What Are Essential Plant Nutrients And How Are They Used?

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

May 23
3 min read
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spoon of fertilizer

Did you know that plants require 17 essential nutrients for growth?

These Nutrients Are:

Macronutrients

  • Carbon (C) - Macronutrients provided by air
  • Hydrogen (H) - Macronutrients provided by water/air
  • Oxygen (O) - Macronutrients provided by water/air

Soil Derived Macronutrients

  • Nitrogen (N) - Proteins
  • Phosphorus (P) - ATP, ADP
  • Potassium (K) - Water and energy relations, cold hardiness
  • Sulfur (S) - Proteins
  • Calcium (Ca) - Cell structure and division
  • Magnesium (Mg) - Chlorophyll, enzymes

Micronutrients

  • Boron (B) - Cell development, growth regulators
  • Chlorine (Cl) - photosynthesis
  • Copper (Cu) - enzyme activation
  • Iron (Fe) - Chlorophyll synthesis, metabolism, enzyme activation
  • Manganese (Mn) - Hill reaction-photosystem II, enzyme activation
  • Molybdenum (Mo) - Nitrogen fixation and use
  • Nickel (Ni) - Iron metabolism
  • Zinc (Zn) - Protein breakdown, enzyme activation

With the exception of the first three nutrients listed, your plants receive these essential nutrients from the soil. The only problem is that soils range in their nutrient composition based on your local climate and ecological factors.

Some areas are dense in organic matter that is decomposed by worms and insects providing all of these nutrients, while others receive very little. To accommodate your local soil composition you will likely need to add fertilizer of some sort to your native soils. There are fertilizers available from both organic and synthetic sources.

The most common fertilizers will address deficiencies in your soil-derived macronutrients. These are the second set of nutrients listed. Of these nutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are needed in the greatest quantities.

Most fertilizers will be labeled with three numbers representing the amount of each of these three nutrients within the given fertilizer. To learn more about the many types of fertilizers and how to use them check out our “Fertilizing a Garden” page.

The last set of nutrients listed is Micronutrients. These are elements required in very small quantities for healthy plant life. The best way to determine a need for additional micronutrient fertilizer to be added is by a soil test report. You can receive a report detailing the nutrient needs of your soil from a local extension office soil test.

Most of the time you won’t need to add these micronutrients to your soil as the concentrations needed are so small. However, even though they are small they are still important. A deficiency in these nutrients can cause adverse plant health conditions. Only apply additional fertilizer as needed as too much of a micronutrient can induce toxicity issues.

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