Nico’s Nuggets: Step-by-Step Growing: Part 3 – Mediums, Water & Nutrients

The Nico’s Nuggets Inbox is quite full these days and after grouping many of the emails by subject matter it became quite clear that many of our readers are asking for basic step-by-step instructions for the first-time grower.

In order to answer this single “question” with start-to-finish instructions would essentially require the writing of a manuscript. However, I am going to attempt to give such a tutorial for beginners in a four-part summary series of the basics to help the newbies get up and growing ASAP. Each week in the coming month I will cover one basic element of cannabis cultivation as follows: Seedlings & Clones; Lighting; Mediums, Water & Nutrients; Flowering, Harvesting & Drying. 

Of course, there will be some gaps that will require supplemental info that is not covered in these four parts and for that I recommend using the search field on the HIGH TIMES website to find such answers as nearly every topic has been covered on this site over the years. As always, thanks to all our long-time readers and a big welcome to our new friends. – Nico

Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 right here! And without further ado, here is the third installment:


System Type & Medium Selection

Choosing the proper grow medium for your plants is an important aspect of your grow and will depend on a host of factors. Garden space, location and the type of grow system employed are the most pressing considerations, but in the end the type of grow system you choose will dictate the growing medium.

So, to start answering the questions of medium and system type, we first need to consider the amount of space available for the garden. Smaller spaces do not lend themselves to most grow systems currently on the market, especially considering there are a lot of hydroponic and aeroponic systems that consume quite a bit of space. Not to mention, these types of active systems have a lot of moving parts, require enormous amounts of attention and are usually reserved for the more advanced grower. For beginner growers, it is nearly always recommended to start with a more passive, easy-to-use grow system.


Soils, Soilless Mixtures & Containers for Beginners

For smaller spaces (the size of a bedroom and smaller), it is recommended that growers stick to simple potted containers with openings at the bottom for ample drainage. Containers with side vents or that are made from breathable materials (such as fabrics) are encouraged as they are excellent in aerating the medium.

In this scenario, or even a larger grow space that still chooses to use container pots (which many do), the medium selection is fairly straightforward as most growers will go with a nice soft, soilless mixture. These mixtures have the look and feel of real Earth topsoil, but are pea- and sphagnum-based. Soilless mixes are also easily amendable and many growers choose to supplement the mixes with perlite, wood chips, or shredded coco to give the medium a looser, airy quality.

Earth soils and soilless mixtures are also the top choice for organic growers. In fact, organic compost also falls into the category of a soilless mixture as well. Still, it is important to note that many outdoor topsoils are not sterilized and may have pests and bacteria that one may not want to introduce into a home garden. Soilless mixtures are often inert and come ready-made for indoor gardening. Top choices of soilless mediums include the Sunshine ad Pro-Mix brands. These brands will aid in buffering and EC/ CEC management as well. Heartier organic potting soils will include Fox Farms and Botanicare.

These soils and soilless mixtures are ideal for small, hand-watered grow systems. They are also well suited for top-feed systems. Too much water, however, such as with an ebb-and-flow or heavily watered top-fed system, can results in the compacting of the grow medium. This will hinder drainage and aeration, the latter of which is especially important when considering that roots breath in oxygen during the dark cycles (while the rest of the plants breaths in CO2 during the light cycles).

Rockwool & HEC

Mineral wool is perhaps the most popular artificial medium on the market, which is a bit misleading as it is generally not recommended for beginners. Mineral wool, is simply a wool fiber spun from stone and man-made mineral fibers. To better suit the mineral wool for horticultural hydroponic purposes, it goes through a specialized process to lower its naturally high pH.

Rockwool is the top brand of mineral wool and it comes in varying sizes and forms, from long slabs, to smaller blocks, to crouton-sized squares. These sizes allow the substrate to be used in variety of hydroponic systems, including top-feed (drip) irrigation and ebb-and-flow (flood-and-drain) systems. Mineral wool’s ability to retain water will also allowing ample air flow to the root zone make it an ideal medium in hydroponic systems.

