Homemade Nutrients: Cheaper Hydroponic Gardening

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September 14, 2013

Getting everything at a super low price has its side-effects. Just look what cheap ingredients have done for our food system. The more-for-less approach has taken a huge toll on food quality, food equality and much more. The purpose of having an indoor garden is to supply yourself with good food. The one thing you need to never lose sight of is that there is more than your wallet involved here. Like your plants. They have a different perspective, and making do isn’t part of it. Not when you want the most bang for your buck.

For the newcomer to hydroponic gardening, a poor harvest or crop failure leads to much disenchantment. Why start off with an exercise in futility? Indoor gardening with hydroponics has enough other ingredients that can lead to growing problems that it is kind of silly to increase the learning curve over something that really matters. Like having good food in plentiful supply grown at home.

It’s a lot easier to get by with less when they have soil to pull critical elements from as needed. You can grow a garden in excellent soil outdoors with very little additional nutrition at all. Naturally, your harvest will be much better with fertilizer, but the poorer the soil, the more fertilization is really necessary. With hydroponics, the quality of the nutrients and essential elements you add to water is all your plants have to work with.



Now if you’re just experimenting, or your crop is purely for pleasure rather than sustenance, then a cheap, homemade nutrient solution might be just the ticket. However, poor results will certainly cost more in terms of your other investments – like your time, space, water use, energy bill, and anticipation. Oh yes, and the price paid for your equipment. Even if you built the hydroponic system yourself, it isn’t free.

One enterprising blogger recommends that you simply dissolve commercial fertilizer in water. This would be fine if you were growing plants in soil, but you’re not. Simply adding Epsom salts is not going to cover the missing crucial micronutrients. If it were really this easy to create good quality hydroponic nutrients, you wouldn’t be searching for a cheap alternative for nutrients. Any brand would cost less everywhere.

Then you have the issue of needing different nutes for different stages of growth and crops. How do you propose pulling this off with homemade nutrients? The good stuff, according to your plants, is fine tuned to every element they use to excel from the start of a grow to harvest. Very scientific stuff.  Attempting to match this at home is a bit like swimming across the Atlantic. Impossible. Of course, if you want to start a cheap nutrient company, you can always set up your own lab, and do all the necessary trial grows that goes into perfecting the magic. Simply buying good nutes is far cheaper. It’s faster too.



If you’re going to save money on of your hydroponic garden, then build your own hydro system. That makes far more sense than winging it with something as important as plant nutrition. Just like you, your plants won’t thrive eating the wrong stuff.

Still think it will be a lot cheaper to use DIY nutrients? You can learn how to make them HERE, and at the proper ratios for each of your crop’s growth stages. It won’t be easier, or as convenient as using pre-mixed nutrients where you simply open the bottle and dilute it to fit your crop and tank.

Updated 4-20-2016

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton

25 Comments

  • and the answer is FISH TANK WATER….

    free to make, bigger system = more fish

    • Well, yes Thomas. Fish tank water is free nutrients for anyone running an aquaponic system. Thanks for adding that, but nothing was mentioned about aquaponics in the article.

  • I have an indoor hydroponic system/garden. And two fish tanks. When I clean the fish tanks (do a water change) I recycle the waste water into the hydro system. I do this to stretch the cost of the organic fertilizer I buy from a local hydroponic store. It seem to do the trick. I am growing some great looking greens right now. Thomas made a great point. Fish poop is great for fertilizing most plants in my experience. Not just for aquaponics.

  • I say you can indeed use soil ferts, i know it works well with tap water.
    no need for cal/mag. fert… check your ec.. calcium nitrate is there if u need it too. all you pay for is packaging marketing and water. hydroponic companies lol wise up people…better with a low urea and ammonium fert, with a higher nitric for your N. in my mind when you add chemical fert to soil it is hydroponic because the fully soluble fert works instantly.

    • It’s your garden and your food, Bishop. If you choose to eat food grown with cheap swill fertilizer, it’s your prerogative. However, not all fertilizer is good quality, and soil nutrition is totally different than hydroponic nutrition. As you can see from the experiences of people that did so in these videos – using soil garden fertilizer in a hydroponic system does not produce a quality plant or an efficient harvest.

