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What Do Plants Need to Grow? 6 Basic Nutrients for Plants

We know many of you are well-seasoned gardeners and are beyond the “basics”. But it’s important to devote pages to those who are new to gardening and just getting started.

Many beginner gardeners get discouraged when things aren’t growing so well. Whether it’s houseplants, tomatoes, or an actual garden plot, people who’ve tried it without great results tend to come away from that experience assuming they don’t have much of a green thumb.

However, chances are there are just a few simple tweaks that will make all the difference. A healthy plant and a healthy garden begins with healthy soil.

For healthy soil you must fertilize.

Why Fertilize?

Excerpted from

Plants need to be fertilized because most soils do not provide the essential nutrients required for optimum growth. Even if you are lucky enough to start with great soil, as your plants grow, they absorb nutrients and leave the soil less fertile.

By fertilizing you replenish lost nutrients and ensure your plants have the food they need to flourish.

You’ll want to test your soil to see what’s needed. There are simple tests you can perform. You can also learn a lot by what’s growing naturally in your yard.

What Kinds of Fertilizer to Use?

Fertilizers come from many sources. Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured from minerals, gases from the air, and waste materials. Organic fertilizers, like Milorganite, obtain their nutrients from natural sources such as microbes, organic wastes, and other similar materials.

One of the best fertilizers is making your own compost. But often, when you’re just getting started, you might need some help. The Market Gardener author says it’s far better to invest in a good load of soil up front than to struggle all season with ailing plants that don’t have the proper nutrients.

So to start, you might need to bring in some good soil and fertilizer for the first year of your garden. Then you work to build up your supply of your own organic soil from compost.

Six Essential Nutrients

There are six primary nutrients that plants require. Plants get the first three from air and water:


  1. Carbon
  2. Hydrogen
  3. Oxygen


4. Nitrogen
5. Phosphorus
6. Potassium

Using the below chart, you can determine the percentages of the essential nutrients in a fertilizer.  A 5-2-0 fertilizer like Milorganite is 5% Nitrogen, 2% Phosphorus and 0% Potassium.

The Role of These Essential Garden Nutrients 

N – Nitrogen

Governs overall plant health and growth above-ground.  Accelerates growth and deepens the green color in grasses. Nitrogen should be applied with a balanced hand – too much makes plants grow quicker than their roots can support.

P – Phosphorus

The essential element for strong root development. Plants with proper amounts of Phosphorus are also more resistant to disease and have improved seed production, fruit growth, blooming and flowering.

K – Potassium

Potassium plays more of a behind-the-scenes role than Nitrogen or Phosphorous, but still is necessary for optimizing plant health. Potassium improves water retention and disease resistance while protecting plants from cold weather.1)

A good source of potassium is Potash.

We’re using Milorganite for conditioning our straw bales, and also as a deer repellent!

Many beginner gardeners get discouraged when things aren't growing so well. Whether it's houseplants, tomatoes, or an actual garden plot, people who've tried it without great results tend to come away from that experience assuming they don't have much of a green thumb.

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