Growing Green: Water Soluble’s Place In Sustainability

It is not often that you see the words “mineral fertilizer” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. Responsible use of nutrients in regards to fertilization should be one of the main factors you consider when evaluating how your operation can become more sustainable. Is organic the only way to go or are there other solutions in regards to fertility? When overall plant quality is a concern in potted plant production, is it feasible to produce your best plant material without the control that typical mineral-water-soluble fertilizers provide?

Mineral fertilizers have played a huge part in the construction of what our horticulture industry is today. In the early part of the 1950s, greenhouses were popping up all over our country as the love of gardening moved out of the farm and into suburbia. Home consumers searched for attractive flowers to beautify their homes in expansive flower beds. The commercial greenhouse grower produced and finished plants to fill this need. Today, we have seen a shift from landscape soil beds to large mixed container gardening and micro or dwarf plants for urban environments. All of these plants are still produced by the ever-adaptive commercial grower, either in small greenhouses or very large operations, challenged with the need to fill the demand created by the trends of the home gardener.

Fertilizers provide the integral nutrients needed for plant growth in environments where these nutrients are not naturally present. Water-soluble formulas are composed of synthetic or naturally occurring raw materials that are highly soluble in water. By dissolving into a true solution, water soluble fertilizers will provide each nutrient in a form that is 100 percent available to the plant for uptake by roots or leaves. This offers detailed control of the nutrients being directly delivered to your plant. You control the concentration of the fertilizer solution and the frequency that the nutrients are applied to the plant through your irrigation system. This will let you regulate the types of growth that are desired.

Improving the sustainability of your operation has to include an increased awareness of the nutrients you apply to your plants. Become more “nutrient conscious” by utilizing the most appropriate forms of nutrients specific to plant growth stage and growing conditions. The following are suggestions toward increased nutrient accountability. By incorporating some or all of these practices, you will improve your daily fertility program and reduce the risk of unused or over-applied nutrients, without jeopardizing the loss of control of your high-quality plant material. 

Best Management Practices

Best Management Practices (BMPs) have been suggested for many years as guidelines for continual improvement in making growers’ routines more efficient and less wasteful, and have less of an impact on our environment. There are several that apply to the use of water-soluble fertilizers: 

Fertilizers For Control

Why are there so many formulas? Do the fertilizer companies enjoy making things more complicated by continually introducing new formulas and SKUs for you to use? Thinking beyond General Purpose forces you to discover why you apply the nutrients you do and how the plant takes them up and uses them.

Formula rotations to control pH (potentially acid formulas versus potentially basic formulas) can reduce or eliminate concentrated acid use. Low phosphorus growing programs that utilize formulas with 0 percent P2O5 can keep plants compact and reduce the need of plant growth regulators. Even learning which formulas can hold plants back for an unexpected ship date delay will help you manage your nutrient application and reduce overall fertilizer use.

The Gray Days Of Winter

In the cool, gray days of winter, a formula such as Dark Weather 15-0-15 can be an essential tool for regulating growth. When the weather is cool with little sunlight, plants take up less water and nutrients, leaving the applied fertilizer to sit in the root zone for prolonged periods of time. In addition, the cool temperatures slow down the rate of conversion of the different forms of nitrogen. Damage to the roots can occur if a fertilizer formula with high ammonium nitrogen (NH4) content is used in these conditions. Rotating the ‘Dark Weather’ formula into your fertilizer schedule will provide the plant with calcium nitrate (CaNO3), a form of nitrogen that is easily taken up in the root zone. This will greatly reduce the potential for damage to the roots of the plant and provide solid, balanced nutrition under these conditions. Dark Weather 15-0-15 is a very a good tool to have on hand to serve many purposes, including low phosphorous growing, a calcium boost in times of reduced transpiration and holding plants for a later ship date. 

Recycling Nutrients

Subirragation by ebb and flow benches or flood floors are specifically designed to control the amount of water used in greenhouse production. The benches or floors are slowly filled with a water or fertilizer solution that will provide the plant with a uniform amount of nutrient solution for a specific period of time.

The design is to achieve a closed system where the water used is collected and recycled. When used correctly, a significant reduction in the overall amount of water and fertilizer required to produce high-quality plants is observed. This benefits the plant by allowing it to take up the water and nutrients it needs from the bottom of the pot. The residual water-fertilizer solution can be collected in on-site tanks and monitored to replace lost water and nutrients, if necessary.

