If you have grown a garden then you have used fertilizers. Fertilizer is a human invention that supports the greater part of success in modern agriculture and home gardening. Used properly, fertilizers can provide complete nutrition, and produce premium plants, but did you know that fertilizer is not the only way you can nourish the plants that you grow?
This article is republished here from Issue 6 of Garden Culture Magazine. It originally appeared under the title, Higher Levels of Plant Nutrition.

All fertilizer is not the same. There are macronutrients and micronutrients, or you can clearly define fertilizers as artificial or organic. Where, how, and when you use a fertilizer can make a major difference in the results you can get growing your garden, but there is a ceiling. In other words, most fertilizers are a different path to the same place.

Fertilizers are the raw materials plants use to make their own food. If carbon dioxide, water, and balanced essential elements are available, plants, with the aid of solar energy, can synthesize all the different metabolites they need for their existence.

This ability to make food for themselves is extraordinary and unprecedented on Earth, and thankfully so. The phenomenon of photosynthesis that occurs inside green plants is the basis of the entire food chain, and results in the vital conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen that supports aerobic life.

But there is more to plants than photosynthesis and fertilizer. Plants convert the sugars manufactured in photosynthesis into all sorts of metabolites we will call “biocatalysts,” such as enzymes, amino acids, and hormones.

With knowledge of how plants grow, and access to products that contain these biocatalysts, it is possible to help focus plant energy towards the type of growth you cannot accomplish by simply switching fertilizers. The idea is that instead of relying on plants to manufacture their own biocatalysts, we can supplement them directly, and allow them to choose where to put their vital energy. The result is less responsibility on the plant to grow, and higher yields.

Carbohydrates are organic compounds composed of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in a ratio of 1:2:1, respectively. Some carbohydrates are relatively small molecules; the most important is glucose, which has 6 carbon atoms, and is the end product of photosynthesis.

Carbohydrates are the driving energy force behind plants. After producing carbohydrates, a plant uses them as energy, stores them, or builds them into complex energy compounds, such as oils and proteins. All of these food products are known as photosynthates.

Plants expend an enormous amount of metabolic energy on manufacturing carbs throughout the late vegetative and early flowering stages. Carbohydrates play their most critical role in the weeks just before harvest. It is during ripening that fruits make their biggest weight gains while burning through those precious energy reserves.

Once ripening sets in, carbohydrate production all but stops, and plants must rely almost solely on their carbohydrate reserves. Plants have a finite reserve of space to store carbohydrates for use, supplementing will ensure that they can maximize this reserve, and even enhance it. The more carbohydrates available to a growing plant – the higher the yields.

If carbohydrates are raw energy, amino acids could be called the building blocks of life. There are twenty known amino acids used by cells to manufacture proteins. Proteins are a primary constituent of life, and involved in practically every metabolic function performed by plants.

Plants synthesize amino acids by combining carbohydrates with nitrogen obtained from fertilizer, the surrounding environment, and configuring themselves into limitless formations using all the elements in Nature. Amino acids have a chelating effect on micronutrients, as well as a beneficial effect on cell permeability, amongst myriad other functions.

Even though plants have the built-in capacity to biosynthesize all the amino acids that they require from nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, the biochemical process is quite complex and energy-consuming. Applying amino acids allow plants to save energy on this process, which they can dedicate to better plant development during critical growth stages.

There are even products that compartmentalize the amino acids desired in different stages of growth to root, grow, and bloom formulations. Applying amino acids is a well-known way to increase yield, and overall quality of crops.

Specialized proteins known as enzymes facilitate biochemical reactions. Even the simplest of organisms have hundreds of enzymes in every living cell, catalyzing reactions that are crucial for life. We are constantly finding more, so the number that exists is not known in
any firm or definite way.

Enzymes are biological catalysts that work like a lock and key for most, if not all, plant metabolic processes. We define them by specific elements known as “cofactors.”

Enzyme production involves every element on the periodic table in some way, which is a major reason it is so important to use kelps, rock dusts, sea mineral supplements, and other broad spectrum mineral products in the garden. Enzymes lower the amount of activation energy required by the plant for metabolic processes, and help the plant upbuild.

Plants use energy via active transport and other processes to move water and nutrients through cells up to the leaves where, through the process of photosynthesis, they convert these elements to sugars and starches, which are, in turn, sent back down to the root zone for potential storage.

Plants must produce the enzymes necessary to manufacture and move water, nutrients, and metabolites through cells, and up and down its organism to support healthy growth. These processes require much energy, and amount to lots of heavy lifting. An acre of corn gives off about 3,000 – 4,000 gallons of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons per year. Now consider how much extra energy your plants could use for other vital processes if we supplemented a good portion of the enzymes needed to make it happen?

With a healthy diet, plants should be able to manufacture all the vitamins needed to grow and thrive. But if conditions are not ideal, supplementing with vitamins can go a long way towards ensuring healthy results. And there is evidence to show that vitamin supplementation can have a beneficial result over and above natural production levels.

Vitamins are also co-factors for enzymes involved in carbohydrate metabolism, and the biosynthesis of higher molecules. Vitamins such as thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), pyridoxine (B6), Vitamin C, and Vitamin E have all been shown to benefit plant growth on some level, particularly in times of stress, such as transplanting, or taking clones.

Then there are hormones. Hormones act as signals that control the growth and development of living organisms. In the same way that hormones regulate height and sexual development in humans, hormones in plants regulate rooting, vegetative growth, and flowering.

As with other metabolites, plants naturally produce them, but unlike other biocatalysts these are very difficult to synthesize in a stable form. Typically, plant growth regulators (PGRs) accomplish the hormone effect in the garden, which are artificially produced substances designed to replicate hormones to be applied to plants to influence growth and development. The only readily accessible form of natural hormones comes from liquid kelp, which you can use as a PGR if applied in higher concentrations, and can show radical results in the garden.

The five major plant hormones can be divided into three basic categories:

  • growth hormones – auxins and cytokinins
  • stress hormones – ethylene and gibberellins
  • shock hormones – abscisic acid

All three types of hormones are similar in that they fall within the classic definition of an intracellular hormone. They are all made by a cell, and meant to affect the behavior of other cells, either in nearby tissue, or at the opposite end of the plant.

Use PGRs with care, and be mindful that you can easily trample the boundaries using these powerful substances. Too much can certainly do damage. Just imagine dosing a man with too much estrogen, or vice versa. You get the idea.

The takeaway here is that growing a great garden involves concentrating the natural process of plant metabolism for human benefit. There is more to getting maximum results than using fertilizer and letting plants figure it out for themselves. Regardless of what stage of growth you want to enhance, using biocatalysts is a great way to accomplish dynamic results.

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Evan Folds

President at Be Agriculture
Evan Folds is a regenerative agricultural consultant with a background across every facet of the farming and gardening spectrum. He has founded and operated many businesses over the years - including a retail hydroponics store he operated for over 14 years, a wholesale company that formulated beyond organic products and vortex-style compost tea brewers, an organic lawn care company, and a commercial organic wheatgrass growing operation.

He now works as a consultant in his new project Be Agriculture where he helps new and seasoned growers take their agronomy to the next level. What we think, we grow!
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