In order for a plant to grow and thrive, it needs a number of different chemical elements. The most important are: Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen - Available from air and water and therefore in plentiful supply Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (a.k.a. potash) - The three macronutrients and the three elements you find in most packaged fertilizers Sulfur, calcium, and magnesium - Secondary nutrients Boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc - Micronutrients The most important of these (the ones that are needed in the largest quantity by a plant) are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
If you have read the articles How Cells Work and How Food Works, you have heard about things like amino acids, cell membranes and ATP. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are important because they are necessary for these basic building blocks. For example: Keep Reading Below Every amino acid contains nitrogen. Every molecule making up every cell's membrane contains phosphorous (the membrane molecules are called phospholipids), and so does every molecule of ATP (the main energy source of all cells).
Potassium makes up 1 percent to 2 percent of the weight of any plant and, as an ion in cells, is essential to metabolism. Without nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the plant simply cannot grow because it cannot make the pieces it needs. It's like a car factory running out of steel or a road crew running out of asphalt. If any of the macronutrients are missing or hard to obtain from the soil, this will limit the growth rate for the plant.
In nature, the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium often come from the decay of plants that have died. In the case of nitrogen, the recycling of nitrogen from dead to living plants is often the only source of nitrogen in the soil. To make plants grow faster, what you need to do is supply the elements that the plants need in readily available forms. That is the goal of fertilizer. Most fertilizers supply just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium because the other chemicals are needed in much lower quantities and are generally available in most soils.
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium availability is the big limit to growth. The numbers on a bag of fertilizer tell you the percentages of available nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium found in the bag. So 12-8-10 fertilizer has 12-percent nitrogen, 8-percent phosphorous and 10-percent potassium. In a 100-pound bag, therefore, 12 pounds is nitrogen, 8 pounds is phosphorous and 10 pounds is potassium.
The other 70 pounds is known as ballast and has no value to the plants. So why don't people need fertilizer to grow? Because we get everything we need from the plants we eat or from the meat of animals that ate plants. Plants are factories that do all of the work to process the basic elements of life and make them available to us. To get more information on fertilizer and other related topics, check out the links on the next page.
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The nitrogen cycle represents one of the most important nutrient cycles found in terrestrial ecosystems (Figure 9s-1). Nitrogen is used by living organisms to produce a number of complex organic molecules like amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids. The store of nitrogen found in the atmosphere, where it exists as a gas (mainly N2), plays an important role for life. This store is about one million times larger than the total nitrogen contained in living organisms.
Other major stores of nitrogen include organic matter in soil and the oceans. Despite its abundance in the atmosphere, nitrogen is often the most limiting nutrient for plant growth. This problem occurs because most plants can only take up nitrogen in two solid forms: ammonium ion (NH4+ ) and the ion nitrate (NO3- ). Most plants obtain the nitrogen they need as inorganic nitrate from the soil solution.
Ammonium is used less by plants for uptake because in large concentrations it is extremely toxic. Animals receive the required nitrogen they need for metabolism, growth, and reproduction by the consumption of living or dead organic matter containing molecules composed partially of nitrogen. Figure 9s-1: Nitrogen cycle. In most ecosystems nitrogen is primarily stored in living and dead organic matter.
This organic nitrogen is converted into inorganic forms when it re-enters the biogeochemical cycle via decomposition. Decomposers, found in the upper soil layer, chemically modify the nitrogen found in organic matter from ammonia (NH3 ) to ammonium salts (NH4+ ). This process is known as mineralization and it is carried out by a variety of bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi. Nitrogen in the form of ammonium can be absorbed onto the surfaces of clay particles in the soil.
The ion of ammonium has a positive molecular charge is normally held by soil colloids. This process is sometimes called micelle fixation (see Figure 9s-1). Ammonium is released from the colloids by way of cation exchange. When released, most of the ammonium is often chemically altered by a specific type of autotrophic bacteria (bacteria that belong to the genus Nitrosomonas) into nitrite (NO2- ). Further modification by another type of bacteria (belonging to the genus Nitrobacter) converts the nitrite to nitrate (NO3- ).
Both of these processes involve chemical oxidation and are known as nitrification. However, nitrate is very soluble and it is easily lost from the soil system by leaching. Some of this leached nitrate flows through the hydrologic system until it reaches the oceans where it can be returned to the atmosphere by denitrification. Denitrification is also common in anaerobic soils and is carried out by heterotrophic bacteria.
The process of denitrification involves the metabolic reduction of nitrate (NO3- ) into nitrogen (N2) or nitrous oxide (N2O) gas. Both of these gases then diffuse into the atmosphere. Almost all of the nitrogen found in any terrestrial ecosystem originally came from the atmosphere. Significant amounts enter the soil in rainfall or through the effects of lightning. The majority, however, is biochemically fixed within the soil by specialized micro-organisms like bacteria, actinomycetes, and cyanobacteria.
Members of the bean family (legumes) and some other kinds of plants form mutualistic symbiotic relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. In exchange for some nitrogen, the bacteria receive from the plants carbohydrates and special structures (nodules) in roots where they can exist in a moist environment. Scientists estimate that biological fixation globally adds approximately 140 million metric tons of nitrogen to ecosystems every year.
The activities of humans have severely altered the nitrogen cycle. Some of the major processes involved in this alteration include: The application of nitrogen fertilizers to crops has caused increased rates of denitrification and leaching of nitrate into groundwater. The additional nitrogen entering the groundwater system eventually flows into streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. In these systems, the added nitrogen can lead to eutrophication.
Increased deposition of nitrogen from atmospheric sources because of fossil fuel combustion and forest burning. Both of these processes release a variety of solid forms of nitrogen through combustion. Livestock ranching. Livestock release a large amounts of ammonia into the environment from their wastes. This nitrogen enters the soil system and then the hydrologic system through leaching, groundwater flow, and runoff.
Sewage waste and septic tank leaching.