With global food demand on the rise, so goes the demand for more productive, more efficient agriculture. While hydroponics offers many advantages over traditional farming, so does new technology offering advantages in how we feed and water our plants. It seems that the hot topic among growers is, at this moment, fertigation.
What is Fertigation?
Fertigation combines two of the most necessary elements plants need to survive: water and nutrients. In the past, these two tasks were often completed in two different steps. However, the process of fertigation does the job of two tasks with one action.
Breaking it down:
Fertigation is the culmination of two different terms: fertilization and irrigation.
Fertilization refers to the act of adding fertilizers, or nutrients, to plants or crops. These fertilizers come in many forms and may be liquid, solid, powder, or organic mixtures. In traditional agriculture, fertilization involves spreading nutrients per an amount per acre (or other measurement of land), or evenly distributing a nutrient (fertilizer) over a general area of crops.
Irrigation is the means by which farmers water crops and other plants receive an adequate water supply through man-made means. The water delivery may be via a drip system (where a watering hose has drip holes that release water to plants), an underground watering system (such as those used in particularly sandy soils), through redirecting waterways, or even through industrial sized sprinklers for crop fields.
Thus, fertigation is the combination of both irrigation (delivering water) and fertilization (delivering nutrients).
Methods of Applying Fertilizer
There are several different methods for applying fertilizer, many of which have been in use since the earliest days of agronomic (farming and cultivating) societies. For an overview of the most crucial parts of a fertilizer, read our article on NPK.
The broadcasting method involves either hand distributing fertilizer, or using a special machine designed to assist in spreading the fertilizer across the fields. The tools used can include everything from a fertilizer spreader that growers pull behind them (think of a nutrient rich wagon with rotating wheels and slats) or a simple box that growers hold and turn a crank to (somewhat) evenly distribute dry fertilizer.
Direct to/in soil (often for organic)
Also called deep soil fertilization, direct fertilization to the soil is a common method, especially for organic farming. This method can actually be a combination of several different techniques, whether it’s superficially spreading fertilizer (often manure or compost) on the soil, turning the soil and combining fertilizer to enrich it, or placing the fertilizer in specific places along crop rows.
Sprinklers are also often used to spread fertilizer to an area of crops. While this is similar to the concept of fertigation, the main purpose behind it is not to water crops. The main goal is simply to spread nutrients, typically in liquid forms.
While fertigation is a process, a fertigator is a tool that enables that process to happen. Fertigators consist of a tank that holds purified water, and a nutrient dispensing system. The nutrient dispensers essentially add appropriate amounts of nutrient salts (fertilizers) to the water based on readings that show the amount of salt concentration within the solution. The fertigator then connects to a line, or tubing, which delivers the end product to crops as needed. Fertigators can be used in both hydroponics and more traditional field agriculture.
In short, the fertigator is a device that automatically dispenses nutrients and combines them with an irrigation system.