Many gardeners feed their flowering and foliage plants to provide the necessary nutrients for them to thrive, promote foliage growth and induce flowering. They often take fertilizer and plant food as synonymous, but they are, in fact, two different things.
Plant food is a natural substance that derives from the sun, carbon dioxide, and water via photosynthesis. Conversely, fertilizers can be both organic and synthetic and contain different substances, but fertilizing is never a naturally occurring process. Besides, fertilizers are commercially available while plant food is not.
Let’s see what the difference between plant food and fertilizer is in more detail.
Plant Food vs Fertilizer
Inadequate nutrition and a consequent lack of essential nutrients can impede overall plant growth. That’s why it is important to support it. Some gardeners use fertilizers in doing so and they believe it is the same as plant food – but it is not. Let’s see how fertilizers and plant food differ.
Plants have the ability to create their own food through the process called photosynthesis. The necessary conditions for photosynthesis are adequate sunlight, sufficient moisture, and air circulation. The air contains carbon dioxide that gets absorbed through the leaves.
When a plant absorbs carbon dioxide through the leaves, it will then interact with chlorophyll (leaf pigment) which stores the sun’s energy into chloroplasts. As a result of the interaction between chloroplasts and carbon dioxide, the plant will produce carbohydrates and sugar. At this point, you need to water the plant so that the produced plant food can travel from the roots up. Consequently, the plant will absorb vitamins, proteins, and enzymes from it.
Now, a plant creates its own food. Why then do we need fertilizers? The answer is simple. We use fertilizers to provide the plant with the necessary elements so that they can create their own food. So are the two interchangeable? Absolutely not. We need to make sure that our plants receive all the vital nutrients in order to create plant food.
It is easy for plants to absorb nutrients they need from the soil when they are growing in the wild. However, when they are growing in containers, they have limited room for root expansion and the amount of nutrients is drastically reduced. That means that it is essential to provide nutrients on a regular basis.
Fertilizers are substances that contain micronutrients, macronutrients, and fillers and are designed to support plant growth by improving soil quality.
There are two main types of fertilizers: organic fertilizer (natural fertilizer) and inorganic fertilizer (synthetic fertilizer).
Plants thrive with the addition of organic fertilizer. Organic fertilizers use a plant or animal base, which means that a plant absorbs them more slowly and they last longer. They use natural substances such as poultry manure, green sand, blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, including fish waste, and cottonseed meal.
They all contain valuable soil microorganisms, like bacteria and algae whose function is to make the plant thrive. One condition for it is the soil temperature of at least 50 degrees F. You can use grass clippings or yard trimmings as well and add them to the compost bin.
Inorganic fertilizers, otherwise known as synthetic fertilizers, are mineral-based, fast-acting and plants use them more quickly. That means they don’t contain natural elements, but rather, most fertilizers are made up of liquid ammonia, magnesium, and filler (ballast).
You always want to check the ingredients on the label of a chemical fertilizer so you know which one is adequate for your plants and contains essential nutrients your plants need. Plants absorb fertilizers of this kind more quickly, especially fast-release fertilizers.
Main Chemical Elements for Healthy Growth
Apart from hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, plants need other nutrients too, some of them being nitrogen (N) for shoots and leaves, phosphorous (P) for roots, and potassium (K) for fruiting and flowering.
It is advisable to use a balance between these micronutrients, i.e. equal quantities, as instructed on the back as the N:P:K ratio. These three are the main macronutrients, but there are more, such as magnesium, calcium, elemental sulfur, and nitrogen.
Fertilizers can also contain micronutrients boron, copper, iron, zinc, chlorine, and manganese. The choice of elements depends on whether a plant is a foliage or flowering. Foliage ones have higher needs for nitrogen, while flowering ones need a balance of P, N, K.
Fertilizers enrich the soil for the entire plant growth and plants can absorb the nutrients contained in the fertilizers. As a consequence, they make their own food.
Types of Fertilizers
Fertilizers are commercially available in many forms such as:
- slow-release fertilizer
- quick-release fertilizer
- liquid fertilizers, including soluble powder, granules, and crystals and they have an immediate effect and are readily absorbed and used by the plant within a week
- foliar fertilizers for plants that take nutrients through the leaves
- pellets, plant spikes, and pills are placed in the soil in a solid form and dissolve slowly
- high potash fertilizers promote flowering and fruiting on tomatoes, so they are called “tomato fertilizers”
Granulated and powdery forms should be dissolved in water and applied with a can or a mister. It takes around three months for slow-release granules to break down.
