Plants require specific elements or compounds known as essential nutrients to grow, develop, and produce. Please think of the process of giving them their nutrients as you would take in vitamins to boost your own health.
The nutrients that plants require for growth are broadly classified into three categories, namely primary or macronutrients (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and potassium); secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium, and sulfur); and micronutrients (boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc).
Along with soil nutrients, plants require water, carbon dioxide, sunlight to grow. With a combination of all these elements, plants will develop into mature, healthy, and fruit-bearing crops. Read on to know more about them in the next sections.
6 Critical nutrients that plants require to grow
While plants derive some of these nutrients from the soil, others can be obtained by inorganic fertilizers, organic manures, plants residues, and biological nitrogen fixation.
Primary nutrients are usually required in the largest amount and comprise carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and potassium. On the other hand, secondary nutrients are required in moderate amounts and comprise calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.
Change is a continuous process. You cannot assess it with the static yardstick of a limited time frame. When a seed is sown into the ground, you cannot immediately see the plant. You have to be patient. With time, it grows into a large tree. And then the flowers bloom, and only then can the fruits be plucked.Mamata Banerjee
Then comes micronutrients that are required in tiny amounts. They comprise boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. Overall, sixteen different chemical elements come into play in a plant’s growth and survival.
Today, we talk about the primary nutrients for plant growth and development.
1. Carbon is one critical nutrient needed by plants
Carbon (C) is responsible for all life on earth, making it one of the most important nutrients for plant growth. It can be well-referred as the building block for plant tissues.
Carbon is absorbed through the leaves, and it helps the plant produce carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, starches, cellulose, and lignin.
Thus, carbon is present in all macromolecules. Typically, almost half of the plant’s dry matter is made up of carbon. Plants derive organic carbon from crop residues, manures, and animal wastes.
Once the plant’s life cycle is over, carbon dioxide is formed again in the process of decomposition. This way, carbon is returned to the atmosphere and can thus begin the cycle again.
2. Hydrogen is a critical nutrient needed by plants from water
Hydrogen (H) is another most important nutrient for plants, and they derive it almost entirely from water through photosynthesis. Nearly every organic compound contains hydrogen and well-known to be a structural element for plants.
It is present both in the atmosphere as well as the growing environment. This is because hydrogen can be both – an element as well as a compound.
As an element, hydrogen is the lightest consisting of only one proton, one electron, and normally no neutrons. As a compound, hydrogen has two H atoms that share an electron pair. This results in a covalent bond, and thus it takes the form of a gas.
3. Oxygen is the most vital and critical nutrient for a plant
Oxygen (O), as we all know, is one of the most vital elements for the sustenance of life. It is also essential for cellular respiration as it plays a major role in photosynthesis. It should also be noted that plants do not absorb oxygen from the air.
Plants obtain oxygen by breaking down carbon dioxide.
The majority of oxygen is released as a by-product, and only a portion is stored for energy in ATP. The amount of oxygen expelled as a by-product by the plants help in sustaining life on planet earth.
Also, only the leaves and stems of a plant can obtain oxygen through photosynthesis, while the roots are forced to acquire oxygen from the environment through the air spaces present in the soil.
Oxygen also plays a major role in a process known as denitrification. This is when oxygen interacts with nitrogen and, in turn, impacts other elements’ oxidation state as well.
4. A very critical nutrient for plants would be Nitrogen
Nitrogen (N) another element that is found most abundantly in plant cells. While it is a part of proteins and nucleic acids, it is also used to synthesize some vitamins. It is an essential macronutrient and plants more nitrogen as compared to any other element.
This element plays a major role in ensuring that plants are healthy and nutritious once they are harvested. And since it is also one of the most abundantly found elements in the earth’s atmosphere and surface, plants can easily obtain it from their surroundings.
One of the only reasons for the shortage of Nitrogen in plants is that the majority of nutrient in the atmosphere and earth’s crust is not obtainable for direct uptake by the plants.
Sources of nitrogen
Organic nitrogen sources include plant residue, soil organic matter, or bacteria that are not available to plants. The inorganic sources include ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-) and are plant-available forms. However, nitrate is likely to get lost from the system as it is water-soluble and does not cooperate with soil particles.
5. Phosphorous is another critical nutrient needed by plants
Phosphorous (P) is a vital macronutrient and is responsible for plant reproduction. The availability of this nutrient can directly impact the grain or fruit yield of a plant.
Phosphorus is associated with the plant’s ability to utilize and store energy.
This also includes the process of photosynthesis. The deficiency of phosphorous can also cause crop stunting or discoloration.
Sources of phosphorus
One of the major sources of phosphorous in soil organic matter commonly comprises a range of organic phosphorous compounds.
These compounds need to be converted into inorganic phosphate with the help of soil microorganisms so that the plants can obtain them. Soil organic matter can prove to be a great source for organic phosphorous compounds released slowly over time.
The amount of soluble phosphorous available in the soil is quite less. Even phosphorous added with the help of compost, fertilizer, or manure is immobilized in soil. Thus, the efficiency of a phosphorous fertilizer can be rather low.
