Thursday, February 26, 2009

Static Hydroponic Systems, Cons and Pros

There are several systems available today in which hydroponic crops can be grown. All hydroponic systems can be divided into two main categories defined either as static or dynamic systems. In hydroponic dynamic systems the solutions is recirculated at some point by using a water pump while static systems neglect the use of a pump or any other way in which water can be recirculated.

Static hydroponic systems can then be divided into two large categories, open and closed systems. In open systems, the nutrient solution that is given to the plants is never recovered and is "wasted" while in closed systems the solution is used for as long as it has the right chemical properties to feed the plants. For example, a lettuce raft system with no water recirculation is considered a static closed system (since the solution stays in contact with the plant until it is not right anymore) while a drip irrigation system with no pumps is considered an open system because new solution is given to the plants continuously. I will now discuss some of the pros and cons of hydroponic static systems, both open and closed.

Open Static Hydroponic System

The largest advantage of open static hydroponic systems is that the cost and infrastructure needed to pump solution back into the nutrient reservoir is neglected, this cost can be significant if solution volumes are small. Another important advantage is that the concentration of nutrients and pH of the nutrient solution does not need to be checked because fresh solution is continuously provided.

The main drawbacks of this systems have to do with the cost of the nutrient solution spent and the dumping of hydroponic nutrient solution in either soil, rivers, or the sewage system. Hydroponic nutrient solutions are very contaminating because of the easiness with which they cause algae blooms. The solution needs to be correctly processed in order to guarantee no contamination occurs, doing this will most often require water pumps, something which makes the first advantages of these systems void. The cost of the nutrient solution also becomes prohibitive. A regular plant consumes about half a gallon per hour in a drip irrigation system, wasting this amount of solution every hour in a commercial facility is unacceptable (reason why no commercial growers use open static hydroponic systems).

Closed Static Hydroponic System

This systems have the advantage of not being contaminating and using nutrient solutions as effectively as possible. They are the most economical systems that can be built and they provide ideal growing conditions for most plants with short life cycles. Larger plants like tomatoes do not benefit from having their roots wet all the time and require some sort of special design within the system.

The main disadvantages of these systems have to do with the necessity for water oxygenation (using air pumps) and the need for continuous monitoring of the nutrient solution in order to guarantee that ideal conditions are always met. This of course, is not very complicated and can be done with no problems. Most commercial growers will couple the ideal of a static system with a dynamic one in order to further improve it's effectiveness. For example, commercial lettuce raft growers often add water pumps in order to circulate, sterilize and oxygenate the water instead of using air pumps to do this.

As you can see, most static hydroponic systems are pretty primitive and are often confined to small home growers whose concern with efficiency and optimal conditions is not as strict as those of commercial growers. Almost all commercial growers use dynamic systems of some sort and that should also be the aim of home growers as these systems have shown to be more efficient and ecological albeit more expensive than static cultivation methods.(Below, a closed static hydroponic system for herb cultivation)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Easy Seed Germination with Polyurethane Foam

Most hydroponic gardeners germinate their seeds using either a solid media such as perlite, vermiculite or coconut fibers or a woven media such as rock-wool. The first germination alternative has the problem of making transplant stress higher, while the second has the problem of being too expensive (for most hobby and commercial growers). With that in mind, I intend to explain on this post how to germinate your seeds using a cheap cube of polyurethane foam which is readily wet by the nutrient solution and generates almost no transplant stress when moving the plants.

The first step to germinate seeds in polyurethane foam is to buy a sheet of the adequate polyurethane. For this purpose, I use a polyurethane foam with a density of 0.015 grams per cubic centimeter. The next step is to cut the polyurethane foam in 1 inch by 1 inch by 1 inch cubes. After this is done, you have to make a cut with a sharp knife at one face of the foam cube (this is where the seed will be inserted).

Once your cube is cut and ready, you have to presoak it in water. Simply squeeze the cube under water and let it absorb all the liquid it can. Once you take it outside, do not squeeze it again since this will make the cube exchange the water it just absorbed for air.

Now simply deposit each seed inside a cube and place the cube in a tray for seed germination someplace where the appropriate conditions for the germination of your seeds are present. You can keep the seeds and the surface of the foam wet by misting water over the cubes everyday. Once the seeds germinate you can place them in your favorite hydroponic setup and the roots will grow out of the foam cube, into any solid media or nutrient solution. (below, an image of my germination setup ready for seed placing).

Salt Concentrations in Hydroponic Tomato Cultivation, More or Less ?

One of the most produced vegetables in hydroponic growing, both hobby and commercial, is the tomato. Because of this, and the very important place tomatoes have in world economy, many research efforts have been done towards the production of better quality crops. In hydroponics, much of this effort has been devoted towards the investigation of the optimum concentration levels of hydroponic tomato nutrient solutions. In particular, several researchers have studied how salt concentrations are associated with flavor in tomato crops.

Several peer reviewed studies have focused on this problem and many have drawn contradictory conclusions. Some studies suggest that higher EC levels are better for tomatoes while others sustain that it makes no difference in taste or nutrient composition but it decreases fruit size due to the higher osmotic pressure of the nutrient solution.

For example, a recent 2007 study, found out that tomatoes grown with an electrical conductivity of 2.3 and 4.5 dS/m had significantly different nutrient compositions and tastes with the tomatoes grown at 4.5 dS/m being far more tasteful and nutrient rich.

The difference seen amongst the studies is mainly because of the inherent composition of the nutrient solutions. Because different ions have different conductivities, some studies may show different results because of important changes in their nutrient compositions. Hence, even though conductivities are exactly the same, available ions to the plant are completely different. It can be seen that solutions that have higher potassium to nitrogen ratios and higher electrical conductivities prove to improve flavor consistently in hydroponic tomato crops.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Selenium in Hydroponic Growing of Lettuce

Hydroponic culture has a very good fame of giving optimal conditions for plant growth and nutrition. It is known that hydroponic crops grown with the best possible conditions can attain results far superior than those obtained with any form of soil gardening. However, the research community has just recently became aware that hydroponic growing may not only be used to provide the best conditions for growth but to enhance the plant's nutritional values in ways that were not possible before.

So how do we enhance plants beyond what can be done with traditional hydroponics ? One way is to add certain non essential nutrients to the solution that can make the plants become more nutrient rich. This for example, can be done with the addition of selenium to certain plant cultures, specially lettuce.

Selenium (Se) is a chemical element which is essential to human life. Selenate, the chemical form in which Selenium is absorbed, is a powerful anti oxidant whose daily recommended value is rarely attained with traditional diets. By adding Selenate to the nutrient solution of hydroponic lettuce crops the plant's Selenium content can be enhanced to supply the required daily values of Se.

Recent peer reviewed studies have shown that concentrations from 2 to 6 ppm of Selenate can increase the Selenium content of both lettuce and tomatoes as well as provide an important increase of other antioxidants in tomato crops. This is a clear example of how the inclusion of additional chemicals in the nutrient solution can enhance the nutritional quality of plants and make them go beyond what they would achieve under "optimum" natural conditions.(Below, the chemical structure of the Selenate anion)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Titanium Dioxide as a Disinfectant in Hydroponic Gardening

As I have said on previous posts, the problem of disinfection in hydroponic gardening continues to be a main issue in the area of soil less culture. Although there are many chemical solutions such as sodium hydrochloride and hydrogen peroxide, they continue to be non discriminant oxidants with the potential to damage roots and more importantly beneficial symbiotic microorganisms. Therefore, the use of chemical disinfectants takes away the possibility of using applications of beneficial organisms to boost crop yields.

Non chemical ways of disinfecting nutrient solutions do exists but are most of the time extremely expensive and only viable to large commercial growers. Examples of these are UV and ozone sterilization. Both processes are more friendly than chemical disinfectants and are friendly with root beneficial microorganisms, their only drawback is the high cost and difficulty of installation.

