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Hydroponics is a method of growing vibrant and healthy plants in soilless media by supplying their nutritional needs directly through an optimized water-based solution. Creating your own hydroponic nutrient mix at home gives you greater control over the ingredients and ratios, while also saving money compared to buying pre-made solutions.

With just a few simple components that can be found in gardening stores or online, you can craft a customized hydroponic formula designed specifically for your plants and system.

Hand holding hydroponic coriander plant.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

What Nutrients Are Used In Hydroponics?

Hydroponic systems provide plants with everything they need to thrive in a soilless solution. But what exactly are the ingredients that make up these specialized hydroponic nutrient solutions? By understanding the specific mineral elements plants require, you can learn to mix customized hydroponic nutrients tailored to your plant’s needs.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the primary nutrients required in relatively large amounts to sustain plant growth and development. These essential elements are taken up from hydroponic nutrient solutions in the following proportions:

1. Nitrogen

The most important nutrient in hydroponics. It drives vegetative growth and leafy green development. Nitrogen is mobile in plants, and a deficiency quickly shows in chlorosis and stunted growth. Common nitrogen sources in hydroponics include calcium nitrate, potassium nitrate, and ammonium nitrate.

2. Phosphorus

It supports root growth, flowering, and fruit production. As a component of Adenosine TriPhosphate and phospholipids in cell membranes, it aids in energy transfer. Deficiencies appear as reduced growth and purpling of older leaves. Mono potassium phosphate and phosphoric acid provide soluble phosphorus in hydroponics.

3. Potassium

Regulates water movement in plants, enzyme activation, and nutrient transportation. It also increases disease resistance. Potassium deficiency causes marginal leaf necrosis, and high susceptibility to stresses. Potassium nitrate, potassium sulfate, and mono potassium phosphate are standard potassium fertilizers.

4. Calcium

Strengthens cell walls, promotes stress tolerance, and regulates enzymatic and hormonal processes. Common deficiency signs are stunted roots and tip burn on leaves. Calcium nitrate is the predominant calcium source used in hydroponic fertilizer formulas.

5. Sulfur

It is present in many proteins and vitamins in plants. It helps with enzyme activation, protein synthesis, and nitrogen metabolism. Deficiencies present as overall chlorosis and slow growth. Sulfur is available in sulfates of magnesium, potassium, and manganese.

6. Magnesium

Helps in enzyme reactions, Phosphate Solubilizing Bacteria production, and stability of cell membranes and ribosomes. Deficiencies result in interveinal chlorosis and reddish hues. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), magnesium nitrate, and magnesium chelates provide magnesium.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients or trace minerals are just as essential for plant growth and health but are only needed in very small amounts. The important micronutrients utilized in hydroponics include:

1. Zinc

Container of zinc sulphate (ZnSO4) in hand. A white crystalline compound used in various industrial applications such as fertiliser production and animal feed supplements.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

It is important for enzyme and chlorophyll formation, as well as the metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins. Deficiencies present as smaller leaves and inter veinal chlorosis. Zinc sulfate and chelates prevent deficiencies in hydroponic systems.

2. Copper 

Helps in photosynthesis, respiration, and reproductive growth. Deficiency signs are rare but include wilting, distortion, and chlorosis. Copper sulphate and copper chelates provide bioavailable copper.

3. Boron

It plays a role in cell wall and membrane structure, calcium uptake, and hormone movement. Deficiencies result in brittle leaves, bud death, and malformed growth. Soluble borates like boric acid and sodium borate supply boron.

4. Molybdenum

It is important for nitrogen fixation and nitrate assimilation. Deficiencies are uncommon but cause marginal yellowing of leaves. Sodium molybdate and ammonium molybdate are sources for hydroponics.

5. Iron

It helps in chlorophyll synthesis and is essential for photosynthesis. Deficiencies present as inter veinal chlorosis. Iron chelates are commonly used in hydroponics to keep iron soluble and prevent deficiencies.

6. Manganese

Involved in enzyme activation, metabolism, and photosynthetic oxygen production. Deficiency symptoms include inter veinal chlorosis, which is similar to iron. Manganese sulfate, chelates, and manganese nitrate are common sources.

Why Make Homemade Hydroponic Nutrient Solutions

Cost Savings

Buying individual dry nutrient salts and acids in bulk quantities can significantly reduce the costs compared to buying pre-mixed liquid nutrients. While premade formulas are convenient, the manufacturer markup can be substantial. Mixing your own allows much more flexibility in finding the most affordable sources for each component. With a small initial investment in materials, homemade nutrient solutions can drastically cut the ongoing costs of hydroponic gardening.

Customization

Pre-blended hydroponic fertilizers are meant for general use, while mixing your own allows you to customize and tweak formulas tailored to your specific plants and system. You can adjust nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium ratios to maximize growth for leafy greens versus fruiting plants. The concentrations can be modified for seedlings versus mature plants. Adding more or less of certain elements like magnesium or calcium is easier with homemade solutions. It also allows modifying EC, pH and other parameters as needed over time rather than being stuck with generalized off-the-shelf products.

