Why Do Plants Need Fertilizers? – The Secrets To A Successful Garden

Like all living things, plants need food to grow, and lucky for us, fertilizers contain “food.” Of course, you may argue that plants are autotrophs, which means that they would produce their food. But a series of nutrients whose adequate supply will need to be ensured is the recipe to ensure healthy plant growth.

Most home gardeners don’t have a lot of know-how on what kinds of fertilizers can benefit their garden. As a result, many of them don’t use any fertilizers. As a result, they don’t get as many flowers and fruits in their plants. Your plants, too, might be struggling with deficiencies and other problems if you don’t use fertilizers.

You can avoid these problems and have a flourishing garden if you build a solid understanding of fertilizers. But why do plants need fertilizers? What kind of fertilization will help your garden? Keep reading, and you’ll find some valuable secrets to a healthy lawn.

Why Do Plants Need Fertilizers?

Healthy soil is the foundation of healthy growth for plants. But what makes the soil healthy? The ground naturally contains several nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. All these nutrients will help the plants grow. But, the built-in soil structure does not offer an endless supply of nutrients. Instead, they’ll gradually be used up by the plants and washed away in the rain.

If the soil lacks certain nutrients, the growth of your plants will get affected. They’ll respond to it by displaying different possible nutrient deficiency symptoms. The symptoms will vary with the type of nutrient short in the soil, the intensity of deficiency, and the type of crop being grown.

In any case, you’ll need to replenish the nutrient supply through adequate fertilization. Fertilizers are a source of nutrients for the plants, so they are sometimes called “plant food.” Plant fertilizers boost the soil’s nutritional levels, ensuring plants have all the necessary nutrients for healthy growth and abundant flower and fruit production.

So, What Nutrients Do The Plants Need To Get From Fertilizers?

What do plants need to grow, and what should the fertilizers include to nourish the plants? Of course, those juicy tomatoes and large roses won’t come without a little extra nutrient boost. That’s where the fertilizers come to your rescue. It’s essential to learn about the nutrients that plants ask for from the soil to understand what fertilizer will best suit your lawn. Other vital nutrients, like carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, come from air and water.

1. Primary Nutrients

The three primary nutrients that the plants need from the soil are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Together they make the famous trio (NPK) that you often find on fertilizer labels. They’re also called macronutrients since the plants need them in reasonably large quantities.

2. Secondary Nutrients

Secondary nutrients are just as crucial for growth as primary nutrients, with the only difference being that plants need these in moderate quantities. For example, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are secondary nutrients for plants.

3. Micronutrients

Plants need seven other elements, but only in small quantities. They’re also called trace nutrients, including boron, copper, chlorine, iron, zinc, manganese, and molybdenum. Generally speaking, if you have fertile, organic soil, a sufficient supply of micronutrients will be available, and you won’t need to apply any extra fertilizers.

So, why do plants need fertilizers? Well, because plants rely heavily on nutrients, and if the soil doesn’t contain enough nutrients mentioned above, you need to supply them through fertilizers. As simple as that!

No Nutrients, No Growth!

What Kind Of Fertilizers Are Best For Your Plants – Organic Or Inorganic?

But do the plants care where their food comes from? Don’t they just want the nutrients? As it turns out, they do! So while organic and inorganic fertilizers have the same purpose: to supply nutrients to the plants, they’ll do so differently.

Organic Fertilizers

  • Composition

Organic fertilizers are made solely from plant or animal-based substances that are either a byproduct or an end product of a natural process. Manure and compost are examples of organic fertilizers.

  • Nutrient Availability

They don’t make the nutrients instantly available to the plants. Instead, the nutrients are released gradually into the soil as the organisms decompose the organic matter. As a result, they enhance the soil structure and ensure a steady supply of nutrients in the soil over time. In most cases, organic fertilizers provide all the vital nutrients for plants’ growth.

Inorganic Fertilizers

  • Composition

Inorganic or synthetic fertilizers are manufactured artificially and include synthetic chemicals or minerals. Balanced synthetic fertilizers are rich in all three primary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and some secondary and trace nutrients. They include ammonium sulfate, potassium chloride, magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), and ammonium nitrate.

  • Nutrient availability

Inorganic fertilizers supply nutrients in ready-to-use forms. Immediate availability has both advantages and disadvantages. If the plants show deficiency symptoms of any specific nutrients, applying inorganic fertilizer rich in that nutrient can quickly relieve the symptoms and restore plants’ health.

On the downside, an excess in nutrient concentration poses the risk of burning in plants. Additionally, they can easily wash away with the rain or drain deeper into the soil to levels where plants cannot access them.

Organic Or Inorganic Fertilizers For Your Plants?

If you’re looking for the long-term goal of improving your plants’ habitat, organic fertilizers are the ones to choose. They’ll enrich your garden’s soil with organic matter, boost the microbial activity under the surface, and improve soil structure. In addition, regular application of organic fertilizers with a gradual and controlled release of nutrients is the best way to keep your plants’ health in check.

But if your plants face a shortage of certain nutrients and display deficiency symptoms, inorganic fertilizers are a suitable choice. They’ll instantly offer the nutrient(s) that the plant needs, which improves the chances of recovery from the deficiency disease(s).

Which One Will You Choose? Commercial? Or Organic Fertilizers?

NPK – How To Read The Numbers?

If you ever step into the fertilizer aisle of a gardening store, the buttload of options may leave you a bit confused. What distinguishes them is the NPK value. This value is a series of three numbers that most fertilizers carry on their packages.

