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Back to Basics – What Nutrients Are Essential?


Did you know there are 17 essential elements? Without any one of these essential elements, some aspect of plant development will suffer, and no other nutrient can make up for the deficient element.

The first group of essential elements are the non-mineral elements—hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. These elements account for the majority of the dry matter found in plants. However, since they are supplied mainly by water and carbon dioxide, they are not considered mineral elements.

The remaining 14 nutrients fall into one of two categories: macronutrients or micronutrients. The difference between macronutrients and micronutrients has nothing to do with their physiological importance within plants; rather, the classification comes from the relative concentration of that nutrient found in the plant tissue.

Macronutrients are those nutrients required in far larger quantities than micronutrients. They are often divided into one of two categories: primary or secondary. The primary macronutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). N, P, and K are typically the first nutrients to become deficient in soils, and as such, are the nutrients typically applied through fertilizer. The secondary macronutrients are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. These nutrients are typically less likely to become deficient in soils. However, the need for supplemental sulfur fertilization is becoming vital due to increasing yields and the reduction of sulfur in vehicle emissions. Many functions of macronutrients in plants include the following processes: photosynthesis, protein, and amino acid production, energy storage and transfer, plant transpiration, plant respiration, stalk strength, and quality.

The remaining eight elements of boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, and nickel are classified as micronutrients. They are required in much smaller amounts when compared to macronutrients. By small, I mean anywhere from a few pounds to less than an ounce per acre. However, they are just as important as macronutrients when it comes to maximizing yield. Even though micronutrients are not required in large amounts, they are very important to the following plant functions and processes: enzymes that aid in plant metabolism, hormone systems, chlorophyll production, seed formation, root nodulation, and helping to convert nitrate into amino acids.

As the 2018 season winds down, it is important to know how things look in your area. If tissue samples have not been taken, it isn’t too late to find out the nutrient status of your crops. If it is too late in your area, make a call to your local Helena representative and ask what general trends they have been seeing in tissue samples this year.

Knowing the overall nutrient status of our vegetable crops in 2018 will help us prepare a plan to better manage them in 2019.

This column is sponsored by Helena Agri-Enterprises, Inc., and the opinions expressed herein may not reflect those of CFAN or its advertisers.

BIO: John Baxter is the Florida Division Manager of Helena Agri-Enterprises. He has proudly served Florida growers at Helena for 25 years, and also currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Florida Fertilizer & Agrichemical Association. For more information about Helena Agri-Enterprises products or services, or to contact a member of the Florida team, call (813) 626-5121.