According to the Gallup Gardening Survey, less than half of the country’s home gardeners use any kind of fertilizer on their lawns or gardens. What’s unfortunate about this statistic is that it means gardeners aren’t getting as many flowers or as much produce as they should. And they’re probably struggling with disease and insect problems that could be avoided.

Well-fed plants are healthier, more productive and more beautiful. This article covers the basics of why and how to fertilize your garden.

Plant Nutrients 101

Plants need to be fertilized because most soil does not provide the essential nutrients required for optimum growth. Even if you are lucky enough to start with great garden soil, as your plants grow, they absorb nutrients and leave the soil less fertile. Remember those tasty tomatoes and beautiful roses you grew last year? It took nutrients from the soil to build those plant tissues. By fertilizing your garden, you replenish lost nutrients and ensure that this year’s plants have the food they need to flourish.

Six Primary Nutrients

There are six primary nutrients that plants require in fairly large quantities.

  1. carbon from CO2 in the air
  2. hydrogen from water
  3. oxygen from water and air
  4. Nitrogen helps plants make the proteins they need to produce new tissues. In nature, nitrogen is often in short supply so plants have evolved to take up as much nitrogen as possible, even if it means not taking up other necessary elements. If too much nitrogen is available, the plant may grow abundant foliage but not produce fruit or flowers. Growth may actually be stunted because the plant isn’t absorbing enough of the other elements it needs.
  5. Phosphorus stimulates root growth, helps the plant set buds and flowers, improves vitality and increases seed size. It does this by helping transfer energy from one part of the plant to another. To absorb phosphorus, most plants require a soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Organic matter and the activity of soil organisms also increase the availability of phosphorus.
  6. Potassium improves overall vigor of the plant. It helps the plants make carbohydrates and provides disease resistance. It also helps regulate metabolic activities.

Three Additional Nutrients That Matter

Plants also need these three nutrients, but in much smaller amounts:

  1. Calcium is used by plants in cell membranes, at their growing points and to neutralize toxic materials. In addition, calcium improves soil structure and helps bind organic and inorganic particles together.
  2. Magnesium is the only metallic component of chlorophyll. Without it, plants can’t process sunlight.
  3. Sulfur is a component of many proteins.

When crops are harvested, important nutrients are removed from the soil, because they follow the crop and end up at the dinner table. If the soil is not replenished with nutrients through fertilizing, crop yields will deteriorate over time.

Careful analyzing and fertilizing of crops enables a chain that provides humans with nutritional food:

  • The nutrients feed the soil
  • The soil feeds the plants
  • Plants feed animals and people

The three most common mineral fertilizers are those based on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

The International Fertilizer Association (IFA) estimate that 85% of the soils globally are deficient in nitrogen(1). 73% of the soils are deficient in phosphorus, whereas 55% lack potassium.

What is fertilizer used for?

Often, the plants have few possibilities to avoid nutrient deficiencies without the help of fertilizers.

Take nitrogen for example: Since plants are not capable of absorbing it from the air directly, the soil is their only means of acquiring this important nutrient. If the soil is low on nitrogen, fertilizers are needed to boost nutritional levels.

Large concentrations of potassium sources occur deep below the soil surface (often around one kilometer) and are far beyond the reach of plant roots. Mining of potassium brings this naturally occurring nutrient to the soil surface and within the grasp of plant roots.

Phosphorus exists in certain rocks, but for plants to access this nutrient, it needs to be water soluble. The correct use of phosphorus fertilizers helps plants absorb it through the soil and ensures a high production and rapid growth.

What is the difference between mineral fertilizers and organic fertilizers?

In nature there are 17 nutrients necessary for plants to thrive. What kind of fertilizer you need, depends on what crop you grow and the nutrient deficits in each specific soil. Different crops remove different amounts of nutrients from the soil.

Many farmers use NPK compound fertilizers that provide a combination of several nutrients at the same time.

Organic fertilizers such as animal waste and compost have been used for centuries and are a valuable source of nutrients and organic matter, which enhances soil structure.

But since the 20th century, mineral fertilizers have been required to meet the increasing food requirements of a growing world population. The amounts of nutrients in organic fertilizers vary and are much less concentrated than those in mineral fertilizers.

Mineral fertilizers reduce the amount needed and the number of vehicles to transport the fertilizing products.

By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion, according to the United Nations(2). Increasing crop yields is essential if we are going to be able to produce enough food for everyone.

This increase is not possible without carefully planned fertilizing.