With so many different food crops and house plants, it can be tough to know exactly what type of fertilizers to use during different growth phases. The food that perennials require during the springtime looks much different than what you feed tomato plants in August when they are fruiting.
As one of the primary nutrients, phosphorus is included in just about any fertilizer sold on the market today. Interestingly, phosphorus can be found in every living cell on the planet, including both animals and plants. When phosphorus is lacking, there is simply no other substitute.
While plants use phosphorus throughout their lives, it is particularly valuable during flowering and fruiting. To ensure you are using the right fertilizers during the correct growth phases, we put together this brief exploration on the importance of phosphorus for fruiting plants.
What Exactly are Fruiting Plants?
The terms “flower” and “fruit” are easily confused in the world of horticulture. While they represent slightly different growth phases, both flowers and fruits are parts of the sexual reproduction systems of plants. However, while all fruits grow from flowers, not all plants that grow flowers also produce fruit.
Also referred to as blossoms, flowers are the reproductive organs of female flowering plants. In the most basic sense, flowers produce gametes which are then fertilized with male gametes through pollination. After flowers are fertilized, seed-bearing fruit grows in their place. In fact, plants grow edible fruit as a way to disseminate seeds by way of animals and humans.
With such specialized growth phases and constituent parts, fruiting plants require a rather specific nutrient feeding schedule to maximize production.
What is the N-P-K Ratio?
Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are referred to as macronutrients. As the most important nutrients for plant growth, you can find these elements represented on any fertilizer container in the N-P-K ratio.
Like all ratios, the N-P-K ratio works like a fraction to compare the relative amounts of macronutrients in different types of fertilizers. Because it is a fraction, an N-P-K ratio of 50-30-30 is the same as an N-P-K ratio of 5-3-3.
Fertilizer companies manufacture products with different levels of N-P-K for different phases of plant growth. For example, almost all fruiting plants use a good deal of nitrogen (N) during the vegetative growth phase. However, their nutrient requirements change when they start growing flowers and fruits, at which point they need more phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).
A common N-P-K ratio for a fertilizer used during vegetative growth is 24-14-11. But for flowering and fruiting, N-P-K ratios shift to something closer to 2-8-4.
What Role Does Phosphorus Play in Plant Health?
While phosphorus is commonly associated with the flowering and fruiting phases, it also plays an important role during vegetative growth.
Throughout all phases of a plant’s life, phosphorus aids in photosynthesis. According to a report from the Ontario Crop Advisory Association, “phosphorus is involved in the photosynthetic core of any high-yield crop production system.” It is during this important process that plants transform “light into sugar” and other vital compounds.
Along with potassium, phosphorus is one of the primary nutrients to stimulate and support root growth in crops. Whether a seedling or full-grown plant, phosphorus strengthens root structures while also stimulating new root growth.
One of the most important ways phosphorus helps plants during the vegetative phase is with early shoot growth. Since phosphorus is intimately bound to photosynthesis, it contributes to the new cell growth within young plants and new branches.
Why is Phosphorus Important During Fruiting?
While phosphorus plays an important role during any growth phase, it becomes even more predominant at the time of flowering. When plants transition from vegetative growth to flowering and fruiting, they require less nitrogen, while requiring more phosphorus and potassium.
Phosphorus plays a critical role in signaling to plants that it’s time to switch into the flowering phase in the first place. If plants lack phosphorus, they won’t reach maturity at the correct time. This can be particularly problematic when growing outdoor crops in cold climates with short harvest windows.
As part of its role in photosynthesis, phosphorus helps transport nutrients throughout different parts of plants. With a phosphorus deficiency, not only are plants starved of an essential macronutrient, but they also don’t have the means to transport other important nutrients to flowers and fruits to stimulate growth.
Phosphorus is also extremely important for the development of fruit when the time finally comes. Fruit that was grown from plants lacking in phosphorus takes an extremely long time to mature. When they are finally ready to harvest, yields are greatly reduced and fruit is often misshapen.
Whether you are a soil grower or hydroponic cultivator, knowing what types of nutrients your plants need is critical to the success of any crop. To illustrate, if you grow a wide variety of plants such as ornamentals and food crops, nutrients that are good for one plant species might not be good for another.
It’s important to know when phosphorus is lacking — as there is no substitute for this macronutrient anywhere in the world. While it is likely not necessary to overload flowering plants with powerful bloom boosters, you can’t deny the importance of phosphorus to plant health. Whether it be during vegetative growth or fruiting, phosphorus is critical for essential plant functions like photosynthesis and root development.
While there is no cookie-cutter formula for feeding all plants, having a basic understanding of things like the N-P-K ratio can take much of the guesswork out of gardening. As you grow more familiar with different plant species and fertilizers, you can make necessary adjustments as you go along.
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