The best hydroponic medium you have never heard of
One of the most important choices in a soilless crop is the medium. Ideally, the media in a hydroponic crop should provide no nutrition but just act as support material for the plant. However, common media choices, such as coco coir and peat moss, are far from inert and their usage requires special modifications to the nutrient solutions in order to account for their specific chemical properties. In this post, I am going to talk about a great hydroponic medium choice that is fairly common in South American countries but rarely used in the United States or Canada.
Issues with existing media
The most commonly used hydroponic media types in the US are perlite, peat moss, coco coir, and rockwool. Peat moss tends to have higher than desirable water retention and acidifies strongly through time. For this reason, it is usually amended with perlite – to increase aeration – and with dolomite/limestone in order to buffer the constant increase in pH within the root zone. To maximize its potential, you need to account for these amendments and the natural evolution of peat moss through time in your nutrient solution or you will tend to have calcium, magnesium, and nitrogen uptake issues. All of which are commonly observed by peat moss growers.
Coco coir has other problems. It contains large amounts of chloride, sodium and potassium. It also decomposes through time and, in doing so, exposes cation exchange sites that strongly bind elements like calcium, magnesium and manganese. For this reason, you often need to either pretreat the coir with calcium containing solutions or adjust your nutrient solution chemistry to account for the evolution of the potassium release and calcium capture through the crop cycle. The concentrations and ratios of heavy metals also need to be changed to account for the affinity of the cation exchange sites for these ions.
Rockwool has better chemical and physical stability but the environmental impact of its production is high (1). It is also hard to reuse and its physical properties are hard to tune since it is hard to mix with other media effectively. Perlite, another rocky medium, is easy to reuse and has low environmental impact, but it dries back too quickly, which increases the need for energy for irrigation and dramatically increases the amount of waste generated in open (drain-to-waste) hydroponic systems.
Rice hulls, the first component of a better medium
Over the past 40 years, rice hull – also known as rice husk – has become a medium of choice in many countries due to its wide availability as an agricultural waste product. It is made primarily of silica structures supported by organic material, decomposes very slowly through time, and has very benign chemical properties. Rice hulls will not change pH through time, will slowly release bio-available silicon, and can be reused several times before they degrade. However, they usually contain insects and some rice, reason why sterilization of the media with hot water is usually required in order to avoid pest propagation and seedling death due to seed fermentation.
Another issue of rice hulls is their incredibly weak moisture retention. Rice husks are even worse than perlite at retaining water, reason why rice husks are commonly used as an amendment to increase aeration. A hydroponic crop using only rice husks as a medium is possible, provided that the crop is constantly irrigated to compensate for the very fast dry back period of the medium. This constant irrigation is achieved through drip systems.
Washed river sand, the perfect compliment
Given that rice hull is primarily made of silica and has excessively fast dry back, it would be ideally paired with a medium with similar chemical properties but opposite physical properties. River sand, which has exactly opposite physical properties and is also made primarily of silica, perfectly fits the bill. River sand has a very slow dry back. It is therefore hard to use on its own in hydroponics due to its tendency to cause waterlogging. However, when used in combination with rice husks, a medium with exceedingly tunable physical properties and very benign chemical properties appears.
To prepare this media, mix 50% rice hulls by volume with 50% river sand. Rice hulls can be purchased for a very low cost, a 20 USD bag will be enough to prepare 400L of the medium. River sand is even cheaper and can be bought at around 50 USD per ton retail but can be bought wholesale at much lower prices. The density of river sand is around 1587 kg/m3, meaning that it will take around 317 kg to get 200L of sand. This means that the cost per 400L of final medium will be around 16 USD, taking the total cost of 400L of medium to 46 USD. This can be more cost effective than either peat moss, perlite, rockwool, or coco coir. Especially if you take into account that the media can be reused across several crop cycles.
Treating the medium before use
This medium needs to be treated before use, as rice hulls can contain some amount of rice that can be detrimental to seedlings. To treat it, water it with tap or RO water 3 days before use. This will ferment any of the remaining rice and the increase in temperature caused by this process will help get rid of insects and any pathogens present within the mix. Note that rice hulls are often parboiled, which means they have already been heated in boiling water, which will reduce the issue of pests.
Once this treatment is complete, you are ready to use the medium. You can also adjust the percentage of rice hulls and river sand in order to fit the particular dry back conditions you desire. More river sand will make the medium dry back slower, while more rice hulls will make the media dry back faster. This is similar to what happens when you mix perlite and coco or peat moss, with the advantage that river sand and rice hulls are much more chemically inert than these commonly used media types.
While not common in the US, mixes of rice hulls and river sand have been successfully used in hydroponic settings during the past 50 years in a wide variety of countries, especially South American ones. I have personally used them in both small and commercial-scale projects to grow from leafy greens to large flowering plants, with amazing results. This medium is chemically inert, very easy to tune, and has a low price point.
Had you heard of a mix of rice hulls and river sand as medium? Would this be cheaper than your current media choice? Let us know in the comments below!