6. Potassium is a critical nutrient needed by plants especially in growth and yield
Potassium (K) is linked to nutrients, water, and carbohydrates in plant tissue. It also impacts the protein, starch, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production of the plant. It is a stable mineral form and is usually tightly held within the soil itself.
Moreover, potassium helps regulate the opening and closing of the stomata, which regulates the exchange of water vapor, oxygen, and carbon dioxide.
The deficiency of potassium can lead to stunted growth of plants and reduced yield. The potassium deficiency plant deficiency is less resistant to drought, heavy rains, and high or low temperatures. For instance, a perennial crop like alfalfa requires potassium to withstand the winter season.
Benefits of potassium as a nutrient for plants
Plants that do get potassium can also be less resistant to diseases, pests, and nematode attacks. This is one of the reasons why it is also known as the ‘quality’ nutrient.
It is also usually found in three different forms in an agricultural system as one of the essential macronutrients.
What Are Some Other Important Nutrients for Plant Growth?
As mentioned earlier, macronutrients have a major role in the growth and development of a plant. However, other nutrients such as secondary and micronutrients play a significant role and in smaller quantities.
These nutrients help plants utilize primary nutrients to their fullest extent and thus prevent yellowed leaves, stunted fruits or tubers, or weak stalks. Let us know more about other nutrients that help in plant growth:
Secondary Nutrients needed by plants
Calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S) are considered secondary nutrients for plant growth.
Calcium is another nutrient needed by plants
Calcium plays a twofold role in the growth of a plant. It not only regulates nutrient transport but also supports various enzyme functions.
Moreover, calcium substitutes hydrogen (H) ions from the soil surface when limestone is added to reduce soil acidity.
A nutrient needed by plants in photosynthesis would be Magnesium
Magnesium is another important nutrient that plays a vital role in the photosynthetic process.
Magnesium also serves as a phosphorus carrier in plants and is important for cell division and protein formation.
Thus, magnesium is also an essential nutrient for phosphate metabolism, plant respiration, and even the initiation of several enzyme systems.
Sulfur is another essential nutrient for plants
Sulfur is also an essential secondary nutrient that is a part of every living cell. It is required for the synthesis of proteins and certain amino acids like cysteine and methionine.
It also helps the crops in building winter hardiness. Sulfur deficiency may result in the yellowing of younger leaves. This should not be confused with nitrogen deficiency which usually causes yellowing of older leaves.
Micronutrients needed by plants
Although used in smaller amounts by crops, micronutrients are quite essential for plant growth.
Nutrients like Boron (B), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), nickel (Ni), molybdenum (Mo), and chlorine (Cl) are the micronutrients that makeup only a small proportion of the plants.
A deficiency of these nutrients can cause a decrease in crop yield and may even hinder the quality of the crop. However, excess of these nutrients may cause toxicity.
Usually, the availability of each of these nutrients depends on environmental and soil conditions. Soil testing or plant tissue analysis can help ensure the plant is getting the proper amount of nutrients.
What is the Role of Water in Nutrition Management in Plants?
Water comprises about 80 to 90 percent of a plant’s total weight. It helps in the regulation of the temperature of the plant, as well as the transportation of all the nutrients within it.
Water is a vital part and need for a plant, as it supports cell structure, enables metabolic functions, and helps in photosynthesis.
Since water acts as a solvent, plants can absorb nutrients better when they are dissolved in water. The root hair absorbs water from the soil and carries it up to the leaves through the xylem. Water evaporates in the form of water vapor from the leaves.
Then, with the help of transpiration and the polarity of water molecules that helps in the formation of hydrogen bonds, more water is drawn from the roots up to the leaves.
Other factors to look out for plant health
And to maintain adequate quantities of nutrients, one should consider some important factors like crop, variety, climatic conditions, and soil properties. These factors, combined, can have a significant impact on a plant’s nutrient needs and overall crop yield.
It is also important for a gardener or farmer to understand crop needs to determine the ideal timing for fertilizer applications.
We hope that this gives you a basic idea about how the availability of different nutrients impacts the growth and development of the plant.
Watering your plants
Of course, just knowing about the benefits of watering your plants will not cut it. Knowing how to do it properly and overwatering them should also be things you should look into.
Watering plants are best done in the morning when the weather is cooler.
This setting will allow your plant ample time to soak in said water for nutrient transfer without the risk of water evaporating should you have done it at a later time or in hotter conditions. This article covered more about this article that I wrote about the best time to water plants.
As for the possibility of overwatering your plants, it is covered in detail in this article of mine on overwatering plants, so feel free to check it out here. One key way to spot overwatering in plants would be the leaf color change, from their usual into a yellow tint. More of the symptoms are covered in the article.
Conclusion on 6 critical nutrients that plants require to grow
Nutrient management is essential and can be significant for maintaining crop yields. The availability of nutrients majorly depends on the environmental and soil conditions.
If need be, look into doing a soil test on your plant’s soil to know just what you can do to your soil to boost it further. Soil tests will give you the nutritional, biological, and chemical composition of your soil so that you can look into what nutrients you can add to amend deficiencies. I have written an article on doing the soil tests and their benefits, linked through here.
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