Fertilizer Vs. Plant Food: Major Difference+When To Use

Fertilizers and plant food are often considered the same but are not practically the same. A plant’s overall growth and health depend on many factors, and plant food and fertilizer are two different factors that help the plant.

The primary difference between fertilizer and plant food is that fertilizer is chemically or naturally made nutrients that help enrich the soil and boost the plant’s growth. But plant food is a supplement for by-products that plants make using water, sunlight, air, and nutrients from the soil.

This article will discuss the major difference between plant food and fertilizer. So, dive in to know more about it.


Is plant food the same as plant fertilizer?

People often make mistakes by considering plant food and fertilizer as the same thing.

But they are not.

Plants prepare “plant food” using the different elements available in the soil and the atmosphere.

On the other hand, fertilizers are man-made substances that we add to the soil to increase the nutrient level.

The basic difference is fertilizers are not made through a natural process; they are commercially made substances.

And plant food is prepared through a natural process.

Fertilizers enrich the soil with nutrients, while plants use these nutrients from the soil and produce their food.

People often think that available commercial packages in the market are plant food, but it is a fertilizer.

In many places like garden centers, gardening books, and websites, you will notice that “fertilizers” and “plant food” are often used as the same thing.

But they are not at all the same.

What is plant food?

Fertilizers are made to enrich the soil with nutrients used by plants to make their meals.

Plants use nutrients from the soil and make their food with the help of water, sunlight, and air.

Air provides carbon dioxide to the plant, which enters through the leaves.

Carbon dioxide enters the leaves and reaches chlorophyll, which takes and reserves the sun’s energy, creating chloroplasts.

Then the chloroplasts come in contact with chlorophyll with the help of carbon dioxide and create a simple sugar.

This simple sugar is transferred to the entire plant with the help of absorbed water.

Water moves up to the different parts of the plant carrying all the sugar, nutrients, and minerals.

So, fertilizers are a way to add sufficient nutrients to the soil to help plants produce their food.

Plants need the all-important 13 nutrients equally to produce food and thrive well.

What is plant fertilizer?

Fertilizer is a combination of both macronutrients and micronutrients.

Plant fertilizers are made up of 3 major nutrients, i.e., Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, that plants need to promote healthy and faster growth.

These 3 nutrients are also classified as N-P-K.

Almost most fertilizers contain equal parts of these 3 nutrients.

Such as 10:10:10 or 20:20:20.

But some fertilizers contain a high amount of specific nutrients like Nitrogen, for example, 10:5:5.

When the soil lacks such necessary nutrients, fertilizers are the way to provide nutrition.

So, applying it in the right amount and time is important.

Fertilizers are available in both synthetic and natural forms.

As per the name, you already know that natural fertilizer comprises natural resources.

This involves blood meal, seaweed, feather meal, fish waste, cottonseed meal, and bone meal.

The important attribute of natural fertilizer is the microorganisms.

These microorganisms can be algae, bacteria, or fungi, which help plants to grow.

Another fertilizer is synthetic.

This fertilizer does not contain any natural resources.

It is mostly made with liquid ammonia, and the rest of the substance consists of ballast or fillers. 

Fillers are used in fertilizer to distribute the nutrients properly and increase the absorbing capacity. 

People should choose fertilizer carefully with the correct ratio according to the Plant’s needs.

Plant food or plant fertilizers: Which is better?

Fertilizer 2

People may think that plants don’t need any extra fertilizers because of the food they make on their own.

But for making the meal for themselves, nutrients play a very important role.

Without the nutrients, plants will not be able to produce food.

If your plant already has sufficient nutrients on its own, then it doesn’t matter if you will fertilize them or not.

But if they lack certain nutrients, fertilization is necessary.

Your plants require fertilizers, especially for nutrients like Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorous.

Without sufficient nutrients, your plants may grow but not in a healthy manner, and they will face difficulty preparing the plant food.

Overall, it is necessary to fertilize the Plant frequently even though it is making its food.

However, in some cases, soil also contains some nutrients which would help the Plant function.

But if it doesn’t, then you don’t have any other option other than fertilizing.

What type of plant needs fertilizer?

Some shrubs, trees, and perennials don’t need fertilizer until and unless they show serious signs like browning or yellowing of foliage.

But vegetables often need fertilizers to promote healthy growth, such as blueberries, which are heavy feeders and act more productively if they get fertilizer at the right moment.

Choosing an appropriate fertilizer is one of the essential tasks.

You should have proper knowledge about your plant along with the basic requirements.

Some plants, like roses and hydrangeas, will be more productive when fertilized correctly than shrubs.

So it is important to think and choose the fertilizers appropriate for your plants.

Otherwise, you will end up getting an unhealthy plant.

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Which one should you choose? Organic or chemical fertilizer?

liquid Fertilizer

Plants usually don’t feel any difference while receiving nutrients from organic or chemical fertilizers.

It just depends on your preference.

It is important to choose the correct fertilizer to keep the plant strong and healthy.

Organic fertilizers are made with living things like fish emulsions, bone meal, animal manure, leaf molds, and non-living things like greens and rock phosphate.

Always check OMRI on the organic fertilizers package and then use it.

While chemical fertilizers, which are also known as synthetic or commercial fertilizers, are made by completing various manufacturing processes.

Even though chemical fertilizer contains natural mineral deposits, they are not considered natural because of ammonia and other substance.

A balanced fertilizer such as 10:10:10 is one of the best choices for flowers, vegetables, and other nutrient-thriving plants.

Avoid using lawn fertilizers in your garden because rough chemicals can damage the vegetables completely.

