The Garden Digs

A Beginner's Guide to Plant Nutrition

A Beginner's Guide to Plant Nutrition

Written by Shelby of Farminence 

There’s no limit to the amount of nutritional information that you can find out there for humans and even our pets. But understanding the nutrition for plants can seem a little more difficult (and more like a biology class). Understanding plant nutrition is key to having healthy plants and a healthy garden. You’ll be better prepared for potential plant problems and will feel more confident in caring for your plants. If it’s been a while since you had a biology class, keep reading to get a refresher on plant nutrition.

Plant Processes

You’re aware that plants make their own food – they do this through the process of photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, plants absorb energy from the sun and use this energy to change carbon dioxide and water into a form of food. Photosynthesis occurs in the plant’s cells, in specialized compartments called chloroplasts. Fun fact: chloroplasts contain a special pigment called chlorophyll that is responsible for the green color.

Photosynthesis occurs in the leafy green parts of the plant, not the roots or stems. Photosynthesis creates a food molecule, called glucose, a type of sugar, which is the same glucose that is present in many of the foods that we eat. When plants produce glucose, they also produce oxygen as a by-product.

Unlike us, plants can’t use glucose as a source of energy. Glucose is a large molecule and has to be broken down before the plant can use it, so plants use a process called respiration to break down glucose. (Does this sound like high school biology yet?)

Respiration can seem like a tricky subject, but it’s not complicated. During respiration, plant cells take the large glucose molecules and break them down through a series of steps. The large, unusable glucose molecule is broken down into a small molecule that the plant’s cells can use for energy. This form of energy is called ATP. In order to make ATP from glucose, plants need to use oxygen and release water.

I know this sounds backwards from what you may think. Many people don’t realize that plants also use oxygen and release water. They think of plants as releasing oxygen and using up water. During photosynthesis, an abundance of oxygen is produced, so there is usually enough oxygen for respiration to take place and for the plant to release back into the atmosphere.

If you have house plants, you may have noticed tiny droplets of water forming on the tips of the leaves. These droplets aren’t from being watered. The water that you see is the result of water being released through the undersides of the leaves during respiration.

Just like humans, plants need other chemicals in order for them to complete processes to grow and stay alive. In human diets, we refer to these chemicals as vitamins and minerals. In plants, they’re simply referred to as nutrients.

Types of Plants and Nutrition

The type of plant that you’re growing will affect the type of nutrition that it needs to thrive. When we think of garden plants, there are two main categories that we can split plants into, either vegetative plants or fruiting plants. Vegetative plants are grown for their foliage and leaves. This could include vegetables like lettuce, spinach, herbs or greens. Some ornamental plants are vegetative also, like ivy, hostas, or coleus.

Fruiting plants produce flowers or fruit and have different nutrient requirements than vegetative plants. The nutrients that are needed for blooms and fruits to grow are different that nutrients needed to increase leaf growth. So, if you’re growing tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers, you’ll want to feed your plants with a fertilizer that is designed to increase bloom and fruit growth. The same thing goes for ornamental plants like petunias, geraniums or daisies. For the best blooms, you’ll want a fertilizer designed to maximize blooms.

Nutritional Differences for Fruiting and Vegetative Plants

What’s the difference between nutrition for the two?

All plants need to have plenty of leafy growth in order to survive, since that’s where photosynthesis occurs and food is created for the plant. So, there’s some overlap in plant nutrition. The key to good plant nutrition is fine-tuning feedings to support the desired plant growth.

Plants that are grown for their blooms and/or fruits will need the right nutrients to make sure that blooms are full, healthy and that fruits can develop without problems. These plants will need more phosphorus than plants grown just for their foliage. Phosphorus is a crucial nutrient that supports bloom development and fruit set. Without enough phosphorus, flowering plants will not put on blooms or create fruit.