      • Hi Tammy, strongly disagree with what you are saying, having used Hydroponic nutrients, i could see no healthier plants or better harvest, so i went back to my original soil nutrients, i have tried a few experiments over the years, and i love my hydro garden. Can you explain further when you say its totally different? I think you should try some experiments yourself? have you tried hydroponics?

      • I have a question n this issue of cheap nutrients. I’m a solid scientist, but just getting into hydroponics. My goal is to grow tomatoes through the winter indoors. My question is this: with all the concern about micro nutrients why is there not more talk about an ebb flow system that goes into loose soil. It would seem that might be a way to get at the micronutrient issue. Personally I don’t care what system works, I’ve invested in the lights but would like to keep the reoccurring charges down. What are the pros and cons of the system I’ve mentioned?

        • Hi R –

          If you’re using real soil – as in the stuff from the ground – your plants will have some micronutrients, which are naturally present in soil. If by ‘soil’ you mean some potting mix based on peat moss or coir, then this would be something to be concerned about. Most growers who use soil as their medium use a drip system, but ebb and flow will work if you have hydroton in the bottom of your pots to allow water to enter easily. Either way, you would be top feeding, and we suggest you use a compost tea like Xtreme that doesn’t contain sugars. It is fungal based, which prevents your reservoir from getting funky and smelly due to the portion of the nutes that leaches into your irrigation water.

          Hope that helps you out. Good luck with those winter tomatoes 🙂

  • Can'Uh'This April 21, 2014

    There are a few different things you can realistically do, but it all involves you being kinda savvy.

    You can buy calcium nitrate for one thing and it’s a low profile type thing, because sometimes, people throw calcium nitrate into yards where they want grass to grow but pines have made the ground acidic. It’s just not the stuff the gub’mun’t thinks is gonna make baby go boom boom, it’s harmless stuff, that covers two things for ya, some nitrogen, and your calcium.

    Ok? But these are the secondary nutrients and it’s the several micronutrients you want to invest to your plants.

    If you grow in a hydro system there are various ways, in which you can introduce very, fine, rock flour, or rock dust, for your seedling to grow downward through in a small tube, or form an initial root ball in, but your hydroponic system has to be able to manage, to keep the stuff in motion.

    In using passive or drip hydroponics, that part’s easy: you just plant the seedling into a one liter bottle, of the most varied and, fine sand, you can sift the rocks out of. That’s enough minerals for your average yearly to feed on, and then the roots, leave your bottle via a piece of fabric or paper, you stuff in there : you can’t just drill holes in the bottle, the plant will get quite root bound, unless you split the bottle, but this gets hard to handle for me, and I actually take old tee shirts, and just pull those over the cut off one liter bottles of sand, with the necks split at the top,too. If the plant’s gonna be pretty big I use two liter bottles of sand, then stick that, into a five gallon bucket, filled with perlite and vermiculite or more commonly nowadays, that goes into coco husk coir which is the stringy coco husk stuff, it’s really good for cation exchange, and you can dust that with fine, flour sand and put that in your perlite but it gets kind of mushy.

    You aren’t supposed to get, white, or very ivory colored, sand. You’re supposed to go to, an area where, there is a river, and there are spreads of fine, dry sand on the banks if possible.

    Now; if that’s not possible, there’s a way to harvest a very, very high fines quality rock dust, infused with dead leaf matter. Think about what I say to you, don’t mess this up, and don’t drown. You’ll figure it out quick.

    All creeks: all of em from mine to Mississippi – flood repeatedly. Now listen: when this happens there are rushes of water where there is major, major, sand, rushing in it : but because, it is some distance: at the rivers around here it’s about eight or ten feet above the regular water level –
    at that height there’s gonna be, this silt, which is very, very, very fine and dusty seeming: and it’s going to be amazingly devoid of any rocks whatever.

    This is what you want. It’s called, ‘river fines’ or river silt and it’s basically very free of clay. There’s some dead matter in it, several percent but it’s okay to use to a certain degree in your hydro system when you screen it, and then have the seedling just grow down through that.
    The citric acid oozing out of the sand, and repeated waterings through the sand, keep the plants doing okay for me.