Organic vs. chemical fertilizers: Advantages and disadvantages

Organic and chemical fertilizers have many benefits as well as drawbacks. 

Let’s see the table given below:

It is beneficial and non-toxic.Expensive than chemical fertilizers.
Increases water movement in the soil.Most pets find it attractive to taste. 
Doesn’t cause any burn to the plant.Requires a lot of time to work. 
Improves soil structure.Doesn’t provide nutrients quickly.
Gives strength to the immune system of plants.
Stays in the soil for a prolonged period. 
Don’t create a crust on the soil.
Feed the microbes, which provides benefits to the soil.
Organic fertilizer: Advantages Vs. Disadvantages
Not very expensive compared to organic fertilizers.Risk of over-fertilizing, which can easily cause burning.
It is easily available in the market.Doesn’t improve soil structure.
You will find quick results.Create a crust on the soil.
It provides nutrients at a faster rate.
Chemical fertilizer: Advantages Vs. Disadvantages

Selecting the correct type of fertilizers for plants

Before putting fertilizer on the plant, ensure you know your plant’s requirements.

For choosing the correct fertilizer, you need to properly understand what plants you are growing and their needs because every plant has different guidelines.

Organic fertilizer

Compost 2

Organic fertilizers are made up of mineral sources, animals, and plants.

For example, alfalfa, blood meal, bone meal, green sand, soft rock phosphate, and kelp. 

You can use it if you prefer natural fertilizer without any chemicals.  

Chemical fertilizer

This artificial fertilizer is made by combining inorganic chemicals to create a mix.

This can be either magnesium sulfate or ammonium nitrate.

The biggest advantage is that this fertilizer contains plenty of nutrients necessary for plants.

For example, Sulphur, Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other micronutrients.

All fertilizers contain a ratio based on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K).

Nitrogen is needed for faster and green growth, Phosphorous for healthy roots, and Potassium for blooming flowers and developing fruits.

Complete fertilizer

Complete fertilizer provides three main nutrients at an equal level.

The main nutrients are Nitrogen, Phosphorous or Phosphate, and Potassium or Potash. 

Generally, the three main nutrients are listed in the package in the same order, referred to as N-P-K.

The number written in the package describes the proportion of each nutrient.

For example- a 20-20-20 fertilizer means each nutrient has 20 proportions. 

Simple fertilizer

This fertilizer provides one specific type of nutrient unavailable in the soil. 

If the soil has any deficiency in one main nutrient, you can use a simple fertilizer containing only one nutrient, like nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus.

A simple fertilizer includes only ammonium sulfate or urea as the main ingredient and any one main nutrient like potassium fertilizer, phosphorous fertilizer, or ground mineral phosphate.

Foliar fertilizer

Foliar fertilizer comes from the liquid that plants take through their foliage.

If you want to recover potassium deficiencies, apply foliar fertilizers to the flower.

But if your flower shows yellowing of leaves, your plants might suffer from iron deficiencies.

Then you can apply ferrous sulfate to the leaves.

It is one of the easiest methods to recover nutrient deficiencies in foliage.

Slow-release fertilizer

African violet fert 2

Generally, every organic fertilizer is slow-release because it takes a lot of time for organic matter to decompose in the soil.

This type of fertilizer is mostly used for houseplants or outdoor containers.

If you like to fertilize your Plant sometimes, you apply slow-release fertilizers encapsulated.

In this way, the fertilizer will release after weeks or months.

When to use fertilizer?

Every plant needs to be fertilized monthly to promote healthy growth, except for slow-release fertilizer.

But if you are unfamiliar with the nutrients in the soil, you can do a soil test.

With the help of a soil test, you can easily find the nutrient level in the soil and fertilize it accordingly.

You can either do a soil test yourself or give a soil sample to the local university to do it for you.

How do you apply fertilizer to the plant?

Let’s discuss the four ways to apply fertilizer to the plant.

Broadcast application

Spread the correct amount of fertilizer all over the garden and blend deep into the soil, at least 3 to 4 inches, before lines are created.

Home gardeners usually use this method.

Row or band application

Before planting, in this method, fertilizer is added in a strip to the side of the row.

While doing this method, you should be careful and keep the roots away to get contact with the fertilizer band, as it can kill the plants.

Starter solution

This method is mostly for transplanting, such as eggplant, tomato, cabbage, and pepper.

Mix one gallon of water with 2 tablespoons of garden fertilizer. 

Put one cup of the mixture into the soil hole and wait until and unless the soil gets to soak up completely and then transplant it.

Side dressing application

This method is used when the nutrients drain out from the soil. It happens mostly when the soil is sandy.

Dress the plant with fertilizer by sprinkling it along the sides of rows and water the soil to blend it well.

Side dressing application improves the yield of most crops and vegetables.

Final words

Altogether, fertilizer and plant food are not the same; in some places, the words are used interchangeably. However, we must know how they are different; I have explained that in the article.

Generally, plants produce their own food using nutrients they take from the soil. However, when there is a situation where the soil lacks some nutrients, then fertilizer is used to improve the soil.

Ensure you always water the Plant after adding the fertilizers. Also, always use fertilizer after reading the instructions given in the package. 

Use the fertilizer correctly; otherwise, your plants will get burned.

Reference: Fertilizer, Soil and Plant Nutrition, Quick guide to fertilizing plants.


Hello everyone, My name is Richa and I am here to make you a better gardener by creating an in-depth and helpful resource for all the fellow gardeners out there. If I could help even a few people understand their plants better then I call it a success for my efforts.

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