Why are there so many nutrients?
Seriously, why are there so many?
You walk into your local grow store, and half of the entire shop are various nutrients. Base nutrients, PK boosters, Sugars, Root enhancers, Trace Minerals, Hardeners. There seem to be countless manufacturers of these products. And we haven't even gotten into organics yet. So what's the deal?
The short answer is there are a lot of different ways of going about this. And regardless of what any manufacture tells you. One brand is not the best for every single grow style.
So what are the different styles, and what should I consider?
There are many different styles. Before getting into that however, I would like to start with a basic idea. Most fertilizers are either salt based, or derived from natural sources. Salt based fertilizers grow plants faster and larger, but make it more difficult to reuse your media. On the other hand, while salts work better for growth they don't tend to provide any of the smell/taste notes that can really make a plant stand apart.
So if you were growing in Soil outdoors for one season. What kind of line would you be looking for? In this situation because you're never intending to reuse that soil you would probably want something that uses salts for it's base nutrients, but then put some organics on the back end so you still get all of those soil qualities.
Now what if you were going to try to reuse your soil year after year. Because those salts build up over time you would want to focus on a line that ran very limited to no salts. When you were reading the back of your nutrient bottle you would be looking for everything to be derived from something in nature. Like fish, or guano or kelp.
Now what if you weren't doing soil at all? And you were growing indoor Aeroponic, or Deep Water Culture. Now any organics that get into that system are going to create nothing but problems for you. Clogged sprayers. Organic build up. Bad times.
So as you can see, because there are lots of different ways to grow. No single brand can be the perfect answer for everyone. So looking at labels, asking questions and trying things out will really be the best way to find what works best for you.
What am I looking for on the labels?
On most bottles of fertilizer, they will inform you of what the nutrients are derived from. Below I will show an example of a synthetic nutrient label, and an organic nutrient label.
Synthetic (General Hydroponics - Floranova Grow)
Derived from: Ammonium Molybdate, Ammonium Phosphate, Calcium Nitrate, Cobalt Nitrate, Copper EDTA, Iron DTPA, Magnesium Sulfate, Manganese EDTA, Mono-potassium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Potassium Citrate, Potassium Nitrate, Sodium Borate, and Zinc EDTA.
Organic (Down To Earth - All Purpose)
Derived from: Fish Protein Hydrolysate, Soy Protein Hydrolysate, Lysine, Potassium Sulfate, Kelp Extract (Ascophyllum nodosum)
You may have noticed, that on the organic label the ingredients are derived from more recognizable things. Fish, Soy Beans and Kelp. The synthetic on the other hand was taken from things that were already broken down to their smallest possible form. As you look at labels, you may also notice that some manufacturers like to blend the two ideas. They may either be organic forward, with synthetics on the back end. Or organic forward, with synthetics filling the gaps. Every nutrient line will have a different take on the best course of action for your plant. Your job is to filter through them and find out which products will best suit your grow.
With all that said, there is one important thing to mention that will add a bit of complication to everything I just mentioned. Manufacturers do not have to, and sometimes can not list everything that is in the bottle. With that said, sometimes a label may seem deceivingly simple. The only way to really tell what it does, is to use it. So also try to keep an open mind, and get feedback on things. Some products do far more than their label may imply.
What are the boosters, and what do they do?
Boosters are products that go beyond the base nutrient to hone in on more specific results. Just like base nutrients, every company will have a different idea of what will make the most sense for a grow and it is up to you to decide which of these things look like a good fit for you. Below, I will give a brief list of some common boosters, and what goal they are attempting to accomplish, and if they are typically synthetic or naturally derived.
What does it do?
|Flower Initiator||Sets up more flower sites, and brings to plant from transition to flower faster||Yes|
|PK Booster||Adds additional flower size.||Yes|
|Finisher/Ripener||Makes flower more dense, and increases resin production.||Yes|
|Sweetener||Adds more aroma, and resin production.||No|
|Root enhancer||Aids in additional root production||No|
|Silica||Strengthens stems and leaves, and makes the plant more resistant to stress.||Yes|
|Microbial Inoculant||Promotes root growth, and helps break down organic matter into usable nutrients for the plant.||No|
|Flushing Agent||Aids in removing excess salts from your grow media||No|
|Humic/Fulvic||Help plants uptake nutrients, and PH buffers certain nutrients.||No|
If I pay more do I get better results?
The old adage is that, "You get what you pay for."
Does that translate to your fertilizer as well? Not always. Below we'll get into some of the reasons we may or may not be willing to pay more.
Paying for labor.
A company like Down To Earth sells individual amendments like Kelp meal, Bat guano, Oyster Flour etc.. Meanwhile Mr. B's Green Trees makes a grow fertilizer that has 18 different inputs, plus beneficial Microbes and Fungi. Could you make a formula like this on your own? Absolutely! You may however find the time, calculations and labor involved are not worth it.
Paying for exclusivity.
A company called Mammoth Microbes makes a product called Mammoth P. It took them quite a bit of time and money to slowly cultivate one microbe out of thousands of microbes that are good at breaking down phosphorus. The result, is overloading your media with only the best. Since this product is truly unique at the time of writing this article, they will have the ability to charge more. There are many companies like this who have found one thing, that can push your grow even further. Are these products worth it? With these types of products, the only way to know is to try them, and find out for yourself.
Paying for purity.
I've seen a lot of heavy metal analysis over the years. As of the time of this writing, a company called Canna has continued to have the lowest levels I've seen out of a liquid line. They're a dutch company, and since all their fertilizers go right back into their municipal water supply after application they have fairly strict standards. Their nutrients cost more, but they're cleaner and imported. There are other lines that also lean into using pharmaceutical grade inputs for the cleanest end product you can grow. On the other side, a lot of the cheaper fertilizers are cheap because they are using lower grade inputs for their fertilizer. Usually while you are growing the growth itself will look the same so you think there's no difference. However, if you would like to rest knowing your products are the cleanest they can possibly be. It may be worth paying more for cleaner nutrients.
Paying for convenience.
Some companies have taken to the idea of making nutrient application as easy as possible. So instead of selling 14 or so different products, they only sell 5 or 6. But they have combined a lot of the boosters we mentioned before into those products so the line itself is easier for the end user to run. If you were running most boosters you could, often these companies actually end up being cheaper. But if you were only running a base nutrient and a PK booster before. You'll find with these companies you're now paying more, because they're adding more into their product.
Paying for marketing.
While a lot of companies are out there trying to truly push the boundaries of what we can get out of a plant. Some companies unfortunately offer nothing different. It's not cheaper, it's not easier and it's not better. It's just a clone of various products we already know. But now being pushed by either a celebrity, influencer or large marketing budget. These companies offer nothing new or interesting to the gardening world. It's worth keeping a keen eye on them to ensure we're not paying more for no reason at all. Are these products worth it? Just because a product is getting pushed hard to the public doesn't make it bad. But if it's offering nothing to the grower that they can't get cheaper, better, cleaner or easier elsewhere. It's absolutely not worth it.