Nonetheless there is another potential way of sterilizing nutrient solutions which is both economically feasible for small growers and friendly with beneficial microorganisms that interact directly with plant roots. This new sterilization mechanism uses titanium dioxide as a mean of fighting pathogens inside the hydroponic nutrient solution.

Titanium dioxide is an innocuous, insoluble solid which is vastly used in the food and paint industry. Besides this, antase, a specific crystalline form of this material, has very interesting photocatalytic properties. For example, when irradiated with UV rays (the sun's being enough) antase is able to decompose organic matter into non harmful chemicals. It has been widely studied as a means of replacing hypochloride in water treatment plants and now offers a great way to sterilize nutrient solutions in hydroponic growing.

Degussa P25, an anatase containing nano crystalline commercial form of titanium dioxide, is very cheap and adequate for it's use as a sterilizer in hydroponic growing. Simply, the solution is passed through a shallow open container that has several tiles of cheap glass covered with a small layer of sinthered Degussa P25. This sterilizer can eliminate microorganism spores, bacteria, etc, from the nutrient solution while keeping costs and chemical disinfection down to a minimum. This is something I am going to try in the near future so stay tuned to see my results ! (below, a SEM image of titanium dioxide nano particles)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Checking the pH of your Hydroponic System, The Easy Way !

Growers often think that they need to buy pH meters in order to accurately control the pH level of their hydroponic nutrient solution. Actually, there are a couple of ways in which pH can be readily monitored without any digital equipment. One of the cheapest ways in which this can be done is through the use of an acid base indicator.

An acid base indicator is a substance whose protonated and deprotonated molecular forms have different electronic structures with different spectroscopic properties. Therefore, an acid base indicator changes it's color according to the pH value of the solution and this color change can tell us if the pH of our nutrient solution is right or wrong.

Every indicator has it's own characteristic proton affinity which means that it changes at a different pH value. Since the optimal pH in hydroponic growing for most species is between 5.5 and 6.5, we will use an indicator that changes around this value and can tell us if the nutrient solution differs from the ideal setup.

The indicator which best suites our needs is Chlorophenol Red. This substance changes color from yellow (pH 4.8) to red (6.4) (wikipedia is wrong about it changing to violet !), at the pH of our interest, which is 5.5-6.0, the indicator is orange. You can buy an already prepared solution of the indicator ready for testing here. A 100mL solution will allow you to perform thousands of tests at 1/10th of the cost of a regular pH meter.

In order to test the pH, add about two tablespoons of the nutrient solution inside a transparent glass, then add two or three drops of the indicator, mix and watch the results. If the indicator is either red or yellow, you are off the desired value. If the solution turns orange, your nutrient solution's pH is just about right ! (Below, the color change of the indicator as a function of pH, notice that the orange region is precisely around 5.5-6.0 .

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Building a Cheap System to Grow Hydroponic Lettuce

In an earlier post, I talked about a static hydroponic lettuce system that needed no aeration or recirculation and worked by providing an air space between the nutrient solution and the plants. Today I am going to explain how to build this very simple system from cheap materials. These are the things you will need :

- 8 Nails - 2 inches (5cm) long
- 40 Nails - 1 inch (2.5cm) long
- 4 wooden boards - 100 x 10 x 2cm
- Plastic lining (greenhouse polyethylene) - 1.20m x 1.20m
- Knife
- Styrofoam board - 100 x 100 x 2 cm
- Silicon Paste Sealant
- 1/4 gallon white latex paint
- painting brush

The first thing you need to do is nail the boards together forming a 1 x 1m frame. To do this I used 8 large Nails.
After the boards are nailed together (like it is shown above) paint the outside using white latex paint. This provides protection for the wood from water, light, bacterial and fungal damage. Now line the frame with the plastic, nailing it on the borders using small nails.
Your system should look like the one shown above. After this part, we need to build the cover of the system that will hold the lettuce plants. Cut 42 2x2 cm holes on your Styrofoam board in a 6 x 7 fashion, keeping a distance of 12 cm between holes. This is shown below.
Now you need to glue this Styrofoam piece on top of the frame you built before. Do this using silicon paste, taking care to afford a good seal along the whole structure. This will prevent light from reaching the nutrient solution. The holes are fit to accommodate 42 plants (but you may do less holes if you desire to nurture less plants) germinated in polyurethane foam. Later this week I will continue to explain how plants need to be germinated and transplanted in order to use this system and how the nutrient solution is used and replaced. Below, a picture of the finished system (total cost for me, 25 USD).

Friday, February 13, 2009

My pH Balancing System for Hydroponic Growing

In the past few days, several people have asked me how to use my carbonate/citrate buffering system as a means to control the pH of their nutrient solutions. For this reason, I decided to write a post which explains the simple way in which my buffering system can be prepared and a little more about how it works and what you can expect from it.

A pH buffer's function is to provide reaction "alternatives" for strong acids and bases when they contact the nutrient solution. These acid or basic substances generally react with water and this changes the value of pH. When a buffer is present, they react with the buffering molecules instead of water. This of course, makes pH remain approximately constant. Since the generation of species can be perfectly controlled and predicted by the use of mathematical methods, we can create very good buffering system by "experimenting" with different substances using a computer, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

As a result of my simulations I concluded that a mixture of citric acid/carbonate acts as a good buffer in hydroponics both towards the addition of acids and bases. The actual species involved are citrate and the bicarbonate ion, the bicarbonate ion reacts with acids, providing basic pH buffering, while the citrate reacts with acids providing an acid range buffering effect.

It is very easy to use this system by using your regular pH meter. Prepare your nutrient solution as usual, at the end, add 5g of citric acid for 500 liters of solution (this will acidify the pH of your solution a lot). Now, take back the pH to the value you want (5.8 to 6.2) by adding potassium carbonate. It is important not to use bicarbonate as this will react quickly with citric acid to form carbonic acid and then carbon dioxide (which will leave as a gas !). Also make sure you add both chemicals previously dissolved in water to afford quick chemical equilibrium achievement inside the solution.

By using this method you will have a nutrient solution that is perfectly buffered at your desired pH and that will remain at that pH value for a good amount of time. This of course, depending on the solution's volume and the type and number of plants you grow with it. (below, the distribution of species diagram or the carbonate family)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

One Plant Hydroponic System, Wick Growing

Most hydroponic systems today are a fairly complicated combination of holding materials, irrigation systems, aeration pumps, etc. For most people wanting to grow a single plant in hydroponics it has become quiet impossible to figure out where to find a cheap system to do so.

One of the cheapest systems available for hydroponic gardening of small plants (ideal for experimentation and school projects) is the hydroponic wick nutrient system. This system uses an absorbent fiber to carry on nutrient solution by capillary action towards the plant which usually rests above it. Wick systems are very easily built and are a very good fit for the growing of small plants.

Medium sized and large sized plants start to have problems with hydroponic wick systems due to the inherent capillary flow limitations that physics impose on the flow of nutrient solution. The absorbent fibers on capillary systems are also often clogged because of nutrient salt buildup (due to water evaporation because of the large surface area of the fibers). Water evaporation increases the concentration of salts along the fiber and starts to precipitate insoluble calcium and other metal phosphates. These are very hard to redissolve and often cause the system to stop working.

However, as I said before, wick systems such as the one built here are very appropriate for experimentation, growing a single hydroponic plant or doing school projects. The system is very easy and cheap to build.(below, a photograph of plants being grown on this system, note that they are very etiolated due to lack of proper lighting)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Outdoor Hydroponics, Growing Without a Greenhouse

Most hydroponic gardening techniques demand strict control over the growing media and ambient variables in order to have a crop in optimum conditions. However, most small hobby and commercial hydroponic gardeners do not have the budget necessary to build a greenhouse and need to have their systems exposed to the elements. This is why I decided to write a post about growing hydroponic plants in outdoor conditions, to show growers that hydroponics can be grown outside if adequate precautions are taken.