All plants will need plenty of nitrogen and potassium, which are the other two key components of most fertilizers. These nutrients are involved with numerous processes in the plants, both vegetative and flowering plants alike.

Feeding Your Plants

Plants will get most, if not all, of their nutrients from the soil. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your garden soil is healthy and well-amended. If you’re unsure of your garden soil’s health, use a soil testing kit to get an idea of the pH as well as the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the soil. The soil pH can affect how well your plants are able to absorb nutrients. If the pH is too high or too low, plants can suffer in even the most fertile soil since they won’t be able to absorb nutrients properly.


One of the most common soil amendments used by gardeners is fertilizer. Fertilizer is a quick and easy way to add nutrients to the soil and keep your plants healthy. There are a ton of options when it comes to fertilizer, so how do you know which one to choose?

Start by determining whether you want a fast-acting fertilizer or a slow-released one. Both are suitable options and can deliver nutrients to your plants. A slow-released fertilizer can take longer to provide your plant with nutrition, so if you suspect a nutrient deficiency, it’s best to use a fast-acting fertilizer to get them the nutrients they need quickly. Otherwise, for healthy plants, either option will deliver nutrients to your plants.

It’s also important that you understand what you’re looking at when you buy fertilizer. On a bag of fertilizer, you’ll notice three numbers that are separated with hyphens. These numbers indicate the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that is present in the fertilizer. The numbers tell you what percentage of the fertilizer is composed of each nutrient. The first number represents % nitrogen, the second number represents % phosphorus, and the last number indicates the % potassium. These numbers are called the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) value.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. If you purchase a 100lb. bag of flower and vegetable plant food that has an NPK value of 4-6-4, you will get a bag of fertilizer that contains 4 lbs of nitrogen, 6 pounds of phosphorus and 4 pounds of potassium. Think back to the differences between vegetative plant and flowering plant needs. Remember when I said that flowering plants need more phosphorus than vegetative plants? Most vegetable and flower plant food and fertilizer will have a slightly higher amount of phosphorus than nitrogen or potassium.

Now let’s say that you purchase a bag of lawn fertilizer. Grass isn’t going to need as much phosphorus since it’s not blooming. So, you can expect lawn fertilizer to have an NPK value of 8-2-4 or something similar. If you bought a 100lb bag of this lawn fertilizer, you’d get 8 pounds of nitrogen, 2 pounds of phosphorus and 4 pounds of potassium. Nitrogen is a key component for leaf growth, which is why there is a higher amount of nitrogen in lawn food.

You may be thinking “If I’m buying all of this fertilizer, why is there so little fertilizer actually in it? What’s the rest of the fertilizer made of?”

This is a reasonable question! Most fertilizers have other components in them that can improve the soil and ensure that the nutrients are stable and in a usable form for the plant. You can definitely purchase stronger fertilizers for your plants, but you’ll also run the risk of putting too much fertilizer into the soil and burning your plant’s roots. For the best results, look for fertilizers that contain other beneficial materials that can improve the soil’s condition.

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Meet Shelby from Farminence

Meet Shelby from Farminence

We are so excited to announce a partnership with Shelby DeVore of Farminence! Shelby has a wealth of knowledge in the gardening industry (over 20 years!), was a high school agriculture teacher, and has a Master's degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources, so she'll be a wonderful resource for us to learn from. 

In 2018, Shelby started Farminence to use her knowledge and passion to reach and teach more people about agriculture and homesteading.

What Drew Us to Shelby

We love that Shelby's a Southern gal, born and raised in Tennessee, and has spent most of her life raising livestock and vegetables. But perhaps what connected us so closely to Shelby was her in-depth knowledge of the industry, the science behind it, and why something works or doesn't work. Most of us can look at a common garden vegetable and diagnose the problem and solution, but we're excited for Shelby to take us even deeper into our understanding of the garden.

Also, Shelby is a mom of two with a third on the way (due July 2020!). We admire her commitment to her family and how she gets her kids involved in and excited about gardening. We think mothers who read Shelby's work will find her tips extremely helpful.

