NPK Fertilizer: All You Need To Know

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All the plants require Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium for healthy growth. In the absence of any one of these essential nutrients, a plant will die. Or, even if it survives, it will be unhealthy. Knowing the NPK values of fertilizer can help you select one appropriate type of plant you are growing. There are many grades of NPK fertilizers, but all of them exist in three classes: liquids, solids, and gaseous.

Many fertilizers have the same chemical compounds for a particular grade. They add essential plant nutrients to the soil. Therefore, to compare two fertilizers, you need to study the two factors: the amount and availability of plant nutrients. You can quickly get this information from the label or packaging, and it is guaranteed. 

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Here is an essential guide to understanding what NPK fertilizers are and what NPK numbers mean, and what levels of NPK are appropriate for your lawn and garden plants.

What is NPK Fertilizer

NPK stands for the content of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium in the fertilizer. 

  • Nitrogen (N) is mainly responsible for the growth of leaves on the plant. If you are growing leafy vegetables, you need to apply a fertilizer with a higher nitrogen content to encourage leaf growth. 
  • Phosphorus (P) is primarily accountable for root and flower, and fruit development. If you are growing flowers, you need to use a fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus number to encourage more blooms. 
  • Potassium (K) is a nutrient that helps in the functioning of the overall functions of the plant. 

Understanding NPK ratings on farm and garden fertilizers is an integral part of deciding whether or not plant fertilizer is appropriate or even necessary for your farm or garden.

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In most cases, important gardening practices such as aerating and composting are much better for your farm than chemical fertilizers. However, you must also note that higher NPK levels don’t necessarily mean healthier plants.

Although the fertilizers come in three physical forms (liquid, solid, and gas), there are only two fertilizers: liquid and solid. Anhydrous ammonia is a gas, but it is classified as a liquid because it is a liquid under pressure. The term liquid fertilizer applies to anhydrous ammonia, aqua ammonia, N solutions, and liquid mixed fertilizers. Liquid N-P-K fertilizers are also known as fluid fertilizers. They include accurate solutions which require no agitation and suspensions or slurry type mixtures of N, P, and K, which need constant stirring to keep the solids suspended in the solution.

NPK content in Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilizers generally have low levels of the elements. For the past thirty years or more, the recommended NPK numbers for fertilizers used in arid areas is  3-1-2 ratio, like 15-5-10. These numbers represent 15 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorus, and 10 percent potassium. This is in the process of being changed now to a 1-0-0 ratio.

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As per the new fertilizer recommendation, there is no need for adding Phosphorus and Potassium separately as the soil already has so much of these elements. The main problem with this theory is that soil testing reports may show high Phosphorus and Potassium levels. However, these nutrients may not be available to plants because of insufficient soil air, humus, and rock minerals.

What You Should Know about NPK Fertilizer?

Chemical and organic fertilizers show their nutrient content with three bold numbers on the package. These numbers represent three different compounds: The three numbers printed on fertilizer labels and packaging correspond to the percentage of these elements found in the fertilizer. 

You must be aware that high nitrogen fertilizers will make for rapid growth, but weaker plants are more prone to attacks by diseases and pests.

German scientist Justus von Liebig believed that Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium levels are the basis for determining healthy plant growth. However, this theory, dating back to the 1800s, does not consider the dozens of other nutrients and elements essential to plant growth.

These elements include sulfur, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, magnesium, etc. The theory ignores the importance of beneficial soil organisms that help plants flourish and fight off diseases and pests.

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 This theory ignored other ways of looking at how plants utilize nutrients, especially by companies that commonly produce chemical fertilizers.

If the soil is adequately aerated, earthworms, beneficial microbes, and other organisms will thrive underneath your garden and farmland. They assist in creating ground as they live and digest organic matter. Consequently, the soil is fertile and healthy. 

