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Combining Synthetic and Organic Gardening Techniques to Get Your Best Yields Yet

Combine synthetic and organic elements for best results in your grow room. Combine synthetic and organic elements for best results in your grow room.


The idea of organic growing is an exciting one. Think about it: Billions of years of evolution have created a complex symbiotic relationship between plants and their microbes as well as between nitrogen-fixing bacteria, bacteria that colonize root masses and the antibiotic-producing bacteria that fend off an array of harmful diseases. But how do organics perform when pitted against the world of synthetics? Can an organic indoor garden provide, say, the nitrate availability of chemical fertilizers? Do chemical fertilizers, though effective in providing heavy nutrients, lack the complexity of natural systems? Or is there some sort of middle ground?

These are some of the questions that have long provoked debate within the indoor growing community. When considering growing systems for maximum output, perhaps there is something we can learn from both sides of the discussion.

The Role of Bacteria

Beneficial bacteria are the bedrock of organic gardening. In addition to suppressing pathogenic microorganisms, beneficial bacteria facilitate the transformation of raw elements into usable forms of phosphorus, nitrogen, iron and so on. They also help break down potentially harmful pesticides that seep into root zones.

What effect do salts have on microbial life? Not a positive one, of course. But there are widespread misconceptions out there that if you use any chemical fertilizers and synthetic pH up and down, your medium will merely consist of infertile dirt, completely devoid of microbial activity. Although it is certainly true that salts have a damaging effect, changes in pH levels will have much more drastic consequences. Beneficial microbes live on, with greatly diminished populations, and slowly rebuild numbers between chemical waterings.

Another reason to help support soil health by adding an organic edge to your garden is the availability of trace elements that might be lacking in an exclusively synthetic method.

So instead of dismissing the role of bacteria when using chemicals, it is possible to bolster their activity through a number of organic methods while still applying chemical feed throughout the cycle. It may seem counterintuitive to worry about bacteria population while at the same time soaking your medium in substances toxic to bacteria. However, with the addition of worm castings; organic additives like seaweed, humic acid and fish enzymes; and a steady supply of carbohydrates through each watering, beneficial bacteria will flourish enough to make a positive difference to your garden. This will also help combat the infamous “fert lockout.”

The Role of pH

Fertilizer lockout, one of the biggest problems chemical growers face, occurs when a plant consumes ratios of nutrients that do not correlate to the amounts made available in the root zone during each feeding. Salts, usually in the form of sodium nitrate, start to accumulate in the soil.

As nitrates build, a corresponding decline in the pH level of your soil may follow. I’ve seen this effect get so bad that plants literally stop growing. Traces of nitrates, particularly in the form of ammonium, and other elements also remain in the final product.

By taking a few simple organic steps, this can easily be avoided. Not only will your pH remain stable, but the uptake of chemical feed may actually increase.

Lime added into your medium creates a natural buffer. Or if you don’t like all the calcium in lime, crushed eggshells work just as well, although they will take much longer to break down than hydrated lime. Worm castings also contain bio-humus and humic acid, which help with naturalizing the ratios of chemical feed by facilitating the uptake of elements like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper and so on.

When I used only chemical fertilizers, the pH of my runoff usually tested 5.5 to 5.8. Although close enough to 6 that my plants didn’t express any apparent negative symptoms, the microbial life must have been almost non-existent and I probably had a few minor deficiencies in some trace elements, especially at 5.5. A pH value under 6 means that your plants won’t absorb magnesium, phosphoric acid and calcium as efficiently. And a value under 6 also has devastating effects on beneficial bacteria. The lower the pH, the higher the likelihood of creating unbalanced population ratios of bacteria.

Trace Elements

Another reason to help support soil health by adding an organic edge to your garden is the availability of trace elements that might be lacking in an exclusively synthetic method. The large amounts of chemical NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in conventional farming can result in conflicts against natural ratios of obscure trace elements. This isn’t a problem in organics as each trace element makes its way into the soil via worm castings, rock dust, bone meal, fish meal, blood meal, etc.

Many people believe that food grown organically has a much higher concentration of vitamins and minerals; citrus has more vitamin C, corn has more protein, and kiwis have more antioxidants. The wide range of available trace elements in organics is one of the main reasons attributed to higher-quality products.

One of the results of using too much nitrogen and running out of trace elements can be fungal and bacterial disease. In establishing a foundation of trace elements in your soil, not only do you eliminate the possibility of deficiencies, but you will also produce a better-quality, more fragrant product. And all this can be done very inexpensively.

The Science of Yield

So what does all this mean to a grower simply concerned with harvesting the biggest yield of high-quality crops in a given amount of space?

First of all, by bolstering the organic element of gardening while using the nutrient availability (and calculability) of chemical feed, all your bases are covered. You will have a much smaller chance of running into obscure deficiencies that have significant impacts on yield. Disease and mildew resistance will be much higher. Furthermore, buffering the pH of your soil, increasing the activity of microbial life and providing a foundation of trace elements ensures the qualitative edge to your product.

There still remains a lot of variables in regard to refining feed schedules, perfecting environment, experimenting with different additives and weight gainers, different pruning methods and canopy layout. But the power of synthetic nutrients and the finesse of organic additives are both at your disposal.

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Last modified on Monday, 13 May 2013 19:06

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