Plant Nutrients Explained: Everything You Ever Need To Know

Ed Wike
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Fertilizer is Deeper than N-P-K

Nutrients are what you need to feed the growing plant. Like fertilizer (a man-made mix which is provided in chemical compounds), you can feed any plant with other nutrients to stimulate growth. But what’s the best way to do it? Simply put: the best way to understand nutrients is with T.A.N.S (Timing, Amount, Nutrient Sourced, and Source).

The plant structure is built on a single molecule. Phosphate (P) binds together with oxygen (O) to make a molecule called ATP (Adenosine TriPosphate), which is what actually moves through the plant to keep it alive.

This molecule, ATP, is the basis of energy for a plant. It’s the fuel. Their bodies need it to grow and as a source of food energy.

For a plant to produce it’s own ATP, it needs nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and carbon (C). To reference back to T.A.N.S, this is all important.

T: Depending on how vigorous the plant is and the conditions that it’s in, some plants need less of this making N more important. Some plants need more.

Primary Nutrients

Comprise Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K or Calcium).

Although there are additional trace plant nutrients required only in small amounts, the primary nutrients comprise a large majority of the ingredients in the more effective plant food products. The primary nutrients are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K or Calcium).

Nitrogen (N) is required for the production of chlorophyll. This is the chemical that gives plants their green color. Plants use it to produce food through photosynthesis. Nitrogen is found in abundance in most soil, but is the nutrient plants use the most.

A Nitrogen deficiency in plants can be observed as slow vegetative growth with lack of color. Plants can also yellow and get small leaf sizes. Most plants that get leaf spots has a Nitrogen deficiency.

For flowering plants, Nitrogen is often taken up as something called an “ammonium”. This is a seperate source of Nitrogen that can’t be used by plants until it converts into a usable Nitrogen source. So for flowering plants, Nitrogen is not easily available. However, if you use a flowering product like Pure Blend Pro from Everbloom Organics, it removes the NH4 and uses the Nitrogen for fruit production.

Nitrogen (N)

Nitrogen is very important for all growth and reproduction of plants. Photosynthesis produces more carbon dioxide than can be used so a simple chemical reaction converts this excess CO2 into the compound, sugar, and the element, nitrogen. When made available to plants, the compound is essential for healthy growth. Nitrogen is the most important of all the nutrients because it is used in the creation of proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of life. The more available nitrogen is, the more available proteins. Proteins are responsible for building leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and seeds; basically the entire structure of the plant. The plants need proteins to create leaves and stems and roots to support themselves, so they can develop properly.

Nitrogen gets its name by being the seventh of the seven building blocks of biology. The other six are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, calcium and nitrogen. If nitrogen is the seventh, then it is placed as number seven in the periodic table of elements. Number seven is used to symbolize perfection, and nitrogen has the symbol N-the perfect building block of protein for any plant's development. Symbolically, nitrogen is used for life.

Phosphorous (P)

Phosphorus is a macro nutrient that all plants need in large quantities in order to grow. It is considered to be the second most important macronutrient. It is also a secondary macronutrient, meaning that plants need it in addition to another secondary nutrient, i.e. potash, because it provides a plant with less overall growth than if it were to have; nitrogen, potassium, calcium, etc.

Most plants require about 1.5 to 2 ppm of phosphorus to grow optimally. The phosphorus that you add to a plant's growing medium or potting soil is a necessity, as it helps aid in the overall development and transportation of sugars within a plant.

Phosphorus, along with other elements, help assist sap as it travels to plant parts throughout the nodes and shoots. By increasing the levels of nutrients within the plant, the shoot and overall development can increase as much as 25% or more. Phosphorus also helps ensure that overall yield within a plant will be improved. Without phosphorus to aid in the transfer of sugars, the ratios of other macronutrients within the plant will be altered, thereby decreasing its ability to produce more.

