Now that we know a little bit about pH we can understand better what happens when plants interact with a nutrient solution. When a plant is put within a given solution it wants to absorb the nutrients it needs to grow. These nutrients are avilable as ions that have a given charge. For example, nitrogen is absorbed as the nitrate ion (NO3(-)) while potassium is absorbed as the K(+) ion. When a plant takes potassium in, it deplets the solution of a positive charge. Since the solution must remain neutral the plant gives the solution an H3O(+) ion to compensate. The plant has therefore decreased the pH of the solution by absorbing a potassium ion. When nitrate is absorbed - an ion with a negative charge- the plant does the opposite and exchanges the nitrate for an OH(-), the pH of the solution is increased.
If plants absorbed nutrients in a perfectly symmetrical fashion, they would not increase or decrease pH as overall charge changes would be compensated. However - as no one is perfect- plants absorb nutrients at different rates and they therefore create a "pull" towards a certain pH region. If a plant absorbs nitrate heavily it will start to contribute far more OH(-) than H3O(+) ions into the solution and the result will be a net increase in pH. Depending on the composition of the nutrients and the overall growth stage of the plant, different net movements in pH can be achieved by the plant.
The most influential factor in the changes of pH within a solution is generally the composition of the nitrogen component of the solution. When plants absorb ammonium ions NH4(+) they tend to decrease pH while nitrate - as mentioned above - tends to increase pH when absorbed. If you contribute a percentage of the nitrogen in your solution as ammonia the net effect will be a beneficial "absorption pH buffer" since plants will take nitrogen in both forms, effectively delaying the onset of important pH variations. Of course, the ratio of nutrients also performs a vital role since plants' nutrient absorption mechanism are largely non-specific and they are greatly influenced by the different concentrations of nutrients within the solutions. Having a nutrient solution designed to provide an adequate balance will be vital in helping you control pH fluctuations.
On part two of this "understanding pH in Hydroponics" post I will talk about the range of pH plants can live in, how they adapt to changes in pH and other interesting aspects that will help you better understand the role and true importance of pH within a hydroponic crop. I hope that today you have acquired a rough idea of what pH represents, the nature of pH changes and some basic things that can be done to improve the pH balance within your hydroponic culture.