In-house electrical conductivity (EC) tests followed by regular laboratory analysis will indicate at what proportion nutrients and water need to be added back into the recycled solution to achieve the desired ppm concentration. Lower overall fertilization rates are advisable to only provide what the plant can immediately use. 

Lower Leaching Fractions

When problems arise in your crop, most growers’ first reaction is to leach! Comforting as it may be, the practice itself is very wasteful in many ways. Increased leaching promotes nutrient loss and runoff, as well as increases the amount of time spent actually watering. A decisive watering and fertilizing schedule based on indicators such as growing conditions and plant water status is a more effective way to ensure your plants are receiving and using the nutrients you apply.

Reducing the leaching fraction, the amount of water lost after an irrigation event, decreases nutrient runoff on a per pot basis. A leaching fraction more than 50 percent of the water applied can really add up as nutrients are lost and run-off and money go down the drain. Deliberate hand watering, appropriate placement of drip tubes in the plant root zone, capillary mats or computerized overhead booms are just a few methods that can to keep the amount of water lost from each pot at a minimum. Keeping your leaching fraction low will reduce or prevent unnecessary run-off from impacting the environment.

Taking controlled “baby steps” toward an increase in sustainability for your operation can provide you with long-lasting benefits. Evaluate where in your operation you can improve to become more efficient with your energy, nutrients, materials and most importantly, your time. Remember, providing your customers with the best quality finished plants you can grow will keep them happy and hopefully coming back. In the end, staying in business while implementing some sustainable practices assures your own sustainability in today’s competitive marketplace.


Leave a Reply

More From Fertilization...
Heating Roundup Feature Image

August 1, 2015

5 New Heating Options For The Greenhouse

Five heating systems manufacturers share their latest and greatest products. Tubing And Aluminum Heat Pipes (BioTherm) From Megatube and MicroClimate tubing to DuoFin and StarFin aluminum heat pipe, BioTherm is dedicated to providing heat solutions that can withstand the toughest greenhouse environments. The MegaTube and MicroClimate tubing options are easy to install and ideal for bench or floor heating. The tubing has a conductive heating surface that allows for maximum root-zone heating. The DuoFin and StarFin aluminum pipe options are great for perimeter heating and melting snow trapped in the greenhouse gutter. It can also be useful for bench heating. Both pipe options provide gentle, radiant heat for plants and don’t require welding. Infinite Energy 2 Condensing Boiler (Delta T Solutions) With up to 98 percent efficiency, the IE2 condensing boiler boasts a stainless steel heat exchanger with larger waterways to ensure maximum heat transfer. The product’s design ensures flexibility while […]

Read More

July 31, 2015

All-America Selections Promotes Garden-Fresh Cooking

All-America Selections (AAS) has stepped forward with another first when promoting AAS Winners, this time in the form of cooking videos using vegetables/edibles that have performed extremely well in the AAS Trials. These days, a love of gardening is directly related to a passion for cooking. Tying the two together is a natural when marketing joys of cooking with fresh vegetables from the garden and farm market. After 82 years of conducting trials where only the best performers are declared AAS Winners, the organization now has more than 325 individual varieties that have been “Tested Nationally & Proven Locally.” It is some of these many varieties that culinary storyteller, entertainer and horticulture industry veteran Jonathan Bardzik will use in a series of five videos demonstrating cooking techniques with AAS Winning herbs and vegetables. “I am excited to partner with All-America Selections to show people across the country that AAS Winners perform […]

Read More
Burpee Home Gardens Brand Adds Flowers

July 31, 2015

4 Reasons Retailers Snub National Brands

Greenhouse Grower’s lead editor, Laura Drotleff, and I got into a debate about why garden retailers, especially independent garden centers, snub marketing efforts from breeders and growers. She was very much on the breeders’ and growers’ side, expressing frustration about how limited retailers’ vision can be on the topic. I’ve reported on the garden retail side of the industry since 1998, about the same length of time Laura has reported on growers. I’ve heard a lot of retailer views on this, so allow me to share the most common reasons why retailers decline free marketing: Costs. While the marketing materials are free, and sometimes advertising, participating in these projects usually requires minimum orders. From a grower’s perspective, the minimum orders are reasonable. If garden stores promote a plant line, they need to have enough supplies to satisfy demand. From a retail perspective, if inventory reports show a plant line can […]