It is actually one of the more important of the macronutrients that a gardener or green-thumb will realize the benefit of as the soil ages and the levels diminish. Without it, plants will flower prematurely, or under-develop and fail to sustain its own nutrient requirements.

Potassium (K)

Potassium (K) is the nutrient that delivers the energy for photosynthesis to move glucose into the plant's structure to thicken it. A deficiency shows up during the vegetative phase of growth as the growing plant (stems and leaves) are unable to support its own weight, causing the stems to become stringy and weak.

The plant's leaf blades curl and show signs of withering. However, the plant isn't completely without K until the onset of the flowering phase. This nutrient helps the plant produce the plant's sex cells (sperm and eggs) and regulation of water movement in the plant. Other elements that are taken into consideration include the plant's overall health, the temperature and humidity, and the quality of the soil in which it is growing.

Lots of K is beneficial for strong leaves, but excess potassium can actually weaken the plant's structure by producing thorns to protect the plant from overgrowth. Through this process it can also reduce the amount of THC, a psychoactive drug, the plant can create.

During the growth phase, plants need a lot of K. During the flowering phase a little goes a long way. In soil, potassium is most available to a plant when it is not bound by a pH/alkaline imbalance. The following are the signs of potassium deficiency in a plant:

The growing tips of the plant will display the first signs of the deficiency.

Secondary Nutrients

Without primary and secondary nutrients, your plants would be stressed out, not growing and most likely dying.

Primary nutrients are the "big three" nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

Micronutrient is aluminum. Aluminium is a mixture of many components, but it's not a single element. Its purpose is to stimulate plants that are sensitive to the primary nutrients. They do this by mimicking the actions of phosphorous, a common element in the soil.

An excess of primary and secondary nutrients can have a side effect of harming vegetation. A heavily fertilised soil will hold less moisture in the soil and have the surface soil dry out quickly, reducing the amount of time the roots can access moisture.

Although a top dressing of fertiliser may stimulate the growth of the plant, it won't help the plant to grow in a healthy way. It's like feeding a cake to a fat guy instead of making him move more.

Calcium (Ca)

Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for plants, as it plays an important role in photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, flowering, fruit development, and fruiting. In carbohydrates, calcium aids in the transportation of carbohydrates within the plant.

The mobile calcium in the plant, which is necessary for these processes, is exchanged against calcium in the roots. The immobile calcium is used by the plant itself.

The immobile calcium in root cells is used for strengthening the cell walls and for the formation of callus tissue. If the calcium level is too low, the fruits will be small and the flowers will wither.

Plants that uptake large amounts of calcium are peas, beans, cabbage, and lettuce. Among the most common sources of calcium are quicklime, magnesia, and gypsum.

Magnesium (Mg)

Probably one of the most neglected nutrients of plants. Too much Mg can lead to toxicity and too little can prevent plants from flowering.

Mg is the central atom in the chlorophyll molecule and has a role in energy transfer at the molecular level. Plants use Mg in photosynthesis to transfer energy from light to the center of the chlorophyll molecule.

There is a little Mg in many soils. Rockwool or any other type of hydroponic system requires Mg to function.

Mg has multiple functions in plants besides photosynthesis; it is also an activator of enzymes that control many activities in plant cells.

Sulfur (S)

Sulfur is the most plentiful mineral on earth and accounts for close to four percent of the earth's crust. In fact, it is so plentiful that it is less valuable to humans than some of the common rocks, such as granite.

Granite may not be as valuable to humans as sulfur but it happens to make up a large percentage of the earth's crust … but who's counting?

Humans have been using sulfur since at least 6,000 B.C., when the Chinese used it in the production of cement and porcelain. Based on its availability, sulfur should theoretically be abundant … but given the fact that it is still an incredibly valuable mineral for today's plants, we can count ourselves lucky that it is as plentiful as it is.

Sulfur is a multifunctional mineral. It is required by all living organisms to remain alive. It is also required by plants to create protein structures that cannot be created by any other mineral.

