What is the Difference Between Plant Food and Fertilizer?

New and beginner gardeners are probably familiar with the basics, such as watering the plants regularly and fertilizing them now and then. But what not a lot of us know is that plants also need food to grow!

But what is the difference between plant food and fertilizer anyway? Can’t you interchange them and still get the same results?

That’s not the case. Both have their benefits and uses, making them suitable for individual situations. Read on to know what makes them different and when you should be using them.

what is the difference between plant food and fertilizer

What is the Difference Between Plant Food and Fertilizer?

Plants and soil require nutritious food, just like us humans. They also need regular fertilizing. And yes, both are different!

Here are what fertilizer and plant food are:

About Fertilizer

Fertilizer is a combination of macronutrients, micronutrients, and ballast, which are fillers.

Gardeners would use fertilizers to help enrich their soil, giving it the essential nutrients plants require for healthy growth and blooming. Besides the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen they need, plants also require 13 other nutrients they would usually get from the soil.

The most important out of the 13 nutrients, also known as the ‘big three’, are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These are often labeled as N-P-K, named after their respective abbreviations of the period table. You can find them labeled as NPK 10-10-10 or 20-20-20, which represents the percentage per nutrient in their fertilizers. The first is Nitrogen, then Phosphorous, and finally, Potassium.

Some fertilizers’ nutrients may have more than the others, such as Nitrogen. Nitrogen helps promote foliage growth, so if you were targeting foliage plants, it would have 20-5-5 (20% nitrogen and the rest being 5%). There are various ratios of NPK to serve specific nutrient requirements.

These macronutrients are necessary for the health and growth of all kinds of plants, with fertilizers containing these three nutrients, along with other nutrients and fillers for the plants to thrive.

Adding to that, fertilizers also contain micronutrients like calcium and iron. Organic fertilizers usually have micronutrients chlorine, copper, calcium, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. Balanced fertilizers that are labeled 10-10-10 would have 10% per macronutrient, totaling 30% macronutrient content.

Another 10-20% of fertilizer is made up of other micronutrients, with the remaining 50% being filler ingredients. Fillers aren’t there to take up all space but are made to help distribute the important nutrients for better absorption capabilities.

Gardeners invest and use fertilizers to enrich soil if its nutrients have depleted, as they will give soil nutrients that plants will use to create their own food.

About Plant Food

Fertilizers are made to help revitalize soil to provide plants with necessary nutrients. However, it’s up to the plants for them to create their own food. Plants will make their food using nutrients absorbed from the soil, combined with a blend of necessary nutrients from air, sun, and water.

Air gives plants the carbon dioxide necessary, which enters through plants’ leaves. When carbon dioxide goes in from the plant’s foliage, it will then meet chlorophyll, absorbing and storing the energy from the sun. This results in chloroplasts, which will combine with carbon dioxide and create a simple sugar. The sugar will spread out, thanks to the absorbed water that traveled throughout the plant.

Water will then move up through the roots and in the plant, with the sugar and nutrients, and minerals from the soil. These are all vital for photosynthesis, and water is essential to maintain the plant cells’ turgidity. That’s why plants wilt if they don’t get enough water, as their cells won’t be turgid.

Fertilizers are added to soil to give the nutrients and elements plants need for them to create their own food. Plant food comes from soil nutrients and other elements, including air, sun, and water. If a fertilizer has high levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, only to lack other necessary micronutrients, then plants don’t receive enough nutrition.

All plants require all 13 important nutrients for them to stay healthy and with the nutrition, they need to grow and bloom healthily.

The Major Differences

Now that you know what fertilizer and plant food are, what makes them different? Here are their major differences:

1. Plant Food Naturally Occurs

Plant food constantly occurs naturally while fertilizer does not. Plants create their own plant food, receiving nutrients from the water, sun, and air to start the process. This process is completely natural, being photosynthesis, not requiring chemicals or other products to trigger the process.

Meanwhile, fertilizer doesn’t occur naturally. You will have to do the fertilizing for your plants as needed.

2. Fertilizer is Commercially Available

You can’t purchase plant food in any gardening store. You may find products claiming that they are plant food when they are just fertilizer.

Regardless of the product label, plant food comes from the plants themselves, there’s no way you can feed plants food other than the nutrients you give them to help them make the simple sugars they need to grow, using photosynthesis.

3. Houseplants Make Plant Food More Than You’ll Have to Fertilize

Plants would make plant food semi-often, maybe every few weeks or more than that. However, you don’t fertilize your plants as often as they make plant food, nor should you ever. Fertilize every three to four months, do NOT overdo it!

Wrapping It Up

While we all know the importance of fertilizing your plants, we forget about another important component: Plant food. And if you thought that both are interchangeable terms, that’s fine, but it’s important to learn about the misconceptions and differences. That way, you know exactly what your plants are getting and that you’re ensured that they receive the right nutrients and supplements.

Hopefully, this article answered your question, “what is the difference between plant food and fertilizer?’ Now that you know the difference, be sure to invest in the right plant products for your plants’ better growth.

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