Read More
Latest Stories

June 13, 2015

UMASS Fertilizer Trials Recommend Nature’s Source Organ…

In a recent online fact-sheet at its Extension website, the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment lists Nature’s Source Organic Plant Food 3-1-1 as “the best liquid organic fertilizer,” according to Dr. Douglas Cox, Stockbridge School of Agriculture. It is called-out by the Extension after a number of years of studying the use of organic fertilizers for growing commercial greenhouse crops. The trials evaluated traditional water soluble and granular slow-release chemical fertilizers. Dr. Cox recommends Nature’s Source Organic Plant Food 3-1-1 as a liquid fertilizer that is readily available, cost effective, OMRI-listed and with good label directions for greenhouses. He also mentions the ease-of-use in how it mixes well with water and can pass fertilizer injectors. “Nature’s Source is currently the best liquid organic fertilizer,” Cox wrote in his article “Organic Fertilizers – Thoughts on Using Liquid Organic Fertilizers for Greenhouse Plants,” “I have seen no foliar chlorosis yet with this fertilizer. Nature’s source is widely available and a great […]

Read More

January 9, 2015

6 New Fertilizer Products For Healthy Plants

These five products add even more options for delivering nutrients to the root zone.

Read More

January 7, 2015

Fertilizers And The Future

As growers look for new ways to cut costs and conserve resources, fertilizer and equipment companies are offering products that strive to save water, reduce toxic runoff and keep chemicals out of the equation.

Read More

December 31, 2014

Gain Greater Control Of Fertilizer With Automated Ferti…

University researchers look at integrating irrigation and fertilization with the help of water sensors to reduce fertilizer treatments and improve application timing.

Read More

October 30, 2014

Basics & Beyond: Comparing Substrate Fertilizer Ame…

Cornell University researcher determines if substrate-incorporated slow-release fertilizers can be used to replace or reduce the need for liquid fertilizer for four spring crops.

Read More

July 24, 2014

Using Controlled Release Fertilizers To Produce Garden …

Researchers determined whether or not garden mums can be grown with controlled-release fertilizer, and if it reduces fertilizer leaching, as compared with water-soluble fertilizers.

Read More

March 14, 2014

New Foliage Pro Fertilizer Offers Complete Nutrition Pl…

Dyna-Gro Nutrition Solutions has developed a process it says is capable of keeping all 16 essential plant nutrients in solution form.

Read More

January 30, 2014

OASIS Grower Solutions Introduces New One-Bag Hydroponi…

The new 16-4-17 Hydroponic Fertilizer from OASIS Grower Solutions (OGS) is a one-bag solution that replaces two-part systems traditionally used by commercial hydroponic growers. It is specifically formulated for commercial hydroponic production of lettuce, herbs and vegetables.

Read More

December 30, 2013

Fertilizer Changes Growing Mix pH

When considering a fertilizer's influence on media pH, you need to know its acid or basic reaction.

Read More

December 30, 2013

Basics & Beyond: Fundamentals Of Phosphorus Nutriti…

Phosphorus is an essential element, after all.

Read More
Everris Liquid S.T.E.M.

December 30, 2013

New Fertilizers For 2014

New fertilizer products not only deliver optimum nutrition, they also provide for easier application and increased efficiency. Check out these new products to help your operation produce a healthy crop in 2014. Click through on the pages below.

Read More

December 18, 2013

Focus On Fertilizer: Micronutrients And Organics

New fertilizer products are focusing on micronutrients and providing efficient options for organic production.

Read More

August 27, 2013

BioWorks Adds EcoVita To The Verdanta Family Of Biofert…

EcoVita, a homogeneous granular organic fertilizer, has been added to Bioworks Inc.’s Verdanta biofertilizers product family. This fertilizer will be manufactured and supplied to BioWorks by DCM Corporation of Belgium, a producer of natural and organic-based fertilizers in Western Europe. EcoVita is suitable for a wide variety of crops with its gentle release curve including:• Organic fertilization as a base nutrition in potting mixes• Leafy vegetables• Fruiting vegetables (s a top dressing) • Roses and other ornamentals The new fertilizer offers long-lasting and continuous action for 75 to 100 days and contains organic phosphorus (5 percent P2O5) for fast rooting. Nutrients in EcoVita are gradually released by the soil microbes, in addition to producing humus for better rooting and less leaching. EcoVita is OMRI Listed, making it suitable for use in organic production. “We’re pleased to introduce EcoVita 7-5-10 as our organic NPK product to complement our organic products: K-Vita 2-0-20 […]

