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Hydroponic Nutrients that are Vital for Healthy Plants  

hydroponic nutrients

If you’re growing plants hydroponically, using the right nutrients is vital to their health and vitality. Plants need various nutrients to grow properly, and if they don’t get them from your hydroponic system, they could become sick or even die. This article will discuss why hydroponic nutrients are essential, the necessary nutrients, and how to ensure your plants are getting them.  

What are hydroponic nutrients? 

Essentially, plants need light, water, and nutrients to grow. If you have a hydroponic system, you don’t use soil to deliver nutrients to your plants. Without soil to provide nutrients, you must provide all the plants’ nutrients intentionally through hydroponic nutrients, also called base nutrients. They are meant to take the place of all the macro and micronutrients provided by soil in traditional farming. These hydroponic nutrients are typically sold in a liquid solution or a granular product that is dissolved in water. The type of hydroponic nutrients you use will depend on the plants you’re growing and their growth stage, but they all contain some essential elements.  

Essential Nutrients for Hydroponic Growing 

Without 17 essential nutrients necessary for healthy plant growth, normal plant growth will not happen. These nutrients can be broken up into two main categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. 

1. Macronutrients 2. Micronutrients 
Nitrogen (N) 
Phosphorus (P)
Potassium (K)
Sulfur (S)
Magnesium (Mg)
Calcium (Ca)
Hydrogen (H) 
Carbon (C) 
Oxygen (O)  
Iron (Fe)
Zinc (Zn)
Boron (B)
Copper (Cu)
Chlorine (Cl)
Manganese (Mn)
Molybdenum (Mo)
Nickel (Ni)  

The difference between these two categories is the amount of the elements needed for plant growth — macronutrients are needed in much larger amounts than micronutrients. 

9 Essential Macronutrients for Hydroponics 

Macronutrients are the most critical hydroponic nutrients and are required in large quantities. 

1. Nitrogen (N) 

Nitrogen is one of the most essential hydroponic nutrients because it helps plants with vegetative growth. This means that nitrogen is vital for leaves, stems, and chlorophyll production. Nitrogen is also necessary for the plant to create amino acids, nucleic acids, and proteins which are the building blocks of all cells.  

The oldest leaves are the first place to look for a nitrogen deficiency. This is because they typically display the earliest symptoms of a nitrogen deficiency – yellowing leaves. Other symptoms include light green foliage, overall stunting, wilting, and yellow leaf margins. Measuring and monitoring the EC (electrical conductivity) of nutrient solutions is key to keeping nitrogen deficiency under control.  

2. Phosphorus (P) 

Phosphorus, taken up by plants roots is another important hydroponic nutrient that helps grow the stems, roots, flowers, and seeds. It’s essential for the plant to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy storage molecule in all cells, and the synthesis of a plant’s DNA and RNA.  

Phosphorus is also necessary for cell division, flowering, and fruiting. Without enough phosphorus, stems may weaken, slowing leaf and root growth, and malformed or non-developed seeds.  

3. Potassium (K) 

Potassium is important for overall plant health. For example, it helps the plant create chlorophyll, which is necessary for photosynthesis. Potassium also helps with water uptake and regulation, strengthens plants against disease, and improves the quality of fruits and vegetables.  

A potassium deficiency manifests itself in many ways, including stunted growth, yellowing leaves (especially between the veins), and leaf margins that curl upwards.  

4. Sulfur (S) 

Sulfur is a critical component of plant proteins and plays a role in developing root nodules and chlorophyll. Moreover, it aids in forming fruit, seeding, and moisture uptake. It’s also a natural fungicide. 

Sulfur is a relatively immobile plant nutrient. Therefore, deficiency symptoms will show up first in the plant’s younger and more peripheral sections. When sulfur is lacking, plants grow slowly and have pale leaves that become brittle and narrower than normal. 

5. Magnesium (Mg) 

Magnesium is another important hydroponic nutrient necessary for the plant to create oxygen during photosynthesis. It also helps with the absorption of phosphorus and nitrogen and developing strong cell walls.  

When a plant lacks magnesium, it is usually seen first on the more mature leaves. One of the telltale indicators is that the leaves will become yellow but not discolored, known as interveinal chlorosis. Magnesium deficiency can be caused by high media pH or nutrient imbalance. It usually shows up on lower to middle leaves.  

6. Calcium (Ca) 

Calcium is an important hydroponic nutrient that helps with the formation of strong cell walls and the development of new roots and leaves. It also aids in absorbing other nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen.  

Calcium deficiency can be readily detected in new growth and leaves, affecting the youngest shoots and leaves. The margins and tips of leaves will often fail to develop correctly, becoming yellow and eventually dying due to calcium insufficiency. This deficiency can be caused by under fertilization, nutrient imbalance, or low pH levels. It is affected by your grow room temperature, airflow, and humidity.  

7. Hydrogen (H) 

Hydrogen, taken up by plants in water, functions include pH regulation, water retention, and synthesis of carbohydrates.  

