Explanation of NPK Fertilizers
Understanding NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potash (Potassium)) ratings on lawn and plant fertilizers is an important part of deciding whether or not fertilizers are appropriate or even necessary for your garden and landscaping. This article is a basic guide to understanding what NPK numbers mean with fertilizers, and what levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potash are really appropriate for your lawn, and garden plants.
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In most cases, important gardening practices such as aerating and composting are much better for your garden than using chemical fertilizers. Also note that higher NPK levels don't necessarily mean healthier plants.
What You Should Know about NPK and Fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers and organic fertilizers show their nutrient content with three bold numbers on the package. These numbers represent three different compounds: Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potash (Potassium), which we can also describe with the letters N-P-K. The three numbers listed on fertilizer labels correspond to the percentage of these materials found in the fertilizer. What does each nutrient do? In addition to other properties, Nitrogen helps plant foliage to grow strong. Phosphorous helps roots and flowers grow and develop. Potassium (Potash) is important for overall plant health. Be aware that high nitrogen fertilizers will make for quick growth but weaker plants that are more susceptible to attacks by diseases and pests. Fast, showy growth is not necessarily the best thing for your plants.
German scientist Justus Von Liebig was responsible for the theory that Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium levels are the basis for determining healthy plant growth. However, this theory, which dates to the 1800s, doesn't take into account the dozens of other nutrients and elements that are essential to plant growth such as sulfur, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, magnesium, etc. Nor does the theory talk about the importance of beneficial soil organisms that help your plants to flourish and to fight off pests and diseases.
While Von Liebig's work was unquestionably important to the science of plant growth and agriculture, other ways of looking at how plants utilize nutrients have largely been ignored, especially by those companies who produce the chemical fertilizers commonly on the market today. For example, if you properly aerate the soil, earthworms, beneficial microbes, and other critters found underneath your garden and lawn will have better access to the oxygen they need to thrive. As they live and digest organic matter, they help to create soil that is healthy and fertile. Healthy soil is the basis for healthy plants. Additionally, if we look at nature, compost in the form of organic humus is ever present in natural plant communities, providing lots of the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive. Compost contains Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and a great abundance of other trace elements that will benefit your plants.
It is clear that Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium are not necessarily the most important elements you need for your plants to grow well. In fact, elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, magnesium, copper, cobalt, sodium, boron, molybdenum, and zinc are just as important to plant development as N-P-K. (Source: http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exgarhow.html) Over the years, Justus Von Liebig's theory developed into the dominant paradigm for how we grow our ornamental and edible plants. The bad news is that this has lead to a vast amount excess nutrients building up in our streams, lakes, and rivers, because chemical fertilizers are often over-applied. Surprisingly, much of this overuse of chemical fertilizers is actually from homeowners, and not from farmers, who typically carefully measure and apply the least amount of fertilizer necessary to get the job done in order to grow their crops in the most cost effective way possible.
Many homeowners who aren't growing to make a profit end up inadvertently overusing chemical fertilizers (and pesticides too!). They think that if a little bit is good, then more must be better. It isn't! According to the National Academy of Sciences, even though farmers uses pesticides more widely, homeowners uses 10 times more fertilizer per acre. If you only take away one thing from this article, please let it be that you should only use the proper amount of any fertilizer, and not anything more. This will save you money, and it will also keep your yard and garden healthier at the same time. This is extremely important with chemicals, but it also applies to organics! Organic gardeners can look to the work of Sir Albert Howard for solid research and ideas on how to grow plants more naturally. His ideas consider chemical processes that occur in nature. He then applies them to agriculture and home gardening.
Organic Versus Chemical Fertilizers
When looking at both organic and chemical fertilizer labels, you'll notice that the NPK numbers don't add up to 100 percent. So, what is the rest of your fertilizer made up of? That depends on the fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers can have any number of additional ingredients including dirt, sand, and even materials that are potentially hazardous to your health and to the environment. (Source: http://www.dirtdoctor.com/view_question.php?id=131) These fillers for chemical fertilizers are required so that the nutrients aren't so concentrated that they will damage or "burn" your plants, your skin, and anything else they touch. Organic fertilizers don't necessarily contain fillers, as they are made up of a variety of natural components that in one way or another will benefit your plants. See this article by Howard Garrett for more information on fertilizer fillers. Another thing to be aware of with chemical fertilizers is the kind of nutrients they contain and the way these nutrients are extracted. For example, the kind of nitrogen typically found in chemical fertilizers dissolves very quickly in water. This means that excess nitrogen may find its way into groundwater and freshwater sources and contaminate the water. Additionally, many chemical fertilizers are now using phosphoric acid to create a high phosphorous content quickly and cheaply. According to Garrett, this kind of phosphorous essentially neutralizes other important trace minerals from the soil that your plants need. Also, be aware that the potassium found in many chemical fertilizers is a harsh form of potassium that can be potentially harmful to your plants if applied improperly. Although organic and natural fertilizers usually have a lower NPK number, they are soil amendments that work slowly over time to improve your soil and to help you plants grow strong. They avoid the fast growth and flowering provided by chemical fertilizers that can actually weaken plants. Therefore, big NPK numbers don't necessarily mean a better fertilizer.
Alternatives to Using Fertilizers
You might not need much fertilizer at all in your yard or garden. Here's why. Many professional gardeners say that little to no additional potassium and phosphorus are needed in our soils as these elements are present already. However, we need to liberate these elements with proper soil aeration, soil drainage, beneficial soil organisms, etc. For the average homeowner, this means that organic fertilizers with NPK labels that show low numbers or even zero for potassium and phosphorus are perfectly adequate for your garden as long as you're properly caring for your soil. The thing about fertilizers is that without proper soil aeration, mineral nutrients, and other factors, your plants may not be able to absorb phosphorous and potassium anyway, so loading up your soil with high levels of phosphorous and potassium may not make much difference with the health of your plants. Nitrogen is typically available to the soil without additional fertilizers. The trick is having healthy soil full of beneficial microorganisms that can make use of the nitrogen that is available in the air. Compost can help, and so can soil additives such as Mycor root builder. Also, companion planting with plants like beans that fix nitrogen will make for happy and healthy soil. Organic composts and composted manure are excellent sources of all nutrients plants need to grow, including NPK. Professional gardeners who use chemicals and organic gardeners agree that using compost is one of the best things you can do to feed your plants are feed them the nutrients they need. Other excellent sources of these nutrients are fish meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, bat guano and earthworm castings.
More Resources for Understanding Fertilizers and NPK
Clean Air Gardening's buyer's guide to organic fertilizers. Howard Garrett addresses questions about Synthetic Versus Organic Fertilizers. This website from the University of Texas has excerpts from one of Howard Garrett's many books about organic gardening. Like this explanation? Don't forget to bookmark it!