Plant Nutrients

Sixteen chemical elements are known to be important to a plant's growth and survival. The sixteen chemical elements are divided into two main groups: nonmineral and mineral.

Non-Mineral Nutrients
The Non-Mineral Nutrients are hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), & carbon (C). These nutrients are found in the air and water. In a process called photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to change carbon dioxide (CO2 - carbon and oxygen) and water (H2O- hydrogen and oxygen) into starches and sugars. These starches and sugars are the plant's food.

Photosynthesis means "making things with light".
Since plants get carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the air and water, there is little farmers and gardeners can do to control how much of these nutrients a plant can use.

Mineral Nutrients
The 13 mineral nutrients, which come from the soil, are dissolved in water and absorbed through a plant's roots. There are not always enough of these nutrients in the soil for a plant to grow healthy. This is why many farmers and gardeners use fertilizers to add the nutrients to the soil. The mineral nutrients are divided into two groups: macronutrients and micronutrients.

Macronutrients
Macronutrients can be broken into two more groups: primary and secondary nutrients. The primary nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These major nutrients usually are lacking from the soil first because plants use

The micronutrients are boron (B). large amounts of Calcium and Magnesium are added when lime is applied to acidic soils. Also. a soil contains some combination of sand. which makes some soils more productive than others. Recycling organic matter such as grass clippings and tree leaves is an excellent way of providing micronutrients (as well as macronutrients) to growing plants. but use of the term micronutrient is encouraged by the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America. most plants grow by absorbing nutrients from the soil. silt. Clays and organic soils hold nutrients and water much better than sandy soils. . they are not available for plants to use. When nutrients leach into the soil. The secondary nutrients are calcium (Ca). and organic matter. Micronutrients Micronutrients are those elements essential for plant growth which are needed in only very small (micro) quantities . Sulfur is usually found in sufficient amounts from the slow decomposition of soil organic matter. and sulfur (S). manganese (Mn). Soils across North Carolina vary in their texture and nutrient content. Sometimes. clay. silt. Their ability to do this depends on the nature of the soil. Othertimes. iron (Fe). Soil Texture (the amount of sand. This condition is called leaching. An ideal soil contains equivalent portions of sand. Go to top of the page Soil In general. they must be added to the soil as lime or fertilizer. molybdenum (Mo) and zinc (Zn). and organic matter. The makeup of a soil (soil texture) and its acidity (pH) determine the extent to which nutrients are available to plants. chloride (Cl). copper (Cu). magnesium (Mg).large amounts for their growth and survival. clay. There are usually enough of these nutrients in the soil so fertilization is not always needed. it often carries nutrients along with it. As water drains from sandy soils. clay. Depending on its location. silt. the nutrients that plants need occur naturally in the soil. an important reason for not throwing out grass clippings and leaves. and organic matter in the soil) Soil texture affects how well nutrients and water are retained in the soil. These elements are sometimes called minor elements or trace elements.

phosphorus (P) is an essential part of the process of photosynthesis. Lime also raises the pH to the desired range of 6. sugars. It is a good idea to have your soil tested. Micronutrients tend to be less available in soils with high pH.Soil pH (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil) Soil pH is one of the most important soil properties that affects the availability of nutrients. Nitrogen is a part of chlorophyll. In this pH range. Helps plants with rapid growth. increasing seed and fruit production and improving the quality of leaf and forage crops. the green pigment of the plant that is responsible for photosynthesis. etc. . Nitrogen often comes from fertilizer application and from the air (legumes get their N from the atmosphere. Lime can be added to the soil to make it less sour (acid) and also supplies calcium and magnesium for plants to use. and microbial populations in the soil increase. Involved in the formation of all oils. Lime also enhances the physical properties of the soil that promote water and air movement. water or rainfall contributes very little nitrogen) Phosphorus (P)   Like nitrogen. you will get a report that explains how much lime and fertilizer your crop needs. nutrients are more readily available to plants. o o Macronutrients tend to be less available in soils with low pH. enzymes and metabolic processes involved in the synthesis and transfer of energy. If you do. Microbes convert nitrogen and sulfur to forms that plants can use.5. Go to the top of the page Macronutrients Nitrogen (N)     Nitrogen is a part of all living cells and is a necessary part of all proteins. starches.0 to 6.