So what is the problem with the outdoors ? Well, the main problems are temperature changes, rain, haze, snow and excess light. Plants grown outside a greenhouse do not have any protection against direct sun, rain, haze or snow and are therefore most likely to be damaged by the elements. This of course, does not mean that the crops cannot be taken outside.

In countries where there are four seasons (and winter has snow), care needs to be taken not to grow any plants during the winter, because snow will most likely kill all the crops. furthermore, low temperatures are likely to freeze the nutrient solution, something that can be a really bad problem in a hydroponic garden.

Another precaution that needs to be taken is to be specially watchful of the levels of EC in the hydroponics garden. In this special case, nutrients need to added in order to compensate for dilutions caused by rain. Electrical conductivity levels need to be taken before and after a rain storm in order to know the change in EC and return it to normal after. Note that this is a special case, normally nutrients should never be added to a solution which was naturally depleted by the plants. Please read the EC FAQ post for more information about this.

Another important thing is that plants should be protected from excessive evaporation by using hydro-gels. These polymers are applied over the plants root ball and effectively retain moisture for the plant so that possible stress from excessive evaporation becomes minimal. If the sun is too strong, additional measures such as nutrient reservoir cooling (with ice for example) have to be done in order to maintain adequate temperatures around the root zone.

It is clear that hydroponic crops can be grown outside but growers have to take special precautions with this area of hydroponics and commercial growers using this technique should have the losing of one crop a year in their budget (for crops such as lettuces) due to ambient conditions ruining their growth. (below, an image from a special program done by the UN to help poor people use hydroponics as a stable source of income)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ion Selective Electrodes in Hydroponic Culture

Currently, hydroponic growers rely on a combination of electrical conductivity and pH measurements in order to assess the quality and durability of their hydroponic nutrient solutions. However, many are unaware that hydroponic gardening can be much furtherly enhanced by the addition of ion selective electrodes.

In a certain sense, all hydroponic gardeners have used an ion sensitive electrode since the pH meter they use to measure the concentration of H3O(+) ions is actually selective to that ion. Imagine if every time you read pH you had interference from all the other ions present inside the hydroponic solution. Nonetheless, there are currently a large variety of ion selective electrodes available and many of them can be used in hydroponic gardening to accurately control the concentration of several elements.

For example, ion selective electrodes with very good selectivity and little interference exist for the nitrate ion. These type of electrodes can be purchased from many manufacturers but can be easily found here. For just 229 USD, the grower is able to accurately control the amount of nitrate ions present inside the hydroponic solution independently from other nutrients.

By measuring the potential difference given by the electrode when the solution is prepared, the grower is able to easily detect and graph changes within a certain growing period. Best of all, since the ion selective electrode gives a real measure of ion concentrations, the grower is able to resupply spent nitrogen without unbalancing the hydroponic growing solution.

Ion selective electrodes exist for a variety of ions including nitrate, ammonia, phosphate, potassium, iron and copper. This technology will prove to be the future of hydroponics as it will guarantee the grower the ability to accurately control and resupply the exact amount of nutrients needed by his or her growing plants. These electrodes can also be easily wired to computer software in order to monitor nutrient use 24/7 (below a display of several ion selective electrodes)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Growing Citrus Trees in a Hydroponic Garden

While hydroponic gardening is most often done with plants like tomatoes, lettuce and bell pepper, it is well known that the hydroponic growing technique can be applied to a large variety of plants with different degrees of success. One type of plant that is an all time grower favorite is the citrus tree. Plants such as orange, lemon and mandarin (called citric because of their high citric acid content) can be grown effectively in a hydroponic garden.

Before you start your quest for a hydroponic citrus tree, beware that this type of plant demands somewhat warm weather and high amounts of light. These plants are not very good at indoor growing unless some LED growing lamps are used to complement lightning (although high pressure sodium and halide lamps can also be used).

Once you decide to grow a citrus tree the first step is to either find a suitable candidate from a nursery or grow your own from seed. If you want to grow from seed, beware that it will take the plant 3 to 5 years in order to start bearing fruit. If this is unacceptable, find a plant at a local nursery that has the age you require. If you are growing from seeds, soak the seeds inside a napkin for 2 days and then remove the external seed coating. This guarantees effective germination once the seed is planted.

For the best results, I recommend using a 5 gallon container filled with rice husk, perlite or vermiculite fitted with adequate tubing at the bottom for nutrient solution evacuation. I recommend installing a drip irrigation system with at least 3 drip emitters per citrus tree you planted.

As for the nutrient solution, I recommend using a Hoagland solution, first at half strength and then at full strength as the plant starts to grow. Your hydroponic citrus tree will not probably grow as big as an actual citrus tree but will bear fruit of normal size and sometimes even in the same quantities. Since your tree is in a hydroponics system, it will (if the solution is taken care of) never have to face any iron or manganese defficiencies common to soil grown citrus trees. Sometime in the next month I will publish a detailed how to on the construction of the hydroponic system itself.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Beneficial Fungi in Hydroponic Gardening

In common hydroponic culture, the growing media and the hydroponic nutrient solution are kept sterile in order to guarantee the absence of malicious plant pathogens. This however, changes the root environment dramatically and places plant roots in a media which is totally inert and different from the media in which they evolved, soil.

However, hydroponic gardening offers an important advantage in that adequate beneficial microorganisms can be cultured with our hydroponic plants, making the root environment change towards a much more soil-like beneficial media whith stimulated nutrient absorption, prevents pathogens and increases growth.

Amongst all the microorganisms that can be introduced into hydroponic media, none are as beneficial as the fungi commonly known as mycorrhiza. This term refers to fungi that create important symbiotic bonds with the plant's roots, activating the plant's internal defense mechanisms and boosting it's nutrient uptake capabilities by using the fungus's hyphae as nutrient uptake vehicles with a much higher surface are than common plant roots.

In practice, I have introduced Trichoderma species of fungi into my hydroponic solution every crop for the past 2 years with very good results. Trichoderma visibly stimulate the plant, making it vigorous and more productive than a traditional hydroponic plant. The fungi also increase the plant's ability to assimilate phosphorous, something which is a problem where I live due to low ambient temperatures (which hinder P uptake). In order to use Trichoderma efficently in your hydroponic solution you should lower the amount of phosphorous under 40 ppm because higher amounts of this element inhibit the fungi's development.

With this in mind I hope that all of you who have considered biological help in your hydroponic garden will start using these incredible microorganisms which are very good at helping your plants develop and maintain an adequate level of productivity. (Below a picture that shows the difference between plants with and without beneficial Trichoderma spp fungi)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The NFT Hydroponic Growing System

In the last 50 years, many hydroponic systems have been developed in order to make crop cultivation easier, cheaper, faster and denser. Amongst the systems that have been developed, one of the hydroponic systems which has caught the most attention and is used more frequently is the so called NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) system.

The system's operation principles are quiet simple. A PVC (or or other polymer) rain gutter is placed on an aluminum frame with a certain inclination, plants are placed in small containers introduced inside the gutter and a nutrient solution is sprayed at the most elevated side of the gutter. The spraying forms a thin film on the gutter's bottom and flows towards the other end due to the slope.

The fact that the NFT system allows most of the plant's root system to remain outside the nutrient solution is the main reason for it's success. Throughout a lot of research, it has been found that plants just need to be "barely" in contact with the nutrient solution. Plant's seem to greatly benefit from their roots abosrbing oxygen from open air and taking just the little amount of necessary nutrients they need by a small contact with nutrient solutions.

The NFT system is great for crop cultivation and is one of the most efficient systems for the growing of crops such as basil, lettuce, spinach and cabbage. However it does have some disadvantages such as gutter length limitations due to nutrient and temperature changes (usually gutters are never more than 15 feet long), of course they also have the strong disadvantage of much higher costs (fue to the gutters being expensive) and lower planting densities (due to the spaces needed between gutters to allow personel). Nonetheless, many companies growing NFT systems have been able to make "foldable" gutters which allow automatic recollection of lettuce, transplanting and sterilization.

