Welcome back folks to another Talking Shop with High Tech Garden Supply in Prospect Park. Each week we try to discuss something different or unique that will help you become a more prolific and knowledgeable grower.
This week I wanted to cover another emerging trend that has some growers scratching their heads and asking themselves “can that be done?”. I am referring to using organics in a hydroponic system. Organics and hydroponics are two different cultivation techniques that are often considered to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Hydroponic growers can often claim faster growth rates and heavier yields, whereas the organic gardener will claim better flavors, aromas, and overall presentation of a crop. Hydroponics utilize inert or neutral substrates coupled with a salt (mineral) based nutrient solution to provide the plant with all the necessary macro and micro nutrients. Organics, however, make use of soils and compost to provide the same elements of nourishment to a plant. Hydroponic fertilizers, for the most part, are synthetic salt based – and when added to water, they will quickly break down into charged particles (ions) that rapidly interact with a plants roots. On the other hand, organic compounds require assistance to be broken down into an available form – this is usually accomplished slowly via a diverse web of beneficial bacteria and fungi. The difference in how nutrients are rendered into an available form is the main reason organics traditionally did not work well in hydroponics.
Recently I have been noticing a surge in growers looking to take on the challenge of marrying organics and hydroponics into a best of both worlds hybrid system. More than likely you have heard about Aquaponics, which uses fish as the main source of nutrients for a hydroponic solution. The fish waste is broken down by worms and microbes and then taken up by the plants. The plants act as a filter of sorts – keeping the water clean for the fish. This is one of the more common routes a grower may take when trying to merge organics and hydroponic, however these systems can be quite difficult to master as it also heavily involves aquaculture. Aquaponics systems do a great job of generating high amounts of nitrogen, but will often lack in the production of Phosphorus and Potassium. This makes Aquaponics a suitable choice for leafy green crops, but may leave something to be desired in terms of heavy fruiting or flowering crops. The folks over at Microbe Life do a great job at catering to the Aquaponic gardener with their fish friendly line of nutrients and supplements. These products can really make all the difference if the fish in your Aquaponic system are struggling to keep up with a demanding crop. Microbe Life products are available at select HTG Supply locations.
Another hybrid technique that has been increasing in popularity is called Bioponics. This technique takes any standard hydro system (ebb &flow, DWC, NFT, ALT, etc) and substitutes the use of synthetic nutrients with all organic compost teas and plant derived nutrients. The key to a successful Bioponics system, much like with any organic soil, is the use of beneficial microbiology. Beneficial microbes, like Trichoderma, actually require solid organic material to colonize and thrive. If you are using Coco fiber as a substrate in Bioponics, this should give the microbes enough space to colonize, but what if you are using expanded clay pellets or Rockwool? Regardless of the substrate, best practices will always call for a bio-filter. A bio-filter is a heavily aerated space or chamber that houses substrate and materials on which beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microbes can colonize and grow. This area should be inoculated with a diverse array of microbes regularly for best results. Water is drawn from the reservoir, passes through the bio-filter, and is then returned back to the reservoir. As the nutrient solution passes through the bio-filter, the organic compounds can be broken down by the microbes – converting the compounds into available ions. Beneficial bacteria and fungi will also cycle back into the reservoir and will colonize the plants roots, assisting with nutrient uptake while adding protection against nasty pathogens (the more good guys in the colony, the less room there is for bad guys). This exchange of water will also increase the oxygen levels in the water, creating a more conducive biosphere. Incorporating fish into Bioponics is always an option, but again, can add another layer of complexity with the associated aquaculture involved.
So why Bioponics? What are the benefits of this hybrid style of agriculture? For starters, this is a cost efficient way to grow that is also environmentally friendly. Using 100% organic fertilizers will ensure that there is little to no EC build up due to excessive chlorides (often seen with synthetic nutrients). If there is no accumulation of chlorides, there is less of a need for a reservoir change. With Bioponics it is very common to wait 2-3 weeks before exchanging water, with some growers claiming that they never have to completely exchange their reservoirs! This can save you a tremendous amount of money when compared to standard hydroponics, which calls for exchanging water every 7 days. If changing your water our every 3 weeks makes you nervous, consider using submersible pumps that also offer an aeration feature. The added aeration can help prevent negative pathogens from breeding and will promote more vigorous root growth. Danner Manufacturing offer an extensive line of submersible pumps (Supreme Hydro-Mag) equipped with Venturi adapters that simultaneously aerates the “return” water flow. Another obvious reason a grower may choose to go with Bioponics would be quality. Crops grown with soilless Bioponics retain the same enhanced flavors and aromas typically reserved for organically grown soil crops. Bioponics offer superlative yields over crops grown in soil and aquaponics, but doesn’t yield quite as heavy as traditional hydroponics. Of course the variety of plant you start with significantly impacts what you will finish with, regardless of gardening techniques. Bioponics requires a skilled grower that has experience with both hydro and organics and is certainly not for the faint of heart. However you have the skill set and are up for the challenge, the benefits are extremely rewarding, especially in terms of quality.
Thanks for checking out this week’s Talking Shop with High Tech Garden Supply in Prospect Park, PA. Feel free to join the discussion by posting your comments below! Be sure to check out some of the posts coming out of our other 15 retail locations for even more Talking Shop! Be safe, good luck, and good growing!