Plants use sulfur in the creation of amino acids and enzymes that allow for the movement of energy once nutrients have arrived in the leaves of the plant. While plants may be able to survive fertilizing and growing in the absence of sulfur, they generally would not perform nearly as well.

Trace Elements

Nutrients are any compounds required by living organisms in tiny amounts for the survival of the organisms. Nutrients must be incorporated into the organism by the organism's enzymes or by other organisms such as bacteria and fungi. One important nutrient is water, which provides the medium in which biochemical reactions occur. There are other compounds that the organism is not able to synthesize, and which must be obtained from other sources… nutrients. An organism lives within its eco-system which consists of its habitat, food, competition and other organisms that interact with it. The organism might begin its life with a high level of nutrients within its body and its environment (for example within the amniotic fluid and placenta), but as the organism matures its body must produce increasingly complex molecules, and draw upon available nutrients to fulfill its body's needs.

When the organism dies, its body decays, releasing some nutrients back to its environment, making the nutrients available to other organisms.

Boron (B)

Boron aids cell division and prevents social problems in insects. Without boron, plants will become anemic with fewer, larger veins. There are some beautiful plants such as butterfly weed, cockscomb, and African violets which will benefit from boron supplementation. There are several good boron sources available and the best way to include enough is to avoid the common deficiency.

Deficiency signs:

  • Color- chlorotic spots on the leaves
  • Growth- poor development or shortened internodes
  • Environmental effects- growth and development slows, flowers may not form or may be deformed)
  • Physiological- growth rate slows, often accompanied by a lack of vigor or deformed growth.

Chlorine (CI)

Chlorine or “HCl” is the chemical element used in disinfectants like Clorox and laundry bleach. The ion (Cl-) is the negative ion of oxygen and is produced using electrolysis of the hydrogen chloride by-product of water treatment.

In the plant nutrients, chlorine is paramount in the heavy manufacturing process that forms the nutrients and is the pathway that produces the plant nutrients once they're in a plant. Chlorine is used up by the plant at a rate that mirrors the amount of incoming chlorine. Chlorine is when the primary nutrient flow within the plant is produced and when it is used.

A good thing about chlorine is that if you apply enough chlorine, you are unlikely to ever see iron or boron deficiency signs in your plants. You'll unlikely to overapply chlorine. But you do not want to be deficient in this element, as it is key in the process of producing the primary nutrient flow.

Copper (Cu)

Copper (Cu) is found in only a very few foods. It is absorbed fairly well if eaten with iron, but if an individual is deficient in iron, copper absorption can be reduced.

Copper is absorbed best when low in calcium. As a result, many sources of copper supplementation recommend calcium supplementation.

Copper is involved in the energy metabolism of most animals. It tends to be in short supply on high-grain diets, as grains are relatively poor in copper. In ruminants, copper is a key component of the protein that forms part of the bovine rumen (cow’s “stomach”).

Meat, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and carob are all rich in copper, making supplementation unnecessary if the diet is based on these sorts of foods. Seafoods also contain significant amounts of copper.

The RDA for copper is 0.9 mg/day for men and women. Copper:Zinc ratios greater than 2:1 are best.

Iron (Fe)

Iron is a mineral found in most plants, but not in large quantities. It is not a major fertilizer ingredient and is usually only used in the less efficiently absorbed Fe form. Iron is an essential plant nutrient that plants need for the transportation of oxygen from the roots to the leaves.

Iron is one of the micro nutrients that is commonly available in most garden soils and in a lot of cases it is inorganic and unavailable to plants. Iron is also made available to plants by adding ground oyster shells, which contains the necessary form of iron and calcium that plants need.

Iron deficiency can be the main reason for pale, withering leaves and stunted growth. Iron is absorbed by plants more efficiently when it is in the organic Fe form. Organic iron sources need to be chelated giving them a "hook" to bind the iron making it easier for the plant to absorb it.