In conclusion, one could say that the NFT system is one of the best hydroponc growing systems that have been developed due to the fact that it allows greater oxygen and nutrient absortion. In fact, the hydroponic nutrient film technique is one of the most used systems for lettuce cultivation.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Disinfecting your Hydroponic Solution with Hypochlorite

As I talked about in a previous post, the disinfection problem in hydroponics is very important as many pathogenic microorganisms as well as algae develop through the course of any hydroponic gardening attempt. Hydrogen peroxide, as I said earlier, is a very good disinfectant with incredible properties but most of the time it is not used because of it's high cost.

Amongst one of the most common disinfectants available we find sodium hypochlorite. This chemical substance with formula NaClO is a good disinfectant because it oxidizes organic matter producing Cl2 which then further oxidizes organic matter tu produce Cl(-). As you can see, the several steps available for oxidation as well as this compound's innate reactivity make it one of the best and cheapest disinfectants available today. This is the reason why sodium hypochlorite solutions have been used for a long time and now have commercial names, such as Clorox.

In hydroponics, sodium hypochlorite solutions are commonly used to sterilize a hydroponic system prior to use or in between different crops. However, this does not achieve the purpose of maintaining the nutrient solution sterile throughout the whole gardening cycle.

In order to achieve this in a very simple way (for the home hyroponic and commercial gardeners) several peer reviewed papers have studied the effect of hypochlorite ions on different plants and at different levels of concentration. In general, it has been found that concentrations of hypochlorite of 5.5 ppm offer good protection agains microorganisms without affecting the crop qualities.

If you do not have any industrial grade hypochlorite you can still achieve this concentration by applying 0.1mL of Clorox (check that it is less than 6% hypochlorite, usually 5.25%) per liter of nutrient solution. This can be easily measured and applied for small systems with the aid of a 1mL syringe as the ones diabetes patiens use for insulin (these syringes can be easily purchased at any pharmacy). Remember to try this with a small batch of plants before applying it over your whole garden to ensure compatibility with your particular nutrient solution.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Preparing Hydroponics Nutrient Solutions, From Concentrations to Weights

In a previous post, I explained how concentrations are given in hydroponic gardening and what they actually mean. For example, I exemplified that 200 ppm of N equals a solution which contains 200 mg per liter of nitrogen although the form in which nitrogen is present is not described by the concentration data. In this post, I intend to explain how nutrient concentrations can be translated adequately to a mass weight of a certain salt that will be the actual source of the nutrient.

Let us start by supposing that you have a certain solution recipe given in concentration data, for example, the solution demands 200 ppm N and 700 ppm K (this is just an example as 700 ppm of K is too high for any hydroponic nutrient solution). This means that the solution requires 200 mg per liter of nitrogen and 700 mg per liter of potassium. Our mission now is to translate this concentration information into the actual amount of a given salt that needs to be weight and dissolved.

The first thing we need to do is find a suitable salt or salts that can give us the nutrients we want in the appropiate forms. In this case, we will use potassium nitrate (KNO3) as a source of both nitrogen and potassium. This salt gives the plant nitrogen as NO3(-) ions and potassium as K(+) ions.

Our next step is to figure out how much solution we want to prepare. In this case, let's suppose we want to prepare 100L (around 32 gal) of nutrient solution.

Following this, we must calculate how much much K(+) and how much NO3(-) need to be added in order to achieve the concentrations we desire. Since K(+) contains a single K atom, we need 700 mg/L of K(+) in order to achieve 700 ppm of K, for the nitrate ion (NO3(-)), since it contains more atoms, we need to know how much of the nitrate ion is actually nitrogen. In order to do this we calculate what fraction of nitrogen resides in nitrate by relating their molar mases (you can google nitrate molar mass and nitrogen molar mass to get this values or calculate them using your periodic table) . The calculation would be 14/62 which equals 0.22. This means that 22% of each nitrate ion is nitrogen. If 22% of each nitrate ion is nitrogen then we need 200ppm x(100/22) of nitrate in order to get the concentration of nitrogen we want. The result is that we need 909 mg of nitrate per liter in order to achieve our required concentration of 200 ppm.

Since our salt is KNO3 and not K or NO3 by themselves we need to decide which nutrient we want to fit in an exact manner. For this example I will take NO3(-). Since we want to weight 909mg per liter of NO3(-) we see how much KNO3needs to be weight in order to achieve this amount for 100 liters. For this we use the relationship between the molar mases of nitrate and the salt, potassium nitrate. The equation is 62/101, which equals 0.61, meaning 61% of potassium nitrate is nitrate. Since we want to know how much is 100% knowing that 61% is 909mg per liter we calculate 909ppm x 100/61, which equals 1490mg per liter which needs to be multiplied by 100 in order to find the amount needed for 100 liters of solution. The final result is that 149 g of potassium nitrate are needed in order to achieve a concentration of 200 ppm of N in 100 liters of solution.

Now what happened to the potassium ? Since we added potassium nitrate, we also added potassium with the salt. We now need to calculate the concentration of potassium which we get when we arrive at a concentration of 909 ppm for ntirate. Since we know nitrate is 61%, then potassium must be 39% of the concentration so 1490 ppm x 0.39 equals 581 ppm.

As you can see, we matched our nitrogen requirement perfectly but ofset our potassium requirement by an important amount. This problem is due to the fact that each salt gives two nutrients to a soltuion. Meaning that a good salt combination needs to be used in order for our errors to be reduced when preparing the hydroponic nutrient solutions. This problem can be solved by using the hydroponic nutrient solution calculator I described in an earlier post, however, it is important to know how the calculator works in order to understand its possible errors.

As you can see, preparing nutrient solutions and turning concentrations into weights can be a little bit daunting at first but with practice and the aid of calculator tools, the preparation of custom hydroponic solutions becomes very easy and paves the way towards major improvements for any commercial or hobbyst hydroponic gardener.

Describing Concentration in Hydroponics

Most amateur growers, both hobby and commercial, who do not have a chemical knowledge background are most of the time stunned by the amount of chemistry involved in hydroponic cultivation. One of the things that proves to be the most difficult for this new comers is the understanding and description of nutrient concentrations.

Concentration, to start, is just a way of expressing the amount of something inside something else. In hydroponics, we are interested in expressing the amount of nutrients per amount of nutrient solution. To do this, we use several tools available in chemistry.

In general, concentrations in hydroponics are either expressed as moles of nutrient per liter of solution or as milligrams of nutrient per liter of solutions. The first unit is called molarity while the second unit is generally referred to as ppm (parts per million). This means that a solution containing 12 ppm of Nitrogen contains 12mg of nitrogen per liter of solution and a solution containing nitrogen in a 0.001M concentrations contains 0.001 moles of nitrogen per liter of solution. The first form of concentration (ppm) is often used in hydroponics while the second (M) is used in hydroponics only in research papers and such.

In practice, the use of concentrations in ppm makes preparation a little bit easier as the leap from concentration to mass becomes easier if the unit of measurement inside the unit belongs to mass. Since the ppm unit can be translated as (mg/L) going to the mass of salt required is easier than with molarity (although not by much).

Another advantage that we come across when using ppm as a main unit of concentration measurement in hydroponics is that the numbers are likable. We, humans, tend to like numbers between 0 and 1000, so concentrations of 120 ppm, 250 ppm and such, seem much easier to grasp than their equivalents in molarity which would be 0.0012 M, 0.00023 M or the like.

In an article to be written soon, I intend to describe how to do the leap from this concentration measurements onto the mass of salt that is needed to weight in order to achieve the desired concentration inside a hydroponic solution. So stay tuned to know a little bit more about the science of hydroponic nutrient solution making !

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Nitrogen Fertilization in Hydroponics

It is a common mistake in hydroponic gardening to assume that the chemical forms of nitrogen that can be used in hydroponics are the same that can be used in regular soil gardening. Don't get me wrong, plants in soil and plants in hydroponic media use the exact same chemical forms of nitrogen as nutrients, what changes dramatically from hydroponics to soil gardening is the environment in which the plant is.