Dry formulations should be inserted in the soil when potting a plant or as a top-dressing on the soil surface of mature plants.
Push pins and spikes into the soil with a pencil, but don’t push them too close to the roots.
Now that you are familiar with both plant food and fertilizers, let’s see what the difference is between them.
Difference Between Fertilizer and Plant Food
1. Plant Food is Natural
First of all, plant food is a natural, nutritious food created by an indoor plant as a result of photosynthesis. You provide enough sunlight, water, and air and indoor plants create their own valuable nutrients like simple sugar.
Conversely, fertilizing is not a process that occurs naturally. Even if you get a natural fertilizer, it is still not a natural process because indoor plants don’t have the ability to self-fertilize.
2. Plant Food Cannot Be Purchased
You can purchase fertilizers, but not real plant food. Be informed that many manufacturers claim that what they sell is plant food, but in most cases, it is only a regular fertilizer. You can’t extract, label, and sell plant food.
3. Plant Food is Produced More Quickly
Your indoor plants will produce plant food more quickly than you will need to fertilize. Plant food is created approximately every few weeks, while you need to fertilize a lot less than that.
Which Fertilizer is the Best?
Now, you might think of chemical fertilizers as your first option because they are inexpensive and readily available. However, the disadvantages far outweigh the potential benefits. Some of the disadvantages are a higher risk of overfertilizing and killing the plant, a lack of soil-improving elements, a white encrustation on the soil in case of overfertilizing.
That said, you want to consider natural fertilizers. Why? Because they are non-toxic, environmentally friendly, they improve the soil, there is a lesser risk of burning the plant, they support a plant’s immune system and plant’s cells and they are absorbed more slowly, so they last longer. They are more expensive, that’s true, but it is a worthwhile and rewarding investment.
Negative Effects of Fertilizing
- slow and sickly looking plant growth
- decreased resistance to pests and diseases
- poorly colored and small flowers, or no flowers at all
- small, dull, and pale-looking leaves that shed prematurely
- wilting of leaves and malformations
- brown or scorched leaf spots
- white encrustation on the soil surface
- stunted growth in summer
- burn plants
Prior to fertilizing, you want to do the soil test to ensure that the soil pH is right. Having the soil tested will ensure you are not fertilizing prematurely. Don’t opt for the chemical forms, but rather, try to use natural fertilizers as they minimize the risks of side effects.
To sum, while plant food and fertilizer are often used interchangeably, they are essentially two different things. Plant food is a naturally occurring product of photosynthesis while fertilizers are not. You can purchase fertilizers from a store, but you can’t do that with plant food.
You need to ensure that your indoor plant has the necessary conditions to make plant food (sun, water, and air) and if that’s not the case, you need to use fertilizers to improve the soil quality with the essential elements that will ensure healthy plant growth.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is better, plant food or fertilizer?
Plant food and fertilizer are not the same concepts. A plant fertilizer is a soil amendment you add to cater for the nutrient gaps and provide proper nutrients that keep a plant healthy. You can purchase them at a store.
Conversely, you cannot purchase plant food. It is a natural product and result of photosynthesis. So, one is not better than the other. You need to ensure your plant has proper conditions to produce plant food and, if it doesn’t, you need to use fertilizers to help it.
Do I need plant food and fertilizer?
First of all, you need to ensure that your plant can produce plant food. This means providing enough sun, water, and airflow, which will lead to the process of photosynthesis. That’s it, give the plant a nice, warm spot with good air circulation, water it and it will create plant food itself. However, it won’t fertilize itself and that’s your task to do.
Fertilizing is necessary to support a plant’s foliage growth, flowering, and fruiting. Fast-release fertilizers are absorbed by plants immediately, while slow-release fertilizers like granular fertilizers are absorbed more slowly.
Opt for organic nutrients rather than chemical nutrients. Ensure you are using a balanced fertilizer with just the right amount of necessary plant nutrients. Finally, make sure you understand the difference between plant food and fertilizer and understand different soil additives.