calcium. especially the lower grade fertilizers. It also helps activate many plant enzymes needed for growth. and superphosphate. Go to the top of the page . withstanding stress. Potassium (K)    Potassium is absorbed by plants in larger amounts than any other mineral element except nitrogen and. provides for normal transport and retention of other elements as well as strength in the plant. Improves root growth and seed production. Helps with vigorous plant growth and resistance to cold. Soil minerals. fruit quality and reduction of diseases. Effects rapid growth. gypsum. Magnesium (Mg)   Magnesium is part of the chlorophyll in all green plants and essential for photosynthesis.    Helps with the transformation of solar energy into chemical energy. Helps in chlorophyll formation. Promotes activity and development of enzymes and vitamins. and dolomitic limestone are sources of magnesium for plants. The use of gypsum also increases soil sulfur levels. organic material. Calcium (Ca)   Calcium. It is also added in some fertilizers as an impurity. organic materials. bone meal. Sources of calcium are dolomitic lime. and fertilizer. Potassium is supplied to plants by soil minerals. Helps in the building of protein. Phosphorus often comes from fertilizer. and superphosphate. photosynthesis. proper plant maturation. in some cases. fertilizers. It is also thought to counteract the effect of alkali salts and organic acids within a plant. Encourages blooming and root growth. Sulfur may be supplied to the soil from rainwater. an essential part of plant cell wall structure. Sulfur (S)       Essential plant food for production of protein.

Sources of iron are the soil. and nitrogen metabolism.Micronutrients Boron (B)     Helps in the use of nutrients and regulates other nutrients. iron sulfate. Chloride (Cl)   Aids plant metabolism. Molybdenum (Mo)   Helps in the use of nitrogen Soil is a source of molybdenum. Chloride is found in the soil. Manganese (Mn)   Functions with enzyme systems involved in breakdown of carbohydrates. zinc oxide. Iron (Fe)   Essential for formation of chlorophyll. Soil is a source of manganese. Aids in root metabolism and helps in the utilization of proteins. Sources of zinc are soil. Regulates consumption of sugars. Go to the top of the page . Sources of boron are organic matter and borax Copper (Cu)   Important for reproductive growth. Part of the enzyme systems which regulate plant growth. zinc chelate. zinc sulfate. Aids production of sugar and carbohydrates. Zinc (Zn)     Essential for the transformation of carbohydrates. Essential for seed and fruit development. iron chelate.

Why Do You Need A Soil Test? Encourages plant growth by providing the best lime and fertilizer recommendations. how much to apply. boron. potassium. Promotes environmental quality. magnesium. When gardeners apply only as much fertilizer as is necessary. When growers guess about the need for lime or fertilizers. sodium. These analyses indicate whether lime is needed and. the grower does not need to guess. if so. one bag of fertilizer may be enough. It is also common to see homeowners purchase one bag of lime when they purchase one bag of fertilizer. The quantity of available nutrients in the sample determines the amount of fertilizer that is recommended. . A soil test also measures soil pH. By using a soil test report. Diagnoses whether there is too little or too much of a nutrient. nutrient runoff into surface or ground water is minimized and natural resources are conserved. copper and zinc to become less available to plants. will have little effect on soil pH. sulfur. Based on an average lawn size of 5000 square feet. Applying one bag of lime over 5000 square feet. soil pH may rise above the needed level. which causes nutrients such as iron. manganese. humic matter and exchangeable acidity.SOIL TESTING What is a Soil Test? A soil test is a process by which elements (phosphorus. For Example: When applying too much lime. however. manganese. copper and zinc) are chemically removed from the soil and measured for their "plant available" content within the sample. calcium. too little or too much is likely to be applied.

