What are the optimum nutrient levels for hydroponic edible crops?

Trials with organic and conventional fertilizers in hydroponic production systems are showing it’s possible to produce edible crops at much lower nutrient levels.

How much different is it growing edible crops organically than it is with conventional production inputs? Hort Americas special projects manager Tyler Baras is studying the differences in trying to grow organically versus using conventional production methods.

Baras has been doing organic production research in a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Dallas, Texas, using four deep water culture ponds and a nutrient film technique system. The ponds measure 4-foot by 8-foot and are 10 inches deep. Baras said the ponds are smaller than what would be found in many commercial greenhouse operations, but said the pond size is common in vertical farm setups. Baras has been trialing commercial organic fertilizers including Pre-Empt and an experimental organic fertilizer. The organic fertilizers are being compared with crops grown with Hort Americas 9-7-37 hydroponic fertilizer with calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate. All of the production systems have also been incorporated with the commercial microbial inoculant TerraBella. Crops being grown in the production systems include Italian basil, green butterhead and red butterhead lettuce.

Trials in Hort Americas demonstration greenhouse are comparing the growth of butterhead lettuce and Italian basil using organic and conventional fertilizers in hydroponic production systems.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras

Rethinking optimum nutrient levels

Baras said the deep water culture production results he has gotten with Pre-Empt organic fertilizer have been comparable to the crops grown with the conventional Hort Americas hydroponic fertilizer.

“With Pre-Empt we have been able to match the growth rates of the conventional salt fertilizer,” Baras said. “As a result of the growth rates we have gotten with the organic fertilizer, we have started to question the nutrient recipes that have been recommended for hydroponic edible crop production. Many of the traditional recipes for hydroponic production have a target level of 200 parts per million nitrogen. But we are seeing the same growth rates in the organic fertilizer ponds with 10 ppm nitrogen as the 200 ppm nitrogen conventional fertilizer pond.”

Baras said the electrical conductivity level in the organic fertilizer ponds has been as a low as 0.5 compared to 2.5 in the conventional fertilizer pond and the crops are coming out nearly identical in terms of production time and plant weight.

One difference between the organic- and conventional-grown crops is the time in propagation.

“The crops are finishing at the same time from transplant to harvest time, but we are keeping the plants an extra week in the seedling stage for the organic fertilizer,” Baras said. “We are running the seedlings for two weeks with the conventional fertilizer and about three weeks with the organic fertilizers.

“The organic plugs are started a week earlier, but they are transplanted on the same day as the conventional plugs. We want the roots coming out of the side of the plugs before we transplant them into the ponds. The seedlings are fairly similar in size when they are transplanted into the ponds.”

Plugs grown in organic substrates and fed with an organic fertilizer remain on the propagation bench one week longer than plugs receiving conventional fertilizer to ensure good root growth.

Once the organic and conventional plugs are placed into the ponds, they both spend the same amount of time there until the crops finish.

“The plants are coming out of the ponds with nearly identical weights,” Baras said. “Overall the seed to harvest time is faster with the conventional fertilizer, but that it is because we are able to transplant the plugs into the pond faster because the roots are coming out of the plugs sooner.”

Baras said the plants grown with the organic fertilizers have also shown they can be grown with lower levels of other nutrients. For example, with the conventional fertilizer the nutrient solution may contain 200 ppm potassium and the level is only 12 ppm with the organic fertilizers.

“Aquaponic growers have seen similar situations,” he said. “Some aquaponic growers may be running an EC of 0.7 with a relatively low nutrient level, but they are still seeing good growth.

We are seeing that as well with the organic fertilizers. There are low nutrient levels in the solution, but the crops are coming out the same and the leaf tissue analysis is nearly the same as well.

“For our trials the macronutrient uptake for the plants, even when they are grown in a low fertilizer concentration like 0.5 EC, they are still able to pull what they need out of the solution. Leaf sample analyses of butterhead lettuce and Italian basil grown in 0.5 EC organic fertilizer vs. 2.5 EC conventional fertilizer, most of the macronutrient levels in the leaves are very similar. It appears the plants are doing a good job of regulating the nutrient uptake to get what they need.”

 

Aging fertilizer solutions

Baras said letting the organic fertilizer solutions age in the ponds may have an impact on the availability of nutrients for some crops. The aging of the fertilizer solutions also has an impact on increasing the microbial population.

“We have definitely seen some differences in plant growth,” he said. “Our first crops of butterhead lettuce and basil did very well with Pre-Empt organic fertilizer. However, one of the other organic fertilizers we trialed grew a quality first crop of lettuce, but not the best looking basil. As we continued the trial with our second and third crops, the basil grown with the other organic fertilizer started doing much better. It appears the organic solutions in the ponds may need to age until the nutrients reach adequate levels.

“This is what we were seeing in a 9-month old Pre-Empt pond vs. a 2-month old Pre-Empt pond. A lot of nutrients have accumulated in the 9-month pond and are approaching the recommended nutrient levels that would be found in a conventional fertilizer system. Organic fertilizers like Pre-Empt don’t have a lot of magnesium in them. However, when the fertilizer is run in a pond system for 9 months the magnesium level rises and approaches what would be considered a conventional fertilizer target level for magnesium.”

Aging of the fertilizer solution also has had an impact on the root growth of the crops.

“When we compare how the roots look visually in the 9-month solution vs. the 2-month solution, the roots in the 9-month solution look much healthier,”Baras said. “The roots are very white, are longer and look really healthy and well-developed. There are also more roots on plants in the 9-month system.

“The root color is also significantly different. In the 2-month solution the roots look healthy, but there is some browning. They don’t have that crisp white look.”

 

Aging of the fertilizer solution can impact root growth. Plants (left) in a 9-month old organic fertilizer solution had more roots that looked healthy and well-developed compared to the root system of plants in a 2-month old organic fertilizer solution.

Rethinking optimum pH levels

Baras said he has been able to produce healthy crops in a pH range from as low as 4 up to 6.5.

“For hydroponic leafy greens the recommended pH ranges from 5.5 to 6.5,” he said. “We have basil and butterhead lettuce growing very well in organic systems at a pH of 4. On the other side of the pH range, I’ve heard of aquaponic growers growing these crops at a pH up to 7 without any problems. Based on our trial results some of the conventional recommendations for hydroponics for both pH and nutrient levels might need to be revisited.

“One of the biggest issues I see with hydroponic growers is overcompensating. For instance, they feel that they need to be constantly watching the pH. They may set up monitoring and dosing systems to ensure the pH doesn’t go below 6 or 5.5. They are investing in extra equipment because they think they need to keep the pH precisely in this range. It may be a case that the plants will do well outside this range.”

 

Impact on crop timing

Baras said one factor that could affect the optimum pH and nutrient range is the light level.

“If a grower is providing supplemental light, then the optimum pH and nutrient range may be different,” he said. “With the trials we are conducting we aren’t that far off from what most hydroponic growers are targeting for growth rates. Thirty-five days is a target number for a lot of lettuce growers. We have done 35-day crops. We want to be able to grow an organic crop in the same amount of time as a crop grown with conventional fertilizers.”

 


For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383; info@hortamericas.com; https://hortamericas.com.

 

David Kuack is a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Texas; dkuack@gmail.com.