Plant Food vs Fertilizer: What’s The Difference?

Contrary to popular belief, “plant food” and “fertilizer” are two different terms with two different meanings. The food that plants naturally make for their survival is what we call plant food. Fertilizers, on the other hand, are commercially made products that provide your plants with essential nutrients, so they grow and bloom adequately. 

If you are unsure about the differences between the two, then this blog is for you! Read on to understand everything you should know regarding plant food and fertilizers in detail. 

What is plant food?

Plants utilize nutrients from the soil to prepare their ‘own’ food, which is commonly known as plant food. The entire food-making process is a natural phenomenon wherein plants produce simple sugar (glucose) and oxygen using a blend of carbon dioxide, water, minerals, and sunlight. 

While plants use glucose to make substances like cellulose and starch (a complex carbohydrate) and store them as food sources, oxygen is released directly into the atmosphere as a byproduct. 

What is plant fertilizer?

A plant fertilizer is a combination of micronutrients and macronutrients that are vital for the growth of different plant parts, including leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. Plant fertilizers are particularly beneficial when the soil lacks such nutrients. Most fertilizers in the market comprise the “big three” macronutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – in equal amounts, often labeled as N-P-K fertilizers. 

Plant fertilizers can be both natural and synthetic. As one would expect, natural fertilizers include natural ingredients, consisting of microorganisms that allow your plants to thrive. On the contrary, synthetic fertilizers are made up of man-made combinations of chemicals and inorganic substances with a definite ratio of nutrients. 

Types of fertilizer 

Fertilizers are used across the globe for keeping plants healthy and producing more crops. Below, we discuss some of the most common types of fertilizers. 

Organic fertilizer 

Organic fertilizers or organic manure are natural fertilizers obtained from plant and animal residues. As such, these are considered a greener option to provide nutrients for your plants. With large amounts of organic matter content and the action of microorganisms, these fertilizers facilitate root development and thereby improve overall plant health. Organic fertilizers are usually procured from agricultural waste, livestock manure, industrial waste, and municipal sludge. 

Inorganic fertilizer 

Inorganic fertilizers are fully artificial fertilizers that contain mineral-based nutrients to meet your plant’s specific needs. Most inorganic or chemical fertilizers consist of a mixture of phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen that provides instant treatment for effective plant growth. As with these fertilizers, you will easily find the nutrient ratios being printed on their bags.

Complete fertilizer 

A complete fertilizer provides your plants with the three most essential nutrient elements in exact doses – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen gives them a green color, phosphorus promotes blossoming, and potassium improves healthy roots. Complete fertilizers are also referred to as N-P-K fertilizers. 

Foliar fertilizer 

Foliar fertilizer is a fertilizer product that contains liquid nutrients to be absorbed directly through the leaves of your plants. The best thing about them is that foliar fertilizers act far more quickly and efficiently than others. Even a plant suffering from deficiencies can benefit immensely from the immediate action of foliar fertilizers. 

Simple fertilizer 

A fertilizer containing one of the macronutrients as its only ingredient is known as a simple fertilizer. If your plants’ soil is deficient in any one of the primary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), a simple fertilizer might come in handy for you. Depending on their nutrient content, simple fertilizers can be nitrogenous, phosphatic, or potassic. 

Slow release fertilizer 

A slow-release fertilizer releases a steady amount of nutrients gradually into the soil. Most of these fertilizers are coated with plastic resin or sulfur-based polymers that control the fertilizer release over an extended period. Sometimes, organic fertilizers are also referred to as slow-release fertilizers, the reason being that organic matter decomposes over several weeks under the action of soil microbes. 

What is better: plant food or fertilizer?

Well. None! The thing is, this is not a better or worse scenario. It’s just that plants are supposed to prepare their own food and take nutrients from the soil whenever they need it. But sometimes, the soil does not naturally contain all the essential nutrients. That’s when fertilizer comes into play. 

Negatives and positives of fertilizer and plant food 

Let us now look at some negatives and positives of plant food and fertilizers. 

