Rockwool is a mainstay of commercial hydroponic growers - and for good reason. It takes up a minimal footprint and, when used correctly, yields like crazy. We asked Dr Lynette Morgan, a world authority on hydroponic vegetable production, to give us some expert advice on growing tomatoes in rockwool. There's LOTS to be learned here as Dr Morgan takes us through how to develop irrigation strategies for your particular growing environment.
Rockwool, also known as stone wool or mineral wool, is the most widely used substrate for the commercial production of hydroponic tomatoes. It is also a great tool for smaller growers who can benefit just as much from its use in a range of different systems and situations. While rockwool is relatively easy to set up and use, it does require some monitoring and irrigation adjustment to make the best of its ability to hold high levels of moisture and aeration at the same time.
Rockwool originally started as a thermal insulation material in the construction industry: its lightweight but highly aerated nature helps keep heat in buildings, while being easy to handle, cut and install. However, towards the end of the 1960s, trials were carried out in Denmark to test the possibility of using stone wool as a substrate for plants. Things went well and since then rockwool as a growing media has seen some continuing development of the substrate and the tools used to manage it.
Rockwool comes in a range of sizes from propagation cubes to large slabs and even a granulated product. Rockwool is manufactured by melting basaltic rock and spinning this molten mix into thin fibers which are then cooled by a stream of air. Although rockwool is a man-made substrate it is essentially made from rock and considered by many to be a natural product. Grodan dominates the rockwool market world-wide and is the most common brand used by large and small hydroponic growers alike.
Rockwool Preparation, Propagation and Transplanting
Great introduction to rockwool!
Grodan rockwool is highly advanced and is not a single product - growers can select from a number of different Grodan rockwool types such as `Grotop Master,' `Grotop Master dry,' and `Grotop Expert,' all of which have slightly different properties and uses. `Grotop Master Dry,' for example, maintains a slightly drier root zone and is used by tomato growers to steer crops away from overly vegetative growth. `Grodan Classic' is used for multi-year use, while `Grotop Expert' is designed for ultra quick root growth and development. Along with these product differences, rockwool of many brands comes in a huge range of sizes from tiny propagation plugs for seeds to larger cubes for cuttings, mega sized cubes for large plants, a wide range of slab sizes, and as a granulated product as well.
Setting up to grow with rockwool
1. Sit the rockwool down
Whether you are using the standard rockwool growing slabs, large cubes, or even pots of granulated rockwool, basic preparation is important. Slabs and cubes in particular need to be on a flat, even surface as any indentations will cause the material to sink and create pockets of unwanted moisture. Next, realizing that nutrient solution will be draining from holes cut in the slab's plastic wrapper or from the base of cubes, some consideration for drainage of this solution away from the slab is important. There is no point in having well placed and made drainage holes if the solution can't be channeled away from the slab and the material ends up sitting in a pool of stagnant waste nutrient. Many small hydroponic systems on the market these days designed for use with rockwool have trays and channels designed to do just this and these are a good choice for inexperienced growers.
2. Settle the rockwool in
Rockwool, whether it is slabs, small propagation blocks, or large growing cubes, needs to be prepared correctly by fully wetting the substrate before use. Some growers like to adjust the pH of their water to 5.5 before wetting up rockwool, but generally for small systems it's not necessary with good quality brands (unless you have a very `hard' water supply in which case acidification of the water before making up any nutrients would be a good idea). The rockwool should be fully saturated so that all of the material is wetted and then left to drain. Some growers pour water into the rockwool slab before the drainage holes have been cut to make sure everything has had a good drenching, while others just pour water on or run the irrigation long enough for saturation to take place.
3. Remember the holes
Rockwool slabs need drainage - holes or slits should be cut in the plastic sleeve the material comes in. Several cuts are required along the base of the slab. Granulated rockwool should be placed into containers or pots with plenty of drainage holes in the base.
4. Irrigation programs
The most common way of applying nutrient to rockwool slabs or large blocks is with the use of dippers. A simple drip irrigation system should use a dripper with a capacity of 2 litres/hour, with one dripper per plant. Because a standard rockwool slab may hold four tomato plants, four drippers per slab are required, which also means that if any one dripper becomes clogged, the entire slab will still be getting enough irrigation until the problem is fixed.
