Feeding For Flavor
When fruits have a complex, layered flavor, you know the grower finally got it right. Here’s how to do it in your own garden.
Every good grower wants to get the best possible flavor out of their hard-earned harvests. Some might try adding carbohydrates to their nutrient recipe—that’s a pretty good idea, but flavor and aromas are built by much more than just carbohydrates. Let’s take it step by step and learn all of the treats available to build phenomenal flavors in plants.
In the early phases of your plants’ growth, the best path is complete overall health. Give your plants a mild feeding of base nutrients (NPK plus micronutrients), silicates, amino acids, enzymes and beneficial rooting inoculants (fungi and bacteria). These types of products will build a strong root zone and vascular system capable of producing all of the natural terpenoids, esters, polyflavinoids, etc. involved in overall taste.
If your crop is harvested in the vegetative phase, such as lettuce and basil, there are a couple of extra steps you can take. First, add some carbohydrates. Go with a highly available, clear, hydroponic formula for the vegetative phase, and use the product at low rates. If you are harvesting the entire plant, like a head of cabbage, stop feeding it nutrients one week before harvest.
Transition to flowering
Once you begin the switch into flowering, you will need to make adjustments to your nutrient formula. For overall growth, flowering plants use more nutrients with increased potassium and reduced nitrogen ratios. Use high-quality nutrients for overall health, which is always the first step for taste (and everything else you want from your plants).
Organics are often credited with giving excellent flavor, and I have experienced positive results from several all-natural nutrients and supplements. There are two main factors to consider when using organic products: first, organics are broken down over time; and secondly, they are broken down by bacteria, fungi and enzymes.
With this in mind, I highly recommend applying organics in combination with beneficial microbes and enzymes. Use these ingredients early in the flowering process; organics are somewhat time-released, so you don’t want to apply them late in the game. Microbes digest the organic matter and feed the results to your plants’ roots over the course of a few days or weeks.
Some of the natural ingredients that can bring out deep, natural pungency in your plants include molasses, cane sugar, fish products, kelp, humates, fruit extracts, sea minerals and compost. For the best possible flavor, seek a nutrient program that offers all of these ingredients. (Those of you who have never used fish products or sea minerals: prepare for a delicious new flavor experience. Use these ingredients properly, and you will be able to smell your tomatoes before your even step into your garden space.)
This is the stage when many growers burn their plants. Sure, your plants can take an increased level of EC or PPM in mid flowering, but this does not mean you should double your nutrients rates. The plants store nutrients in their tissue; so, if you give them too much, raw nutrients are still present in the fruit when you harvest. Thus, overfeeding your plants will replace rich flavor with bland taste. If you want to increase nutrients at this stage, take baby steps. Don’t increase nutrients by more than 150 ppm each week.
Continue using organic supplements in this stage, but start eliminating those products that are high in nitrogen. Blood meal and fish products should be reduced half-way to harvest—possibly even eliminated—as they can encourage leaf growth over fruit and flowers. Liquid carbohydrates should be used at full strength during mid flowering, but always use carbs in combination with beneficial bacteria. Carbohydrates encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi. If you do not incorporate beneficial bacteria and fungi into your garden, these carbohydrates might join up with bad bacteria and rot. Rotten roots don’t foster tasty fruits!
Now is the time to reduce your nutrients. Many growers are probably scratching their heads at that statement, but we are talking about maximum flavor here and too much fertilizer is a detriment to that end. You want your plants to tap into their food reserves and convert their stored nutrients into flavorful fruits and flowers.
Regarding nutrients, NPK levels with slightly higher phosphorus can help encourage oils and balanced overall ripening. Those factors are obviously important in peak flavor. Many nutrients and supplements are available for this specific late phase of your garden, and as long as you don’t overuse them, the increased essential oils and even ripening will make your mouth water!
Sweetening agents should be limited to clear, highly available carbohydrate products, as well as sea minerals. Kelp, humates and other thick organics should be reduced or eliminated in the final stages of flowering. Heavy organics might not have time to break down completely before you harvest.
If you grow with organic-based nutrients, stop feeding your plants at least two weeks before harvest. Water often and always use chlorine free water. In the last week, you will need to rinse your roots thoroughly with large amounts of water. Continue passing water through the roots until the runoff water tests below 300 ppm. Keep the watering free of nutrients for these final days for the cleanest possible end results.
For growers who feed with chemical nutrients, make sure you rinse for at least one week before harvest. The same rules apply concerning lots of water and low ppm. Some rinsing products exist on the market that will chelate salts that have been left over or built up in the roots. Once chelated, these salts can be rinsed away. Use rinsing products for the first day or two, but then switch to plain water (chlorine-free, of course) for the last few days.
A few more points
You will never experience perfect flavor if you aren’t giving your plants high-quality lighting and an ideal growing environment. If your plants are stricken with mold, bugs, disease, overheating or nutrient deficiencies, carbohydrates alone won’t do the trick. Grow the healthiest plants possible, and the flavors and aromas will flow naturally. From there you can start adding all of the wonderful flavor-inducing supplements available at your local hydroponics supplier.