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Fernanda Trientini and Paul R. Fisher

Small-scale hydroponics is a growing urban horticulture trend, but nutrient solution management remains a challenge for small growers. The objective was to investigate the potential to use controlled-release fertilizer (CRF) to simplify nutrient management in small-scale hydroponic systems. Three experiments were conducted with the goal of a single fertilizer application during the crop cycle of basil (Ocimum basilicum). Nutrient release curves were quantified by adding prills to water and measuring nutrient content weekly in the solution for CRF products without plants. In all seven products tested (Osmocote Bloom 2–3M, Osmocote Plus 3–4M, E-Max Calcium Nitrate 2–3M, Agrocote MAP 3–4M, E-Max Keiserite 3–4M, E-Max K-Mag 2–3M, and Agrocote SOP 3–4M) an initial rapid release was followed by a plateau, but release rates differed between products varying from 100% (MgSO4) to 60% release [(NH4).(H2PO4)] over an 11-week evaluation period. Total nutrient content in two commercial N–P–K CRF products (3–4 months 15N–3P–10K and 2–3 months 12N–3.1P–14.9K) provided lower Ca and Mg compared with a typical hydroponic solution based on water-soluble fertilizer (WSF). A subsequent experiment evaluated plant growth response using the same two commercial CRF products (single application) or a WSF (replaced weekly) in growth chamber environment. Plants grown for 4 weeks under CRF treatments yielded less than half the shoot fresh weight of plants grown with WSF and exhibited symptoms of Ca deficiency and micronutrient toxicity (confirmed with tissue analysis). Electrical conductivity (EC) of CRF solutions increased over time indicating excess dose compared with plant uptake, reaching a maximum of 5.4 dS·m−1. Nutrient release curves from the first experiment were then used to estimate product release and create a single-application nutritional program based on a customized “Blend” developed from CRF macronutrients plus WSF micronutrients. Plants were grown hydroponically with two dosages of Blend (1X and 2X) and compared with a commercial WSF with weekly replacement of solution. Blend 2X and WSF treatments had similar shoot fresh weight (241 and 244 g/four plants, respectively) with healthy plant appearance and tissue nutrient levels generally within published survey ranges for basil. Commercial CRF products designed for soil or container production were unsuitable for hydroponics, but acceptable plant performance with the customized CRF Blend demonstrated proof-of-concept for a single CRF application.