8. Carbon (C) 

Essential for plant structures, making up 45 % of a plant.  

9. Oxygen (O) 

Taken up by plants in water, oxygen makes up 45% of a plant. It helps with plant respiration, energy production and plant structures.  

8 Essential Micronutrients for Hydroponics 

Some nutrients for hydroponics are essential for plant health but are needed in smaller amounts. These are referred to as micronutrients.  

1. Iron (Fe) 

Iron is one of the most essential micronutrients because it aids in chlorophyll production in plants. It’s also necessary for the plant to produce enzymes, proteins, and sugars for energy in respiration. Deficiency is commonly caused by high pH media and irrigation water. It’s noticeable as yellowing between leaf veins on new growth.  

2. Zinc (Zn) 

Zinc is a micronutrient that aids in the formation of new leaves and enzyme and hormone production. It’s also required for the plant to produce proteins and chlorophyll and aid respiration and nitrogen metabolism.  

Under-fertilization can cause zinc deficiency, which causes leaf necrosis and leaf curling. There may also be some yellowing of leaves and a reduction in bud formation.  

3. Boron (B) 

Boron is a micronutrient that helps with cell wall stability, cell division, water uptake, and the movement of other nutrients within the plant. It’s also necessary to develop pollen in flowering plants and aid in seed germination.  

A boron deficiency will often cause leaves to become yellow or brown and die back, starting from the tips. There may also be stunted growth and deformed or discolored fruit. Reduced root growth is another symptom.  

4. Copper (Cu) 

Copper is important for hydroponic plants because it is involved in several metabolic processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis. Therefore, copper deficiency can cause stunted growth, poor root development, and yellowing of leaves.  

5. Chlorine (Cl) 

Chlorine is essential for many important processes within plants. As an integral part of photosynthesis, chlorine helps to open and close the stomata, allowing plants to take in carbon dioxide from the environment and release oxygen into it. Additionally, chlorine plays a key role in chemical balance, helping to maintain the correct concentration of potassium ions inside plant cells during stomata function. Furthermore, chlorine helps to transport nutrients throughout the plant and can help buffer against stressors such as frost or drought. 

6. Manganese (Mn) 

Manganese is a key element in plant health and development. This essential trace mineral acts as a catalyst for several key processes, including nitrogen metabolization, respiration functions, and photosynthesis. Not only does it activate the enzymes responsible for chlorophyll production, but it also plays a crucial role in aiding light absorption and providing energy for healthy growth. Without manganese, plants would struggle to absorb vital light and nutrients from the soil, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies and poor plant health. 

7. Molybdenum (Mo) 

This trace element is fundamental for helping plants convert nitrogen from the soil into ammonia, a process that is essential for building and repairing cells. Without molybdenum, our gardens would struggle to flourish, as their roots and seeds simply wouldn’t be able to acquire the necessary oxygen, sulfur, potassium, and other nutrients they require. 

8. Nickel (Ni) 

Nickel is a vital component of certain plant enzymes, such as urease, which is responsible for converting urea nitrogen into a usable form of ammonia. If nickel is not present in plants, urea can begin to build up and cause pinched necrosis on the tips of leaves. In addition to negatively affecting nutrient availability and root zone absorption, high levels of nickel can also inhibit processes like transpiration and photosynthesis. 

NPK Ratio in Hydroponic Nutrients 

When you look at nutrient bottles, you’ll notice three numbers printed on the front of each bottle, which is also known as the N-P-K ratio or Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium balance. The NPK ratio on the bottle’s label tells you how much of each macronutrient is present.  

If a bottle says 8-8-8, the hydroponic nutrient solution contains 8% Nitrogen, 8% Phosphorus, and 8% Potassium. The other 76% is water and other micronutrients. However, the NPK ratio will differ depending on the hydroponic nutrients you’re using. Additionally, if you’re growing cannabis, the ratios of each nutrient necessary during various growth phases are different. This implies that an all-purpose fertilizer with NPK 15-15-115 may be ideal for your lawn but not your cannabis plant. 

Understanding Base Nutrients vs Supplements / Additives 

In a hydroponics store, some products are essential for any growth, and some products aim to boost your yield. The difference between these two types of hydroponic supply products is vital to understand.  

Hydroponic Base Nutrients 

So, the 17 nutrients above are essential for growing anything hydroponically. These are sometimes known in the hydro industry as “base nutrients.” Regardless of the hydroponic system you go with, you will need to provide these nutrients for standard plant growth to happen.  

Hydroponic Supplements & Additives 

Hydroponic supplements or additives are nutrients or formulas that are not essential for plant growth but can have additional beneficial effects.  

