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Soil Hydroponics: All Mixed Up?

Soil can make things tasty Soil can make things tasty

Many of us grow our hydroponics plants in a neutral substrate like rockwool or coco coir, or we grow in systems that lack substrate- such as aeroponics and NFT.  But a sizable percentage of hydroponics growers use soil mixes. What is a soil mix? It’s “natural” soil that often has added materials such as perlite, vermiculite, granular fertilizers, earthworm castings, etc. If you’re a hydroponics grower who has never grown in a soil mix, you might be wondering why anyone would…

Growing high value plants in soil is almost a cult religion. People who grow in soil claim their crops taste better and are healthier for you. They describe crops grown in sterile media using synthetic nutrients as “chemmy schwag.”

As a veteran of blind taste tests in several countries, I can report that nobody could tell the difference between organically-grown and synthetically-grown crops! I gently suggest that the alleged taste, smell and quality advantages of growing in a soil mix derive from what I call “magical thinking.” This is when you believe something based on intuition, subjectivity and wishful thinking, rather than on empirical, scientific evidence.

I’ve worked with soil mixes, including those built from the ground up using compost, manure, bone meal, worm castings, granite flakes, greensand, diatoms and other natural ingredients, and I fully understand the origin and attractiveness of the soil cult’s magical thinking. It’s because rich soil looks, feels and smells so alive that you believe that it just has to produce tastier harvests. It’s so real, and it’s fun to work with.

Rockwool and synthetic hydroponics nutrients don’t smell that way, and even if you use high-quality natural hydroponics fertilizers like Iguana Juice and Nirvana, it still doesn’t seem as “organic” and delicious as a rich soil does. Nor can you dip your hands into rockwool and enjoy the way it feels- because rockwool seriously irritates your skin!

It’s also true that growers using inferior synthetic hydroponics nutrients are producing inferior crops, especially if they don’t flush their crops before harvest. If you compare hydroponics plants grown in activated rich soil with unflushed hydroponics crops grown in sterile media using crappy hydroponics nutrients, probably the soil crops would taste and smell better.

The reality of the situation is that growing in even the richest soil has benefits and disadvantages in hydroponics indoor gardens. The main benefit is that if the soil is properly made, and if the soil is rich in beneficial microbes, it will have all the nutrients your plants need- and they will be biologically available to your plants so that all you have to add is water.

In properly made soil infused with earthworm castings, activated compost tea, liquid beneficial microbes or similar materials, the organic compounds in your soil will be easily absorbed into your plants.

Some people believe that the nutrient availability via properly-activated soil is of a higher quality and quantity than what your plants can absorb in a sterile media such as rockwool fed with synthetic hydroponics nutrients. One question I have is, if properly-made soil provides more nutrients faster to plants (as compared to synthetic nutrients in sterile media), then why do plants grown in sterile systems with synthetics almost always grow faster and yield bigger than organically grown plants?

To help soil yields and growth rates catch up to what you get with sterile media and hydroponics, use hydroponics supplements in soil to amp up specific goals for your plants.

For example, your soil won’t contain the flower stimulator materials that are in a formula called Bud Factor X and there are no soil amendments that will contain those materials either.

You can also amend soil mix using liquid beneficial microbes, along with organic compost tea (although if you have built your soil to include compost you probably already have beneficial microbes on-board).

As well, you add a hydroponics product called Bud Ignitor that contains yield-boosting materials you won’t find in even the healthiest soil. Used at the very beginning of the bloom cycle, the materials in Bud Ignitor cause your hydroponics plants to create more budding sites. Flowers develop earlier and mature faster. Flower density is also increased.

Hydroponics growers need to improve their soil too


Some hydroponics growers rely on commercial soil mix products such as Sunshine Mix #4, Pro-Mix, Roots Organic, Ocean-Forest, etc. They may use one of those as a base into which they add amendments, or they use one alone as a kind of “natural” substitute for sterile media. Growers who use an commercial soil mix without adding soil amendments feed their plants using hydroponics nutrients- much the same as if they were growing in rockwool or coco coir because they don’t view the soil mix as containing enough on-board nutrients to deliver the harvests they want. And it's true- commercial soil mixes lack sufficient amounts of phosphorus and potassium for the hydroponics plants you grow. You must amend them, or use hydroponics nutrients, or both, to make them perfect for the hydroponics plants you grow.

Anyways, I’ve way exceeded the number of words that the editors want me to use for each of my articles:) In a future article, I will provide a recipe for soil mix that works well for your hydroponics plants. Please feel free to share with us your experiences with soil mixes, perhaps even your personal recipe, in our comments section.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 03 October 2012 17:14

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