Get to Know Shelby

Without further ado, let's get to know Shelby and Farminence!

Why Do You Garden?

I can't imagine myself NOT gardening. I think I'm a nurturer by nature and I really enjoy taking care of things, including plants. It's also so fulfilling to grow a large chunk of our own food. Large grocery stores are about an hour from where we live, so if we want vegetables or herbs that are a little out of the ordinary, we have to drive a good ways to find them.

I really enjoy being able to not only grow some staple vegetables at home, like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, but I also like to grow some of the vegetables that are harder for us to get normally. Plus, you won't want grocery store vegetables once you've grown your own. There's really no comparison between a home-grown tomato and a those you get from the grocery store.

What Do You Enjoy Most About Gardening?

Probably just being outside and working in the dirt!

Gardening can be hard work but it's definitely worth it. The phrase 'you reap what you sow' is often used in a negative way, but it's so true when it comes to gardening. I really love planting seeds or transplants and watching them turn into big, beautiful and productive plants.

I also can't help but let the teacher in me out occasionally and gardening is the perfect way for me to teach my kids (and husband!) about all sorts of plant biology.

What Are You Most Excited About Growing This Year?

We are trying out a few things this year that we haven't grown before and I'm really pumped about them. We realized about a year ago that we really like parsnips and that's one of the vegetables that I can't get at my small, local grocery store. I'm trying to grow parsnips this year for the first time and I'm pretty excited about that.

I also planted some corn that we can use for popcorn. We love kettle corn and caramel corn in the fall, so I'm really excited to be growing some popcorn at home.

I can't leave out the blue radishes or ugly pumpkins that we're growing either.

Do Your Kids Help You Garden?

Yes! Gardening is a family hobby that we all share.

I have a son, Forrest (9), and a daughter, Dallas (4). They've both been helping me in the garden since they were able to walk. Even before they could walk, we had them out in the garden with us in their bouncers and play pens.

The best way to involve them is to give them tasks that they can do. I also try really hard not to be a perfectionist when they help. If my garden rows aren't totally straight, that's ok! Since they've both been helping in the garden for so long, they are pretty knowledgeable about what needs to get done.

Last year, we had a honey bee hive and had to be really careful about the pesticides that we used on the vegetable plants. Our tomatoes got hornworms on them and nobody wanted to pluck them by hand, so Forrest, being the problem-solver that he is, taught our Airedale how to pull the tomato worms off of the plants. He even made sure that he was doing it gently and not hurting the plants.

Dallas is the queen of picking and she loves to go out there and harvest vegetables, even without me knowing. Thankfully, she knows when everything is ready to be picked or if it needs another day or two.

This year I had to rely on their help even more than usual since I'm pregnant. So I'm really going to turn my head if my garden isn't totally perfect!

What's Your Best Tip for Beginners?

Don't hesitate to get started!

Gardening and homesteading is a journey. There's always something that you'll need to learn, but don't expect to learn everything up front and never make mistakes.

It's good to be prepared, but there is a point where you just have to bite the bullet and get started. Read up on what you need to know to get started and then get started! You'll learn more from experience than you will by just reading about it.

What Animals Do You Have?

The easier question would be which animals do we NOT have... I'm an animal fanatic; growing up I had all sorts of animals. I've pared down on my number of fur babies though now that I'm the one paying all of the feed bills. We have two Arabian horses, 17 chickens, turkeys, a Jersey milk cow, 9 Pygmy and Nubian goats, two dogs, a cat, and goldfish.

My two horses are both rescues that I took in. One of them I've had for nearly 20 years and I rode him competitively in endurance when I was younger. I really enjoy our goats, especially the babies! Our goats are smaller, with the biggest ones only weighing about 75 pounds so the babies are really small and super cute when they're born. There's nothing as cute as walking outside and hearing a newborn baby goat fussing!

