Creativity is sometimes defined as “the ability to take two or more, unrelated ideas and merge them into something unique and useful”. Sometimes, such invention is more a result of serendipity. The origin of K-Lite fertilizer is a little bit of both. First some background on the inventors.
I am a ceramic engineer & ceramist by education, and spent my career in the glass/ceramic and chemical industries. Rick Lockwood is a microbiologist who was working on toxicity in fresh water mollusks. We met through our interest in paphiopedilums and the various fertilizer discussions on the Slippertalk online forum.
In the world of ceramics, potassium is a very powerful fluxing agent. That is, adding it to a ceramic body formulation will reduce its working and melting temperatures, making it easier to manufacture. Unfortunately, it can also degrade the physical and chemical properties of that ceramic body, making it more breakable and less durable. Rick had noted the high potassium levels in the water surrounding the mollusks, especially when accompanied by low calcium, was toxic to them. So we speculated, “That’s two negatives for potassium. Wat about with orchids?”.
As it turns out, in the plant world, the nutrients calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and potassium (K) can compete for sites within the plant structure. That means that if one of them is in very high concentration in the environment, it may preclude the absorption and incorporation of the others, leading to nutrient deficiencies. While that is an unlikely scenario in nature, for our plants “in captivity”, it’s an entirely different situation, because we use fertilizers that are high in potassium, allowing both the plants and the potting media to accumulate it. Coconut husk chips are particularly bad about that.
Please understand, this is not an immediate “poisoning” situation. Instead, we are concerned about the long-term effects of the unbalanced accumulation. A short time later, we did some digging to find out how well the concept matches up with nature, and that’s where the serendipity came in.
In nature, epiphytes are fed by the rainfall that washes the down through the forest canopy, carrying accumulated dust, animal dropping, and host plant exudates. Chemical analyses show those solutions to contain very low levels of potassium – typically below the 10 parts-per-million (ppm) level; phosphorus (P) is even lower. By contrast, commercial orchid fertilizers used at a 100 ppm nitrogen level (a reasonable, weekly amount), will deliver potassium levels from 70 to 250 ppm.
Armed with the “creative” concept that was backed by logic and scientific analyses, I approached the PhD who formulated the so-called “MSU Fertilizers”, and he derived the 12-1-1 formula for us from one of those. At a 100 ppm N concentration, K-Lite delivers about 8 ppm K, which is not only closer to what they get in nature, but slows the rate of buildup.
The product had been on the market since January of 2012, and has proven itself to be an excellent fertilizer for all orchids and other epiphytes. Fertilizer formula may not be a critical factor in orchid culture, but why not use one that mimics and improves upon nature?