two approaches to preventing slugs from eating your lettuce. A traditional gardener might solve this problem simply by placing slug pellets around the lettuce. By doing so, the slugs would then be killed by the pellets and the lettuce would be safe. This method is highly efficient but it isn’t organic because the slug pellets use chemicals that were synthesized in a factory and that would never normally be found outdoors.

So how would an organic gardener kill of slugs?

One method is to use a beer or milk trap for the slugs. Here, you would simply dig a small hole around your lettuce, insert a small container and fill it with a little beer or milk. Make sure the outer slopes are slippery and steep and the curious slugs will end up toppling into the mixture to drown or just get trapped.

That’s a little brutal though and it’s not super organic. Why? Because you don’t tend to come across plastic cups of beer in the wild. What’s more, this strategy can kill beetles too, which normally hunt the slugs.

Freshly picked cucumbersAnother option then is to lay egg shell around the garden which will prevent the slugs from crawling on their stomachs without cutting themselves – and it also provides the soil with calcium. Better yet, maintain an old rotting tree stump or branch somewhere in the garden. This will attract beetles, which as we just learned, actually can hunt the slugs. This is the ultimate expression of organic gardening: creating a microcosm of the larger ecosystem and using that to ensure that all the living things in your garden support each other.Of course though weevils can attack the roots of your plants so then you need to find something else to combat these… That’s what we call the ‘circle of life’.

Why it’s Hard for Indoor Gardening/Hydroponics to be Truly Organic

With this in mind then, it should become obvious that it would be difficult for any indoor or hydroponic garden to be truly organic in the traditional sense. You can’t have a microcosm of the wider ecosystem inside your house or greenhouse for instance and you’re unlikely to want to keep an old rotten tree stump in your house…

So the best you could hope to do would be to use entirely organic compounds rather than synthetic products.

For simple indoor gardening this is not impossible and in fact it’s relatively easy. This is simply a matter of using natural organic products as plant food and using natural remedies as pesticides (some oils work as pesticides for instance).

With hydroponics though, things get a little more difficult. Here you are growing your plants in such a way that the roots are submerged in a nutrient rich solution. This means dissolving specific mineral elements that cannot contain any heavy metal contaminates or toxic substances. The composition here must be precisely known and even the pH is controlled. This cannot be done ‘naturally’ and so it is not strictly organic.

What’s more, hydroponics really goes against the ‘ethos’ of organic gardening. Organic gardening is essentially about succumbing to the idea that ‘nature knows best’. This means accepting that nature can take care of itself and that synthetic substances and controlled man-made systems are inherently inferior.

The idea of hanging plants into a mineral solution then while controlling the rising and setting of the ‘sun’ with a computer is something that goes completely against the whole idea of organic gardening. And to a lesser extent, this is also true of indoor gardening.

Why it Really Doesn’t Matter

But here’s the kicker: it really doesn’t matter!

This is where the overly simplified idea of ‘organic vs. inorganic’ really exposes itself as being limited and un-useful.

The real reason that organic gardening is so popular and that there has been such a backlash against other means, is that synthetic pesticides can damage the ecosystem. Slug pellets don’t just tip the ecosystem by removing an important natural ‘link’ in the food chain, they also risk poisoning the local cats and birds, damaging the soil etc. Even harming the neighbor’s cat!

This is the enemy. Not man-made products. There is nothing wrong with a man-made synthetic fertilizer in principle. And there is nothing wrong with putting the lighting on a timer.

And when you’re growing all your plants indoors – disconnected from the natural ecosystem – then it really doesn’t’ matter even if you are using toxic pesticides. As long as you’re not compromising your own health, the way you manage your indoor or hydroponic plants won’t have any wider implications.

So do what you like with them!

Controlling Pests In Hydroponics

Plant pestsWhile we’re taking the soil out of the equation and moving the gardening operation indoors, it doesn’t mean that the threat of invasive and damaging insects are gone. Many people get into hydroponics because it’s environmentally greener and the last thing they want to do is cover their plants in chemical insecticides. There are many different ways that a hydroponic gardener can take care of bothersome insects.

No Soil Doesn’t Mean No Bugs

Many times soil-based garden have pests start out as larvae in the soil and then hatch to become the thrips and fungus gnats of our collective nightmares. Just because there’s no soil, doesn’t mean these larvae can’t propagate your aggregate. Rockwool is a popular aggregate choice in hydroponics as is coir coco fibers, but they are also the preferred home of these pests.

The porous aggregate makes a great place to incubate, but even aeroponic systems can have pests. Root aphids have been known to attach to the bare hanging roots and suck out the nutrients like a hydroponic Slurpee.

Fight Fire With Fire

Since chemicals are not an option, some gardeners are taking a hint from Mother Nature and turning their garden into an ecosystem where survival is the fittest. They are bringing in natural insect predators to kill the pests. The great thing about predators is they eat the insects, but leave the plants alone.

The biggest downside to this is you’re adding even more insects to your garden area. This might not be a problem for hobbyists with their backyard greenhouses, but large companies seeking to turn a profit may find it unseemly to have so many insects in their growing area.

Spraying flowers.Diatomaceous Earth

While it may not be the most humane way of pest control, the use of Diatomaceous Earth is effective. Diatomaceous Earth is created from the fossilized remains of diatoms that lived millions of years ago. They are ground into a fine powder and used on the plants as an insecticide. It is incredibly abrasive and absorbs the fat from the exoskeletons of the insects, making them brittle.

Ironically, it can also be used as a growing medium as well. The powder absorbs water and nutrients and allows for greater oxygen circulation.

Clean Up

The best way to make sure no pests show up in your hydroponic garden is to clean up your planting area on a regular basis. Gardeners should not leave dead leaves or debris on their plant or they risk infestation and all materials should be sterilized after each crop. This prevents contamination from one crop to another. If the pest issue is large, then draining and sterilizing the medium will be necessary.

Bugs are a fact of life with any garden, it doesn’t matter if is hydroponic or in soil. Your crops are a food supply and they’re hungry. With chemical insecticides an environmental no-no, it’s important to find environmentally friendly ways to prevent and get rid of them. It defeats the purpose of hydroponics to douse your crops in toxic chemicals.