Indoor gardeners have witnessed many technological advancements over the last few years. While strolling through almost any indoor gardening retail store, growers see various new lighting technologies, state-of-the-art atmospheric controllers, complex, ready-to-use hydroponic systems and ventilation and filter equipment.

As a hydroponic store owner, I witnessed many new customers walk in and quickly become mesmerized by the various high-tech gadgets. These newcomers did not even realize they were walking right past some of the most incredible advancements in the industry.

This is because these products didn’t have flashing lights or colorful boxes. Although many have fancy labels, all are destined to be stored in a plain container on a shelf with many other plain containers that appear no different at first glance. I am, of course, talking about the bottles containing hydroponic nutrients that line the walls of the local hydroponic store.

Growers often walk by bottles of nutrients as they gaze at the latest and greatest inventions to hit the indoor horticulture market because nutrient bottles lack a certain satisfaction that only a tangible object can give. I am not saying that gardeners don’t understand the importance of using quality nutrients, but sometimes development of those nutrients is taken for granted.

After all, hydroponic nutrients, like indoor gardening hardware, have evolved immensely over the last 10 years. There have been major breakthroughs in the methods used to extract, create and culture various nutrients and supplements.

Nutrient manufacturers are paying closer attention to the way their products interact with each other. In other words, more attention is being placed on how combining nutrients affects the end nutrient solution. Manufacturers are paying closer attention to the habits of the growers as well, which influences the way hydroponic nutrients are designed.

There have also been major discoveries regarding the microscopic world in and around the plant’s root mass. These discoveries have had a tremendous impact on the evolution of hydroponic nutrients.

Many hydroponic nutrients and supplements are now including beneficial micro-organisms in their formulation. Over the last decade or so there has been a lot of development that has influenced the way we view hydroponic nutrition. Each of these developments deserves its own recognition as being a major contributing factor in the top-notch fertilizers available to today’s indoor horticulturist.

Chelated plant nutrients

One of the discoveries that greatly affected the hydroponic nutrient industry was the invention of chelated nutrients for plants. Many growers use fulvic and humic acids because of their ability to chelate organic compounds and aid in nutrient absorption.

Scientists figured out a way to take this naturally occurring phenomenon and re-create it in the laboratory. This occurred in the early 1990s and since then has changed the way our plants take in nutrients, especially micronutrients. The process of chelation describes a way that particular ions and molecules bind with metal ions.

Many of the essential micronutrients found in a plant’s diet are metals that, when chelated, can be absorbed more easily and used more efficiently by the plant. To create chelated micronutrients for hydroponics, the desired micronutrient is combined with fulvic acid, ammonia and hydroxy acid, and in some cases heated, until the desired metal chelates form.

After the chelates are formed, a stabilizer is added and the chelated nutrients can be added as an ingredient to a fertilizer or supplement. Chelated plant nutrients are stable and can be used in any hydroponic system, including high oxygen systems like aeroponic or top-drip systems. Chelated nutrients can also be used effectively in a foliar feeding program.

pH stabilizers

Few parameters affect nutrient uptake in a hydroponic system as much as the solution’s pH. In fact, there is a desired pH range that hydroponic gardeners must stay within for their plants to uptake nutrients at all.

One of the biggest frustrations for hydroponic gardeners is the constant battle trying to stabilize the nutrient solution’s pH. Nutrient manufacturers are starting to understand that creating a pH-stable product is as important to creating success for the hydroponic grower as anything else.

Some nutrient manufacturers have begun to add pH stabilizers to their nutrients to help curb undesired pH fluctuations. Other nutrient manufacturers are constantly testing and reformulating their products so they work synergistically without causing pH stabilization issues.

Amino acids

Amino acids are essentially the building blocks of plant life. They are required for virtually every plant function to occur and are directly linked to a plant’s metabolism. Many amino acids are produced by the plants themselves and contribute to the synthesis of cellular molecules, including chlorophyll.