Let us talk about the available forms of nitrogen first. Plants absorb nitrogen either as NO3(-) (nitrate) or NH4(+)(ammonium) ions. Both of these ions supply nitrogen to the plant but they have dramatic differences inside the plant's metabolic pathways. Nitrate is absorbed by the plant slowly and provides the materials needed for the synthesis of amino acids and other structures while ammonia is absorbed rapidly and causes immediate plant toxicity if present in highly enough concentrations.

This is the main difference between soil and hydroponic gardening. In hydroponics, most of the nitrogen must be supplied as NO3(-) because the hydroponic media allows ammonium ions to become toxic exceedingly fast. For example, hydroponic plants can withstand concentrations of nitrogen (as nitrate) up to about 250 ppm while concentrations of nitrogen as ammonium are only withstood up until about 30 ppm. This is the reason why urea cannot be used as a nutrient salt in hydroponic gardening to supply all the nitrogen needed by the plants.

So if plants in soil and hydroponic media assimilate the same nutrients, why can plants in soil be fed nitrogen as ammonium but hydroponic plants cannot ? The answer is quiet simple. Bacteria present within the soil are able to efficiently convert ammonium ions into nitrate ions, effectively reducing the amount of ammonium the plant "sees". In fact, plants in soil also absorb nitrate, the only difference is that there are bacteria that can convert ammonium to nitrate, reason why nitrogen can be supplied as ammonium to plants present in soil.

So next time you are searching for a nitrogen nutrient for your hydroponic plants, remember to search for nitrate salts as more than 90% of your total nitrogen source. The most important salts for providing nitrogen as nitrate in hydroponic gardening are potassium nitrate and calcium nitrate. This is important to remember, as using ammonium salts to provide your plant's nitrogen will ultimately kill them in hydroponic media ! (below, an image showing the effects of ammonium fertilizer in hydroponic plants)

Rooting Cuttings Naturally

When gardening, it is sometimes most convenient not to start a plant from seed but to start it from a cutting from another plant. Most of the time, the science of starting cuttings involves the use of root growth hormones and other chemicals which can prove hard to get in some regions of the world and sometimes are not desirable because of their conflicts with some organic food regulations.

Luckily, there are ways to root and get cuttings up to a good start without the use of any root hormones. In order for us to do this, we should first understand the problem and how to solve it.

When a part of a plant is cut, and this part has no root system, the ability of the cutting to get nutrients from it's surroundings becomes minimal. The idea is to maintain the plant's food requirements as low as possible until it develops a healthy root system that can take up nutrients and grow a healthy new plant.

The first step is to place the cutting inside some growing media (remember to cover the cut wound with candle wax in order to prevent possible fungal infections) (either potting soil in soil gardening or perlite, rice husk/ sand in hydroponic gardening) and to place it somewhere where light is scarce. When diminishing the amount of light that reaches the cutting, we slow down photosynthetic processes and therefore the nutrient needs of the plant. The media should be watered daily so that the new root system can be developed.

In order to supply nutrients for the plant, a suitable foliar spray should be applied. A 1/10 strength Hoagland's solution can be used effectively or a suitable organic foliar spray can be used if the desire to achieve organic food certifications is present. Plants are able to feed throw their leaves in some way so the application of nutrients on the leaves or "foliar feeding" is a good tecnique when starting cuttings whose root systems have not developed.

After 3 or 4 days of this process, the plant should be ready for it's reintroduction into normal growing conditions. If you are a hydroponic gardener, start applying a one third strength hydroponic solution on the plant's growing media. In any case, the plant should be brought into light in increasing intervals, first day one hour, second day 2 hours, third day 4 hours, fourth day 8 hours and fifth day left outside.

This whole process should provide an adequate environment and growth for the new cutting's root system with the final gradual adaptation providing enough time for the leaves to readjust to normal lighting conditions. I hope this guide proves useful and all of you enjoy new cutting in your organic or hydroponic gardens.

An Organic, Natural Insecticide for your Garden

Few people have been able to experience the joy of gardening without encountering the nasty problem of insects. Every year, many gardens suffer from the amazing attacks of these small creatures that turn beautiful plant spaces into infested focuses of insect populations.

Up until now, most chemical solutions have acted on insects quiet effectively. In fact, some insecticides are good at removing more than 99.99% of insect populations with a few applications. Chemical insecticides are most of the time harmful for humans but sometimes they can even be safe for us. The main problem with synthetic insecticides is that they affect beneficial insect populations much more dramatically than they do harmful insect populations. The main problem with this is that is effectively diminishes the amount of insects that can predate bad insects and pollinate plants.

Organic (in the sense of natural) insecticides are sometimes good but they are never as effective as available synthetic solutions. In the few studies done about this issue, (mainly dealing with cabbage) all of them have found synthetic solutions much better at controlling insect pests. However, garlic based insecticides have proven effective at controlling insects if not completely removing them from the garden (they also prove almost non fatal to beneficial insect populations).

In order to control your insect populations easily, you can manufacture an insecticide with garlic, vegetable oil and water. Cut 3 cloves of garlic into small pieces and place them in a jar with 200 mL (about a cup) of vegetable oil for two nights (this ensures that the organic non polar molecules present inside garlic are extracted efficiently). Next, mix this with 2/3 of a gallon of water . Agitate strongly before each use. Then your insecticide is ready to be spread on your garden.

Hopefully, if spread adequately over every inch of the plant (including the underside of leaves), the insecticide should prove efficient against most types of bad insects. It also proves effective in being resistant to rain so your plants should remain protected for a prolonged amount of time. Bear in mind that soap or detergents should not be added to improve surface tension properties because this increases the capacity of rain to remove the insecticide effectively.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

FAQ - controlling, adjusting and knowing pH in Hydroponic Gardening

Even though there has been great effort by many people to show hydroponic growing as something that can be done by anyone with little knowledge, it has come to my attention that many novice and commercial gardeners fail because of their inability to properly interpret the chemical phenomena around them. One of the variables that is primordial in hydroponic culture and that is grossly oversimplified in most literature about hydroponic gardening is the treatment of pH. For this reason, I decided to create this pH FAQ post in order to answer (in a basic but scientific way) the questions most people have (or should have anyway) about the science of hydroponics.

What is pH anyway ?

This is the most basic and important question. In layman terms, pH is a measure that tells you if a solution is acid or basic, with values of pH over 7 being basic, and values below 7 being acid. Going a little bit deeper into detail, pH is just the result of applying the operator "p" over H (which symbolizes the concentration of H3O(+) ions within a solution). The operator "p" is just getting the negative decimal logarithm of a number. Since H3O(+) concentrations appear usually in really small magnitudes, like 0,00000001 M, using the logarithm let's us express this in more humanly understandable numbers, like 9.

Why is 7 the neutral pH ?

Seven is the neutral pH value because the concentration of H3O(+) ions in solution is determined by the self dissociation constant of water which is 1x10e-14 and equals the product of H3O(+) and OH(-) concentrations. If H3O(+) concentrations are equal to OH(-) concentrations you have that H3O(+) concentration should equal 1x10e-7 which after applying "p" turns into 7.

Why is pH so important in hydroponics ?

This variable is very important in hydroponic gardening because it determines the form in which nutrients are present inside the solution. In pH values which are too acid or too basic, nutrients assume forms which are different from the ones which plants can assimilate. Therefore, an adequate pH value needs to be maintained in order to ensure that all nutrients are present as the right species.

How do I measure pH correctly ?

First of all, pH meters need to be calibrated prior to each measurement. In order to calibrate any pH instrument, at least two different buffer solutions must be used, one with pH 7.0 and the other with any other known pH value. The measurement should be taken with enough time for the reading on the instrument to stabilize.

How can I correct pH changes ?

