Most gardeners often use plant food and fertilizer interchangeably and apply fertilizer to help their plants get the necessary nutrients they require to grow and bloom adequately. However, are fertilizer and plant food the same?
Fertilizers are different from plant food. Even though it is common for many fertilizers to be called plant food, fertilizer is not the same as plant food. Most plants get hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen from water and the air, yet plants also need other nutrients that they normally get from the soil. And the most important of these include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, called macronutrients.
Read on to find out what plant fertilizers are, their pros and cons, and how to successfully apply fertilizers to your plants.
See also: Here’s How To Effectively Treat Molybdenum Deficiency in Plants
Table of Contents
What Is a Plant Fertilizer?
Fertilizer is any material or substance added to soil to promote plant growth. There are numerous fertilizer varieties on the market, and most contain nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Most fertilizers sold in stores or online have an N-P-K ratio on their packaging.
Fertilizers are applied worldwide to keep lawns green and produce more crops in agricultural fields. And there are three groups of fertilizers:
- Organic fertilizers (manure and compost) are produced from animal feces and plant or animal decomposed matter.
- Mineral fertilizers (phosphorus and potash) are extracted from the environment and crushed or chemically treated before application.
- Industrial fertilizers (ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, urea) are created industrially through chemical reactions, often in laboratories.
While industrial fertilizers are a relatively new development, organic and mineral fertilizers have been used to improve crop yields in agriculture for a long time.
What Is Plant Food?
Plant Food is created to revitalize the soil and provide plants with nutrients, but it is up to them to concoct their meals. However, plants make their food with the nutrients they absorb from the soil in combination with a unique blend of air, sunlight, and water.
- The air provides mostly the plant with carbon dioxide entering through its leaves. While the carbon dioxide comes in through the plant’s foliage, it meets chlorophyll, absorbing and storing the sun’s energy, resulting in chloroplasts. In addition, the chloroplasts inside chlorophyll combine with the carbon dioxide to produce a simple sugar, which spreads out with the help of absorbed water moving through the entire plant.
- Water travels through the roots and into the plant and takes the sugar with it, and minerals and nutrients are obtained from the soil. The presence of water is also necessary to preserve the turgidity of the plant’s cells. If the plant is not getting adequate water, the cells will not be as turgid, resulting in wilt.
- Fertilizers are added to the soil to help provide the elements needed for plants to produce their food. Plant food is created from nutrients in the soil and other essential elements, such as air, water, and sunlight. Plants will get inadequate nutrition when fertilizers contain high nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels but lack the other needed micronutrients.
See also: 5 Zinc Toxicity Symptoms to Watch Out for in Your Plants
What Is The Major Difference Between Plant Food And Fertilizer?
Plant food refers to the plant’s needs and uses of essential chemical elements. And fertilizer is the expression used when these elements are provided to the environment around the plant.
On the one hand, plants create their own food using water, energy, and carbon dioxide from the sun. This food (sugars and carbohydrates) combines plant nutrients to produce protein, vitamins, enzymes, and other elements essential to plant growth.
On the other hand, fertilizers are materials, including plant elements or nutrients. Usually, they are added to water or soil; some can be added to water and sprayed on leaves.
Which Is Better: Plant Food or Fertilizer?
In a perfect world, plants would feed themselves by taking up nutrients from the soil. However, without nutrients, plants need to be fertilized.
Your plants especially need fertilizer as a source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, but they use up these elements quickly, particularly nitrogen. That’s why fertilizer is required to replenish them. Plants can grow without the necessary elements, but they will not be as healthy as possible when they have everything they need.
In addition, plants grow strong and healthy when they get plenty of the nutrients they need to thrive, sunlight, and water. However, your soil may sometimes have the nutrients your plants need, primarily if you work with a newly dug garden bed or fresh potting soil.
What Plants Need Fertilizer?
Most landscape shrubs, trees, and perennials don’t need fertilizer unless they show signs of stress, like yellowing foliage. In contrast, vegetables need plenty of nutrients; therefore, when planting vegetables, incorporate fertilizer as indicated on the label.
Fruit trees and berries, particularly blueberries, are heavy feeders and will be more productive if you add fertilizer at the right time.
Knowing your plants’ needs is essential for choosing a fertilizer and how to apply it to your plants. It is necessary to know what plants you have and their requirements. Each type of plant has specific guidelines.
Some plants, including hydrangeas and roses, can benefit from more feeding than shrubs in the garden. So make sure you choose fertilizers explicitly labeled for them. And plants, including blueberries, gardenias, rhododendrons, and citrus, prefer acid (low pH) soil.
See also: How To Effectively Deal With Too Much Iron In Your Garden’s Soil
Organic fertilizer vs. Chemical Fertilizer: Which One Should You Choose?
Plants usually don’t care if they get nutrients from organic or chemical fertilizers. It all depends on your personal preferences. However, it is essential to choose the right fertilizer to keep your plants healthy and stronger.
Organic fertilizers come from living things, including animal manure, fish emulsions, leaf molds, and non-living things like rock phosphate or greensand. And they supply essential nutrients to flowers and improve soil tilth.
When looking for organic fertilizers, always check if they have OMRI on the label. And if you are a vegetarian or vegan, try to avoid fish, blood, and bone meal products.
Chemical fertilizers, also called commercial or synthetic fertilizers, go through a manufacturing process, even though they come from naturally occurring mineral deposits. And they are derived from a chemical manufacturing process.
If you want to stimulate blooming, choose fertilizers with a higher percentage of phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium. And a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 is an excellent choice for vegetables and other high-nutrient plants.
Most importantly, do not use lawn fertilizers on your gardens because they contain too much nitrogen, and also, many have chemicals for lawn weed control that can damage or kill your vegetables.