Plants grown in less than desirable conditions experience stresses that cause amino acid production to be hindered, which, in turn, causes stunted growth or reduced yields. By supplementing amino acids, a grower can help to negate the effects of many of the everyday stresses that may occur in an indoor garden, before they affect the plant.

Hydroponic nutrient manufacturers are not only adding amino acids to many fertilizers, but are also creating specific amino acid supplements so the grower can add them as needed or desired. It wasn’t necessarily the discovery of amino acids themselves that influenced the evolution of hydroponic nutrition, as much as the discovery of how to effectively extract the desired amino acids.

Enzymatic hydrolysis extraction of amino acids is one of the most influential discoveries to affect plant health in hydroponic systems. It allows for the separation and concentration of L-form amino acids that can be used to amend existing fertilizers or create powerful stand-alone additives.

Beneficial micro-organisms

Our further understanding of the complex symbiotic relationships between a plant and the micro-organisms living around the plant’s roots has played a pivotal role in shaping modern hydroponic nutrition.

Some of the hydroponic nutrients are broken down into a readily available form and actually bypass the need to be broken down by a micro-organism. This does not mean that the plant does not benefit from supplemental beneficial micro-organisms.

Aside from aiding in breaking down nutrients, micro-organisms stimulate root growth and defend a plant’s root zone from pathogens. Many hydroponic nutrient companies offer micro-organism supplements.

These can range greatly and be either very specific (sometimes containing one particular strain or one type of micro-organism for a specific purpose or benefit) or more generalized (containing a mix of various micro-organisms for a more general benefit).

Micro-organisms used for indoor horticulture can be broken down into three categories: mycorrhiza, trichoderma and bacteria. Each category contains many individual strains or varieties that can have varying benefits to plant growth.

Each discovery made regarding these beneficial microbes and how they interact with plants (and each other) has contributed to our current understanding of plant nutrition and will contribute to the future of hydroponic nutrients.

Enzymes

Enzymes are specialized catalysts that are responsible for numerous chemical reactions happening in and around a plant at all times. Catalysts are substances that accelerate the rate at which a chemical reaction occurs.

Enzymes, like other catalysts, are able to increase the rate of chemical reactions by lowering the energy required for the reaction. What makes enzymes different from other catalysts is their selective nature – enzymes only react with one particular substrate.

Some of the specialized reactions created by enzymes are of great interest to the indoor horticulturist. Root stimulation and breaking down organic matter (dead root matter) are probably the two most common reasons indoor horticulturists use enzymes in a hydroponic system.

Enzymes have become intertwined with many fertilizer regiments so growers could be using enzymes and not even know it. Some nutrient manufacturers sell enzyme formulas for a specific purpose (controlling or treating pythium) or for more generalized supplementation (root stimulation, maintaining root health, etc.).

Nanotechnology

One of the newer technologies sure to influence hydroponic nutrition in the future is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. It is possible that some day all of our hydroponic fertilizers could be greatly influenced by this type of technology. The future uses of nanotechnology in indoor horticulture could include improving the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and the molecular treatment of diseases and pathogens.

The evolution continues

Hydroponic nutrition is in a constant state of evolution. Over the last couple of decades, we have seen our heightened understanding of plant nutrition, how pH affects nutrient uptake and how the relationship between plants and micro-organisms influence the way hydroponic nutrients are designed and used.

There are always new technologies or discoveries just around the corner. Although the various hydroponic nutrient manufacturers are competing against each other, they are all inadvertently working together to bring the grower the latest and greatest breakthroughs in plant nutrition.

It is not just the manufacturers that play a crucial role in the evolution of hydroponic nutrients. The growers themselves test and experiment with various combinations to find the best nutrient regimen for their individual needs.

There is no sole determiner but instead it is the combination of the scientific discoveries, the manufacturers and the growers that together shape the continuous evolution of hydroponic nutrition.