Bases or acids can be added to hydroponic solutions in order to increase or decrease the pH value of a solution. Bases and acids should be added as solutions and the amount added must be recorded in order to know how nutrients are changed. For example, if a potassium hydroxide solution is added to increase the pH of a solution, the amount of solution added needs to be recorded in order to know how much potassium was added to the solution (since this is a nutrient). Common acids to lower nutrient solution pH values are nitric acid, phosphoric acid and citric acid. I would recommend the use of citric acid to reduce pH and potassium carbonate to increase pH.

What is the ideal pH value ?

It depends on the specific plant you are cultivating. Most crops grow very well with pH values between 5.5 and 6.0, although there are some plants which require more basic or slightly more acid pH values.

How can I stop pH from changing ?

Please refer to the article I wrote about controlling the pH of your nutrient solution with buffers in order to effectively prevent pH variations inside your hydroponic nutrient solution.

A Natural, Organic Fungicide you can make !

Amongst all the problems faced by hydroponic and soil gardeners, fungus problems remain one of the most challenging. Fungal diseases tend to start rapidly and quickly wipe out entire sections of plants, leaving the grower wondering what happened or if anything could have been done to prevent it.

Sadly, most commercially available fungicides are very toxic to humans and beneficial insects, a reason why their application is detrimental to both the gardeners health and the environment itself. For this reason, many people have started to develop natural and more environmentally friendly solutions towards the problem of fungicide disease prevention.

Most gardener websites from people with limited knowledge about both fungicidal chemistry and biology offer simple solutions that may work with decent results for fungicide prevention and in some rare cases for fungicide disease curing. These remedies also carry some problems of their own, for example, the use of milk containing solutions over plants is proved to encourage the growth of molds and sometimes even stimulate the gathering of ant or similar insect populations. Using alkaline solutions containing bicarbonate or carbonate ions may prove beneficial for prevention but it's effects are readily lost due to rain (which inevitably washes away bicarbonate ions).

In the light of this situation, I have decided to publish the recipe for a fungicide I have been using for sometime, based on US patent No. 6767562 (you can google the patent if you would like to further improve your knowledge on the matter). This mix was designed with both the chemistry and biology of fungus diseases in mind, taking into account that most fungus are sensitive to tannic acid and other chemicals naturally present within certain plant species.

This organic, natural fungicide is quiet simple to make. First, add two thirds of a cup of sage leaves to 1/2 gallon of water and boil it down to 1/3 gallon of water. After this has been done, add 2/3 gallon of red wine (the patent says "fermented grape solution" to make it a little bit harder to guess !") and that's it ! The solution has been proven to prevent and even cure fungus diseases in a variety of crops (as stated in the patent). Now, this information is merely educational and freely available within the patent, if you do not commercialize it you are free from patent infringement. I hope you use and enjoy this excellent organic, natural fungicide that will keep your garden free of those nasty, crop ruining fungus pests !

What are Hydroponic nutrients ? The nature of nutrient salts

When researchers first started to study how plants grow and what plants exactly need to develop, they found out that plant needs are very different from our own. We, as humans, need minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and fats amongst other substances. However, plants seemed to require a small assortment of inorganic substances from which they synthesized a very large variety of organic materials.

Many hydroponic growers are confused by the fact that nutrient needs and nutrient solution compositions are provided in the form of elemental concentration. That is, hydroponic solutions are often described in the form "N 200 ppm", "K 100 ppm", etc. Compositions are expressed as the amount of milligrams present of a given element per liter of solution. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the element is present as a pure substance.

For example, the fact that a hydroponic solution contains 100 ppm of Nitrogen, does not mean that the solution contains nitrogen as elemental nitrogen, that is, N2 gas. This in fact, does not express the form in which nitrogen is present, it may be present either in the form of NO3(-), NH4(+) or other molecules. This has caused some confusion since some people are unaware that hydroponic nutrients are mainly inorganic salts that, when dissolved in water, form ionic substances which are the actual nutrient assimilated by the plant.

It is important then to have a clear mental perspective about the way in which things are expressed and the way in which they really are. For example, you can have a hydroponic solution with 100 ppm of P. That is, a hundred milligrams of phosphorous present per liter of solution but in no way does this express the way in which phosphorous is present within the solution. Phosphorous may actually be located as a large assortment of ions, either H2PO4(-), HPO4(2-) or PO4(3-).

The reason why nutrient solution concentrations are often expressed as mere element concentrations instead of actual available form concentrations is because it is much simpler to think about the sum of all the available forms of a nutrient than each nutrient form by itself. In the light of the previous example, it is much easier to say 100 ppm of P than to state a specific concentration of each ion, given that (in this case) all ions are indistinguishable for the plant.

The really important thing about this is that the grower should have a clear understanding of the nature of hydroponic nutrients. Nutrients are really ions, which are formed by the dissolution of salts in water. So when you go out to buy nutrients for your hydroponic solution you should look out for inorganic salts of the desired elements ! (below, an image that graphically shows ion dissolution)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Keeping the pH of your hydroponic nutrient solution stable

A nightmare for many growers inside the hydroponic industry is the fact that pH adjustments need to be made every now and then to nutrient solutions. In fact, people often adjust the pH of their nutrient solutions several times a week in an effort to keep the values close to those considered ideal. However, most growers are unaware of the basic facts surrounding pH changes and how they can be avoided (please refer to the pH FAQ for more information).

The concentration of H3O(+) ions, which are the ions that determinate pH, changes according to other ions present inside the hydroponic solutions. Since plants take ions (which are charged species), outside of the solution, they cause a charge imbalance which is compensated by the generation of either H3O(+) (if the plant absorbs an ion with positive charge) or an OH(-) (if the plant absorbs an ion with negative charge).

One of the ways in which this pH change can be effectively controlled is by the addition of a specie which balances out this charge and offers reactivity against either OH(-) or H3O(+) species. Such addition of species to a solution in order to offer a chemical equilibrium protection against pH changes is called "buffering". In hydroponics, solutions are most often "buffered" using ammonia, however, we can carry out simulations to see how this two ions act against "acid" or "base" additions and see how the entire hydroponic system reacts to this.

The simulations are carried out using the Maxima software and all the equation systems are generated according to equilibrium equations, mass balance equations and charge balance equations (this is called systematic study of the chemical equilibrium). Concentrations for all the buffering agents were treated as 0.1 mM.

Long story short, the graph below shows the results for my simulations of "acid" or "base" additions using three different buffer agents. The blue line shows the change when citric acid/citrate is used as a buffering agent, the orange line shows when ammonia is used as a buffering agent and the yellow line shows when carbonate/citric acid is used as a buffering agent.
As it can be seen, citrate provides very good buffering capacity towards acid pH values while it's buffering potential towards basic pH values becomes lesser. Ammonia provides almost no buffering potential towards acid pH values while it provides almost the same buffering effect towards basic pH values than citric acid. Note that basic pH buffering seems the same for both buffers because here the effect of the phosphate ions inside the solution becomes more prominent.
However, when carbonate/citrtic acid is used as a buffering agent, it suddenly turns the solution's buffering power towards both acid and basic pH values, extremely high. That said, it should be expected for a solution with this buffering mix to last several times more than a regular solution without needing any pH adjustments. In practice, the preparation of this solution has given me at least three weeks of plant intake without any need for pH adjustment.

Hydroponic Nutrients, Are they Unnatural ?

In today's world, things seem to have started to shift towards a more "natural" look at things. People are starting to reject synthetic and "artificial" things in favor of the more "natural" and "earthy". Well, as a scientist, I have to say that most people have some very bad misconceptions about these definitions and their "evilness" or "goodness". Let us start from the beginning.

What is Natural ?

This is usually defined as something that comes from nature without any fundamental modification caused by humans. Therefore, you could say that blood is natural, algae oil is natural, bones are natural, etc.

What is Unnatural ?

Something unnatural can be defined as not coming or not belonging in nature. You could then say that a bee swimming is unnatural or that a plant growing inside a PVC pipe is unnatural.

What is synthetic ?