What’s In The Numbers?

The three numbers represent the quantity of the three macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). NPK denotes it for short. So it’s the ratio of these three nutrients that you’ll find in the fertilizer.

NPK = Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K)

How Do You Know The Nutrient Ratio

If you have a 10-10-10 fertilizer, it will give you equal nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium concentrations. A 20-20-20 fertilizer will also give you a similar concentration of the three nutrients, but the amount will be twice as much as that present in a 10-10-10 feed. A 10-5-5 fertilizer has twice as much nitrogen as phosphorus and potassium.

The Amount Of Fertilizer You’ll Need

The NPK value will also tell you how much fertilizer you’ll need to apply to the land. So, if you have a 20-20-20 fertilizer and use 100 pounds (about 45,4 kg) of it, you’ll get 20 pounds (about 9,1 kg) of each nutrient.

So, if you only need 1 pound (about 0,45 kg) of each nutrient in the soil, divide 100 by 20:

(or if you’re using kilograms, divide 45,4 by 9,1 = 4,98 ~ 5 kg)

And you’ll get the amount of fertilizer you’ll need. In this case, 5 pounds of fertilizer will give you 1 pound of each nutrient in your garden.

Organic Fertilizer Options For Your Vegetables

Many gardeners now prefer to go all organic to prevent any harm to the environment of their garden. It’s possible to completely cover all the plants’ nutrient requirements through organic fertilization if you know all the different options and their correct use. Here are the most popular ones in use in all-organic gardens:

Amend With Manure Or Compost

The most basic method is to amend the soil with manure or compost before planting vegetables. Then, incorporate the organic material nicely into the top of the ground. Nutrients will steadily become available to the plants as they grow. But, keep in mind that extra fertilization will still be helpful to ensure success.

Supplemental Organic Fertilizer

The manure- or compost-rich soil you prepare before planting can benefit from supplemental organic fertilizers. They allow for a quick release of nutrients for immediate benefits to your plants. But, since they only offer a temporary feed to your plants, always use them in conjunction with compost or manure.

Fish emulsion is a rich source of nitrogen but is low on phosphorous. Therefore, sprinkle the fertilizer around the plant every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing stage.

Manure tea is another quick supplement, and it’s effortless to make at home. Just put a few handfuls of manure in a porous bag and lower it into a water tub. Leave the bag in place for a while until you have a weak, brownish solution. Use this manure tea to water your plants and feed them supplemental organic nutrients.

Side-dressing Your Plants

Vegetable gardens can also benefit from side-dressing the plants with fertilizers. Just sprinkle a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer between the rows of your young plants. Then, when you water the plants, the nutrients from the fertilizer get released to the roots.

Fertilizers And Different Plant Growth Stages

You already know about all the different nutrients plants need during their lifecycle. But, these requirements do not remain constant throughout their life, much like ours. Therefore, the ideal blend of nutrients for a child’s healthy growth isn’t the same as what may be preferred for adults. Here are the two distinctive phases in a plant’s lifecycle, together with the nutrient requirements in each stage:


Leafy Stage

This is the early stage of the plant’s life as a seedling grows into a young plant, and ultimately, into a mature plant. This stage focuses on the growth of new green structures, including leaves and stems.

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that plants ask for throughout the growth stage. Phosphorus and potassium are also required. A balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 all-purpose fertilizer, is best for providing your plants with all the different nutrients they’ll need to grow.

Fertilizers For Plants Flowering And The Fruiting Stage

As the plants reach maturity, the green growth will slow down, and the plants will start to focus more on the beautiful blooms and juicy fruits. While nitrogen is still a requirement during this phase, excess nitrogen isn’t always good. It will inhibit flowering and fruiting and will promote a greener plant.

You want a fertilizer with more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen at this stage. With a bit of extra boost and with careful fertilization, you’ll see lots of colors in your garden and a bigger harvest to feast on.

Fertilizers ideal for the fruiting stage are often labeled “bloom” or “fruit-enhancing fertilizers” and offer NPK ratios like 0-10-10.

Fertilizers For This Stage Are Often Labeled As “Bloom” or “Fruit”

If you are interested in flowers, I recommend you read our post – Indoor Flowering Plants: Make Your Home Colorful With These 15 Plants – to learn more about the kind of flowers you can grow indoors!

Fertilizers By Plant Type

Leafy growth during the early stage and flowering and fruiting during the later stage is the usual trend for most plants. However, some plants are just grown for the leaves, including lettuce and other leafy greens and grass. These varieties will enjoy nitrogen-rich fertilizers throughout their life. Fish emulsion is an excellent organic fertilizer for such plants since it’s rich in nitrogen.

The Last Tip To Keep In Mind

When you want to see more greens on the plant, you’ll want to go for a higher first digit in the NPK ratio.

More Nitrogen – More Greens

Go for the higher last two digits in the NPK ratio when you want to see more blooms and fruits!

More Phosphorus And Potassium – More Flowers, Fruits, And Vegetables

Final Words

Now you know that plants need fertilizers, so don’t let your plants go hungry. Instead, ensure they receive a well-rounded meal that’s adequate in all the nutrients they need.

The best option is to build nutrient-rich, organic soil through annual manure and compost applications. Then, supplement it with water-soluble fertilizers throughout the growing season to ensure your plants have everything they need for active growth.

Featured image credit – iStock.com/michaeljung

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