What are the basics of PLANT NUTRITION?

Plants in a natural forest environment
Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

If you have been to a natural forest and have observed the thick vegetation, it is easy to assume in your mind that these plants and trees don’t need much to survive — only sunlight, water in the ground and the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide in the air. This is generally true but, of course, what goes on in this natural environment is a lot more complicated than what we can immediately perceive. For one, there are a lot more going on within the soil and within the plant’s internal systems that are not visible to the naked eye. Moreover, ‘survival of the fittest’ is still the main rule in this type of environment such that only plants able to gain sufficient access to their basic needs would survive. Thus, you can find clusters of trees trying to outgrow each other to capture the most amount of sunlight or tree trunks with elaborate root systems to gain the best access to water or their needed nutrients in soil.

A vegetable garden in an environment contrived for optimal yield
Photo by Soo Ann Woon from Pexels

These factors make a tropical forest very different from a vegetable garden or an orchard where the intention is to set up and maintain an environment that allow plants to attain optimal health and bear the best quantity and quality of produce. If you are the farmer, this is always your main objective and your continuing concern is to provide your crops with sufficient amounts of everything they need to achieve your objective.

Water is crucial for plant survival but is not the only raw material the plant needs
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

As a farmer, one of your most basic concerns is ‘plant nutrition’ or ensuring that the crops you planted have access to sufficient raw materials to efficiently process the ‘food’ they need in order to grow and bear fruits. You are aware that, in addition to sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water; plants need nutrients to be able to grow and produce the desired yield. And, when we think of nutrients, what immediately comes to mind are fertilizers. However, the types of fertilizers to be applied, as well as the amounts and frequency (rates) of application can be a challenge and are often guided only by what little technical knowledge and actual experience you posses in farming or gardening, as well as the budget available to you for these agricultural inputs.

The purpose of this article is to provide basic information about plant nutrition and hopefully help farmers make decisions about what fertilizers to use and how to apply them in their crops. The Mindanao Institute of Sustainable Technologies (MIST) produces bio-organic fertilizers (discussed in detail in the succeeding articles) especially formulated to boost plant growth and health thereby promoting optimal yield. This article also provides the basic technical background to the discussion on the MIST Bio-organic Fertilizers and why they are the better and more sustainable option for farmers. The MIST tries its best to respond to the needs of both large scale agricultural farms and small scale farmers.

Nutrients are essential to plant growth and health

As mentioned above, plants need nutrients aside from sunlight, water (H20) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in order to to survive. There are at least 14 essential plant nutrients and they can be classified into two types; (i) macro nutrients, and (ii) micro nutrients. These nutrient types are mainly defined by the amounts that are required by plants. Macro nutrients are taken up in relatively large amounts of around 10 -100 kilograms or more per hectare, while micro nutrients that are taken up by plants are mostly limited to several grams per hectare.  The main macro nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulfur (S). The micro nutrients are Manganese (Mn), Boron (B), Copper (Cu), Iron (Fe), Zinc (Zn), Nickel (Ni), Molybdenum (Mo) and Chlorine (Cl). 

Farmers prepare their rice plots for fertilizer application
Photo by Jessie Ponce

The nutrients that are required by crops in the largest amounts are N, P and K — N for leaf growth; P for development of roots, flowers, seeds and fruits; and K for strong stem growth, movement of water in plants, promotion of flowering and fruiting — that’s why they are often considered the most important nutrients. For the same reason, the most common commercial (inorganic) fertilizers available in the market are combinations of N-P-K in various ratios, as well single nutrient formulations that are often found costly by ordinary farmers.

The MIST Bio-organic Fertilizers, which were formulated with the farmers’ needs in mind, provide not only the NPK or essential macro nutrients but in potent combination with essential micro nutrients PLUS live colonies of beneficial microorganisms to boost nutrient uptake — thus the health and eventual yields — of agricultural crops. These MIST products will be discussed in detail in the succeeding articles but, first, it will be helpful to understand the various types of fertilizers which will be discussed in the next article.

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