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Hydroponics vs. Soil Mix: The Ultimate Soil Mix for Hydroponics Plants

Hydroponics vs. soil: don’t be a sheep. Hydroponics vs. soil: don’t be a sheep.

In the hydroponics vs. soil mix debate, growers rely mostly on personal experience with sterile root zone media and plants fed with hydroponics nutrients compared to plants grown in rich soil and provided only water. They use hydroponics, or soil mix, but not both. I propose that you can have the best of both worlds: a soil mix that provides naturally-derived nutritional support for your plants while also giving you the proven advantages of using hydroponics nutrients.

Commercial hydroponics soil mixes such as Pro-Mix and Sunshine Mix are conveniently pre-packaged, but they aren’t stocked with the right elements your plants need in a form available to your hydroponics plants.

Growers notice in hydroponics vs. soil mix tests that plants grown in sterile media (such as rockwool) with hydroponics nutrients grow faster, mature earlier and produce larger harvests than plants grown in commercial or self-made soil mixes. When you try to use hydroponics nutrients in something other than sterile media, you can have big problems.

I don't recommend growing in soil unless you custom mix the soil yourself. Nor do I think it's worth it. Even proponents of customized soil such as SubCool, who promotes his "supersoil," admit that growing in sterile media and using hydroponics nutrients provides faster growth and bigger yields than you can get in soil.

But there are situations in which a customized soil mix might work. One of them is for outdoor growing, or any situation where mixing and monitoring a steady supply of hydroponics nutrients is difficult. If you decide to give up the many advantages of hydroponics growing and go for soil growing, here’s a customized soil mix recipe you can experiment with. 

There’s no perfect way to describe the amounts and ratios of materials used here. That’s why I am doing it as a “use one part of this and ¼ part of that” method instead of telling you how many pounds of this or that to use. That way, you can tailor your mix to the amount of soil you actually need. So here’s your recipe…

  • Six parts soil base. I used to use bases including Canna coco coir, Sunshine Mix #4, Roots Organic or Ocean-Forest, but experienced problems with them. Lately we’ve been very impressed with Pro-Mix High Porosity (HP). Choose HP varieties with on-board beneficial fungi that enhance and protect your root zone.
  • One half part azomite…an impressive trace mineral formula.
  • One quarter part earthworm castings. Make sure they’re organic and fresh. You can make them yourself or order them from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.
  • One quarter part bat guano from fruit-eating bats. Wonder why I mentioned fruit-eating bats? It’s because fruit-eating bats produce guano high in elements that build huge flowers. Guano from bats that primarily eat insects is high in nitrogen, and you don’t need that kind of guano for this soil mix.
  • One eighth part greensand. A beautiful material (glauconite) that contains iron and potassium.
  • One part seasoned compost. If you can’t make your own seasoned compost or source it locally, check out Coast of Maine. They sell rich composts that have a variety of qualities. Never use unseasoned compost, and beware of manure compost, which can sometimes have too much nitrogen that burns your plants.
  • One eighth part steamed bone meal. Gives your plants calcium and phosphorus, which are especially useful for some strains that tend to develop a calcium or cal-mag deficiency late in bloom phase. Make sure it’s steamed.
  • One eighth part blood meal. Not just for vampires, provides a huge kick of nitrogen. Watch out, because overuse burns plants.
  • One eighth part rock phosphate. Loaded with phosphorus.
  • One eigth part kelp meal. Get kelp meal made from Ascophyllum Nodosum, which has the reputation of being the most powerful sea plant for your hydroponics crops. It provides minerals, carbos, flower-promoting hormones and aminos.
  • One part or more: large-grain perlite or vermiculite. Percentage of perlite or vermiculite you add is dependent on how well your mix drains when you have added all the previous ingredients. Pre-mix all these ingredients and let them season together in open air but quarantined to prevent contamination from pests or pathogens for at least four weeks before you plant in them.

Brew or buy compost tea (Mother Earth Super Tea is the best) that you sprinkle onto the soil mix as you season it. Let the soil mix sit brewing for a while.. Keep it slightly moist, but not wet, and stir it from time to time so you get aeration.

I also suggest you add enzymes, liquid beneficial microbes and liquid beneficial bacteria to your watering regimen for the week before you put your plants in the soil mix, and for at least a few weeks thereafter. Get formulas specifically designed for your hydroponics plants, such as Voodoo Juice and Piranha.

Some growers would use this recipe for outdoor growing, or a kinda lazy approach to indoor growing, and get decent results adding only water. But you still need hydroponics nutrients if you want to get yields and potency to be proud of. For example during bloom phase run a reduced strength bloom base nutrients formula along with bloom boosters and carbohydrate formulas to give you more yield than just soil mix and water could ever give you.

Keep an eye out for how your plants are absorbing nutrients, and watch out for nutrients burn or lock-out. You may have to adjust your nutrients ratios, your soil mix component ratios, or try different sources for components (especially earthworm castings and guano) to get your mix just right.

I have gone back and forth about whether customized soil mixes are worth using. Lots of other hydroponics growers have weighed in too. My feeling is that customized soil mixes are ok in limited circumstances. But if you are serious about getting all the high-yielding advantages of hydroponics growing, you will use a neutral commercial mix such as Pro-Mix, sterile media such as rockwool, or media-free techniques such as aeroponics...along with quality hydroponics nutrients.


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Let’s settle the hydroponics vs. soil debate :)
Last modified on Monday, 17 September 2012 14:11

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