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How Plants Use Nutrients

A hand till device in freshly moved soil.

Nutrients are essential elements that plants use for growth, development and reproduction. Plants need a balanced source of nutrients to support growth.  

There are 17 different nutrients that are essential for plants, and they all have a specific function. Three of these elements come from the water and air, while the remaining elements are taken from the soil.  

Plant roots absorb nutrients to be used in plant functions. There are many variables that affect nutrient uptake, including rainfall, pH, temperature and organic matter, which means monitoring your soil’s nutrients is imperative.  

These elements are divided into two categories – micronutrients and macronutrients. Macronutrients are used in large amounts, whereas micronutrients are used in smaller amounts. Three of the well-known macronutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium; these nutrients make up the primary ingredients of granular fertilizers.  

Nitrogen is needed for plant leaf and stem growth, using amino acids to build plant proteins. Phosphorus is used for root and seed production, and it is also essential for DNA replication to form cell walls and complete the reproduction cycle. Potassium is important for the vascular system of the plant to move nutrients throughout the plant. Potassium also improves the flavor of many fruits and vegetables.  

Micronutrients, including manganese, boron and zinc, play an important role in plant growth and development. One of the most important parts of plant nutrient management is conducting a soil test, which allows one to evaluate the nutrient levels of the soil. Having this information makes it possible to determine which nutrients your soil needs.

By John David Johnson, WVU Extension Service Agent – Jackson County