    Now there’s still, magnesium which you dose in, with epsom salts, and there’s sulfur a secondary nutrient which often, is in the whatever sulfate, your lawn fertilizer you are augmenting, is made with. Choose a wide spectrum fert, is one thing, a good rule of thumb is, you need to at least, be seeing some iron, and some magnesium, sulfur, and manganese, in a reasonable amount.

    See you have the first three, NPK then you have the widely considered secondaries, Calcium and Sulfur. Behind those, rock dust covers all, except I guess Magneisum which is your epsom salt.

    Now: listen. Let’s say you have to buy ferts for a little personal hobbyiing and you wanna feel exotic. You buy, flowering/bloom fertilizer off the shelf then you didi-bop down to the – listen to me: stump killer, and it will be there by whomever, in a little brand color scheme dominated about… a quart or so plastic bottle. Granules.

    It is : potassium nitrate. It says so on the bottle, those words: Contains: Potassium Nitrate. Ok?

    When you dose the bloom fertilizer with it, you can more closely match, then dominate the phospherus fert, with more K – potassium – and nitrogen – that’s N.

    And that means that later you can simply use the bloom/fruiting ferts with a higher phosphorus blend.

    Another thing. Your pH down, should be the cheap battery acid from the car parts store, it’s the recommended greenhouse pH down, because of it’s sulfur addition that doesn’t mess with NPK ratios.
    Battery Acid is often thought of as really corrupt stuff but the fact is, contaminate your sulfuric acid, in your battery with just a smidge of anything else, and it makes it perform more and more poorly; and, battery acid when it is manufactured, isn’t derivative of things that naturally leave heavy metals in it; it has to do with what the processes are leading up to making it. Sulfuric Acid. You get water and pour some into it, then use that to adjust pH to add sulfur, and, seem like you’re a real smart gardener.
    People see the calcium nitrate,
    they see the potassium nitrate by – let me get my bottle: it’s from Wal Mart – the doggone yard sprinkler’s on sorry, it’s in the lawn and garden just cruise up and down the aisle looking for “stump destroyer/stump killer.” The Wal Mart I go to used to carry a bright green brand name bottle now the brand is different and the bottle is high gloss black with a little conical cap and a cut-to-pour spout.

    You pour some into water, you measure ppm change, it’s potent due to the high conductivity of potassium.

    Then when they see you tell them you got “rock flour” or “river fines” and make the tap root/main rootS grow d.i.r.e.c.t.l.y. d.o.w.n. into it for the “other 10/whatever micronutrients – you’re friends are gonna be sayin’ wow, uh, what about those Yankees, this year, wow! They’re gonna think you know your stuff and really, that kinda is, knowing your stuff.

    Oh, and your Epsom’s salt sitting there beside all that other stuff.
    The high phosphorus ferts ”with some secondaries”
    the stump killer for potassium and nitrate “to balance my primarys”
    The rock flour from a special number of feet above the normal level of the river so the “sharp granular sand falls out of solution leaving the flour sand the citric acid from the roots can dissolve faster”

    you’re gonna be the talk of the local hydroponic growers.

  • Can'Uh'This April 21, 2014

    Oh I see I made several typos, I said ‘citric acid seeping out of the sand” I meant to say emitted from the ‘r o o t s’ LoL sorry.

    Also I didn’t explain about the passive hydroponics where, you put the plant in the bucket and punch a hole about 2 that’s two inches, from the bottom of the container. You come by every few days, and you pour in fertigant until it jusssst drips out of the hole so you know you have your level right, and voila: the perlite/vermiculite at about 80/20 or 75/25 works great for most things.

    It really helps you to obviously keep some dry hydroponic nutes around and dose things with from time to time, so you can see for yourself if something’s easily improved.

    Also there are ways when using hydroponics in trays like ebb and flow trays where you can layer the fines, into the bottom where the roots go down, but you have to establish well sealed wicks that spread out across the bottom of the tray well enough, that they can conduct water on that sand, out, but not let the sand out. If you have an Ebb and Flow table this is kind of hard for some people not so hard for others. One way to ensure the silt bed on the bottom of an Ebb and Flow tray is to melt the bottom with a soldering pencil that’s round, then pull through, woven rope, and have the rope snake across the bottom and out through the hole in the bottom so it drains very well. In this way you can sometimes manage to keep an Ebb and Flow tray working, providing the micronutrients, with rock flour.