Developing an Irrigation Strategy for Rockwool - The Moisture Gradient
Rockwool is the most widely used substrate for hydroponic tomato production. The irrigation program for any hydroponic plant is vital for successful growth, development and optimal yields. The most common problem experienced by smaller or new growers is over watering, and usually the grower is totally unaware that it is their irrigation program causing problems with plant growth. Flushing vast amounts of nutrient solution through the root zone in a substrate-based system often equates to plant murder - more is not necessarily better when it comes to nutrient application. This type of mistake is easy to make. After all, many new growers get enthused about hydroponics after seeing a well-run NFT or other solution culture system and assume that plants are more than happy to grow and thrive in a flooded root zone environment. However, solution culture and substrate systems are completely different and need to be managed in different ways for the plants to get the optimal root zone conditions they need.
In NFT the roots should never be flooded: they sit in a very thin film of nutrient flow (2-3 mm or about 0.1" deep), hence the roots have moisture at the base of the root system, but many of the other roots are sitting up in the moist air, accessing all the oxygen they need without being submerged. In a rockwool slab the plants are in a similar situation - at the base of the slab there is plentiful moisture, usually at media saturation levels, while in the upper layers of the rockwool slab the roots are in drier conditions and hence have access to plenty of aeration and oxygen for root uptake and respiration. It is this moisture gradient from the top to the bottom of the rockwool material that makes it such a good substrate. At the same time, growers who are not aware of this property can make the mistake of thinking the rockwool is too dry on the surface and over-irrigate their plants despite having plenty of nutrient solution being held deep down in the root system. Rockwool growing media, when being irrigated correctly, should not sit in a pool of nutrient and be completely saturated from top to bottom like a sponge. It is essential that the rockwool is allowed to completely drain so that excess nutrient leaves the slab or cube under the pull of gravity after being applied- in doing so, fresh air is drawn into the top layers of the material, providing fresh oxygenation for the root zone. By allowing the rockwool material to drain freely, over-watering becomes more difficult, although vast amounts of nutrient drainage from the base of rockwool slabs or cubes is not an ideal situation either.
Setting up an Irrigation Program
Obviously the amount of nutrient required is going to depend on factors such as the size of the plant, the growing conditions, light, temperature and, in particular, humidity, which drives plant transpiration and water uptake. So the irrigation program is going to change as the plants develop. Also an irrigation program needs to be developed and adjusted by each grower for their particular system, environment, and set up and this has to be monitored and adjusted as required. Just following guidelines for the amount of nutrient to apply at certain times will eventually lead to over or under-watering, as each plant and situation is different when it comes to nutrient and water requirements.
Commercial hydroponic rockwool growers have some good tools for fine-tuning their irrigation. The Grodan water content meter allows growers to measure the water content, EC and temperature in the rockwool slab root zone using hand-held meters or a continuous monitoring system hooked up to the computerized irrigation program. However, these sorts of high-tech tools are not often used by smaller growers and a successful irrigation strategy can be put together with just observation, some innovation, and a little time.
Remember the Moisture Gradient
Rockwool propagation cubes and slabs are designed to be used together to minimize root disturbance. Excellent moisture holding capacity and good aeration of the root zone are features of rockwool substrates. Irrigation of rockwool is a little different to other solid substrates because of the way the material is manufactured to have just the right degree of moisture gradient, and because it does give quite a limited root zone for plants that eventually grow fairly large. For this reason, rockwool is best irrigated with short, frequent applications of nutrient, with just enough at each irrigation for the rockwool to reach 'field capacity'. Field capacity is a term that means the substrate has drained fully but is still holding a good level of moisture for the plant roots to access until the next irrigation. At each irrigation, there should be some drainage from the rockwool material. However, this doesn't need to be excessive. Even in closed systems where the drainage solution is being collected and reused, it pays not to over-water and not to run the irrigation continuously.
Having around 10-15% of the nutrient solution fed to the plants, drain from the slab at each irrigation is considered to be optimal. This amount of drainage of solution flushes fresh nutrient solution right through the slab without too much wastage and usually keeps the EC in the slab fairly stable. When rockwool is irrigated and allowed to drain naturally, it will then contain 80% nutrient solution, 15% air pore space and 5% rockwool fibers. A typical rockwool tomato growing slab actually holds around four gallons (about 15 liters) of nutrient solution immediately after irrigation, despite the drainage holes allowing free drainage of excess solution. Four gallons is a good reserve of moisture for four plants, so drying down to wilting point could take a long period of time for small plants.
