General concepts in plant nutrition

General concepts in plant nutrition

The concepts of nutrition and nutrients are often overlooked, merely blended together, or considered as the same or interchangeable idea. Mengel and Kirkby (1982) best described the difference between nutrition and nutrients as nutrition being the "supply and absorption of chemical compounds needed for growth and metabolism" and nutrients as simply being "chemical compounds required by an organism" for whatever undefined reason.

Essential nutrients

All essential nutrients required by higher plants, in this case tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, are exclusively inorganic in nature. Conversely, animals (including man) and some micro-organisms need, in addition to inorganic nutrients, a supply of organic foodstuffs. This essentially distinguishes animals, including Man, from plants. Plants cannot work with organic nutrients. Therefore, growing plants with purely "organic" nutrients is not only a misnomer but it is also misleading. Higher plants can only absorb and metabolise inorganic nutrients.


Only 16 elements, of the 92 natural mineral elements known, are considered essential nutrients for the growth of higher plants:

  • Carbon
  • Hydrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Sulphur
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Molybdenum
  • Boron
  • Chlorine
  • (Sodium)
  • (Silicon)
  • (Cobalt)

Bracketed elements are considered important, but not essential, for plant growth.

Classification of elements

The classification of nutrient elements into the macro- or micronutrient category is purely arbitrary at best if based solely on the physiological requirements of the plant. For example, often the leaf tissue content of Mn is far in excess of the plant's physiological requirements for Mn . The classification of elements into macro- and micronutrients, based on biochemical concerns, is probably more sensible and appropriate.


Living plants consist of 27% organic matter (stems, roots, leaves, flowers and fruit), 70% water and 3% minerals (inorganic ions) (Mengel and Kirkby, 1982). 

Early detection of nutrient deficiencies

Successful culture of greenhouse vegetable crops on Grodan® requires an understanding of plant nutrition. It is beneficial to understand the role(s) of each essential mineral within the plant in order to detect early symptoms of nutrient deficiency. Early detection depends on two key factors:

1. The role of a particular nutrient within a plant

2. Whether or not that element can be translocated from one area of the plant to another.

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