Iron is also used by plants to the produce chlorophyll, and therefore its absence will result in the yellowing of leaves. Iron could be added to the growing medium, but in most cases it is better absorbed by the roots when it is chelated and added as fertilizer.

Manganese (Mn)

Manganese is an important component of the enzymes oxalate oxidase and pyruvate carboxylase. It is also an integral part of the plant’s antioxidant system and is necessary for chlorophyll production. This trace mineral is utilized to activate certain plant enzymes during critical stages of growth and development. “Manganese deficiency is rare in plants growing in normal soil but can occur in acidic sandy soils. Manganese toxicity appears as elongated dark green or yellowish green plants with a whitish green stripe. Plants with this symptom should be removed or replaced with ones that do not have it so they do not contaminate the garden.

Plants that are manganese deficient maintain a yellow, white-spotted or bronzed color. Foliage is brittle and will tend to drop prematurely. In some cases, leaves may have purple spots. The uppermost leaflet of a lily leaf may show a slight recurvature when it becomes older. The most can be indicated by the clear elongation of leaf petioles.

Manganese toxicity in plants appears as yellowing followed by browning and necrosis of leaves. Leaves may become yellow or white and oddly shaped."

Most soils contain 0.5 to 2 percent manganese. The amount of manganese in the growing medium will determine if it is deficient or toxic to plants.

Molybdenum (Mo)

Molybdenum is a micronutrient, like copper, and is used by plants to produce enzymes. It is commonly found in a number of different soils, which is why it is important to test for its presence in your garden soil. It helps in the development of legumes and is also needed along with nitrogen to form proteins in the plant.

Molybdenum is one of five essential nutrients. It is usually available as two different sources, organic and inorganic. Since inorganic sources are found in the soil, chances are that if you add inorganic molybdenum to the soil, like anhydrous ammonia, your plants will get enough molybdenum to sustain healthy growth. But if you add organic sources, like cottonseed meal or fish meal, then you may need to consider adding inorganic sources to ensure optimal plant growth.

Zinc (Zn)

Zn is a trace mineral that is essential for plant growth and health. It plays a key role in the production and transportation of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the green pigment that gives plants their color.

Zn is generally the most abundant mineral found in nature and is essential for proper functioning of the body. In the plant, zinc is involved in the production of proteins and fatty acids, which are the building blocks of plant cell walls. Poor Zn uptake can result in reduced growth, weak immune system, and brown leaf tips.

Plants require Zn for proper chlorophyll production and amino acid synthesis, and to fight off diseases. Zinc is highly mobile in plant tissue and is easily taken up by plant roots with the help of auxin. The highest levels of Zn are not directly associated with the uptake site. It is the stomata, or pores, that regulate the flow of gasses in and out of the plants. As the stomata are the major area of absorption for Zn in plants, high levels will inhibit stomatal activity, resulting in inhibited growth, reduced chlorophyll production, and disease susceptibility.

How to Test Your Garden’s Soil

It is important to make your soil healthy. A healthy soil is loaded with essential nutrients for your plants. It allows for proper root growth. It also provides an ideal growing environment for beneficial microorganisms.

The first thing to do is to test your soil to see if you already have the ideal nutrients in it.

To do this, pick up a bag of soil from your garden. Put some of it in a bucket. Water the soil. Allow it to sit overnight. The next day, pour off the excess water into the soil. Use a pH testing kit (available from any good gardening store) to find out the pH level of the water left behind. If it is 7 or above, it means your soil has a good pH. You can safely add your plants to this soil.

If you notice the pH of your soil is less than 7, you need to test the soil again.

The reason for this is that over time your soil gets depleted of nutrients. You need to make sure that you replenish the nutrients by making compost.

To make compost, get a bucket and fill it with a variety of organic matter. Make sure that you get enough red, brown, and green or brown matter. Mix them up well. Store the bucket in a shady, well-ventilated area.