When you start gardening, you suddenly have a whole world of new terms being tossed around, some of which are absolutely confusing, regardless of it being soil-based or hydroponics. Many of these have to do with testing your soil, pH levels, and produce for nutrients. One of these tests involves testing for Brix degrees, which measures the nutritional value of your plants. Because your plants pull up their nutrients from your fertilized soil or your nutrient solution (in hydroponics), it’s a good general indicator of plant health and soil nutrition. But what are they, what are they not, why are they important and how do you test for them? Here’s some more information to help get you started.
Brix Degrees were originally developed for the winemaking industry, with a higher number or degree representing a higher overall quality of fruit or vegetable. Initially used to measure fruit sugar levels in the field, this was true not only in terms of flavor, but also in terms of nutrition. When testing for Brix degrees, different plants have different ranges that are considered to be optimum, because sugar is part of the measurement, so an asparagus shoot with a Brix of 8-10 is just as good as a pineapple ring with a brix of 20-22. But what exactly are Brix degrees, how do they reflect soil nutrition and how do they impact plant nutrition?
A Brix tester works by measuring how far light is bent when it passes through a drop of the juice of the fruit or vegetable. Pure water bends the light at a specific degree when it’s at a particular temperature. Water that contains other materials, including sugars and minerals, changes that angle, creating a measurable variable. The more minerals and sugars that are contained in the juice, the higher the degrees Brix and overall nutrition of the plant. It was originally developed for vineyard use, where sugars were the main compound being tested for, but it was quickly discovered that the testing device read minerals
Though Brix degrees testing gives you a good general-purpose look at your plant health and soil nutrition, it’s not an all-encompassing test. As an example, it won’t show you if you have a deficiency or excess of a specific nutrient. However, most serious plant nutritional deficiencies happen gradually, so if you have your soil tested once or twice a year, you can use brix testing between times to monitor your soil’s general condition. Further, if dealing with hydroponics, you could test your nutrient levels in your solution on a weekly-basis.
So how do you determine whether you may have a bigger-picture issue with plant nutrition? That’s something that will take a certain level of experience and testing to determine. However, certain traits are common to plant nutritional deficiencies. If you have yellowing or blackening of either new or old leaves, this is a common sign of several specific nutrient deficiencies. This document from the University of Montana has a great flow chart for determining the exact nutritional deficiency of your plant. Another common nutritional deficiency shows up as blossom end rot in fruits and vegetables, which shows a calcium deficiency in the plant.
The more minerals that are in the soil, the more minerals will show up in the plant. However, it is important to note that the plant will always take only what it needs; so, balancing the nutrient supply is important. In its most essential form, this is the theory behind how Brix degrees work to determine plant health. When a plant receives poor nutrition, the sap or juice has a lower level of sugars, due to limited growth, as well as lower mineral content, due to poor plant and soil nutrition. This causes less material to be present in the sap or juice to bend or refract the light as it passes through a measuring device, resulting in a lower degree of refraction or Brix degree. A plant that has a better level of nutrition available whether buffered by soil or directly from a nutrient solution, by comparison, will have a higher amount of sugar and minerals in the sap or juice. Because of that higher concentration of dissolved solids in the water, the light is bent to a higher degree, increasing the number of Brix degrees that are measured by the device.
What about in hydroponics systems? Because there is no soil in hydroponics, the nutrients are entirely carried in the water that is used in the system. This makes it essential to have the right balance of nutrients in the water, a process that requires regular testing. However, if you’re using a good solution mix meant for that crop, simply checking the quality of the plants you’re growing through Brix degrees testing allows you to determine whether additional testing is really needed or not. This is because measuring Brix degrees provides you with a direct correlation between the concentration of solids in water and nutrition in the final food you grow and enjoy in your meals.
The first time I’d heard about Brix testing was at my local natural foods cooperative. A woman who was very focused on nutrition had bought a brix refractometer online for under $30 and brought it in to test the produce that we received on the truck that month. Though you can certainly invest in fancier, more expensive ones, hers was a small, handheld, inexpensive device that you place a drop of juice in, then you read the degrees Brix on the scale on the device. It was easy to use and provided a simple way to test quality on the go.
Exactly how you use your own Brix degrees refractometer will depend on the exact model that you purchase, but most simply require you to place a drop of juice squeezed from the produce onto a particular location on the device, then take the reading. You’ll be able to compare your reading to the overall scale to determine the state of your plant and soil health, which in turn allows you to decide whether you need to amend your soil to improve readings before your harvest season is complete.
Brix degree testing is a simple, convenient way to keep a general look at your soil and plant nutrition over the course of the season, allowing you to make informed choices about when and how much to fertilize your plants. Healthier plants translate into healthier people, and to help you achieve these goals, Fitleaf is here for you. We’ll help you find the right answers for your home and market garden quickly and easily, making it easier to live your best life now.
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