Additionally, compost in the form of organic humus is always present in natural plant communities. Consequently, lot of the nutrients are provided which plants need to grow. Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and many other trace elements are a part of the compost that benefits your plants. Elements such as carbon, magnesium, copper, cobalt, sodium, boron, molybdenum, and zinc are just as essential to plant development as NPK. 

Impact of Overuse of NPK Fertilizer

Over the years, Von Liebig’s theory has been in practice for growing plants. Consequently, you now have a vast amount of excess nutrients building up in our freshwater source. This is the result of the excess application of chemical fertilizers.

Much of this overuse of chemical fertilizers is actually from homeowners and not from farmers. The farmers carefully measure and apply the least amount of fertilizer necessary in the most cost-effective way.

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Many homeowners who are not growing to make a profit end up overusing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They think that if a little bit is good, then more must be better. However, that is not the case.

Although farmers use pesticides more widely, homeowners use ten times more fertilizer per acre. You should only use the proper amount of any fertilizer and not anything more. Consequently, you will save you money, and it will also keep your farm and garden healthier at the same time.

Organic Versus Chemical Fertilizer

When examining organic and chemical fertilizer labels, you’ll realize that the NPK numbers don’t add up to 100 percent. So, you must be wondering what comprises the rest of your fertilizer? That depends on the fertilizer.

Chemical fertilizer can have any additional ingredients, including dirt, sand, and even materials that are potentially hazardous to your health and the ecosystem. Chemical fertilizers require these fillers to dilute the nutrients.  Concentrated nutrients damage or “burns” your plants, skin, and anything else they touch.

Organic fertilizers don’t necessarily contain fillers, as they comprise various natural components that will benefit your plants in one way or another.  Another thing you should be aware of about chemical fertilizers is the kind of nutrients they contain and how they are extracted. For example, nitrogen found in chemical fertilizers dissolves very quickly in water. Effectively, this means that excess nitrogen may find its way into freshwater sources and groundwater contaminating water.

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Additionally, many chemical fertilizers are now using phosphoric acid to create a high phosphorus content quickly in an inexpensive manner. Phosphorus essentially neutralizes other essential trace elements from the soil needed by your plants. Additionally, the potassium found in many chemical fertilizers is a harsh form of potassium that can harm your plants if not applied correctly. Organic and natural fertilizers normally have lower NPK numbers. They lead to soil amendments that work slowly over time to improve your soil and to help your plants grow healthy and strong. They avoid fast growth and flowering which can weaken plants. Therefore, big NPK numbers do not necessarily mean a better fertilizer.

Alternatives to Using NPK Fertilizer

You might not need much NPK fertilizer at all in your yard or garden. Many farmers believe that little to no additional potassium and phosphorus are required in our soils as these elements are already present.

However, you need to liberate these elements with proper soil drainage, soil aeration, beneficial soil organisms, etc. Effectively, this means that organic fertilizers with NPK labels that show low numbers or even zero for potassium and phosphorus are sufficient for your farmland as long as you take correct care of your soil.

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In the absence of proper mineral nutrients, soil aeration, and other factors, your plants may not be able to absorb potassium and phosphorous. Thus, loading up your soil with high levels of phosphorous and potassium will not make much difference to the plant’s health. Subsequently, you must have healthy soil full of beneficial microorganisms that can use the nitrogen available in the air. Compost can help in addition to soil additives.

Additionally, companion planting of leguminous crops like beans that fix nitrogen will make healthy soil. Organic composts and composted manure are excellent sources of all nutrients plants need to grow, including NPK. The farmers who use chemicals and organic farmers agree that using compost is one of the best things is to feed your plants the nutrients they need. Other excellent sources of these nutrients are fish meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, bat guano, and earthworm castings.

Apart from nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, fertilizers contain additional nutrients in much smaller quantities. Calcium helps to build a plant’s cell walls. Iron plays an active role in creating chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Magnesium aids in the plant’s growth and repair process. Sulfur helps to build proteins essential to plant growth and the maturation of fruit and seeds.

3 thoughts on “NPK Fertilizer: All You Need To Know

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