Plant Food vs Fertilizer

Last Updated on June 15, 2023 by Grow with Bovees

Have you ever noticed that the terms fertilizer and plant food are often used in articles as though they carry the same meaning and function?

We are here to tell you that the two are actually not the same. Although experienced home gardeners are aware of this, if you are a newbie to the world of cultivation, it is understandable that you’re not fully aware of the differences in plant food vs fertilizer.

In this article, we are going to take you through the differences between plant food vs fertilizer. Putting focus on both of them individually, and their differences.

Plant Food vs Fertilizer – General Info

There are a few vital nutrients that both outdoor and indoor plants need in order to bloom and grow properly. These essential nutrients are found in a balanced fertilizer, thus they are often used by gardeners to enrich or revitalize the soil.

Plants need proper nutrients such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen, as most plant lovers should know. But, did you know that, apart from these, outdoor and indoor plants are also in need of 13 other nutrients to grow well — these are typically found in soil.

Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the combination of macronutrients which are the most important ones of the 13 and are often referred to as the big three. On fertilizer labels they are commonly abbreviated as N-P-K — taking reference to the periodic table.

The bottom line is, if your garden soil is rich in nutrients, your plant has everything it needs to create its own food, which is all it needs for healthy plant growth.


What is fertilizer? 

Fertilizer is a gardening substance that is made up of a mixture of common ingredients such as fillers, major macronutrients and micronutrients. The macronutrient content is typically an equal combination of the big three.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — or N-P-K — just to recap. On the fertilizer product label, the N-P-K ratio of these nutrients is typically represented as 10-10-10 or 20-20-20, the numbers being the percentage of each individual nutrient.

It is also possible to get fertilizer for a certain type of plant where one specific nutrient has a higher percentage than the others. High nitrogen fertilizer is one example. The macronutrient nitrogen promotes healthy foliage growth. So, a 20-5-5 fertilizer would specifically be used for foliage plants with large leaves.

A fertilizer with a high percentage of phosphorus, on the other hand, will stimulate the growth of beautiful and healthy flowers. Phosphates are great nutrients to flowers.

Fertilizers also contain plenty of micronutrients. These include calcium and iron.

Some organic fertilizers also often contain micronutrients. These nutrient types include zinc, molybdenum, manganese, chlorine, copper and boron, as well as calcium and iron sulfate.

Lastly, fertilizers also contain filler ingredients. They often take up roughly 50% of the fertilizer content. Their function is not only to take up space, but they are also designed to assist in the distribution of nutrients and fillers also increase their capability to be absorbed.

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Types Of Fertilizer 

There are numerous fertilizer varieties and fertilizer forms:

  • Quick-release fertilizers
  • Slow-release fertilizers 
  • Liquid fertilizer
  • Water-soluble fertilizers
  • Foliar fertilizers
  • Granular fertilizer

Organic Fertilizer vs Synthetic Fertilizer

Fertilizers can be bought in a natural form as well as in synthetic forms. Let us have a look at their differences.

Organic Fertilizers/All-Natural Fertilizer 

Organic or natural fertilizer is a plant fertilizer typically made up of natural components such as fish meal, manure or compost. It takes a longer period of time for organic nutrients to be broken down in the soil, but, being a home gardener, maintaining a compost pile and using organic fertilizer is a great way to save a couple of bucks.

Not only are organic fertilizers cheaper, but they are also a lot more friendly to the environment, and they do not burn plants. Some examples of all-natural fertilizers are poultry manure, bone meal products/blood meal/alfalfa meal, seaweed, fish waste, cottonseed meal and feather meal.

In order to be effective, however, organic fertilizers need soil microorganisms to be present. For this, sufficient moisture levels and temperatures higher than 50 degrees Fahrenheit are required.


Compost — homemade fertilizer mixtures — is a great alternative to fertilizer, and a wonderful soil amendment. It is all-natural and can be made in your backyard by way of a simple compost pile or in a compost tumbler. Compost contains all 13 nutrients that are essential elements needed for plant health and the growth of healthy plants.

The benefits of compost are easy to harness. Simply gather natural ingredients such as grass clippings, kitchen waste (such as vegetable scraps), yard trimmings, dried leaves and shredded newspaper. Layer each ingredient in a pile or compost bin together with some soil, and keep it moist by watering regularly. Over time, with regular turning and the presence of water, the heap will start to decay and become mature. It should be ready to use within 30 days to 3 months.

To speed up the decomposition process, simply turn the compost pile to keep it aerated

Chemical Fertilizer/Artificial Fertilizers

The chemical components found in synthetic fertilizers are chemical nutrients that are made through a chemical manufacturing process. They are in a much purer form, which makes them quite pricey coming at an extra cost. 

Chemical plant fertilizers are typically water-soluble. Before adding them to plants, they are often diluted with water after which they are poured into the plants soil at the same time as plant irrigation. This helps the nutrients to be absorbed by the plant immediately.