Read More

April 29, 2013

Rockwell Farms Introduces Ready-To-Pour Container Ferti…

Rockwell Farms has introduced Rockwell Farms Plant Food, a bottled liquid fertilizer that does not need to be diluted before use. Always looking for ways to help the consumer succeeed, Jason Roseman of Rockwell Farms says the operation is also always looking for ways to get consumers to come back and buy more plants and flowers. “We feel like fertilization is one of those things that can be very confusing,” Roseman says. “Not everyone does it, and not everyone knows what they’re supposed to do.” The solution: Rockwell Farms Plant Food. The formulation is 150 ppm of a 20-10-20 fertilizer and is sold in 24-ounce bottles. Rockwell recommends that one bottle be used to fertilize 1.5- to 3-gallon outdoor plant and flower containers every 21 days. The product’s signage shows a young patio gardener pouring the bottled fertilizer on a windowbox with the tagline, “Just pour on your way out […]

Read More

April 29, 2013

Plant Products To Be Purchased By MGS Horticultural And…

MGS Horticultural Inc., a full-service supplier of fertilizers, pest control products, seeds and substrates in North America, together with Haifa Chemicals, a global supplier of potassium nitrate for agriculture and industry, specialty plant nutrients and food phosphates, today announced a plan to purchase Canadian fertilizer and pesticides supplier Plant Products Co. Ltd. The deal is anticipated to close by the end of June 2013. MGS will acquire Plant Products’ Canadian distribution business, sales force and name. MGS plans to use both names (MGS Horticultural and Plant Products) in all communications going forward. MGS will maintain locations in Leamington, ON; Brampton, ON; Laval, QC; St. Hyacinthe, QC; and Detroit, Mich. As part of the deal, MGS has signed multi-year agreements with Haifa to maintain exclusive distribution of Plant-Prod Soluble Fertilizers, Acer Controlled Release Fertilizer, Stim-Root and potting soil premix fertilizers for distribution in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Eastern Canada. “MGS is excited […]

Read More

March 19, 2013

Irrigation And Fertilizer Tips For New Vegetable Grower…

Compared to other variable costs, fertilizers are not the largest part of the budget in conventional greenhouse production. Nevertheless, over the course of the season, mistakes in fertilizer use can lead to significant damages or crop losses. That makes this an important topic for ornamental growers who are experimenting with growing vegetable crops. This article will emphasize major differences between fertilizers used in vegetable production and in ornamentals production. The different nutrition strategies, monitoring and water volume per plant will also be explained. Fertilizer In ornamental production, nutrients are delivered using various water-soluble fertilizers through a fertilizer injector, through the use of controlled-release fertilizers, or a combination of the two. There are numerous fertilizer mixes available with all the needed nutrients already included. The fertilization rate is often given in parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen (N), which is a way of expressing the fertilizer concentration. At younger stages, plants will […]

Read More

March 11, 2013

Daniels Plant Food Rebranded As Nature’s Source

Ball DPF has announced the launch of Nature’s Source, a rebranding in name and packaging for its seed extract-based plant fertilizer product Daniels Plant Food. The new brand will make its industry debut at California Spring Trials. “While we are proud of our heritage, we made this bold decision because we’re expanding sales to our existing market segments and entering new ones. It was a good opportunity to start with a fresh name and a modern look for all our products and packaging,” says Chance Finch, general manager for Ball DPF. “We wanted to make it obvious, beginning with our Nature’s Source brand name, to know our products are sourced from nature. Growers, contractors and gardeners can be confident that our effective and unique formulations remain unchanged. We’re excited about launching updated packaging for all our products, and especially the new ready-to-spray plant food for home gardeners.” The Nature’s Source brand […]

Read More

March 6, 2013

Everris Introduces E-Max Release Technology Coating Che…

Everris has introduced its new E-Max Release Technology, a proprietary coating chemistry for use on a wide variety of nutrient components that are incorporated into controlled-release fertilizer products. According to Chris Buchheit, marketing manager for Everris’ ornamental horticulture products, E-Max will help Osmocote and the company’s other existing brands deliver even better performance and value. “This coating will aid in the development of products that both complement and enhance our Osmocote portfolio and other fertilizer lines. It will increase Everris’ flexibility to create customized nutrition programs designed for horticulture growers,” Buchheit says. E-Max Release Technology is a durable, cutting-edge, reacted polymer coating for use on a variety of essential macro- and micronutrients. Nutrients coated with E-Max Technology are produced to the same performance standards as Osmocote. It will allow for continued expansion of the Everris portfolio, the ability to further enhance nutritional values and an efficient use of a grower’s […]

Read More