By George Dogood

Hydroponic or organic? This is commonly one of the first questions indoor growers must answer before they plan their first grow. So why might one choose hydro? And do the concepts of “hydroponics” and “organic” have to be mutually exclusive? Can a grower do both? Like most things in the world of growing cannabis, the answer is mostly up to the grower.

First let’s take a look at the advantages to growing with hydroponic methods. The biggest advantage of hydroponic growing can be summed up with one word: “control”. To be specific, hydroponic growing allows the grower to have complete control over the pH and nutrient package to which the roots, and therefore the plants, are exposed. For this reason, hydroponic growing methods lend themselves to full automation more easily than fully organic growing methods, which of course has its own set of advantages. In addition to this, by only exposing roots to a pH balanced, nutrient rich solution, plants can and often do experience explosive growth rates. A well maintained hydroponic grow can usually shave a solid week of veg time off of harvest timelines when compared to more organic methods. In a world where time is money, this can really count.

Of course, like most good things, there are also some serious drawbacks to hydroponic growing methods. To begin with, the dependence on pumps and automation can sometimes allow poorly timed equipment failure to cause massive and catastrophic crop failure. In some systems where plants require constant timed feedings, a single night without a pump functioning can cause total crop loss. In addition to this, in hydroponic growing, to a great degree, your pH is God. If that pH is kept happy, all will be well in your hydroponic universe. But by that same degree, an angry pH can bring your whole world crashing down. A wild pH swing, especially if it drifts too high, in a hydroponic grow, can again cause catastrophic crop failure. To put it another way, hydroponic grow methods tend to be far less forgiving than organic soil growing.

The other drawbacks to hydroponic growing methods are much more commonly an issue for fully mineral hydroponic grows. These relate to the finished product, especially in terms of the burn, and the taste/terp profile. Many factors play a role with this, and of course a well flushed and well grown fully mineral hydroponic bud will burn and taste fantastic, but fully mineral hydroponic grows often produce buds that struggle with translating smells into tasty smoke.

It’s the classic connoisseur’s struggle. It looks great. It smells great. But it burns and tastes like shit. Or maybe not like shit, but it definitely doesn’t taste and feel as good as it smells and looks. This is almost always the result of fully mineral hydroponic grows. Now, admittedly, this problem is almost never caused by simply being a fully hydroponic mineral grow, but rather due to chemicals more typically found in the finished product from such grows. Large amounts of heavy metals left in finished product can ruin taste and burn. More sinister even than heavy metals, PGRs, or Plant Growth Regulator hormones, are being used commonly on cannabis crops despite being strictly for use in ornamental crops. Even then, certain PGRs like Paclobutrazol (made famous by the now discontinued product Gravity) are carcinogenic to even handle. Many of the newer mineral nutrients to hit the market contain PGRs like Paclobutrazol and many of them do not list it. This is not only illegal, it is immoral. If you are using a mineral product, and the listed ingredients don’t seem to match the results in your plants, there is a good chance there are unlabeled and potentially carcinogenic PGRs in that product and you should contact the manufacturer to find out more. Now bear with me readers while I briefly get on my high horse. If you are producing a fertilizer for this plant, and knowingly adding a carcinogenic PGR or other chemicals. If you are producing this plant, and knowingly using carcinogenic ingredients or sprays. If you turn this medicine into a carcinogen or toxin knowingly in any way, you should be ashamed of yourself.

But what about Fully Organic Hydro? We’ve all heard it. “Fully Organic Hydro”. Is it real? Can it be done? Well to quote Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons, “the long answer is yes with an ‘if’, the short answer is no with a ‘but’.” But if you are considering trying to attempt organic hydroponic growing, I must ask you, and you must ask yourself, “Why?” Not to be too discouraging right out of the gate here, but if your focus is being 100% fully organic, you need to be thinking about soil growing, and if your focus is 100% hydroponic growing methods, you probably need a mineral or hybrid (aka not organic) nutrient. To some degree attempting a “fully organic hydro” grow is a bit like attempting to force a square peg through a round hole. FULLY organic nutrients are either in dry form, or are very thick liquids that are not suitable for most hydroponic systems. Even in the cases where they could be delivered effectively, a fully organic nutrient solution would only stay fresh and viable for plants for a few days. A fully organic hydroponic system would involve a custom-made system to accommodate the thick dry and liquid organic nutrients, as well as constant nutrient solution changing and reservoir cleaning. I have seen it done and, frankly, I don’t think it’s worth the effort, especially when organic soil growing is an option and produces better results more easily.

If you do want to introduce organics to a hydroponic grow, I recommend it because it can do wonders for your taste and terpene profile. To accomplish this the most effectively, your best bet is to use organic-mineral hybrid liquid nutrients. The Soul line from Aurora Innovations has been my go-to hybrid nutrient for all hydroponic (and handro) applications for years. The Botanicare Pure-Blend Pro and Fox Farm Tiger Bloom are other well-known and commonly used nutrients that allow growers to bring organics into their fully hydroponic grows. Hydroponic growing methods, though they certainly vary, can all do wonders, with or without organics being incorporated. The important thing is to weigh the pros and cons of these various choices and methods, many of which I have tried to lay out in this article, and find the style of gardening that is right for you and your situation.

Whatever your style, happy gardening!