In areas where soil levels are high in phosphorus. starting a vegetable garden. the depth and the correct mix of the sample. the information provided. the area sampled. putting in a flower bed. Soil sampling analysis is a free service for any grower in North Carolina. Use a soil probe. shrubbery. or shovel to collect samples. and ryegrass. delay sampling at least six to eight weeks. By sampling at this time. The tools used. Time it right. however. plastic bucket. growers of flue-cured tobacco often routinely apply phosphorus. Sample established areas-lawns. or planting perennials. . If the soil test report recommends lime. Go to the top of the page Taking a Good Sample A soil sample must be taken at the right time and in the right way. For areas recently limed or fertilized. trees. such as fescue. wash it thoroughly before using it for soil samples. For example. Take a soil sample a few months before starting any new landscaping-whether your laying sod. and packaging all influence quality of the sample. and other perennials-once every three or four years. you will have enough time to apply it and have it adjust the soil pH before you plant.Saves money that might otherwise be spent on unneeded lime and fertilizer. bronze. bluegrass. You can sample at any time of year. hand garden trowel. spade. If the bucket has been used to hold fertilizer or other chemicals. mid-August through mid-September is an ideal time to take samples for cool-season grasses. Sample each unique area separately. or galvanized tools because they will contaminate samples with copper and/or zinc. Mix samples in a clean. Do not use brass. a soil test could save these farmers up to $60 per acre. you can be ready to apply lime in the fall. Use clean sampling equipment.

a lawn. sample to the depth that you plan to mix in lime or fertilizer. For each unique area. sample healthy and unhealthy areas separately even if both are lawn grasses or flower gardens. Figure 1. For lawns. Take a soil core to the appropriate depth.Each sample should represent only one soil type or area-for example. Use the mixture in the bucket to fill a soil sample box about . vegetable garden or perennial landscaped area (Figure 1). sample to a depth of four inches. excluding any turf thatch. For vegetable and flower gardens. For shrubbery. etc. Unique areas to sample in a home landscape. then sample to a depth of four to six inches around the base of plants. Place all the subsamples for one unique area in a plastic bucket and mix thoroughly. If one area of your yard seems healthy and another has bare or yellow areas. remove any mulch or surface debris. usually four to six inches. Avoid zones where lime or fertilizer have been recently applied. Mix sample cores well. take at least six to eight subsamples and combine them to make one sample.

agribusinesses. If you are sending several sample boxes through the mail. Use permanent ink or pencil to fill out forms and label boxes. pack them carefully in a sturdy container. complete a Diagnostic Soil Sample Information Sheet (form AD2) instead.two-thirds full. which is coded as 022. processing may take several weeks due to the heavy sample influx from farmers at this time. Be sure to list the existing plants and/or the plants you are planning to grow. You must include the crop code(s) in order to receive lime and fertilizer recommendations. Code 024 applies to all vegetable garden crops and 026 to all lawn grasses except centipedegrass. Choose an identifier that will help you remember the area it corresponds to. or GRASS. BYARD. If you suspect existing nutritional problems and want the problems diagnosed. If you just want routine lime and fertilizer recommendations. . Fill out an information sheet and label the sample box completely. then fill out a Soil Sample Information Sheet (form AD1) and send it with your samples. Give each sample a unique identifier of up to five letters and/or numbers. or the Agronomic Division laboratory. such as FYARD. from late fall through early spring. ROSES. Do not tape the box or put soil in a plastic bag. Go to the top of the page Receiving the Soil Test Report Soil samples are usually analyzed within one week of the time they are received. Look for the fill line on the box. Do not send samples in a manilla envelope. Get your sample boxes and information sheets from Cooperative Extension offices. Put the soil mixture in the sample box. However. Put this identifier on both the information sheet and the sample box. Mail samples to the Agronomic Division laboratory at the address on the back of this publication. regional agronomists. Codes are listed on the back of the information sheet. Package the sample appropriately.

nc. Information about soil tests and their interpretation is also available on the internet at http://www. a report is mailed to the homeowner and a copy is immediately posted on the internet at http://agronomy.agr.When testing is complete. and understanding how to implement them. Go to the top of the page Plant Nutrients Page Plant Nutrition Home Fertilizer Label Page .nc. The note provides extra details on fertilizer application schedules and rates for specific kinds of plants.state. The cover sheet explains the technical terms and index values. interpreting soil test results.agr.state.htm Consult an agricultural advisor for more help on sampling.us/ A cover sheet and a crop-specific note are sent with the report.us/agronomi/sthome.