In our previous How-to-Grow article, we mentioned that there are a wide variety of products out there that are typically labeled as “nutrients” but often have specific qualifiers attached to them, such as “synthetic,” “organic,” “amendment,” etc. In today’s article, we want to explain what all these different things are, and the benefits and drawbacks to each.
Synthetic Nutrients vs. Organic Nutrients
On popular e-commerce sites, you’ll often see the nutrients category split between synthetic and organic nutrients. For those unfamiliar with these terms, it might be easy to assume that one group is always better than the other — most people will typically assume that organic nutrients are inherently better. However, depending on how you grow, this may not be the case. Your nutrient regimen should match your ethos and growing style.
Aren’t synthetic nutrients bad?
If you ask the general population about organics or synthetics, you’ll find that most people are biased in favor of organically grown foods. And you can easily see why — to earn the “organic” title from the USDA, organic products are held to much stricter standards than synthetic products. Organic food products cannot be sprayed with chemical pesticides, they cannot be grown with synthetic nutrients, and they should be grown in an environmentally-friendly manner.
This doesn’t mean that synthetic nutrients are bad — there are numerous situations where they may be preferable over organic nutrients, depending on your grow’s setup. For example, synthetic nutrients tend to be microscopic, and are less likely to clog up your fertigation lines. That could be a major boon to a grow that grows entirely via drip feeding or aeroponically.
However, we need to make one thing clear: No cannabis that originates in the US can currently be labeled as organic. Because cannabis is still federally illegal in the US, the USDA cannot establish organic guidelines for its production, and therefore there is no cannabis in the US that is legally considered organic. Companies can claim they grow with organic methods, but they cannot call their cannabis organic. If you live in a country where cannabis has been fully legalized (IE Canada), organic practices for cannabis may be established by the government agency responsible for overseeing agriculture.
Why choose one type of nutrients over the other? Pros and cons?
- Synthetic nutrients are designed to be quickly uptaken by plant roots. There is almost no delay between when the nutrients are applied and when they are bioavailable. This allows for very precise and even nutrient dosing.
- Synthetic nutrients can be used in nearly all mediums.
- Synthetic nutrients are microscopic, and generally won’t clog up your irrigation/fertigation lines or drip emitters. If you grow aeroponically, this is a huge deal for your misters/sprayers.
- Synthetic nutrients are generally easier to mix into your reservoir and usually won’t form precipitates when proper procedures are followed.
- Powdered synthetic nutrients are cheaper to buy and cheaper to transport.
- Synthetic nutrients have a very long shelf life and remain stable in your reservoir for a very long time.
- Synthetic nutrients are made with processes that may not be considered environmentally friendly.
- Synthetic nutrients don’t benefit as much from mycorrhizae or other beneficial microbes, which could result in a less-than-ideal microbial makeup in your medium.
- Synthetic nutrients are not perceived well by most consumers, and could have a negative impact on your sales.
- Public perception of organic nutrients is very positive, and could have a positive impact on your sales.
- Organic nutrients align with environmentally-friendly growing methods such as integrated farming and permaculture. These nutrients are considered more environmentally-friendly.
- Organic nutrients benefit greatly from microbial inoculants and help to maintain a positive microbial makeup in your medium. This could make them less labor-intensive and more self-sustaining.
- Organic nutrients cannot be used in all mediums or all hydroponic setups, particularly hydro setups that rely on fine mists (such as aeroponics) or small water lines. Organic nutrients are generally much larger than synthetic nutrients.
- Organic nutrients generally have a short shelf life (anywhere between a few months to a few years), dependent on their microbial makeup. Their potency degrades over time.
- Organic nutrients are usually more expensive.
- Organic nutrients may cause precipitation in your reservoir, even when mixed properly.
- Organic nutrients take much longer to become bioavailable to your plants, making precision dosing difficult.
What the heck are “veganic” nutrients?
Veganic nutrients take organic nutrients a step further by applying vegan principles. Organic nutrients frequently include animal materials such as bat guano, bonemeal, fishmeal, and more. Veganic nutrients discard nearly all animal materials with an emphasis on fermented plant materials or naturally-occurring minerals.
What about Compost Teas, Enzymes, Mycorrhizae, and Microbial Inoculants?
All of these products serve a somewhat similar purpose to each other, but the essential idea is that they enhance the microbial activity in your medium, making nutrients more bioavailable for your plants. These products work best in soil, coco, peat, or any other “natural” medium and do not perform well in setups that use high pressures, filters, sterilization, or other extremes.
- Compost teas are made by taking normal compost and “brewing” it in aerated water. This encourages microbial growth and increases the bioavailability of the compost. Learn more about compost teas in our article on them.
- Enzymes are products derived from microbes that make nutrients more bioavailable. Enzymes work by breaking complex nutrients down into simpler molecules that plants can absorb.
- Mycorrhizae are plant mutualists, and can help break down nutrients and deliver them directly to a plant’s roots in exchange from some extra sugars from the plants.
- Microbial inoculants are specially formulated packages of different microbe species that have been shown to be beneficial to plants. They can function like enzymes and mycorrhizae.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to nutrients. As a grower, it’s up to you to decide your guiding principles and your growing style, and how your growing practices will align with them. As always, if you would like to continue the conversation, you can leave us notes in the survey below, or you can discuss the topic further on our forum!
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About the Author
Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.