Are Your Nutrients Tanking Your Terps? Why Chemical-based Fertilizers Obliterate Your Plants Taste and Smell

Going organic can be a controversial discussion regardless of what you’re cultivating. Some argue in favor of scientifically formulated offerings that are specifically designed to be at optimal levels for the plants you’re cultivating. Others swear that organic growing practices are a must for optimal flavor. 

While we have our own preferences, some cultivators are beginning to believe that there is a noticeable difference in taste and smell between the two approaches. Not only that, but cultivators like GreenNinjaGrowers theorize that it isn’t that organic nutrients make your plants taste and smell better, rather, it is that chemical-based fertilizers detract and hinder natural taste and aroma production; organic simply allows the plant to grow unhindered and as nature intended. 

Experienced growers know that it is important to have a consistent nutrient line throughout the plant’s life cycle that delivers all of the compounds and food needed for a plant to thrive. But many growers, especially novice growers, don’t have a clue what they are putting into their plants, aside from what the nutrient line directs. And this assumption that the nutrient line must know what they’re doing leaves many believing that their feeding cycle is the best it can be. 

But what if it isn’t? What if the food that you’re feeding your plant is actually hurting it?

Sure, your nutrient line has likely dialed in the nutrients that your plant “needs”, but the synthetic formulation may actually be harming your roots and killing the microbial activity that is so essential to the bioavailability of your plants’ food. I sat down with GreenNinjaGrowers to talk about the side-by-side grows they’ve been running to test out how chemical-based fertilizers compare to organic nutrient lines and learn more about why they’ve found organic to be the best option. 

Grow Conditions Affect Everything

Growing any plant relies on controlling as many variables as possible, and leaving the rest to a bit of luck and fate. For this reason, many growers work with what they know will provided time-tested results, and avoid any specific changes. GreenNinja is a bit different. For the past two years, they’ve been doing side-by-side comparisons of almost every nutrient line out there, paying as much attention to detail and control as possible. And he’s found that the biggest difference between synthetic and organic grows is the terpene profile, responsible for flavor and aroma of the plants. 

"Terpenes in a plant, they’re compounds just created by the plant depending on what the plant wants to…If the plant lived a rough life of getting chewed on by deer, and stuff like that in nature, then that plant would create a different type of terpene then if it was never messed with…everything the plant goes through, the temperatures it reaches, insects it interacts with, all of that changes the levels of certain terpenes created,” explains GreenNinja.

Whether it’s a singular hot day at during the wrong week of bloom or an artificial additive, GreenNinja has found that every aspect of the growing cycle will affect the plant and its characteristics, most notably taste and smell. When comparing organic with nonorganic silicate, he expected to see similar results; both products offered the ideal amount of the same element. Instead, he noticed specific differences in flavor: the organic side of the grow was fruity, while the synthetic side leaned more lemony. Curious if this would happen each time, he replicated the experiment with the same results. 

“The only real difference we noticed was the fragrance between the two sides; one was more fruity, the other was more lemony. They lived in the same room, they grew the same way, everybody was exactly the same…and every time we grew a synthetic version of something…they all give you different flavors...When you put them side by side, you start really noticing that one of the biggest differences is the flavor. And that’s all terpenes. So, the biggest thing people talk about scientifically-wise is high salt and how salt and not flushing your fertilizer out can change the flavor and you start tasting some of that high salt percentage...but nobody is really talking about how you can up the flavor in the right direction? And one of those big differences that no one has pinpointed is organic nutrients versus chemical-based fertilizers."

A Synthetic Theory

After multiple iterations of this experiment using a variety of nonorganic and organic product lines, GreenNinja’s theory began to evolve beyond a hypothesis to a replicable result: synthetic nutrients were making plants taste more bitter, and might actually be hampering the aroma and taste more than the organics were boosting or sweetening them. “It’s not that [people] are doing better with organics,” explains GreenNinja, "it’s that we’re not melting parts of the plant away with chemicals.”

While synthetics are scientifically optimized to offer the optimal levels of the elements and compounds plants crave, similar to cannabinoids that the plant produces, they are not all created equal. THC, while the same chemical compound, can offer a variety of effect when sourced from different plants or introduced with different combinations of terpenes. Similarly, nutrients appear to be delivered differently when synthesized artificially when compared to their organic counterparts. Without proper lab funding and testing, these observations are hard to verify, but GreenNinja’s theory points to synthetics’ natural tendency towards salt buildup combined with their lack of compatibility with organic microbial activity.