How much solution should be given at each irrigation? Having a drainage collection tray or channel under each slab allows growers to see how much drainage they are getting after each irrigation (even if this has to be poured off and measured in a jug) and the irrigation program can be increased or decreased to keep this at the 10-15% level. By doing this, the amount of solution to be given at each irrigation can be worked through and adjusted as the plants grow. Keep cutting back the irrigation amount until only 10-15% of the solution volume applied drains from the slab, and then the amount of irrigation has been fully adjusted for. How often should nutrient be applied? Rockwool needs small frequent irrigations, particularly under hot or low humidity conditions when the plants are taking up a lot of water. However, the frequency of irrigation can be as low as once per day (or every other day) for small plants under cool conditions, to over 10 times a day for large plants in a hot or dry environment. It can be hard to judge just how much moisture the rockwool material may be holding at any one time to determine when to irrigate. Smaller propagation blocks and even larger cubes can be gently picked up - the weight will soon tell you if the cube is saturated (it will be comparatively heavy and moisture will drip from the wet base), or whether it has dried out considerably, in which case it will feel very light (compare an unused dry cube to one in use).
Rockwool is an unusual material in that, even when the slab has lost 50% of its moisture to plant uptake, the plants are still able to very easily keep extracting water until the slab is almost completely dry - so plants in rockwool can't get water stressed until the rockwool is almost completely dry, by which time the cube or slab has become much lighter in weight. For granulated rockwool in pots or containers, a similar method can be used, either by gently lifting the pot to see what the weight might be (a light pot is a dry pot) or by a light tap or kick: if the pot moves, the rockwool has become quite light and potentially too dry. Another method to try and gauge the moisture status of the rockwool and how often to irrigate is to carefully remove a small piece of the wrapper plastic and examine the moisture gradient of the slab from top to bottom.
Like all growing media, moisture in rockwool can be gauged manually. Lightly touching or pressing the rockwool at the base of the slab will soon determine if there is still a good level of nutrient held in the base of the slab or whether it has become too dry. The top and middle layers of the slab should always appear drier than the base where the reservoir of moisture is naturally held, so only the base of the slab should be checked. Even if the top of the slab appears to be dry, this is not important as the moisture gradient has been designed to give these sorts of root zone conditions - only ensure the base of the slab has sufficient moisture. This process of working out how much moisture is still in the rockwool material is not something that needs to be done for long. Growers will soon become quite skilled at working out their frequency and amount of irrigation for each stage of plant growth and may only need to do this for their first crop provided growing conditions remain stable. Other times when it might be important to have a quick check of the amount of solution drainage or amount of moisture in the slab is when conditions suddenly change - addition of more grow lamps, sudden changes in temperature or humidity, or rapid growth spurts can all change the irrigation requirements of the plants. Generally, good brands of rockwool are quite forgiving compared to other substrates - the material is naturally well aerated and doesn't suffer the compaction issues that some substrates do during the life of the crop. It does hold high levels of moisture, so the chance of drying out is not as severe as it might be with other substrates and being sterile gives young plants, seedlings and cuttings an advantage as well. The irrigation program and water holding capacity of the substrate depends on the fiber density and arrangement, which can differ from brand to brand.
More Advanced Irrigation Practices
With tomatoes and similar crops, growers have the option of using the EC and moisture content of the rockwool slab to help 'steer' the plants into either more vegetative or 'generative/reproductive' growth, depending on what is required. Drying the slab back between irrigations and allowing the EC in the root zone to increase pushes tomato plants into a more generative or reproductive state with less leaf growth and more assimilate being directed into the fruit. A higher level of moisture maintained in the rockwool and a lower EC pushes the plants towards more lush vegetative growth. Skillful growers use these techniques to direct their crop and control leaf, flower and fruit growth at different times, and rockwool is a great substrate for this sort of control via the root zone.
