All Plant Nutrients & Deficiencies Explained

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Picture depicting adding fertilizer to plants

Pretty much like us humans, plants have macro and micro nutrient needs to grow, survive and thrive. Plants can have nutrient deficiencies just like us humans and lack of these nutrients will similarly cause diseases, stunted growth, discoloration (chlorosis) and death (necrosis). These nutrients are provided to the plants by feeding them with fertilizer.

In this short article, you will come to know of all the essential nutrients that you need to give to your plant, the role of each nutrient, and you will also be able to detect the deficiency of certain nutrient(s) and diagnose your plant problems easily. Basically, you will become a well-informed gardener. Limited use of scientific complex lingo with a simplified table is provided in this article.

Almost all plants need the main macronutrients and some plants need more/less of specific macro and micro nutrients. Which nutrients are needed by a particular plant, in what ratio and in what frequency - is something you need to check for each plant. It’s not just about providing your plant the essential macro and micro nutrients, but also the amount and the time. 


Macronutrients for plants are:

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorous (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sulphur (S)

Micronutrients for plants are:

  • Iron (Fe)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Chlorine (Cl)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Boron (B)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Cobalt (Co)

Basic nutrients for plants are:

  • Carbon (C)
  • Hydrogen (H)
  • Oxygen (O)

Here is a table of all the macro and micro nutrients that plants need and what happens if they don't get these nutrients from soil.




Deficiency Symptoms

Nitrogen (N)

Foliar development

  • Stunted growth
  • Slow growth
  • Chlorosis (discoloration of leaves)
  • Purple stem, petioles and undersides of leaves

Phosphorus (P)

Cell development. root development, flower and fruit production. Very important for seedlings and young plants.

  • Similar to symptoms of Nitrogen deficiency
  • Green or red discoloration of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll

Potassium (K)

Photosynthesis, nutrient movement within the plant and transfer of genetic characteristics from one generation to the next.

  • Chlorosis and eventually Necrosis (death of leaves)
  • Yellow veins of the leaves

Calcium (Ca)

Cell wall formation

  • blossom end rot
  • stunted growth
  • Leaves curling inwards

Magnesium (Mg)

Photosynthesis: for taking sun energy. Responsible for the green color in leaves.

  • Yellowing between leaf veins
  • Early leaf fall
  • Stunted plant growth

Sulfur (S)


  • Yellowing or pale green coloring 
  • New leaves with chlorosis, tips becoming necrotic

Iron (Fe)


  • Effect new leaves
  • discoloration of leaves (chlorosis and necrosis).
  • Copper deficiency can lead to Iron deficiency

Copper (Cu)


  • Effect new leaves
  • discoloration of leaves (chlorosis)

Zinc (Zn)

Helps to produce chlorophyll

  • Can affect old and new leaves.
  • stunted leaves and discoloration (chlorosis).
  • May have leaves on top of each other due to reduced internodal expansion

Chlorine (Cl)

Osmosis and photosynthesis

  • wilting of leaves
  • brown edges 
  • chlorosis

Manganese (Mn)


  • Effect new leaves
  • discolored spots on leaves

Boron (B)

Cell development

  • brittle foliage
  • yellow leaf tips
  • Stunted growth (roots and fruit)
  • Hollow heart in beets and peanuts
  • Boron >1ppm is toxic to most plants

Molybdenum (Mo)

Nitrogen metabolism

  • stunted growth
  • pale yellow-green veins of the leaves

Cobalt (Co)

For processing Nitrogen in legumes.

Cobalt deficiency can cause Nitrogen deficiency in legumes

Carbon (C)

Obtained from Air (carbon dioxide) to store and transport energy within the plant. CO2 is converted to carbohydrates through photosynthesis.

  • Stunted growth

Hydrogen (H)

Obtained from water for photosynthesis and respiration

  • Chlorosis
  • Stunted growth

Oxygen (O)

Air via leaves(O2 & CO2) and from Soil water via roots. Plants produce O2 during photosynthesis but require O2 for respiration

Caused by waterlogged roots which leads to root rot. Let the soil dry before watering, and use a well draining porous soil to ensure oxygen requirements of the plant are fulfilled.

Deciding the quantity of Nutrient

There’s something called a “balanced fertilizer” which basically means that all the main macronutrients (NPK) are in equal proportions. For example, a 20-20-20 NPK fertilizer. You also get something like a 5-10-5, which means that Phosphorus is more in this one.


Here’s a rule-of-thumb table as far as the quantities of nutrients are concerned.


Nitrogen: If too high of a nitrogen is available to the plants, the plant starts to grow more foliage and less buds, flowers and fruit. Use a high concentration of Nitrogen if your plant is not a fruit-bearing plant and you  see dull green foliage.

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