Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alternative Aerogarden Nutrients - Liquid and Dry Plant Food

With the exception of a class of plants called Epiphytes which are able to extract nutrients from the air, rain, and debris around it (like cacti, orchids, and bromelaids), most plants derive their nutrients from their root systems and the soil. So when a plant grows hydroponically, something needs to take the place of the rich nutrients usually found in soil.

Back in the old days, some of you might recall that Aerogarden used to include white tablets in with their new seed pods. These tablets usually came in a small zip-lock bag. The tablets appeared to be made of salt (they were actually made of a combination of mineral salts, seaweed, a pH balancing tap water buffer, and a binder to hold the tablet together).

To use them, you just plopped two pill into the water. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz.

The problem with these tablets was that because they were moist, over time, these tablets would burst out of their zip-lock bags and seep into the outer box and generally cause a mess. Worse, over time your water would be filled with gunk, which could even clog up the Aerogarden pumps.

The good engineers at Aerogrow then came up with little plastic packets, similar to soy sauce or duck sauce packets you get at Chinese takeout restaurants.

These worked great, but it rubbed me the wrong way how wasteful this solution was--the last thing our landfills need is more plastic. Worse, if you kept the packet more than a few months, they would dry out, leaving you with a pack of dried salt and brown gunk.

I should say these were salvageable. Here's what I did with dried out Aerogarden nutrient packets: just cut them into a few pieces with scissors, put them in a cup of water, and stir. The salts and nutrients will dissolve into water and be just as good as new. But yes, this was a pain.

The latest, and so far the best, solution now is that Aerogarden provides bottles of liquid plant food. Here's what the container looks like from Aerogarden's catalog (next to a fictional set of strawberry crowns).

 Like a bottle of cough syrup, it comes with a cup that you can measure and pour.

Aerogarden also sells nutrients in bulk. Here's a one quart container you can get from their store or from Amazon:

The container will last for more than 100 feedings.While they used to provide different formulations for different types of plants, nowadays they provide pretty much the same nutrients for all plants.

Whether they're in tablet, packet, or bottle form, AeroGarden's own nutrients are made up of a number of mineral salts, including potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate, mono potassium phosphate, ammonium nitrate, and magnesium sulfate. While this sounds like a chemical concoction, all the ingredients occur naturally and are balanced in just the right amounts to help plants thrive (some of these ingredients are also found in multi-vitamins). You can actually use it as nutrients for your Aerogarden, or if you dilute it with water, you can use it for your houseplants or outdoor garden as well.

At 29 cents a feeding, the nutrient is kind of pricey, though. A question I hear a lot is, are there alternatives to the Aerogarden nutrients?

The first thing to understand is--normal plant food (like Miracle Gro's traditional blue crystal plant food for houseplants) is NOT a suitable substitute for Aerogarden's liquid plant food because this kind of food is designed to work with soil--just putting it in water won't provide the pH balance or micronutrients your plants need. You do need to go with a solution designed specifically for hydroponics.

One of the leaders in the category is General Hydroponics, and a lot of people have reported success with a product called MaxiGro. This is a dry product that you mix with water. A 2.2 pound package can make about 200 gallons of nutrient solution. Assuming this equates to 266 feedings (an Amazon reader said that "two small scoops" were enough per feeding), that comes out to about 5.8 cents a feeding, which is a lot more affordable than Aerogarden.

If you prefer liquid nutrients, General Hydroponics' signature product is their Flora Series. These are a set of 32 ounce bottles that meet a variety of needs. You can read the reviews on Amazon to see others' experiences with them and Aerogardens--consensus is that you just need to mix less than their suggested dosage to see great results. With both the solid and liquid nutrients, you'll need to do a little trial and error to get to what's right for your plants.

Have you had success with alternatives to Aerogarden's nutrients? Share them here!