Other Rockwool Tips
EC Levels and Management Checking the EC in the root zone is important with rockwool just as it is with any media. The EC of the nutrient solution in the growing substrate changes as plants extract different ratios of water and nutrients from the root zone. The EC in the drainage solution coming from the base of the rockwool cubes or slabs is the best indication of the EC the plants are actually experiencing in the root zone. As a general rule, the EC in the drainage solution should be the same as or only slightly higher than that applied to the plants in the feed solution. If the EC is becoming much higher in the drainage than what was fed to the plants, then the EC in the feed solution should be dropped back - this is common under hot growing conditions when the plants might be taking up far more water than nutrients, hence concentrating the nutrient solution. Rockwool Reuse Rockwool for tomato crops can be reused - some commercial growers get many successive crops from rockwool slabs by steaming these after the plants have been removed and then replanting. Smaller growers can also do this - a few slabs can be heat treated by pouring hot water through them. Solarization is also possible, as is using chemical disinfectants, although care should be taken to rinse the rockwool well with plenty of water after using these. Commercial Grodan users have the option of the Grodan recycling service, which picks up the used slabs and recycles them into new product. However, smaller growers with just a few slabs of used rockwool can recycle the material by shredding it and reusing it as a growing media, as a component of potting mixes, or by incorporating it into outside soils and gardens.
Practical Questions from Hobby Growers with Detailed Responses from Professionals
Q: What pH should I adjust the nutrient solution to and how do I monitor and adjust accordingly? For instance, keeping the tank pH at 5.8 and the run-off at 6.0 is perfect, but what happens if the pH starts to come back higher or lower than expected? What could / does this mean? And what should be done to correct it? How much should a grower raise or lower the pH of the tank with pH adjusters - when does a situation become 'too extreme' to use pH adjusters?
A: There are many factors that affect pH in the nutrient: some are normal like plant uptake and nutrient formulation salts (NH4 in particular), and some are not so good, like root disease. Water plays a big role and can range from very hard to very soft and hence needs to be handled differently depending on what a specific grower is dealing with. Chemicals for pH adjustment are also a huge topic! The nutrient solution pH is usually optimal at around 5.8 - 6.0 for commercial tomatoes; however, for small systems pH in the range of 5.5 - 6.8 is usually fine and having tight control at 5.8 is not necessary. The main problem with pH is with growers who might have a `hard' water source, which is highly alkaline. In that case, acidifying the water with acid (nitric or phosphoric) before making up any nutrient will give better and longer term control of pH swings (in any growing media). pH should not need to be raised in most situations unless the water supply is very acid: in that case, potassium hydroxide should be used.
Q: I understand that rockwool can be prone to salt build-up if you don't know what you're doing like the commercial guys. Most hobby rockwool growers I have talked to flush either one day a week, throughout the whole grow and bloom cycle, or when they dump the res. (They will commonly give their plants 24 hours of either very low nutrient solution (if so, what EC?) or pure water, or even pure water with a product like GH Flora Kleen. What do you think of these flushing techniques? Do you have any better advice?
A: Rockwool is actually one of the better media for preventing salt build up as it tends to be drip irrigated from above and not bottom watered like with ebb and flow. Flushing is another subject that really needs a whole article to cover the theory, practice and problems with it. Flushing with straight water after a plant has been sitting at normal or high EC is not recommended: it causes the plant cells to suddenly take up huge volumes of water (because the osmotic pressure has been dropped in the root zone). This can cause cells to burst and create major physiological problems - splitting of tomato fruit is one common one; many other fruits and vegetables do the same. Even low strength nutrient can do this. Any changes in EC in the root zone should be done slowly (i.e over days), so a gradual dropping back of the EC over a few days should be done rather than flushing with water. Or better still, don't let EC build up in the first place!
Q: What is the disadvantage of watering rockwool for a minute and getting 50% run-off in a closed system with adequate drainage, as opposed to watering for a minute and getting, say, 15% runoff? If you are only achieving 15% run off, is it not the case that the rockwool is already fully saturated and any additional runoff will just wash out the excess salts more thoroughly? In short, how difficult is it to over-water rockwool? I also can't see what the problem would be for the plant if more run-off was created unless, of course, you were irrigating for several minutes to achieve this much run off, but even then surely the plant won't feel any effect having its roots flooded for, say, 10 minutes, then allowed to drain freely?
