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Plant Nutrition - 17 elements essential for plant growth

Here is a summary of the importance of 17 elements essential for plant growth. When attacked by pathogens, nutritionally deficient plants are generally less likely to survive as compared to healthy plants.

What do the numbers on a fertilizer label mean?

The three numbers (12-3-9 for the example above ) on every label for any product worldwide stand for N-P-K: N for Nitrogen, P for Phosphorus, and K for Potassium. The numbers simply represent the percentage of each element within the fertilizer you are applying. For our example below, there are 12% (by weight) of Nitrogen, 3% of Phosphorus, and 9% of Potassium.

Now, more importantly, what is each element providing to your crop or garden?

N P K – Primary Macroutrients 

Nitrogen (N):

Nitrogen is crucial for plants especially for chlorophyll synthesis; Chlorophyll is found in the leaf of the plant and plays a major role in acquiring energy which is required for the plant to perform well.

  • Provides (energy harvesting sunlight) needed for nutrient uptake for proper growth and production
  • Absorbed by roots, its supply is limited when pH is low or when temperature and moisture are high
  • In deficiency, the plant suffers from early maturity (early maturity can cause a reduction in yield and quality)
  • Nitrogen is important for growth of leaves and shoots growth 

Phosphorus (P):

  • Phosphorus is an essential nutrient required for creating flowers which will then turn into fruit.
  • Phosphorus promotes early root formation and growth and is vital for seed formation
  • Increases water-use efficiency while helping plants survive harsh winter conditions
  • Required in large quantities during early stages of the plants.
  • Crucial role in capturing sunlight
  • Phosphorus is important for growth of flowers and roots                          

Potassium (K):

This nutrient affects the size, shape, color, tastes & shelf life while reducing water loss (wilting).

  • Important role for disease resistance
  • Potassium is taken by the plant in the soil (Sandy soils often have little K)
  • Increases photosynthesis and provides good quality fruits and seeds
  • Potassium Deficiency leads to poor root system (affects the size of the seeds, fruit, and quality)
  • Potassium is important for growth and development 


Ca, Mg & S – Secondary Macronutrients

Calcium (Ca):

Ca provides strength to the plant structure (to prevent disease invasion) while improving root growth and stimulating microbial activity which provides better uptake of other nutrients.

  • Required to form a strong cell wall
  • Calcium deficiencies most often occur in sandy acidic soils
  • Provides the nutrient required to obtain firm fruits & vegetables with long shelf life

Magnesium (Mg):

Plants require Mg (found in chlorophyll) for photosynthesis to capture the sun’s energy.

  • Mg is often depleted in soils
  • Mg availability decreases at low pH
  • Mg increases Iron(Fe) utilization in plants
  • Symptoms of Mg deficiencies first appear in older leaves, it is most frequent in acidic soils

Sulphur (S):

S is crucial for photosynthesis and to prevent winter damage. S helps to provide optimal microbial activity to acidic soils (low pH, such as blueberry fields).

  • It helps in seed production and chlorophyll formation
  • Deficiencies are most common in sandy soils with low organic matter with moderate to heavy rainfall


Boron (B):

This nutrient in found in soil (soil testing allow to find the right amount of boron present) therefore during drought, its accessibility is limited. Its availability also decreases as the soil pH increases (drastic decrease when pH is above 6.3).

  • Boron plays an important role in the seed and cell wall formation while promoting maturity
  • Boron has a sticky application; the range between toxicity and deficiency is narrow (uniform application of fertilizer is mandatory), small amounts are required
  • It provides an important role for the structure of the plant
  • It is crucial for the formation of pollen tubes and pollen grains, without elongated pollen tube, the chance of pollination is reduced
  • Boron toxicity is a major abiotic stress.

Chlorine (Cl):

Cl supports the transport of nutrients such as Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, etc. Cl reduces the effects of fungal root diseases.

Manganese (Mn):

The quantity of Mn is often low in the presence of organic matter. Moreover, in low pH soils (acidic soils), Mn is very soluble therefore can become toxic to the plant.

  • Most often occurs with high soil pH (above 6.5). 

Iron (Fe):

Essential for crop growth and food production. It is involved in cell division and growth.

  • Iron (Fe) is applied best as foliar spray
  • It is difficult for the plant to uptake Fe at high pH
  • Fe concentrations within the plant body prevent pathogen growth. 

Nickel (Ni):

It is needed for plants that are fertilized with urea but when Nickel is present in high quantities; it may be toxic to the plant.  


Required for chlorophyll formation which is needed for the plant to obtain energy from the sunlight.

  • Copper (Cu) absorption increases with increasing pH
  • Plays an important role in reproductive stages of the plant
  • Improves taste of fruits and vegetables while intensifying the colour of the crop
  • Cu is required for structure strength and to prevent wilting
  • Deficiencies occur most often on organic soils, sandy soils, and humus-rich soils. 

Zinc (Zn):

Without the required Zinc concentration, high yields are impossible. Zn is vital for early development, fruit, seed and root system development.

  • Zinc is important for chlorophyll production, seed formation, carbohydrate formation and starch formation
  • A very small amount of Zinc is required for crops but it is crucial
  • Zinc deficient plants experience late maturity
  • Deficiencies are most common in sandy soils low in organic matter and on organic soils usually occurring during cold wet weathers
  • Zinc uptake decreases during increased soil pH
  • Zinc plays a central role in plant defence against UV damage 

Molybdenum (Mo):

Mo optimizes plant growth. Mo aids in the formation of legumes nodules.

  • It also most available with high pH
  • Mo is toxic for grazing animals
  • Flower formation may be restricted during Mo deficiencies
  • Mo becomes most available when soil pH goes up
  • Sandy soils usually lack Molybdenum


Non-mineral Elements  

Hydrogen (H):

Hydrogen is present in both atmosphere and soil. It is the lightest nutrients (easy uptake). Enters the plant as water. 

Carbon (C):

Carbon is the primary energy source for the plant to allow nutrient uptake and all other required plant processes. Plants obtain C from the atmosphere, in their leaves. Animal waste and manure can be significant sources of C in soil. 

Oxygen (O):

Responsible for cellular respiration in plants. It is absorbed through the leaves and from the roots.



Mineral Nutrition and plant disease by Lawrence E. Datnoff, Wade H. Elmer, Don M. Huber

Testimonials from Clients

  • Lucy ClinganWe saw very good signs of improvement in our crop after using BioFish. We saw improvement in new shoots, and increase in flower buds. In terms of production, we had 25% more produce.

    Lucy Clingan Clingan Farm
  • Manmohan HeerWithin 2 weeks of fertilizer application, there was a lot of new growth in the form of early and strong shoots. We also witnessed a significant increase in berry size.

    Manmohan Heer Pacific Organic Blueberry Farm


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