Organic fertilizer vs. Chemical Fertilizer: Pros & Cons of Both
Organic fertilizer and Chemical fertilizer offer excellent benefits, and both have disadvantages. Below is a snapshot of the pros and cons of organic fertilizer and chemical fertilizer compared side by side.
|Organic Fertilizer||– Non-toxic, beneficial, and friendly to insects and wildlife|
– Improve water movement into the soil and in time
– Don’t burn plants
– Add structure to the soil
– Strengthen plants’ immune systems
– Stay active in the soil for long periods
– Don’t make a crust on the soil compared to chemical fertilizer
– Feed beneficial microbes and make the soil easier to work
|– Cost more than chemical|
– Taste appeals to some pets
– Limited formulations
– They take time to work and will not correct severe nutrient deficiencies quickly.
|Chemical Fertilizer||– Inexpensive, |
– Readily available,
– Rapid-growing plants, including annual – flowers, take up nutrients quickly.
|– Risk of over-application causing burning|
– Absence of any soil-improving qualities
– Make a crust on the soil compared to organic fertilizer
Choosing the Right Type of Fertilisers For Your Plants
Before applying fertilizer to your plant, ensure you know your plants’ needs. And for a successful fertilizer application, it is necessary to understand what plants you have and their requirements because each type of plant has specific guidelines.
Organic fertilizer ingredients are created from plant, animal, or mineral sources. Examples are blood and bone meal, alfalfa meal, kelp, soft rock phosphate, and green sand.
Organic fertilizers, including manure, compost, or bone meal, are derived directly from plant or animal sources.
Fertilizer manufacturers produce artificial fertilizers by combining inorganic chemicals to create compounds, such as ammonium nitrate or magnesium sulfate.
Chemical fertilizers generally contain a few nutrients readily available to plants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and sometimes micronutrients, either singly or combined.
All fertilizers have a ratio, which is the percentage by weight of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). In general, plants use nitrogen to produce green growth, phosphorus for roots, and potassium for flowers and to develop fruits.
Complete Fertilizer supplies your plants with the three significant elements they require to thrive:
- Nitrogen (N): Increases lush foliage growth
- Phosphorus or Phosphate (P): Promotes blossoming and fruit formation
- Potassium or Potash (K): Improves healthy root systems
Usually, the fertilizer packaging will list these three major nutrients in exact order and sometimes reference them as “NPK.” The numbers describe the percentage of each nutrient compared to filler ingredients and other minor nutrients. For instance, a 10-10-10 fertilizer includes 10 percent of each N-P-K nutrient.
Foliar fertilizers are liquid nutrients that plants consume through their leaves. If you want to address potassium deficiencies, use foliar fertilizers in the flower garden.
And, if your flowers show signs of chlorosis or yellowing of the leaves, your plants might have an iron deficiency. And, sometimes, the rapid results produced by foliar fertilizers can help.
If your soil test reveals a deficiency of one primary nutrient, you can buy a simple fertilizer including only nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium as a standalone ingredient.
A simple nitrogen fertilizer would list only urea or ammonium sulfate as the ingredient, a simple phosphorus fertilizer superphosphate or ground mineral phosphate, and a potassium fertilizer muriate of potash on the container as the ingredients.
See also: How to Efficiently Lower Manganese Levels In Soil
Technically, all organic fertilizers are slow-release because it takes time for organic matter to decompose in the presence of soil microorganisms. And gardeners usually use these types of fertilizers for houseplant care and outdoor containers.
If you like to fertilize your plants occasionally, you can use slow-release fertilizers coated or encapsulated to control the fertilizer release over several weeks or months.
How to Apply Fertilizer?
You should have your soil tested every two years, especially if you are a beginner at gardening and unfamiliar with growing plants.
A soil test shows the levels of nutrients in the soil and recommends the amounts of each nutrient to add. You can either test your soil by yourself or send a sample to a local University to do the soil testing for you.
Here is a State-by-State list of soil testing labs in the United States.
Commonly, there are four ways to apply fertilizer:
1- Broadcast before planting: This method is usually best for home gardeners and the least likely to cause plant damage.
Tips for Broadcast Before Planting
- Spread the right amount of fertilizer evenly over the garden and mix with your soil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches (7.62 to 10.16 cm) before rows are created.
2- Band or row applications: With this method, you apply your fertilizer in a strip to the side of the row before planting. While applying this method, be careful and prevent the roots from contacting the fertilizer band, which can kill your plants.
3- Starter solution is usually used only on transplants such as tomato, eggplant, pepper, and cabbage.
Tips for Starter Solution
- Mix two tablespoons of garden fertilizer in 1 gallon of water and mix well.
- Pour 1 cup of the blend into the hole and let it soak in before you start transplanting.
4- Application to growing plants or side dressing. This method is beneficial on sandy soils or when a lot of rain may have drained nutrients from the soil.
The side dressing method increases the yield of most vegetables. But remember that the amount and timing of fertilizer needed vary according to the type of vegetable planted.
Tips For Application to Growing Plants or Side Dressing:
- Sprinkle your fertilizer along the sides of rows and water into the soil
- Use about half a cup of garden fertilizer for every 10 feet of row is usually enough.
Overall, fertilizer and plant food are not the same, even though gardeners use these words interchangeably.
Usually, plants make their food with the nutrients they absorb from the soil. However, there are situations where essential nutrients are lacking in the soil and are not available at adequate levels to allow plants to grow and develop at their full potential. In situations like these, using fertilizer to improve soil is essential.
Whenever using fertilizer, make sure:
- You always water in fertilizer after applying.
- You don’t forget to read the instructions.
- And above all, remember to use the appropriate amount of fertilizer because using too much can burn plants.