Something synthetic can be defined as chemically manufactured by humans from chemically different materials. For example, plastics are synthetic, pure sodium is synthetic, carbon nano tubes are synthetic, etc. Now see that this definition is not exclusive, something can be synthetic but present in nature, like synthetic hormones, synthetic vitamins, etc.

Now which is bad and which is good ?

This is where most people have it wrong. Natural things are good ? Well, that depends, which natural thing. You eat and orange and it's good, you swallow a scorpion and its bad. Both things are natural. Nature produces things that are toxic and lethal, but nature also produces things that are good for you. You cannot judge something to be good just because it belong inside a group, every category has both good and bad things.

Are unnatural things bad ? That depends. You smell a neurotoxin, you are dead, you use a sulfonamide antibiotic when you have an infection and your cured. It all depends on the specific thing your talking about and the specific use your giving it. There is no sense in judging something as being good or bad for the sake of it.

Now, are hydroponic nutrients unnatural ?

No ! Hydroponic nutrients have the exact same chemical form nutrients have in soil. Plants cannot absorb these nutrients if they don't have these specific forms so hydroponic nutrients are indeed natural. They are the exact same molecules that are found in soil. Hydroponic gardening is just a form of manipulation in which plants are given an amount of these nutrients that fits their needs optimally. It differs from their natural conditions in that hydroponic growth conditions are better. The plant gets all it's nutrients in the same form it gets them from the soil without needing to break up organic matter to get them or fighting pathological microorganisms. Indeed, hydroponic gardening has both positive and negative qualities, just like everything else !

Hydroponic Gardening for Small Spaces

People everywhere enjoy the pleasure of growing plants. Most people use their backyards for this purpose, growing ornamental as well as plants used for eating. However, many people around the world don't have a backyard because of space limitations, something which is becoming more common everyday with the growth of world population.

For people who want to grow beautiful flowers, healthy vegetables, herbs and spices in reduced spaces, hydroponic gardening becomes an evermore interesting option.

Hydroponic gardening, which does not use any soil, is ideal for growing many plants. This type of culture has the advantage of not needing any soil and of letting the grower choose the precise composition of the nutrients received by the garden. When this is coupled with a tight space, hydroponic gardening opens up the possibility to grow plants in much higher densities and in much better quality and uniformity than soil based plants.

With living spaces being more populated everyday and commercial soil based vegetables becoming more polluted and damaged, it is evident that the use of currently unused city spaces (such as rooftops) will become very important for the food provisions of the future.

Small hydroponic systems for people with drastic space limitations can be easy to install. From the inside of a closet to a small patio or a window edge, soiless gardening offers the solution to the problem. This systems known as hydroponic grow closets are becoming more and more popular everyday (I will publish a tutorial for building a hydroponic closet soon).

The Hoaglands Solution for Hydroponic Cultivation

This hydroponic nutrient solution was developed by Hoagland and Snyder in 1933 and it's one of the most popular solution compositions for growing plants (in the scientific world at least !). The Hoagland solution provides every nutrient necessary for plant growth being appropriate for the growth of a large variety of plant species. The solution described by Hoagland in 1933 has been modified several times (mainly to add iron chelates and the like, but you can use the salts you normally use for preparing your solutions as long as you append to the concentrations given for each element) but the original concentrations for each element are shown below.

N 210 ppm
K 235 ppm
Ca 200 ppm
P 31 ppm
S 64 ppm
Mg 48 ppm
B 0.5 ppm
Fe 1 to 5 ppm
Mn 0.5 ppm
Zn 0.05 ppm
Cu 0.02 ppm
Mo 0.01 ppm

As you may notice, the Hoaglands solution has a lot of N and K so it is very well suited for the development of large plants like Tomato and Bell Pepper. However, the solution is very good for the growth of plants with lower nutrient demands such as lettuce and aquatic plants with the further dilution of the preparation to 1/4 or 1/5.

Also remember that the amount of iron you use should be in proportion with the amount of phosphate placed inside the solution, when used at higher strength, there exists the possibility of iron precipitation if non adequate chelates are used. If possible, try using DPTA instead of EDTA (which is not so good a chelating agent for hydroponics).

Indoor Hydroponic gardening, the cheap way !

Hydroponic gardening is a great way in which plants can be grown and cultivated with yields far superior to those of traditional soil based culture. However, the last frontier of hydroponics remains being indoor growing. Light, which we take for granted because of the sun, is a crucial factor for plant growth and becomes dramatically diminished or non existent inside our house's or building's interiors.

The solution, of course, is using artificial lighting to grow our crops. Unfortunately, the amount of light needed by plants (which is measured in Lumens) is quiet high. In order to fulfill a plant's light needs, high power consuming artificial lights must be used. In fact, most indoor growers use halide lamps which are in the range of 1000 to 2000 watts of power.

The amount of energy consumed by these growing lights is so huge because most of the energy provided to the lights is wasted as heat and little of this energy becomes usable to the plant as light. Other problems also arise because of the excess heat eliminated by this high-powered illumination devices.

The solution for this problem is actually very simple. The use of LEDs (light emitting diodes) for hydroponic growth has become popular because of their low energy consumption (almost 20 times less than regular growing lights). They are simple to install and provide all the necessary wavelengths your plants need for adequate growth. For instance, two tomato plants can be grown with as little as 50 W of growing LEDs while this same tomatoes would consume in excess of 1200 W with traditional lighting. If you are wondering where these lights can be purchased, just search ebay for "growing LED's" and a bunch of sellers that offer these products will come up.

Hydroponic Floating System for Lettuce Production

Lettuce is one of the most common vegetables produced in hydroponics. It is amongst the first 3 vegetables produced in hydroponic crops around the world with tomato and bell peppers. Most lettuce production systems are designed around two ideas, either the NFT (nutrient flow technique) system or the floating raft system. The later system is of particular interest because it is highly economical and can produce bast volumes of hydroponic lettuce.

One of the main problems with raft systems is that the fact that the nutrient solution is constantly stagnant demands the use of pumps to circulate water and generate significant aeration. Without this precious oxygen reaching the plant's roots, floating raft systems experience high loses of yields in the form of dry weight, nutrients, etc.

Nonetheless, raft systems can be improved dramatically in order to avoid the recirculation of solution and aeration of the roots by mechanical means. This is done in an exceedingly simple way, by placing the raft not directly above the hydroponic solution but a few centimeters above from the solution itself.

The results are incredible. Without any mechanical aeration or movement, this hydroponic system achieves dry weights superior to any floating raft system published in peer reviewed literature. This research was done by horticulturist B. A. Kratky and was published in the year 2005.

So if you are searching for a cheap hydroponic system which can offer you lettuce in high yields with no power usage, this is precisely the way to go. I will publish a post soon showing how this can be done and how you too can enjoy this great system for lettuce cultivation.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hydroponic Nutrient Solution Toxicity

It has become a common practice for many hydroponic enthusiasts, hobbyists and even commercial growers to dispose of the nutrient solutions they have that "are not adequate anymore" by throwing them down the drain. Most of them are not aware than hydroponic solutions are environmentally contaminating.

Hydroponic solutions contain all the basic nutrients necessary for the development of photosynthetic organism. This of course, means that hydroponic solutions are the ideal source of nutrients for algae growth. When they are disposed of down the drain, the solutions cause algae blooms which are terrible for the environment because when algae populations dye massively, they deprive water of oxygen and cause the death of aquatic organism.

The solution ? It is actually very simple. Have a hydroponic growing container in which plants that you "don't care for" are grown. For example, have a hydroponic growing container in which grass, weeds or other type of "low nutrient requirement" plants are grown. This way, when your hydroponic crop has a solution it can no longer use, pour that solution into your other hydroponic container. Now leave the solution for those plants to take care off for two months. Once this happens, the solution should be very depleted of nutrients and unable to cause any algae bloom of importance.

