Great success can be achieved by using a fertilization program to provide a complete spectrum of nutrient needs for your plant. That said, there is a world of natural compounds that can improve the quality, taste and pricing of your produce.

Without the use of additives, bountiful harvests and high-quality crops can still be attained. All the needs of the plant are likely met, and in many cases it makes complete sense (economically and procedurally) to use a general fertilization program and repeat the familiar processes that have led to success. However, an experienced grower will often discover that the process of incorporating natural additives into a controlled environment agriculture operation is well worth it. In this article, we will focus on the organic compounds that help create a living substrate environment in which produce can flourish.

Additive functions creating a living substrate

The introduction of essential organic compounds into a medium results in the colonization of beneficial bacteria, microbes and helpful fungi. Although plants will not receive nutrients directly from the application of a natural additive, there are many roles they play and many biological processes they facilitate. Functions of additives include promoting and accelerating growth, improving overall health and plant vigor, enhancing resistance to stress, increasing the bioavailability of nutrients by converting them to a usable form, encouraging blooms and increasing fruiting capacity, creating a stronger plant structure, clearing excess nutrients that may result from an imbalance, acting as an elicitor of the immune system and thus an inoculant in the root zone by improving resistance to pathogens, and creating a biofilm layer of protection in the root zone. Generally, any medium can function as a life raft for beneficials.

Organic fertilizers need something to help break them down into components the plant can use. Organic nutrients consist of larger molecules that bind to the medium through electrical charges. The application of supplemental additives causes the rhizosphere, which is defined as the narrow region of a substrate that is directly influenced by root secretions and microorganisms, to become full of life. Some of the bacteria, fungi or worms feed on the organic matter. They use the carbon part of the larger molecule as food, which frees up the remaining mineral ions to be consumed by the plant.

For example, consider an organic application of nitrogen. Organic additives allow the slow release of nitrogen into the substrate as microbes consume the larger molecules and convert them to nitrates or ammonium, which are usable forms of nitrogen, to be made available to the plant.

Bio stimulants

Bio stimulants include various formulations of products that are applied to enhance a crop’s physiological processes. They work to improve vigor, yields, overall quality and increase shelf life. They facilitate nutrient assimilation and translocation, and promote the development of microorganisms.

Humic acid and fulvic acid are natural bio-stimulant molecules that act as chelators to improve the uptake of nutrients. Chelator means claw, and refers to how these molecules attach to minerals and keep them from being locked into the substrate, while still allowing the minerals to be accessible to the plant on demand. Fulvic acid molecules are smaller, more biologically active and can be used either in drench applications or a foliar spray, while humic acid functions best when applied directly to a substrate or through an irrigation system. They also help stimulate metabolism and root formation, so they make great additions to a cloning solution, and can help a plant or clone that is stressed by heat, overexposure to light or one that is exposed to a high degree of salinity in the nutrient solution. They increase water retention capacity, increase ventilation in the substrate and even act as a pH buffer. They work optimally when paired with a seaweed or kelp extract, which enhances the vitality of plants, encourages root and foliage growth, as well as increases the potential for larger fruits.

Azospirillum brasilense is beneficial bacteria that makes it easier for the plant to use nitrogen in the air. Nitrogen fixation is the conversion of nitrogen gasses in the atmosphere into organic nitrogen the plants can use. It’s particularly effective during the vegetative stage of crop development.

Enzymes, produced by bacteria, break down dead matter into a form the bacteria can then feed on. Enzyme-specific products should contain multiple cultures of enzymes, be derived entirely from natural ingredients and include complex chains of amino acids.

The use of Mycorrhizae fungi helps to build strong root systems by increasing root mass, which results in the efficient uptake of water and minerals. An example is the species Rhizophagus intraradices, which is a fast-growing, beneficial fungi that connects the beneficial microbes in the soil to the plants. This process assists in the uptake of nutrients, especially during the floral stage of development. It helps to reduce transplant shock and may increase yields by forming a network of microscopic fibrous strands that essentially extend the root system. A thimble full of colonized substrate will contain miles of these filaments.

Formulations

Just like nutrients, many additives are specially formulated for a particular phase of growth in a crop’s life cycle. Akin to fertilizer, most are found in a blend. Many additive products are a combination of beneficial bacterias, mycorrhizae, kelp, amino acids, vitamins, as well as humic and fulvic acids. While it is hard to overdose on anything that will colonize in your root systems (it will just result in a stronger, more quickly forming colony), pay attention to the pH when applying any acid to your system.

Conclusion

Regardless of your choice of substrate, the use of organic compounds and additives helps to create a living world full of biodiversity in the root zone. Their inclusion into a nutrient program may help to inoculate your plants from insects, pathogens or other stressors, as well as unlock some potential you never knew your crops had in them all along.