Ingredient Quality

Purchasing laboratory or agricultural grade nutrient salts from reputable suppliers gives you greater control over purity and quality. Some commercial nutrient brands use lower purity ingredients or fillers to reduce costs. With homemade nutrients, you know exactly what goes into your formula. High purity salts dissolve cleanly and give accuracy in coming up with optimized solutions.

Concentration Control

Pre-mixed fertilizers have a fixed concentration, while homemade allow you to mix concentrates tailored to your specific reservoir size, plant types, and growth phases. For small hydroponic systems, buying gallons of premade dilute nutrients is unnecessary and wasteful. Concentrated solutions also allow flexibility in diluting to lower concentrations for seedlings or less demanding crops.

Improved Learning

Creating your own hydroponic nutrients from scratch provides an invaluable educational experience. You gain first-hand understanding of which mineral elements are essential for plants and how to provide them in optimal ratios. Following customized nutrient recipes teaches you how to vary concentrations based on plant needs. The experience allows growers to become experts at plant nutrition and troubleshooting deficiencies.

Avoidance of Excess Additives

Some premade hydroponic nutrient lines contain unnecessary additives like excessive surfactants, dyes, emulsifiers, and preservatives. Formulating your own solutions allows you to avoid these extras, which can potentially cause issues in some systems. It also gives you full control over limiting additives to only those that are beneficial.

Increased Food Safety

With homemade nutrients made from high-purity salts, clean water, and good hygiene, you can ensure your hydroponic system stays free of contaminants. This allows the production of ultra-clean fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which is especially important for those with edible gardens.

Reliable Supply

Once you know how to assemble your own proven hydroponic nutrient mixes, you don’t have to worry about store shelves being out of your favorite brand. The raw ingredients are easily sourced online or at most hydroponic shops. You can always have the materials to make your customized formulas.

Making Hydroponic Solution At Home

1. Source For The Nutrients

Thoroughly research and select reputable suppliers of laboratory or agricultural grade nutrient salts specifically intended for hydroponic use. Lower grade technical salts may contain excessive contaminants. For major macronutrients, purchase individual salts like calcium nitrate, potassium nitrate, mono potassium phosphate etc. based on your preferred recipe.

Micronutrients like iron, manganese, zinc and others typically come pre-mixed in concentrated chelated forms for stability and availability. Only buy enough to mix a month’s worth of stock solution to ensure freshness. Check expiration dates if purchasing large quantities. Ensure you have all necessary macro and micronutrient components accounted for before mixing to prevent imbalances.

2. Use Clean Water

Hyroponic
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

To begin mixing your hydroponic nutrients, use purified water, such as reverse osmosis, deionized, or distilled water, free of contaminants. Hard water high in minerals can negatively interact with nutrients, causing precipitation or availability issues.

If purity is uncertain, do a quality water test beforehand. Problematic ions like sodium and chloride should be near zero for mixing nutrients. Always start with fresh water. Allowing water to collect can cause chemical interactions, altering its properties.

3. Mix The Salts With Water

When mixing the salts with water, add each dry or liquid nutrient source one at a time according to your selected recipe into a mixing container, stirring well after each addition. Use an accurate gram scale and clean tools to measure powders carefully to avoid overdosing certain elements. Mix in warm but not hot water to increase the dissolution rate of certain salts as needed, then allow the solution to cool before proceeding.

Ensure each nutrient is fully dissolved before adding the next to prevent precipitates from forming that can clog irrigation. Go slowly and be patient – some salts dissolve fully, even with agitation. Proceeding too quickly can impact results.

4. Add Micronutrients

After fully dissolving all the major macronutrients according to your proportions, add pre-mixed micronutrient solutions like iron chelate or zinc supplement. Mix thoroughly to distribute trace elements evenly throughout the solution. Micronutrients are only required in small amounts, so uniform mixing prevents deficiencies from uneven concentrations.

5. Adjust The Ph Levels

After the first mixing, test your hydroponic nutrient solution’s pH and adjust it up or down as needed into the optimal range for your specific crops using pH-adjusting products. Most plants grow best within a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 for proper nutrient availability.

However, some crops have slightly different ideal pH levels. Keeping the nutrient solution in the correct pH zone prevents issues with nutrient lockouts and disorders related to pH changes.

6. Adjust EC Level

Once your nutrients are blended and pH adjusted, measure the electrical conductivity (EC) using a meter and modify it if needed to achieve your target EC. Depending on the crop and growth stage, an EC between 1.0 and 2.5 mS/cm is recommended for most hydroponic plants.

Seedlings and greens prefer lower EC solutions, while fruiting plants need higher strengths. Compare EC against published ranges for your species. Dilute or concentrate as required to reach optimal EC.

Purity Wamoyi
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Purity Wamoyi is a horticulturist. She studied BSc Horticulture at the University of Nairobi. She has a passion for agriculture driven by her urge to be a champion and ambassador in fighting for food security.She believes that the world would be a better place if we did the little things that bring peace and uphold humanity. During her free time, Purity loves watching soccer and is a huge ardent Chelsea fan.

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