Five common mistakes people make when formulating hydroponic nutrients

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It is not very difficult to create a basic DIY hydroponic formulation; the raw salts are available at a very low cost, and the target concentrations for the different nutrients can be found online. My nutrient calculator – HydroBuddy – contains large amounts of pre-made formulations in its database that you can use as a base for your first custom hydroponic endeavors. However, there are some common mistakes that are made when formulating hydroponic nutrients that can seriously hurt your chances of success when creating a hydroponic recipe of your own. In this post I will be going through the 5 mistakes I see most often and tell you why these can seriously hurt your chances of success.

Failing to account for the water that will be used. A very common mistake when formulating nutrients is to ignore the composition of the water that you will be using and how your hydroponic formulation needs to account for that. If your water contains a lot of calcium or magnesium then you will need to adjust your formulation to use less of these nutrients. It is also important not to trust an analysis report from your water company but to do a water analysis yourself, since water analysis reports from your water company might not be up to date or might not cover the exact water source your water is coming from. It is also important to do several analyses per year in order to account for variations in the water composition due to temperature (which can be big). Other substances, such as carbonates and silicates also need to be taken into account in your formulation as these will affect the pH and chemical behavior of your hydroponic solution.

Failing to account for substances needed to adjust the pH of the hydroponic solution. When a hydroponic solution is prepared, the pH of the solution will often need to be adjusted to a pH that is within an acceptable range in hydroponics (often 5.8-6.2). This is commonly achieved by adding acid since when tap/well water is used, a substantial amount of carbonates and/or silicates will need to be neutralized. Depending on the salt choices made for the recipe, adjustments could still be needed even if RO water is used. Since these adjustments most commonly use phosphoric acid, not accounting for them can often cause solutions to become very P rich with time, causing problems with the absorption of other nutrients, especially Zn and Cu. A nutrient formulation should account for the pH corrections that will be required and properly adjust the concentration of nutrients so that they will reach the proper targets considering these additions.

Iron is chelated but manganese is not. It is quite common in hydroponics for people to formulate nutrients where Fe is chelated with EDTA and/or DTPA but manganese sources are not chelated at all, often added from sulfates. Since manganese has a high affinity for these chelating agents as well, it will take some of these chelating agents from the Fe and then cause Fe phosphates to precipitate in concentrated solutions. To avoid this problem, many nutrient solutions in A/B configurations that do not chelate their Mn will have the Fe in the A solution and then the other micronutrients in the B solution. This can be problematic as it implies the Fe/other micro ratios will change if different stages with different A/B proportions are used through the crop cycle. In order to avoid this issue, always make sure all the micronutrients are chelated.

Not properly considering the ammonium/nitrate ratio. Nitrogen coming from nitrate and nitrogen coming from ammonium are completely different chemically and absorbed very differently by plants. While plants can live with solutions with concentrations of nitrogen coming from nitrate as high as 200-250ppm, they will face substantial toxicity issues with solutions that contain ammonium at only a fraction of this concentration. It is therefore quite important to ensure that you’re adding the proper sources of nitrogen and that the ratio of ammonium to nitrate is in the ideal range for the plants that you’re growing. When in doubt, plants can survive quite well with only nitrogen from nitrate, so you can completely eliminate any additional sources of ammonium. Note that urea, provides nitrogen that is converted to nitrogen from ammonium, so avoid using urea as a fertilizer in hydroponic.

Not considering the media composition and contributions. When growing in hydroponic systems, the media can play a significant role in providing nutrients to the hydroponic crop and different media types will provide nutrients very differently. A saturated media extract (SME) analysis will give you an idea of what the media can contribute and you can therefore adjust your nutrient solution to account for some of the things that the media will be putting into the solution. There are sadly no broad rules of thumb for this as the contributions from the media will depend on how the media was pretreated and how/if it was amended. It will often be the case that untreated coco will require formulations with significantly lower K, while buffered/treated coco might not require this. Some peat moss providers also heavily amend their media with dolomite/limestone, which substantially changes Ca/Mg requirements, as the root system

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