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Matching Water Soluble Fertilizer to Water Quality

Matching Water Soluble Fertilizer to Water Quality

Purchasing water soluble fertilizer for your crops is not simply based on what is on sale or selecting a “geranium fertilizer” for your geraniums; it is based mostly on the quality of your water source. Water has a significant impact on the pH of the growing medium and may also provide sufficient levels of certain beneficial nutrients, keeping them off your fertilizer program. To develop a fertilizer program, have the water tested for alkalinity, nutrient levels and electrical conductivity (EC) which is a measure of the total salts.


To start developing a fertilizer program, begin with the alkalinity. Alkalinity is not a measure of pH, but a measure of the bicarbonates and carbonates present in the water and is expressed in parts per million (ppm) calcium carbonate. Essentially, alkalinity is a measure of the quantity of “limestone” in the water. Therefore, the higher the alkalinity of a water source, the more “limestone” that is applied with each irrigation and the faster the pH of the growing medium rises. This rise can be offset by using a potentially acidic fertilizer and / or injection of acid. Likewise, if the alkalinity is low, then the use of a fertilizer with low potential acidity or even potential basicity may be indicated.

The table below provides suggestions to help in selecting a fertilizer based on water alkalinity:

 water alkalinity fertilizer chart

These ranges are only guidelines and assume fertilizer is applied as a constant feed, at normal rates. This information does not apply to young plant production. Guidelines may be different depending on the crop, stage of development, watering and feeding frequency. 

Nutrients in Water

Next, look at beneficial elements coming from the water.  Most water soluble fertilizers provide nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients, but many do not provide significant levels of calcium, magnesium or sulfate. These three nutrients can come from the water and are needed continuously by plants at the following levels:

Plants nutrients

If any of these three nutrients are found in the fertilizer solution at levels below these normal ranges, then they need to be provided. Below is a guideline that suggests corrective measures if one or more of these nutrients are at insufficient levels in your fertilizer program:

nutrients fertilizer program

*Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) cannot be mixed with a calcium-containing fertilizer in the same stock tank.

**Sulfuric acid is only needed if water alkalinity is high. 

If a Cal-mag fertilizer or high-percent calcium fertilizer is used, remember that they are potentially basic and will cause growing medium pH to rise over time. If the water alkalinity is above 60 ppm, rotate every other feed with a potentially acidic fertilizer to offset potential rise in growing medium pH. Below are guidelines to help determine the potential acidity of a fertilizer needed when a potentially basic fertilizer must be used:

cal-mag fertilizer chart

These ranges are only guidelines and assume fertilizer is applied as a constant feed, at normal rates and both fertilizers are used every other time. These suggestions do not apply to young plant production. Guidelines may be different depending on the crop, stage of development, watering and feeding frequency.

Soluble Salts

Finally, let's look at the total amount of soluble salts that are coming from the water. Most water sources have manageable levels of total salts, but if the E.C. of the water exceeds 0.80 mmhos/cm, then soluble salts can accumulate in the growing medium and cause problems. Frequent leaching reduces salt build up and fertilizing at the lower end of recommended rates also reduces salt inputs into the growing medium. If the EC of the water exceeds 2.0, then the water may be unusable for crop growth unless it is blended with rain water, filtered using reverse osmosis, etc.

The composition of the soluble salts is also important. If the high salts are coming mostly from calcium, magnesium and sulfate, then plants can tolerate higher levels of these elements as they will use them. However, if the soluble salts are made up of mostly sodium and chloride, then the water will be more problematic for crop growth. For example, if the sodium levels exceed 80 ppm and chloride 100 ppm, then crop growth can be negatively impacted as plants will take these elements up as opposed to supplied fertilizer. If these rates exceed 150 and 200 ppm, respectively, then reverse osmosis or other water treatment options may be needed.  

For more information on designing a fertility program that works with your water and crops, please feel free to contact your Premier Tech Grower Services Representative:

BLOE         PEEJ             LAWL

Ed Bloodnick
Horticulture Director
US-South East

JoAnn Peery
Horticulture Specialist
US-Central, Canada-Central

Lance Lawnson
Horticulture Specialist
US-West, Canada-West


Troy Buechel
Horticulture Specialist
US-North East

Susan Parent
Horticulture Specialist
Canada-East, US-New England

Jose Chen Lopez
Horticulture Specialist
Mexico, Latin & South America

PRO-MIX® is a registered trademark of Premier Horticulture Ltd.

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