Sounds complicated, right? Well, we won’t lie, there are a lot of factors involved in giving plants the ideal combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other necessary nutrients. The good news is that getting it right here at Highland Heights is actually pretty easy!
Plant Nutrition Basics
Let’s start at the beginning. Plants need nutrients in order to thrive and, in turn, the nutrients these plants absorb make them beneficial for us to eat. The six key nutrients are:
- Nitrogen (in the form of nitrate): helps foliage grow strong and gives plants their green color by helping with chlorophyll production.
- Phosphorus: helps with root and flower growth, while helping plants withstand environmental stressors.
- Potassium: strengthens plants, especially during early growth, and helps them retain water.
- Magnesium: plays a key role in giving plants their green color.
- Sulfur: helps plants resist disease and to grow seeds. It also helps the plant create amino acids, enzymes, and vitamins.
- Calcium: aids in the growth and development of cell walls, which is key for the plant’s ability to prevent disease. It is also essential for the plant to absorb nitrate.
When growing plants in a traditional manner, plants absorb these nutrients from the soil. Based on the farming technique, gardeners and farmers will supplement with fertilizers, which can be synthetic (man-made and usually derived from petroleum: Ammonium Nitrate, Ammonium Phosphate, Superphosphate, Potassium Sulfate) or organic (derived from plant and animals: compost, manure, seaweed, worm castings).
With hydroponics, things work a little differently. Without soil, the plants need to get their nutrient supply from somewhere else. Hydroponic systems like those in our greenhouse use water as a nutrient delivery system. Water soluble liquid nutrients are diluted into water that travels to plants’ roots.
When it comes to hydroponic systems, there are different nutrient mixtures based on what you’re trying to grow. Nutrient mixtures are created with three stages in mind: leaf, flower, and fruit. Since we grow leafy greens, lettuces, and herbs specifically in our systems, we use solutions formulated specifically for leaf stage growth.
We use a two tank system for our nutrients. You may be asking, why two solutions? That’s because the nutrients need to be separated to prevent them from turning into solids in the tanks (through various chemical reactions). However, once the nutrients are mixed into the water, they become diluted enough that they can mix without any issues.
Another important factor for nutrient dosing in hydroponic systems is the pH level of the water. Most tap and well water has a pH level that is too high for optimal nutrient absorption. In order to balance our pH we run all of our water through a water softener. Softened water is harmful to the plants with all the added salt so we then pass the water through a specialized Reverse Osmosis (RO) system to remove all traces of salt. This gives us water the is pH neutral. We add a pH regulator to the water in addition to the nutrients to make sure that the water’s pH stays at the right level.
Now you know how we supply our plants in our hydroponics systems with the proper nutrients! But how do we regulate the nutrients effectively? With traditional farming, farmers can test the pH of their soil easily, but often need to get the nutrients in their soil tested elsewhere, so they only get a read on the soil’s nutrient levels once a season. Comparatively, we use sensors that monitor pH and EC levels (EC stands for electro-conductivity, and is the method to measure the nutrient saturation of the water). Automatic dosing panels make sure the levels are always optimal.
The overall results, are plants that have consistent nutrient supplies. With nutrients so essential for the plants’ survival, it’s very helpful to have a predictable system.