Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Make easy fertilizers into teas, smoothies and juices from kitchen scraps! But first some basics.
Plants are a lot like humans. They have personalities (at least that's what I see in the shapes and sizes of the leaves). Water and light helps them grow daily. They can grow form a seed, bloom and produce flowers and fruit, become ill, and die. Pretty close to basic human traits, right? However, plants, like humans, can't survive on love alone and require the following 16 chemical elements:
Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen - Available from air and water
Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (a.k.a. potash) - The three main macronutrients in most packaged fertilizers
Sulfur, calcium, and magnesium - Secondary nutrients
Boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc - Micronutrients
For the purpose of the blog, we are going to focus mainly on the three key macronutients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium - also referred to in chemistry as N-P-K .
What N-P-K Means to Plants
Although all three nutrients of N-P-K depend on each other to support plant life, they each have a specific job to do.
Nitrogen (N) encourages strong, green leaves. Too little causes slow growth and pale leaves. Too much causes flowering and fruit bearing plants to forfeit the blooms and fruit, but produce more greenery. It's essential for all living organisms and a fundamental component of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Phosphorus (P) helps form new roots, make seeds, fruits and flowers. Not enough phosphorus results in weak roots, flowers and fruit. Excessive amounts stunt the plant's ability to absorb other micronutrients, specifically iron and zinc. All cell membranes and ATP (the main energy source of all cells) contain phosphorous. It's the second most plentiful mineral in the human body after calcium.
Potassium (K) is for overall plant growth. It's important for increasing crop yields and quality by regulating root and top growth. It makes stalks straight, strong, healthy and balanced, especially during drought or frigid temps. It also supports resistance to disease. Potassium makes up 1 to 2 percent of plant weight and is essential to metabolism.
Fertilizer or Plant Food
The two terms are often used interchangeably, but aren't exactly the same. Plants get their "food" from a combination of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon from water and air, but they need N-P-K and other nutrients from the soil. Much like humans can live on water for so many days, but eventually need more nutrients to stay alive and be healthy. Fertilizers contain nutrients to the soil so that plants can be more effective at producing their own food. Supplying the essential elements that plants need will help them grow into their best form. Plants need all 16 elements (13 nutrients plus carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) to grow well and provide balanced nutrition. That is the goal of fertilizer.
What The Numbers Mean
Most fertilizers supply varying percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. For example, if you pick up a bag of fertilizer, and it shows 10-0-1 on the bag, that means its ingredients are:
10% (or 10 lbs) Nitrogen
0% (or 0 lbs) Phosphorus
1% (1 lb) Potassium (or potash)
Let's say the example above is a 50 pound bag. Only 10 % is nitrogen, no phosphorus and 1% of potassium. The rest of the matter other called ballast, and has no value to the plants. It's basically a bulking agent of rocks, sand, and earth matter added for ease of material handling and timed release of the active ingredients.
Taking care of plants means protecting the environment, creating natural beauty and providing food for other living organisms. Plants are factories that do all of the work to process the basic elements of life and make them available to us.
Now that we have some basic understanding of plant nutrition, check out the other blogs in the Feeding Plants from the Kitchen series.
VKNOX is a holistic nutrition wellness practitioner, behavior change specialist, fitness nutrition educator, lifestyle transformation coach and author. She is the creator of the R.A.W. Lifestyle System.