Plants and Essential Minerals

by Don Trotter

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Before You Compost

Hello fellow Earthlings, and welcome to our discourse on plant nutrition. In the next few visits we'll be touching on the importance of truly balanced fertilizers for our gardens and how each nutrient works in plants. It is the goal here to provide fun and informative information to each of you so that your plants are healthier and better prepared to fight off disease and pests. Let's take a stroll in the soil chemistry lab. We are going to depart the silly N-P-K fertilizer world in favor of real plant care, so let's go...

This is the part of the discussion that gets a bit on the technical side. I will do my best to explain the function of soil minerals to you by using normal language instead of resorting to a bunch of confusing words. Where words are used that may be new to you, I will explain what the terms mean so that they become more clear. Who knows, we may actually increase vocabulary while learning some of the basic roles that minerals play in sustaining healthy plant growth.

Most soils consist of a complex mineral matrix where complicated electrochemical, biochemical, and biological activity determine every aspect of the soil's physical nature and it's ability to support plant life. These minerals in combination with water and air consist of what is commonly called the soil solution. Plants are presently recognized to utilize sixteen elements in order to sustain growth. Of these sixteen elements twelve are minerals found primarily in the soil. This is the part of this particular chapter where we could easily go into a litany of items on the periodic table of elements, but we'll stick to the basics.

Four elements that plants use are considered non-mineral and will be mentioned in detail later on. These elements are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Carbon forms the skeleton of all organic molecules. Thus, it is a basic building block for all plant life. Plants take up carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Through the process of photosynthesis, carbon is combined with hydrogen and oxygen to form carbohydrates. Further chemical combinations, some with the other essential minerals mentioned in this section produce the numerous substances required for plant growth.

Oxygen is required for respiration in plant cells whereby energy is derived from the breakdown of carbohydrates. Many of the compounds required for plant growth contain oxygen. Hydrogen combined with oxygen form water (H2O), which constitutes a large portion of the total weight of plants. Water is required for the transport of minerals and nutrients. It also enters into many of the chemical reactions necessary for plant growth while hydrating plant tissues. Hydrogen is also a constituent of many other compounds required for plant growth. These three elements are supplied to plants primarily from air and water. Plants, to synthesize amino acids, which in turn form proteins, use nitrogen. Proteins are present in every living cell on the planet. Plants for other vital compounds such as chlorophyll, nucleic acids and enzymes also require nitrogen.

The remaining elements known to be used by plants are found in mineral form and are primarily found in the soil. These minerals are phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, iron, manganese, copper, boron, molybdenum, and chlorine. These minerals are commonly separated into three categories; primary, secondary, and trace minerals. We will be focusing on these minerals in the order of the quantities that are used by plants in order to grow along with their activity and effect on soil structure and fertility.

As a footnote to this discussion on soil minerals, we should definitely touch on the importance of a balance for plant nutrients in soils. It is critical that a balance of plant nutrients be present in soils because an abundance of one can create a scenario of reduced uptake of another. Maintaining a balance of nutrients in your soil is an important objective of proper soil management. Judicious use of fertilizers and being mindful of soil pH is critical to ensuring the vigor and health of your garden.

When diagnosing the nutrient needs of your plants it should be noted that many symptoms of deficiency appear similar in different minerals. When you are unsure of what might be causing your plants to look sickly, consult a professional soil analyst or contact your local university and see if they can help you. If you feel comfortable in making a diagnosis, do it. Remember that one of the most important aspects in determining mineral deficiencies is to know the pH of your soil. This will allow you to make educated assumptions. If you decide that you have made a proper diagnosis of a mineral deficiency in your soil use small amounts or diluted amounts of that mineral in test areas to see if the health of your plants improves. If it does, it is pretty safe to assume you did it right. Few things are more rewarding than properly diagnosing a problem in your garden. This is one of the many ways natural gardeners get so connected with the "nuts and bolts" of how nature works.

In the following columns we will be touching on each of the remaining nutrients your plants and trees require and how to diagnose deficiencies of each. See you in the Garden!

Got Questions? Email the Doc at
Check out Donald Trotter's books Natural Gardening A-Z, The Complete Natural Gardener and Rose Gardening A-Z at

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