1. Synthetics, Salts & Roots

Even if you’ve never grown a plant in your life, you’ve likely heard a grower mention “salts” in their soil. To be quite honest, before I grew, I was literally picturing growers pouring some table salt into their soils, and this isn’t far from the truth in many respects. In the same way that salty food elicits a certain reaction from our tongue, so do nutrient salts elicit a reaction from your plants’ roots. The more synthetic nutrients you use, the higher your risk for large salt buildup within the soil. The higher the salt content of your soil and the more residual nutrients have built up, the higher your risk of root burn. GreenNinja theorizes that synthetic nutrient lines that result in buildup, even in small amounts, may be the root cause of noticeable differences in taste and smell. 

"With root production, your biggest difference between organics and synthetics is just salt,” explains GreenNinja. “It’s a lot of residual salts that burn plants...If used properly, organics won’t have so much salt to burn your root tips.” 

2. Synthetics & Microbes

In addition to root burn, synthetic nutrients and organic microbes work together like oil and water; over time, synthetic nutrients will decimate microbial activity in your soil unless you are regularly adding microbes to your grow. Microbes are responsible for making nutrients in the soil more bioavailable, and thus more attractive to your plants’ roots. If they aren’t there to do their job, your plants’ will have to do the heavy lifting to digest and absorb available nutrients, expending energy and effort that could have been put towards optimizing taste and smell. GreenNinja’s theory is that synthetic nutrient lines cannot maintain and enhance microbial activity the way that organic lines like FOOP are able to.

“What we have found in recent years with the use of microbes…it’s all about the microbes you’re using...If my organic mix has high microbial count, and my synthetics don’t, then organic is going to do better. But the problem with synthetics is...that you can’t keep microbes in synthetic bottles as easily because it kills them. It burns them out. That’s a big difference we are finding,” GreenNinja reports.

"Organic opens up better door options for you along the process; synthetics close a lot of doors you can’t use because synthetics are involved…it lets a lot more options be available to you in the process, whether you’re growing organic tomatoes or flowers or [other plants]. You’ve got more options. And I like to have more options. Synthetics lock you down real tight."

Will going organic fix it?

Yes! You don’t have to wait until your next cycle to make the change and start minimizing the harm to your roots and microbes. Based on their experience, GreenNinja says that you can turn your crop around as long as you have the time and due diligence. If you’re in veg, you’ve got time. If you’re in flower, you’ll only be able to turn things around in the first few weeks. You can still change to organic after Week 4 or 5, but you won’t see the true difference in the end product. 

“With enough time, a plant can recover from amazing things…If you have enough time and patience, that plant will look better no matter what it goes through…If you were having severe problems and you just weren’t happy with something. Now, you couldn’t do it in flower necessarily unless it was a really long flowering strain because you only have 8-12 weeks. If you get it at week three or four and you’re seeing like really little production and you’re like ‘I’m going to switch over’. I do think you can revert and catch up."

In order to switch to organic, you’ll need to do a full flush of the roots, getting your PPM to as low of levels as possible. Then, introduce organic nutrients and allow your plant time to adjust to the new diet. Just like you wouldn’t change diets the day before a marathon, your plant will need time to adjust before running through its flower phase. "You have to flush the soil really well…wash out any residual in your roots…100% you can make a difference if enough time is involved. If you’re in Week Eight and you’re making the switch, then no, you’re not going to make a difference.”

The data and information on how a change from synthetic to organic feeding will affect your grow is only in its initial stages. Growers like the GreenNinja are advancing our knowledge of how plants are interacting with their soil ecosystem and how we can optimize not only their efficiency but also fine tune their final products. 

The folks at GreenNinjaGrowers and I have both chosen to use certified organic nutrients from FOOP Organic Biosciences in our grows for a number of reasons, the biggest one being the authentic flavors and smells that we’re getting from our plants.

Stay tuned and let us know what differences or effects you’ve seen from your experience with chemical-based fertilizers vs. organics, or a mixture of both!

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