Similar to mineral wool, HEC pellets are manufactured from clay and work well in hydroponic systems, especially ebb-and-flow systems where mineral wool sometimes has the tendency to become compacted down over time. HEC balls are also very useful in hydro systems that require the use of basket (or netted) pots such as NFT (nutrient film technique) and DWC (deep-water culture) as they can firmly hold Rockwool cubes or starter plugs in the baskets. The same applies for HEC in aeroponic systems that utilize basket containers to hold root zones in misting chambers.

The primary downfall of both mineral wool and HEC substrates are that they offer little to no buffering around the roots from nutrient applications. Even experienced growers have problems finely tuning their feeding regiment so as not to burn the roots or create a nutrient lock-up from excess salts.

This soilless mixture is coco based. Great for beginners!



Coco-coir, or stripped coconut fiber, is an excellent grow medium that has been on the rise within the cannabis cultivation industry. Heat-treated and sterilized, coco is a fairly inert and neutral grow medium that provides good moisture retention and excellent airflow within the root zone.

Coco can be used as a stand-alone substrate or used in conjunction with other mediums. Many growers mix coco into soilless mixes as well to help aerate the medium and provide extra support in preventing soils from compacting and cutting down on oxygen reaching the roots. Coco comes in a few different sizes and forms ranging from string fibers to small square pellets. Also, once wet, coco softens up and protects roots fairly well.

Nutrient Programs

The first decision any grower needs to make when determining how to feed their plants is whether to used synthetic nutrients or go organic. The latter has many different levels to consider, including whether to feed plants directly or feed the garden’s soil with microbes and let the soil feed the plants naturally. Because of the complex nature of nutrient breakdown and mineral absorption, many newer growers prefer all-in-one solutions. The key to remember when it come to nutrient programs is: Less Is Best. Advanced growers will tell you that it is easier to fix a nutrient deficiency than it is to correct a problem of over-fertilization. When it come down to it, you can always add more nutrients, but you can never take back what you put in (not without a lot of flushing, anyway).

Growing with Organics

Lately, it has been widely discussed that organic and veganic nutrient lines tend to produce better tasting fruits. This notion has all but been proven at HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cups, where the most potent and the best tasting buds have been grown using organic or veganic feeding programs. The counter argument for synthetic lines has been heavier yields. While both have their merits it is ultimately for the grower to decide what the goals of the garden are and then go from there. Some of the best organic nutrient lines out there are Vegamatrix, Aptus Organic, Organicare and homemade compost teas and organic supplements.

It is also important to remember that mixing organic and synthetic fertilizers is counter-productive to the goal of organic feeding. Most synthetic fertilizers kill living microbial organisms that help decompose minerals and nutrients in organic mediums (such as in compost mediums and true live organic (TLO) programs), so when choosing take careful consideration.

Growing with Synthetics

Synthetics nutrients are still the most popular choice for the masses of cannabis growers around the world. There are probably a few reasons for this, primarily being synthetics have the potential to yield heavier (though sometimes at the expense of other qualities) and because they are generally easier to use in application (though this latter trend is starting to fade as new organic products come onto the market). Synthetic nutrients also tend to be much more affordable than organic or veganic nutrients.

General Hydroponics (GH), Botanicare and Advanced Nutrients all started out as synthetic-only nutrient companies and still sit atop the leader board as the best artificial nutrients out there. However, each of these nutrient giants now have organic lines as well and have had success on both sides of the nutrient debate. Surprisingly, Canna, another excellent Dutch nutrient brand based in Europe, has stuck with chemical nutrients due to the fact that organic nutrients are released slowly and must breakdown, whereas mineral fertilizers are available for uptake from the start.

Thanks for reading everyone and remember: Grow… And help the world grow, too!

Top photo: The peat sphagnum soilless mix is covered in white perlite to help lock in moisture. This is OG Kush grown in a top-feed hydroponic system.

Got questions? Email 'em over to Nico at and be sure to put “Nico’s Nuggets” in the subject line!

Follow Nico on Social Media: @Nico_Escondido (Twitter) & @Nico_High_Times (Instagram)

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