Positives of plant food

  • Plant food is natural. The best thing about plant food is that it occurs naturally. Plants use water and sunlight to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis, which is entirely natural. 
  • Plant food is produced in large quantities. Plants produce food in large quantities to make up for their survival needs. Moreover, they prepare it as and when their nutrients deplete, which results in a good deal of quantity.

Negatives of plant food 

  • Plant food cannot be purchased. The only bad thing about plant food is that you cannot buy it commercially and plants are the sole producers of it. 

Positives of fertilizers 

  • Help in enhancing plant growth. If for some reason, your plants are not growing in a healthy and fast manner, fertilizers can literally change the game. They accelerate the growth process and maximize crop yields by supplying the right nutrients. 
  • Optimize the pH value of the soil. Improper pH values in the soil can result in lower yields and stunted growth. The right type and amount of fertilizer is the only solution to this problem. These fertilizers optimize the acidity levels of the soil. 
  • Greater protection against pests. Stronger plants are less likely to become victims of pests. And fertilizers do exactly that! They make plants stronger and hence pest-resistant. 

Negatives of fertilizers 

  • Chemical fertilizers are harmful to the soil. Chemical fertilizers often contain many ingredients that can be hazardous to the soil. To be precise,  the excessive use of chemical fertilizers can kill many beneficial soil microorganisms of the soil. 
  • Fertilizers give way to toxicity and pollution. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers can get washed out into groundwater and decrease its quality. Once they reach the oceans, these toxic chemicals and components can hurt humans, wildlife, and marine life. Furthermore, an overdose of synthetic fertilizers can make a high volume of salts and toxins build up in the soil. 
  • Alter the natural soil ecology. Chemical fertilizers can not only stunt the growth of soil microbes but also disturb the delicate balance of soil ecology. This can eventually lead to unwanted changes in the soil that can alter the ecosystem and hurt both plant and animal life.


Is plant food and fertilizer the same thing?

Even though the words ‘plant food’ and ‘fertilizer’ are often used interchangeably, they happen to have completely different meanings. As we already mentioned, plant food is the byproduct of a natural phenomenon called photosynthesis and is composed of sugar and starches. On the contrary, fertilizers provide necessary nutrients and minerals to the soil, which, in turn, promote plant growth. 

Is Miracle-Gro plant food a fertilizer?

Indeed, Miracle-Gro is an excellent fertilizer that can help your plants grow big, bushy, green, and fast. But as with most other fertilizers, it is recommended to use Miracle-Gro in moderation. That, too, after carefully following the directions for proper use. Since it is super-concentrated, you need to make sure you apply it correctly. If used properly, it becomes the go-to choice for gardeners. 

Do I need to fertilize and feed my plants?

If you own too many houseplants, the answer is probably – yes! Houseplants are limited to the soil in their pots. Once the nutrients in the soil deplete, your plants shall have a hard time growing and thriving. And when that happens, you will need to fertilize and feed your plants with a slow-release fertilizer. Fresh fortified potting soils often possess fertilizers and other enhancements mixed into them beforehand. However, as time passes by, you’ll have to fertilize your plants, so they stay lush and green. 

What happens if I do not fertilize my plants?

If you do not fertilize your plants, they probably won’t produce more foliage and blooms. Additionally, plants that are not fertilized may get malnourished over time, eventually becoming vulnerable to infestation or plant diseases. 

What houseplants do not like fertilizer?

Not all houseplants need to be fed. Some examples of plants that do not like fertilizer are succulents, cacti, certain perennials, plants with yellow undergrowth, and plants with sensitive roots. 


To summarize, plants are capable of making their own food naturally. That being said, one cannot deny that most plants benefit from nutrient-rich fertilizers. After all, they enrich the plant soil and foster plant growth like magic. The reason why some people get confused between plant food and fertilizers is that some fertilizer brands call their products ‘plant food’. While they aren’t completely wrong (in the sense that like food, fertilizers provide important nutrients to plants), they seem to forget that plants can prepare their own food and fertilizers act as mere supplements. 

We hope that our guide could make the difference clear to you.