A: Rockwool is a media which has been specifically designed for commercial growers who aim to have the recommended 10-15% run-off with the slabs spending as little time as possible at saturation levels - when doing this, the structure of the rockwool has been manufactured so that the root zone will remain at the correct moisture status which is why it is recommended. Also, with rockwool systems, the feed nutrient should be applied so that 'excess salts' don't occur and therefore don't need continual flushing. If the EC is getting high in the drainage solution, drop it back in the feed solution and/or increase the frequency of short irrigations. Rockwool, like any media, can be over-watered if flooded and is best kept below the saturation level for balanced growth.
Q. What's the scientific explanation behind the influence that irrigation strategies have (or, to be more precise, the levels of moisture in the root zone) on generative / vegetative growth? Is this peculiar to tomatoes or is it applicable to other species?
A. Crop 'steering' as it's called is a technique used by commercial growers to manipulate the natural growth pattern of the plant. It's widely used by skilled growers of tomato crops, but also on capsicum and many other plants as well. It's quite a complex topic as there are a number of tools a grower can use in a controlled environment to direct the growth of the crop - commercial growers will use a combination of DIFs (day/night temperature differentials), EC, CO2, moisture control in the root zone and directional heating (i.e. directing heat towards the fruit or tops of the plants) to manipulate the growth of the plant. Different techniques force the plant to send the assimilate produced in the leaves into flowers/fruits when required or direct the plant back to some more vegetative growth if that was what was required. Various temperature techniques are sometimes used to keep seedlings or older plants as short and compact as possible (i.e. prevent stem elongation) and to get the plant to hold back on the production of overly large, succulent leaves.
Commercial tomato growers use tools such as measurement of stem diameter to determine if their plants are getting overly vegetative or too generative at certain times of the year. The basic scientific explanation of why this works is that when a flowing plant encounters 'stressful' conditions such a drying back of the root zone, high EC, high light and temperatures, it triggers a response - the plant wants to hurry up and flower, and to set seed to make sure it reproduces before the harsh conditions can kill it. We sometimes see this effect on lettuces which, under high light, temperature and moisture stress, can flower (or bolt) while the plant is still only a seedling and far from maturity. A plant with plenty of moisture under no particular stress is happy to go on producing a lot of large leaves with no hurry to set fruit and seed, which is great for vegetative crops such as lettuce but not so much with fruiting crops like tomatoes and capsicums.
The 'controlled stress' commercial growers use to direct plants into more generative growth is often via the root zone because with Grodan rockwool very precise control of moisture content in the substrate can be controlled - particularly with the use of the Grodan moisture meter. And in hydroponics, control over EC is also fairly easy and precise. For this reason, Grodan Rockwool has different products for growers who might need to steer their crops towards more generative growth by having a drier root zone. It makes it much easier for the grower to then restrict irrigation and moisture levels in the root zone to steer the plants towards more generative growth and generally the technique is very effective. However, commercial growers use high tech tools likes moisture meters linked to their computerized irrigation program so that the crop is not at risk of being damaged by delaying irrigation to long. Smaller growers can certainly use similar techniques and allow the rockwool to run a little drier between irrigations and keep their nutrient run off to an absolute minimum if their plants are getting a bit too vegetative. Running a lot of nutrient through the rockwool on a frequent basis means the slabs or media are at saturation for much longer, and that favours vegetative growth (although we should also remember a lot of other factors, such as the growing environment, play in a role in the vegetative/generative balance as well).
Dr Lynette Morgan PhD, SUNTEC International Hydroponic Consultants Dr Lynette Morgan holds a B.Hort.Tech(Hons) degree and a PhD in hydroponic greenhouse production from Massey University in New Zealand. Her PhD thesis focused on hydroponic tomato production in both NFT and media systems and improvement of fruit quality aspects. Now a partner in SUNTEC International Hydroponic Consultants, Lynette is involved in many aspects of hydroponic production, including remote and on-site consultancy services for new and existing commercial greenhouse growers worldwide as well as research trials and product development for manufacturers of hydroponic products. Lynette is also the author of 5 hydroponic technical books: Hydroponic Lettuce Production, Hydroponic Capsicum Production, Fresh Culinary Herb Production, Hydroponic Strawberry Production and her latest release, Hydroponic Tomato Crop Production.