Examples of common hydroponic additives include:  

  • Nutrient optimizer 
  • Root stimulator 
  • Bud booster 
  • Silica 
  • Potassium supplement 
  • Calcium supplement 
  • Calcium-magnesium 
  • Foliar spray 
  • pH regulators 

Types of Hydroponic Nutrients: Grow vs Bloom 

Different hydroponic nutrients are required at different stages of plant growth. Hydroponic base nutrients come in two general collections/configurations:  

  • Grow, Bloom, and Micro – different solutions for bloom and growth phases, with micronutrients that are to be used concurrently with both 
  • Grow and Bloom – different solutions for bloom and grow phases, with the micronutrients included 

The difference between grow and bloom hydroponic nutrients comes down to the fact that plants need more of certain nutrients during different phases of growth.  

For example, plants need more nitrogen during the vegetative stage than during the flowering stage. Additionally, each nutrient acts differently and works with other nutrients to promote plant growth. 

  • Grow – During this vegetative phase, plants need more nitrogen, which is important for growth and enables plants to produce energy and support the maximum growth rate 
  • Bloom – During this flowering phase, plants grow flowers (blooms). Increased amounts of phosphorous, which aids nutrient uptake, are beneficial to healthy blooms 

Monitoring & Maintaining Nutrient Levels  

To determine the right nutrient levels for your plants, you need to consider several factors, such as the type of plant, the stage of growth, and the size of the container. You also need to be aware of how quickly the plants are growing and how much they are being watered.  

Hydroponic systems use a liquid nutrient mix to fertilize plants. This mix is designed to provide all the nutrients that the plants need. However, due to transpiration and other factors, the levels of different nutrients can change over time. Thus, the system must have a manager to monitor and adjust the nutrient levels.  

Additionally, over-or under-fertilizing can lead to nutrient deficiencies or toxicities. Therefore, it’s essential to test the water regularly and adjust the nutrients accordingly. 

EC, pH, and Nutrient Uptake 

EC and pH will help determine how efficiently plants are able to absorb nutrients. A hydroponic system pH level between 5.5 – 6.5 is optimum for nutrient absorption. As you manage your hydroponic system, it’s important to test for EC and pH.  

  • EC (electrical conductivity): This measures the overall dissolved salts in the water and indicates the nutrient concentration. A healthy range is between 1.2 and 2.0.  
  • pH: This measures the acidity or alkalinity of the water and affects how well the plants can absorb nutrients.  

To measure EC and pH, you can use meters. Often, these come as one meter and can be found from quality providers like Hanna Instruments.  

Hard Water vs Soft Water for Hydroponics 

For hydroponic growing, whether you are using hard water, soft water, or RO water will change the base nutrients you need. For example, DutchPro has different hydroponic nutrient product lines for hard water vs soft water hydroponic growing.  

Water is either hard or soft. Hard water contains more minerals than soft water, including calcium, magnesium, lime, and sometimes ferrous iron. Hard water also tends to have high alkaline levels. On the other hand, soft water is hard water treated with sodium to remove its minerals. 

Another type of water that hydroponics brands cater to in their hydroponic nutrient product lines is RO (Reverse Osmosis) water. This is water created using a filtration system that eliminates all mineral ions from your source water. It is closer to soft water than hard, and you will often see soft water/RO nutrients meant for both soft and RO water growing.  

How to Add Nutrients to Hydroponic Systems  

When adding nutrients, you must be careful not to add too much. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies or toxicities. Therefore, it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and start with lower concentrations.  

They should be added according to the schedule from the manufacturer.  

Furthermore, there are two main ways to add nutrients: manually or with an automatic dosing system.  

  1. Manual dosing: The simplest way to add nutrients. Simply mix the desired amount of nutrient solution and then pour it into the reservoir.  
  1. Automatic dosing: More expensive, but they’re also more convenient. Automatic dosing systems pump nutrients into the reservoir on a schedule. This allows you to set it and forget it, which is ideal if you’re busy or growing a large number of plants.  

In addition, there are control release formulas, like Bean Stalk’s base formula.  

The Benefits of Using Hydroponic Nutrients in Your Garden or Greenhouse  

Hydroponic nutrients are a vital part of any successful hydroponic garden or greenhouse. Plants grown in hydroponics rely on a constant supply of nutrients to thrive, and hydroponic nutrients provide the perfect balance of essential minerals and trace elements.  

In addition, hydroponic nutrients are highly soluble, making them easily absorbed by plants. This means that plants grown in hydroponics can get the maximum benefit from the liquid nutrients they receive. Other benefits include:  

  • Hydroponic nutrients are easy to control and can be adjusted to meet the specific needs of your plants.  
  • They are also more efficient than soil, so you’ll need less of them.  
  • Because they’re more concentrated, hydroponic nutrients can save you money in the long run.  

The Best Brands of Hydroponic Nutrients on the Market Today  

If you’re looking to give your plants the best chance at success, then using an excellent quality hydroponic nutrient is essential. Not only do they provide all the nutrients your plants need to thrive, but they also help to optimize growing conditions and increase yields. Unfortunately, with so many different options on the market today, it can be hard to know which brand is right for you.  

Not sure where to start? Visit Dutch Pro’s product quiz to get an idea of what you’ll need for your grow. And don’t forget to check out our store locator to find the best hydroponic nutrients and supplies near you.