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What goes on in your plant pot – do you actually know? Some people dedicate their entire life to studying this, like our own technical advisor Bill Sutherland of Growing Edge Technologies. To make it easier for you, here are a few words from Bill explaining how plants live and how you can achieve higher yields.

How can we make a plant happier and make it grow faster? Simply put, by allowing the plant to grow as naturally as possible.

Plants are much more complex than first thought of. They are the only living or non-living entity capable of extracting raw mineral elements from a growing medium, utilising them for their own growth and then providing back these same minerals in a form that all mammals can consume and receive life energy from. Where would you get your nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, calcium or any other minerals from, other than from plants? Not from a pill made up of plant food elements; very little of a vitamin pill can be absorbed into your body. So we better take good care of our plants. Now, how can we make a plant happier and make it grow faster? Simply put, by allowing the plant to grow as naturally as possible. But, is this a question of organics or chemistry?

Managing the precise quantity of chemicals in a bottle of plant feed is much easier than from other sources.

Plants do not feed on organic material; they feed on raw mineral elements from a water solution consisting of thirteen elements from the periodic table. In order for a plant to feed, organic matter must be broken down by bacteria, bugs, moulds and mycelium into the inorganic elements which they’re composed of. This is the process of decomposition and the resultant inorganic chemicals are more commonly known in Hydroculture, as well as many other fields, as fertilizer salts. Because plants feed on base chemicals, where those chemicals are derived from largely doesn’t make a difference to the plant itself, whether it’s the back end of an animal, decomposed plant matter or a bottle of chemical fertilizer salts. Of course, managing the precise quantity of chemicals in a bottle of plant feed is much easier than from other sources. What does make the difference in your plant food of choice is the way it is used.

Soils utilized by organic farming methods build up a base load of minerals over the years.

Fertilizer salts are very concentrated and don’t require breaking down. They are in a form that is immediately available to plants, so be careful not to go overboard when making your measurements for application. Organic plant foods are very forgiving as they require breaking down before they are actually available to plants. As such, organic matter is the obvious choice for inexperienced growers, but using fertilizer salts will usually result in larger yields than the organic option; having said that, soils utilized by organic farming methods build up a base load of minerals over the years, and as such can offer similarly sized crop yields over time. None the less, fertilizer salts usually offer the best chance of bigger yields for containerized growing methods.

bigger yields, plant feed, chemicals, minerals

 

There are ninety-two natural mineral elements on the Periodic table (click to enlarge) consisting of Atoms, Lanthanides, Actinides and Halogens. Sixty of these elements have been found in various plant tissues. An atom cannot be destroyed or made, unless a reactor that humans have built destroys or creates a new element. We, at present, only understand sixteen of these mineral elements and are beginning to understand how they react within plants. What we are concerned with here are the sixteen natural mineral elements that plants need for essential growth; remove one of these elements and a plant or plants will die. Without these sixteen elements, plants do not have the ability to complete their life cycle because none of the elements can make up for the lack of another. The plant can neither create another element to be more available; nor is it an essential enzyme producer. Silicon (Si), nickel (Ni), aluminium (Al), cobalt (Co), vanadium (V), selenium (Se) and platinum (Pt) are some of these sixty elements whose function within plants we are starting to understand better, yet they are not needed in nutrient solutions to complete the life cycle.

It’s best to keep pH between 5.5 and 6.5 as more mineral elements are readily available.

Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and zinc are all mobile elements. Mobile elements are able to translocate from their original site of deposition to new growing points within the plant; these elements will show their deficiency on older leaves first. Calcium, iron, sulphur, boron, copper and manganese are all non-mobile elements. Non-mobile elements cannot translocate from their original site of deposition to new growth, so when there are not enough of these mineral elements available, deficiency will occur in newer growth first. Plants tolerate a pH of 4.5 to about 8.5 but will grow if the pH is kept between pH 5 to pH 7.5. It’s best to keep pH between 5.5 and 6.5 as more mineral elements are readily available. Phosphorus, iron, manganese, zinc and molybdenum will lose their availability at pH 7.

Plants will lower the pH of the growing medium to uncomfortable levels in order to repel pests.

Now it gets interesting! Take a look below the growing medium and above it. We now understand that plants have natural defence mechanisms above the soil. Plants will secrete pheromones, sending signals through smell to certain bugs who consume other bugs, advertising that there is a lot to munch on. Below the growing medium, plants secrete acids via the root system to increase the availability of the thirteen elements, as well as for defence. Defence from what? All living things enjoy a certain pH zone for comfort. Plants will lower the pH of the growing medium to uncomfortable levels in order to repel pests, whether these pests are bugs or pathogens. Now that we understand the importance of pH swings it is easy to read a plant. The pH going up in value is an indication that plants are happy and feeding, pH value going down from the set pH value indicates that plants are under attack from pathogens or bugs. With bugs, pH value is easier to control as bugs will quickly look for more suitable pH zones. But if the pH constantly drops then it is pathogens that have started to make the plant sick. We must take action to make sure that the pathogens are being reduced in numbers; time to inoculate the growing medium with good bacteria in order to kill off the deadly pathogens.

There is another reason that plants adjust the growing medium pH; namely to bring each mineral element to their desired pH value thereby assisting the uptake of mineral elements. It is very important to keep the growing medium surrounding the roots. If the roots are layered on top of each other the plant’s chemistry will be adjusting the pH of each root hair, not the elements. If there are growing medium particles in between root hairs then the mineral elements will be adjusted, allowing more minerals into plants. When growing in hydroponics you might see a higher fluctuation in pH value. This is expected as the plants are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, expanding roots (minimally) in search of those ideal plant foods. And thus the pH will swing as your plants grow!

 

This article was originally published in Issue 003 of HYDROMAG (January – February 2013).

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