Even better, the "waste solution" container, can have plants you can use. For example, you can cultivate herbs with low nutrient requirements that are for indoor use and have them as the "byproducts" of your main hydroponic system. It is also excellent for growing grass for any cattle or horses you may have. (below a picture of papyrus, a plant that naturally deals with solutions with low nutrient concentrations)

Preparing a Hydroponic Nutrient Solution

Every hydroponic grower should know how to prepare his or her own solution in order to save money and improve crop results. Preparing a nutrient solution is an exact science involving some basic chemical knowledge that is in fact, not so hard to do. One of the main problems in preparing hydroponics solutions (besides knowing the formulation) is knowing how much to weight of each available nutrient salt in order to achieve the desired concentrations.

In order to solve this problem, you can use the hydroponic nutrient calculator I created called Hydroponic Buddy. The hydroponic calculator is located here.

It is fairly easy to use, the calculator includes links to tutorials you can find within this blog which will tell you how to do many things, from the calculation of simple formulations to the creation of A+B+C concentrated solutions, the copying of commercial nutrients, etc.

And that's it ! Press the calculate button and you'll be shown the final concentration results coupled with the amount of grams you should weight of each salt in order to obtain the concentration results you desire. Now you just need to go to your local supplier and buy each one of the salts in order to prepare your hydroponic solution. This let's you experiment with different nutrient concentrations as well as with recommended and optimum nutrient concentrations for different plant species.

FAQ - Electrical Conductivity (EC) in Hydroponics

Amongst one of the few properties that hydroponic growers use to control their nutrient solutions is electrical conductivity (EC). The main problem with the measurement of the EC, is that few growers really understand it's meaning and more often than not, grossly overestimate the amount of information it can give them. Therefore, I decided to create this FAQ in order to better explain electrical conductivity, it's limitations and it's uses.

So, what is electrical conductivity ?

Electrical conductivity measures the easiness in which an electrical charge can flow through a certain length of a certain material. It is usually measured in S/cm which just means that the material has a certain conductance in S (Siemens) per centimeter. A material with a higher electrical conductivity let's charge flow more swiftly (it offers less resistance to the movement of charge).

Why is this useful in hydroponics ?

It is useful in hydroponics because the conductivity of a solution is directly proportional to the amount of salts (in this case, the salts are our nutrients) dissolved inside it; so, if a solution has more salts dissolved, it has a higher conductivity. Therefore, measuring EC can give you an idea of how many nutrients are left in your solution.

What are the limitations of EC in hydroponics ?

The first limitation arises because of the chemical character of the property we are measuring. Since EC is proportional to the amount of dissolved salts in each solution, you could suppose that measuring EC would always allow you to calculate nutrient concentrations within your nutrient solution. This is wrong ! Salts increase conductivity but each different ion present inside the solution has a different specific conductivity (they contribute differently to the overall EC) so you could in fact be deceived because you could just have a small amount of an ion that conducts a lot or too much of an ion with a small conductivity. Of paramount importance are the ions that determine pH which have conductivities hundreds of times larger than other ions.

What are some common mistakes when measuring EC ?

Given the above mentioned conditions, EC should always be measured at a constant pH. An EC measured at pH 5 and an EC measured at a pH of 7 will be completely different given that the ions which determine pH have a very large effect on the EC value. Another important fact is that the conductimeter should be calibrated using a solution of known conductivity. If it is not, comparison between measurements can be meaningless.

What is EC useful for ?

The electrical conductivity can tell you if your solution has lost nutrients or water due to evaporation, if measurements are done at the exact same pH value. The EC should be measured when the solution is prepared and three times each day after then. If your solution's EC becomes too high, you can add water to lower it to the original value. If EC becomes too low (70% of original value), you should not add nutrients. This means that your solution has been substantially changed in composition by the plant and it needs to be disposed off and a fresh one needs to be prepared.

Why can't I add nutrients to a solution with low EC ?

You cannot do this because you don't know which nutrients the plant took up. By adding nutrients to the solution you could be putting too much or too little of any given compound. Of course, you could always do some fancy atomic emission analysis to know the exact ionic composition of the solution but the safest (cheapest and easiest) thing would be to adequately dispose of your nutrient solution and start a fresh batch.

Hydroponic Nutrient Solutions for Lettuce

Most hobby and some commercial hydroponic growers often get their nutrient solutions from stores that sell "generic" hydroponic nutrients. In some cases, this standard solutions are "compensated" with the aid of some additional help coming from additive solutions that are formulated to add certain qualities that the original standard solution is missing.

Well, the sad thing here is that by not preparing his or her own nutrient solution, the hydroponic grower is wasting his main edge in soiless culture. The composition of the nutrient solution.

In the particular case of lettuce, different nutrient solution compositions have varying effects on the plant, this, of course, because the particular chemistry of your nutrient solution must be fitted for your plant in order to achieve optimum results. The use of generic solutions to feed your plants will more often than not end with some loss in product quality (dry weight, nutrient content, marketability, etc).

In a peer reviewed study published in 2004, M.S. Karimaei et al [1] compared different nutrient solutions for lettuce cultivation under hydroponic conditions. Amongst their conclusions, was that the Hoagland solution offers the best conditions for lettuce cultivation amongst the solutions they tested. They also found some important factors such as the electrical conductivity being inversely correlated to dry weight and K concentration. This shows the utmost importance that using the correct and not the "generic" nutrient solution has on your lettuce growing potential.


Hydrogen Peroxide in Germination

As I published earlier, the use of hydrogen peroxide is extensively known in hydroponic cultivation as a disinfectant. However, this little molecule has far more uses and some of them also pertain to plant grow. For example, as it was discussed in the fourth International Symposium on Seed, Transplant and Stand Establishment of Horticultural Crops; Translating Seed and Seedling Physiology into Technology in February 2008, the use of hydrogen peroxide has been studied as an agent to aid the germination of seed.

Indeed, the chemical qualities of hydrogen peroxide make it ideal for the replacement of the stratification of certain seeds. In a peer reviewed article published about the use of hydrogen peroxide for the germination of eastern gamagrass seeds, the authors discovered that the use of hydrogen peroxide 15% for 18 hours indeed helps the seeds germinate by "dissolving" the outer coat of the seeds and therefore facilitating water's access to the seeds embryo.

In fact, hydrogen peroxide is so effective at this, that the above mentioned treatment substitutes a four week period of stratification at 4°C. The seed containing cupules treated with Hydrogen peroxide effectively germinated after only 2 weeks, when such a time was impossible before the treatment. The article mentions that hydrogen peroxide was the "most effective" mean of breaking up seed dormancy and effectively carry out germination. (Below a picture of eastern gamagrass)

Using Hydrogen Peroxide in Hydroponic Crops

As we all know, hydroponic growers face the challenge of maintaining pure and innocuous solutions that should be free of any type of bacteria, algae or any other microorganism. The growth of any of these organisms inside the nutrient solution carries with it the imminent possibility of plant disease as well as an increased risk of malnutrition and of course, nutrient deficiencies.
Algae, in particular, are one of the most troublesome organisms as they are found everywhere and they grow ecstatically inside a hydroponic nutrient solution (after all, they are photosynthetic organisms !). These little creatures love to colonize plant roots (depriving them of food) and also consume a large proportion of the nutrients present inside a hydroponic solution.
So what should a concerned grower do about the incredible problem of algae growth ? Nature has given us part of the answer in the form of a powerful oxidant called hydrogen peroxide. This molecule, whose formula is basically H2O2 decomposes forming molecular oxygen and water. It also reacts with organic matter in a redox reaction to oxidize it. In other words, algae and hydrogen peroxide cannot coexist.
However, there is an important problem that arises when using hydrogen peroxide. It does not discriminate between roots and algae so using more than the optimum amount leads to plant root death caused by the same quality that kills algae. So what is this optimum amount ?
I would love to show you a peer reviewed article that studied this issue but, as a matter of fact, no one has actually studied the levels at which these conditions are right at a scientific level. Most of what we know is currently empirical. Nonetheless, I have - from personal experience- verified that the application of 1mL of hydrogen peroxide (3% v/v) per liter of nutrient solution every week does seem to prevent algae and does not damage plant roots.