Major Elements vs. Trace Elements: Why Your Plants Need Both

Written by Amir Tajer


Posted on May 15 2018

Growing vibrant, healthy plants takes more than a green thumb - your plants need a variety of slow-release and fast-release water-soluble fertilizers that contain the right ratio of both major elements and trace elements.

The problem is that unless you're a biochemistry buff, chances are good you might not be familiar with the elements your plants need to thrive.

If so, here's a quick primer to help you choose the right fertilizer for your application.

What Are Major and Trace Elements?

What are major and trace elements?

With regards to plant growth, major elements are those which are most critical - when these elements are either lacking or found in excess, the plant simply won't thrive.

Major nutrients include:

  • Nitrogen (N) - necessary for the development of good leaf color, strong growth, and photosynthesis, making it particularly important in plants such as lawn grasses.
  • Phosphorous (P) - needed to develop strong roots, increase flower blooms, and promote the ripening of seeds and fruits
  • Potassium (K) - boosts plant resistance to damage from very hot or very cold weather, helps promote disease resistance, and works to facilitate the uptake of other elements including nitrogen
  • Calcium (Ca) - promotes overall plant health by building strong cell walls
  • Magnesium (MG) - assists in seed formation, photosynthesis, and the regulation of other elements
  • Sulfur (S) - needed to manufacture chlorophyll, sulfur helps to encourage plant growth

 What are trace elements?

Trace elements include:

  • Boron (B) - aids in cellular growth and helps to regulate the uptake of nutrients.
  • Chlorine (CI) - required to achieve photosynthesis.
  • Copper (Cu) - works to help plants metabolize nitrogen.
  • Iron (Fe) - assists in the creation of chlorophyll.
  • Manganese (Mn) - essential for chlorophyll production.
  • Molybdenum (Mo) - helps plants metabolize nitrogen.
  • Zinc (Zn) - required in seed production.

Why Do Plants Need Both Types of Elements to Grow Healthily?

Just like people need to eat a healthy, balanced diet to optimize their wellness, plants require both major and trace elements in the right proportions to grow healthily.

When the right combination of elements is provided to a plant using the right delivery method and quantities, the plant will grow strong roots, resist rot, pests, and disease, and optimize its use of nutrients and sunlight.

How Do I Know What Major Elements Are Present in My Fertilizer? 

Many fertilizer bags are printed with an NKP number.

These three numbers let you know how much nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) the product contains.

The higher each number is, the greater the concentration of each specific nutrient.

What Happens if a Plant is Deficient in These Elements?

calcium deficiency blossom end rot tomatoes

Deficiency in any of the major and trace minerals can lead to a variety of problems ranging from increased vulnerability to pest damage to poor root development, difficulty with the absorption of micronutrients, and compromised disease resistance properties.

For example, a plant that is lacking in sulfur (S) may appear stunted, thin-stemmed, pale, and spindly, while an excess of sulfur can cause the leaves of the plant to develop a brownish discoloration as the plant attempts to dispose of the excess sulfur.

How Can This Be Corrected?

water soluble fertilizers

The most effective way to correct problems related to deficiencies of major and/or trace elements is with the application of a high-quality water-soluble fertilizer that contains the optimal balance of both slow release and fast release nutrients.

Choosing the right fertilizer is largely a matter of knowing what your plant needs to thrive. In the case of food crops like vegetables and fruits, a fertilizer that's higher in nitrogen may be the best option, while plants such as palms may benefit from a boost in manganese.

Fortunately, we offer a wide range of fertilizers from water soluble to eco-friendly, so you can ensure your plants receive the proper amount of nutrients they need to flourish.



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  • Comment author

    Does compost have trace elements?

    Posted by Lynn | October 14, 2020
  • Comment author

    Hello Tim,
    Thank you for your comment! Please send your technical question to and we’d be happy to advise you on how to move forward from there. Thanks again!

    Posted by Anonymous | June 27, 2019
  • Comment author

    I need specialized. Fertilizers for
    1 Cherry trees in clay soil
    2 apple trees in clay soil
    3 hop vines in clay soil.

    Please advise!

    Posted by Tim Robertson | June 27, 2019
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