Let's Dig Deeper

Below, dig a little deeper in Shelby's background, learn about her experience, and what you can expect from our new partnership.

I’m excited to begin a partnership with GardenTrends. I have over 20 years of experience gardening. My vegetable gardening experience is just the tip of the iceberg, so let me tell you a little bit about myself and what you can expect from my partnership with Garden Trends.

I grew up on a small, one-acre hobby farm in West Tennessee. My parents moved to the country from Memphis so that we could live a slower life and be more self-sufficient. I grew up planting a ½ acre vegetable garden each year with my mom. We grew all of the basic garden vegetables: cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, okra, peas and beans. We also raised chickens and pigs at home, which helped to fuel my love of animals. My mom and I spent the summer preserving the extras that we harvested from the garden and putting up delicious jams, jellies and syrups from the grapes, blackberries and muscadines that we grew.

In high school, I joined the FFA chapter, which is where I met my husband. We ended up becoming the president and vice president of our chapter and went to every FFA competition and event that we could. I dabbled in livestock judging in high school and learned that I was pretty passionate about almost everything that had to do with agriculture.

After high school, I went to Mississippi State University. My initial plan was to go to vet school. I majored in Animal and Dairy Science and minored in Biology. I spent two years working at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. I started working in the equine department since I had a ton of experience with horses. Later, I switched and worked for half a year in the food animal department where I helped veterinarians work on cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and even llamas and a giraffe. I realized while I was working in the vet school that I didn’t really want to go to vet school. I enjoyed working around the animals, but it just wasn’t my calling.

I stopped working in the vet school and started working in the MSU Meat Science Laboratory. I learned how to properly harvest livestock and process them into various meat products. I learned a ton about food safety and food production working in the meat lab. I’ve been able to apply many of those concepts to our lives now since we raise a large portion of the food that we consume.

After graduation, I moved back home. The year that I moved back home, my former high school agriculture teacher and FFA advisor retired. I was hired on and took over the agriculture and FFA program. This is when I found my true calling: helping people and teaching agriculture.

I was baffled at the disconnect my students had with where their food comes from and how gardening, raising livestock and agriculture in general works. At one point, I asked a group of high school students where they thought eggs come from. Their response? The grocery store! These were country kids that were supposed to know about livestock and gardening! After a few years of teaching agriculture, I realized that the gap between what people knew about agriculture was huge and it wasn’t just in kids. There were a ton of people that wanted to garden and just didn’t know where to start.

Since I was the only agriculture teacher at our high school, I taught a wide variety of classes. Some of the courses that I taught were also dual-credit classes, meaning that students also received college credit for the class. Some of the classes that I have taught include: honors biology, plant science, soil science, hydroculture, greenhouse management, large animal science, small animal science, agriscience, crop management, natural resources management, wildlife science and food science.

Of course, there’s a difference between lecturing kids about agriculture and actually practicing it. While I managed the agriculture program, we raised the funds for a large 80’ x 30’ commercial style greenhouse. I wanted my students to experience greenhouse growing in all forms. We started bedding plants, grew vegetables, grew hydroponic tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce and even started vegetable garden plants. It still fascinates me how we can manipulate a plant’s environment and grow crops wherever we live.

Another aspect of teaching high school agriculture that I enjoyed was being the advisor for the FFA program. I’m a huge fan of FFA and the impacts that it can have on kids. I enjoyed competitions and FFA events just as much as my students, so we competed in nearly every event that was available. I coached teams for floriculture, nursery and landscaping, livestock judging, poultry judging, horse judging, soil judging, forestry and veterinary medicine.

While I taught high school agriculture, I started working on my Master’s degree in Agriculture. My M.S. is in Agriculture and Natural Resources from the University of Tennessee. I’m a big believer in always educating yourself, so it was natural for me to continue my education.