Chemical fertilizer is made from liquid ammonia, which is relatively cheap to produce. This has had a great impact on agriculture, increasing production from farms while decreasing farm labor. This, however, did not come without a price.

The overload of nitrogen in the atmosphere due to chemical industrial fertilizers is seen by environmental scientists as the main reason for global pollution.

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Plant Food Created By Carbon Dioxide

As mentioned above, the main function of a plant fertilizer is to enrich soil and provide plants with nutrients. The plant itself, however, has to produce its own plant food.

Plant food is produced by plants by a combination of absorbed nutrients from the soil and a mixture of water, sunlight and air. This process starts with the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air through the green leaves.

When carbon dioxide is absorbed through the foliage, it comes into contact with chlorophyll — which is a leaf pigment that absorbs and stores the energy of the sun, making chloroplasts.

When carbon dioxide meets the chloroplasts, simple sugars are created. With the help of some water, this sugar gets spread out and travels across the plant.

Absorbed water — which is absorbed through the root system of the plant — takes vital nutrients from the soil along with the simple sugar created by the plant and photosynthesis occurs. Water is also an important component needed to maintain the inflation of plant cells. If the plant’s cells lose their turgidity due to lack of water, the plant will start to wilt.

To sum up, fertilizers and plant food, as you can see, one needs the other. Fertilizer needs to be added to the soil in order to provide the plant with the necessary elements to produce the plant food it needs for a healthy and prosperous growth.

The Difference Between Plant Food Fertilizers

You should now have a pretty good understanding of what fertilizer and plant food are. Continue on, to learn about their major differences.

The Natural Process

Plant food is a major plant process made naturally, if the conditions are right. No chemicals are needed to kick-start this process, it occurs when the plant sees it as necessary. 

Fertilizer is store-bought. Yes, you can buy the natural kind or a synthetic kind, but houseplants can not go about fertilizing themselves. This is something that you, as a plant owner, need to help your plants with.

Commercial Availability of Plant Food

Plant food cannot be bought at a store. Even if the label reads ‘plant food’, it is most likely fertilizer and not the kind that plants make themselves.

Frequency Of Plant Food Production vs Fertilizing

A houseplant will create its own plant food more often than you would have to fertilize it. Every couple of weeks or more, when the nutrients are depleted, the plant will start the production of plant food.

Giving your houseplant fertilizer — although this does vary from plant to plant — would occur about every three to four months. Overfertilizing may cause problems. More about that later.

Soil pH

Soil ph is another important part when it comes to the successful absorption of fertilizer and the proper production of plant food. A soil pH that is too high — over 7 — or too low — less than 5.5 — is not great when it comes to nutrients from fertilizers. The wrong soil pH makes these nutrients too soluble or not soluble enough, which hinders the plant from absorbing them. In a bad case, they can also become toxic to the plant.

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Use elemental sulfur or lime to increase or decrease the soil pH, correcting the level when it’s wrong.

Soil Testing

Seeing as the intake of nutrients in a garden is quite a sensitive system, overuse and lack of any nutrient can quickly upset it. Doing a soil pH test is always beneficial and can help you find out which type and how much fertilizer your garden soil needs. 

Once you know the nutrient contents of your soil and what its nutrient requirements are, get some fertilizer — organic or inorganic is fine — and use it as instructed in the user guide found on the fertilizer packaging. Proper use of a fertilizer will avoid issues caused by toxicity and over fertilization.

Fertilizer — Can It Hurt Your Plant?

The answer is yes. Too much of one thing is never good.

Over fertilization causes the plant to grow at a greater speed. The roots cannot keep up with the accelerated growth, which means they are unable to support the growth and hold the plant’s foliage.

Fertilizer — if excessive — is also harmful to important microorganisms found in the soil. It deposits large amounts of salt in the ground, causing diseases such as root rot and iron chlorosis. 

Large amounts of fertilizer generally leave your plants more susceptible to pest infestations and illness.

If you have accidentally overfertilized your soil, try flushing the excess away by using fresh water.

Fertilizer — Can It Kill Your Plant?

Again, the answer is yes!

If the salt that makes up part of the fertilizer becomes too much, it may not only severely harm your plant, but it can eventually kill it.

Which One Is Better?

We would say that the best one of the two would be for plants to always create their own plant food, absorbing nutrients from the soil and feeding themselves. This would make for the perfect world from a cultivation point of view.

But unfortunately, this cannot be the case as the levels of nutrients in soil gets depleted of plant nutrients after a while.

In order to maintain a strong and healthy plant growth, avoid inadequate nutrition by adding fertilizer to your soil once in a while to boost the amounts of essential nutrients in it.


This brings us to the end of this article about plant food vs fertilizer. We hope that we have got rid of any misconceptions you might have had about plant food and fertilizer being the same.

We advise that you invest in proper products to give your plants what they need in order to make their own food. It is a great way to keep your plant healthy. Good luck!