    Oh; there’s one last thing you can buy from the store in large amounts for hydroponic fertilizer: plaster of paris. It is, calcium sulfate,

    and provides all the calcium and sulfur, you could ever want. I’m sorry I forgot that for you, too.

  • Long winded, this is how i get results: perlite in a hempy bucket or dutch bucket. passive hydro…4 gallons of water two scoops of Chempak n0 4 and citric acid as ph control and i water every two or three days…its better to let the perlite dry out somewhat…do not water every day!
    my hydro garden is that simple kiss….if u wanna go down the nft drip dwc route thats fine too, but why when i found this to be the most simple and the nutrients u water with are always perfect. say what u will my plants are the boom!…Chempak n04..Phostrogen (contains nitrates.or soluafeed do a hydrponic formula for £6 per kilo…

  • Not a word on how to make home made nutes……. At least no nonsense recipes from Jerry Baker. I use Black Label, Fox farm and GH in my systems with good results. I think the backlash against Miracle Gro is mostly a big vs small thing. Certainly the lower price of MG is a consideration for some. I do not buy into the fact that MG is swill that will ruin your crop or garden. Nonsense.

    While I do like the multi part nute systems when it gets to the point where manufacturers want you to add 21 ingredients during the grow cycle it gets ridiculous.

    But then again never criticize anyone who separates a fool from his money.

    • Hi Greg,

      Actually, the backlash on MG is due to the hydroponic garden lacking everything that is naturally found in soil – which is what MiracleGro is formulated for. Water has very little to none of the nutrients the plants make use of even in average ground soil. There are those who have tested it against various brands of nutes in hydro and MG could not compare. But there was nothing mentioned about outdoor garden soil fertility in the article.

      Jerry Baker? He has nothing to do with hydroponic gardening either.

  • margaret Gachie April 20, 2015

    Thanks for the info, but the message is not clear as to the ingredients to be used.

    • Hi Margaret,

      It’s not as easy as you might think. Nutrient companies have a full time chemist making sure the mix is just right. However, in the next few weeks, Garden Culture will publish a post on making your own nutrients. It’s far too involved to put in the comment section. Keep an eye on this category 🙂

  • I’m unsure of why you are so discouraging about making hydroponic nutrients at home. I live in a agricultural area and this is common practice.

    This guys website from 2010 had some pretty relevant info and if you read up I’m confidant people can figure out how to make their own (without being a chemist)
    It’s not swill and it’s the same as a stores just much cheaper and more involved.

    http://scienceinhydroponics.com/2010/07/preparing-your-own-hydroponic-nutrients-a-complete-guide-for-beginners.html

    • Thanks for sharing that info, Joe. This topic was already on the schedule to cover this week. Follow the link in my reply to the previous comment on Friday.

  • Hi, i have calcium nitrate, NPK: 19-19-19, NPK 0-52-43, NPK 0-0-50, magnesium sulphate, and EDTA chelated Micronutrients mix as Fe 2.50%, Mn 1.0%, Zn 3.0%, Cu 1.0%, Mo 0.10%, Boron 0.50%. Can somebody help me that how many grams(each of the chemical) shoud i use to make hydroponic solution for 5 gallons of water. I am very weak with the mathematics so I am confuse how many grams should i use for each of the nutrients in grams per 20 litter. Please help me to make hydroponic solution with available nutrients. Please ..please.. help me.

    • Hi Sunshil,

      Most, if not all of your questions will be answered in this week’s Friday post: Make Your Own Hydroponic Nutrients. It will be live early morning, so you won’t have to wait long. The link will work by 06:10 EST on March 25. (Clicking that link before then will take you to an error page.)

  • Rishi Jalan November 8, 2017

    Best is mix 100gm of vermicompost with 500ml water and mix it well for a min in a mixer and then use it in your hydroponics system.

    • Tammy Clayton November 21, 2017

      Thanks for stopping by Rishi, but you’re heading into organic hydroponic nutrients there. This post is about mixing it with nutrient salts.

  • Nice stuff which guide to make a homemade nutrient solution.

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