In 2018, I decided that I wanted to reach more people with my knowledge and passion for agriculture than just the students in my classroom. I started my blog, Farminence, as a way to share knowledge and help people get started with their home gardens and become more self-sufficient. It also helped me to not talk my husband’s head off about the latest agriculture news and updates that I had read. :) My blog has reached countless people in almost every country. In 2019, I retired from teaching to work on my blog full-time. I’m excited to be able to share my same knowledge and passion about gardening with the GardenTrends family.

Fall Seed Exchange from She's Rooted Home

Fall Seed Exchange from She's Rooted Home

We’re very excited to announce we are sponsoring the She’s Rooted Home Seed Exchange this fall! From Tara’s website, here’s what the exchange is all about:

“Do you enjoy gardening and want to connect with others who share your passion? Or are you a beginner gardener who would love to learn from those successfully growing in your zone?

She’s Rooted Home Seed Exchange was created to build a community of growers sharing their passion and knowledge with other aspiring gardeners in their growing zone. It’s an opportunity to send and receive seeds, as well as other gardening products from other participants in your growing zone.”

Last year, Tara matched over 150 growers from around the nation with her seed exchange, and every participant received a box of seed and supplies, as well as a few new growing friends.

If you’re interested in learning more about the seed exchange and getting notified when sign-ups open, visit Tara’s website.

She's Rooted Home Seed Exchange

What We Love About She’s Rooted Home

We were drawn to Tara’s determination, passion for growing, focus on family, and general down-to-earthness right from the start. Her Instagram stories are a joy to watch, and we appreciate how "real” she seems in a midst of social media influencers. We hope you give her a follow!

Get to Know Tara from She’s Rooted Home and the Seed Exchange

Learn a little more Tara, how she got into gardening, and why she started the Seed Exchange.

What Made You Start A Garden?

I live in the Southern California desert and believe the lack of greenery here is what contributes to my need to grow! I always loved the idea of moving back east to a farm, that way we could grow our own food and experience the farm life. Once I realized we wouldn't be moving anytime soon, I decided to do whatever I could to bring a garden and farmhouse lifestyle to the desert (this was around 2014).

She's Rooted Home Seed Exchange

What Do You Love About Gardening?

Watching it grow! I had always assumed I had a black thumb.

I would buy a plant from a local hardware store that I knew nothing about and assumed it would grow, just because it was a plant. Most of those plants never made it past a few months, but I was determined. I would rebuy the same plant and try different ways of caring for them and started researching what they needed to thrive.

For me, the process of learning and watching our garden grow more successfully each year is what brings the most joy, as well as watching my babies pick produce straight from the garden. Sharing our knowledge and encouraging neighbors, family, and friends to start a garden is a huge passion of mine.

Why Did You Start The Seed Exchange?

After realizing it was possible to bring greenery and grow a successful garden in the desert, I became passionate about meeting other gardeners. I was having a really hard time finding gardeners in my growing zone to learn from and at the same time people were finding my page wanting to learn how to grow a successful garden. My climate was very different from most of my followers and so my gardening tips weren't relevant to them.

In a joking but wishful sense, I told my husband, I wish we could connect people based on their growing zone and send gardening packages, all while having the opportunity to learn from others successfully growing gardens near us/them. He loved the idea and encouraged me to make it happen.

She's Rooted Home Seed Exchange

What Have People Enjoyed Most About Participating In The Seed Exchange?


I wasn't the only one having a hard time meeting other gardeners growing in my same zone. It's easy to follow beautiful gardening accounts that can grow year-round without harsh weather and compare our gardens to theirs. While we love the inspiration, it's hard to connect on a deeper level and share our gardening journeys. I wanted gardeners to be able to share their knowledge of growing successfully in their zone with new aspiring gardeners. Giving them hope as they learn how to provide fresh produce for their family, friends, and neighbors.

If you’re interested in joining the Seed Exchange, pop over to Tara’s website and get notified when sign-ups open.