As consumers, growers are faced with many decisions and vast amounts of information. Once upon a time there was a limited number of product options, which made our choices much easier. Now, with the onslaught of new technology, we must consider several factors such as budget, product effectiveness and how to choose products responsibly in a world of dwindling natural resources.

Many of us embrace gardening as a lifestyle, making us integral players in its positive growth and increased position in the global marketplace.

We can now make informed, responsible choices and cast our votes with our wallets. I recommend we start by evaluating the past, present and future of the industry. In this article I will look at the main categories and begin identifying trends and transitions in each.

How Hydroponic Nutrients Have Changes Over the Years

The nutrient aisles in hydroponic stores have seen the biggest changes in recent years, brought about by immense competition. One used to be able to count the amount of nutrient brands available on one hand, but this is not the case anymore. As a community, it is time for us to start connecting exactly what we are buying and feeding our plants with where it ultimately ends up.

With countless growers using non-organic fertilizers, much of the residue and runoff has ended up in our public waterways, proving to be toxic to our environment. Many older brands of nutrients consisted of chemical powders, or a basic two- or three-part liquid solution, along with standard additives made up of minerals, salts and synthetics, many of which are enhanced with dyes and colorants. Many brands have recognized this dilemma and have either evolved to keep up with market demands, or faded away into hydroponic history.

Many brands that established themselves in the early infancy stages of the industry still command a large percentage of the public favor, and there are several nutrient companies that have thrived by taking a more sustainable approach to the traditional old-school model. Many growers are choosing to turn to more sustainable solutions and are being rewarded with unprecedented yields.

There are now options that boast 100% vegan (plant-based) ingredients, 100% concentrated bio-available nutrients (meaning no more shipping water), brands with no plant growth regulators (some are known to be carcinogenic), brands integrating organo-mineral compounds (100% natural but without carbon), and other innovative products based on scientific trials that break free from the standard nutrient model. This means less waste, less product required and less cost per ounce. It also means double or triple the results over those from more traditional nutrient systems.

How Grow Lights Have Changed in Recent Years

A good lighting system is one of the most important components of an indoor garden, and the lighting industry has definitely stepped up its game in recent years. Little more than a decade ago, the best we could hope for was a hot, obnoxiously loud, insanely heavy ballast that had to be mounted outside of the growroom. We settled for large, awkward hoods that gave us blisters to assemble, and there were only one or two types of HID lamps to choose from. It was hard to surpass yield thresholds while being limited to this antiquated gear.

Innovation in the lighting realm over the past decade has increased efficiency and ease of use with upgrades like digital ballasts, air-cooled hoods, T5s and conversion bulbs. Technologies such as supplemental LED lighting and plasma fixtures have also emerged. Another revolutionary and game-changing technology as of late has been double-ended bulb fixtures. These all-inclusive bulb, ballast and hood combos are reportedly pulling higher yields than traditional systems and are quickly making their way to becoming an industry standard. Growers are always seeking ways to grow more while using less energy and saving more dollars, and double-ended bulb technology definitely has them covered.

Grow Media Improvements

Before indoor gardening became a thing, outdoor gardening was all there was. It used to be that digging holes and filling them with a homemade mixture of dirt and soil amendments was the only option. For many growers, this is still their preferred method for growing plants, but for those who choose to take their gardens indoors there are now dozens of ways to achieve the same, if not much better, results. Keep in mind that when choosing a soil or other grow medium there are some ingredients present in grow mixes that are unsustainably mined, endangering sensitive habitats. Read labels closely and do your homework.

While there are a few soil brands that have been around for a long time offering basic potting soil, the last few years have welcomed an abundance of media and substrates formulated for specific applications. We now see everything from ready-to-use media that’s charged with supplements and fertilizers, to inert materials ready for a feeding.

Grow Container Improvements

Standard black plastic nursery pots used to be a staple amongst indoor gardeners. They were virtually the only option available, despite being quite restrictive to the root zone. Rigid plastic walls stifle root growth and healthy root structure, thus limiting the uptake of water and nutrients. They also trap heat and can cook microbes in the root zone. These factors lead to stunted growth and diminished harvests.

Fabric aeration containers have revolutionized container gardening, creating a whole niche market for indoor and outdoor growers alike. Replacing plastic pots inside and eliminating the need to dig cumbersome holes outside, breathable fabric pots are another game-changing product.

There now more than 40 brands of them on the market, which is proof the technology is effective. Not all bags are created equal, however. The difference is evident in the end result. Look for bags made with high-quality, American-made material rather than weak, poorly constructed bags made elsewhere. Locally made containers will last for several years and be much more efficient in the long run.

Water Quality

Water is becoming an increasingly precious commodity and as drought encroaches upon much of our nation, its overuse has become a growing concern. While some growers are lucky enough to have a well or spring source, a majority of us rely on the municipal water supply to feed our thirsty crops. As responsible growers, we should make every attempt to conserve and recycle what water we can. Many growers employ re-circulating hydroponic systems, or use spent water from indoor gardens to water outdoor plants.

Not only is the scarcity of water a concern, but the cleanliness of it is a concern as well. Many city water sources are high in contaminants due to the industrialization of past decades. They are high in parts per million of dissolved solids, which can become an issue for growers who base their feeding regimen on the EC/ppm levels of the water. Luckily, our industry has developed a solution for this as well. We now have specialized water filters such as reverse osmosis (RO) and filters with ceramic elements that can cleanse the water of excess sediment. This leaves growers with a blank canvas to be able to feed plants more vital nutrients without feeding them any of the nasty stuff.

Socio-Political Environment

It used to be that hydroponic stores were few and far between and catered to a very niche market. There were once only a few small hydro shops scattered amongst communities back then, but now there are multiple stores in most major cities. Hydroponic supplies can even be found in many big box stores as hydroponics makes its way into mainstream social acceptance. Indoor gardening has finally “flowered.”

The hydroponics and indoor gardening market has experienced some big changes for such a relatively new industry. With a wealth of options at our fingertips, we have all the tools we need to responsibly contribute to what has already been established by generations of growers. It is up to us to proceed consciously, considering not only personal gain but conservation of the resources that make it all possible.