Nitrogen is foundational to the earth's biology, forming roughly 78% of its atmosphere. Nitrogen is one of the three macronutrients required by plants to thrive - home gardeners should therefore become very familiar with how nitrogen (or a lack thereof) can affect their plants.
Despite the abundance of atmospheric and soil nitrogen, plants cannot actually make use of it: whatever nitrogen they require they must get from soil microorganisms who make the nitrogen in decaying organic matter available to plant roots.
What does nitrogen actually do for my plants?
1) Aids in chlorophyll production
Ever wonder why plants are green? Well, nitrogen lives in a plant's chlorophyll molecule, which is what gives plants that natural verdant glow.
Did You Know?
The reason we perceive plants as green is because they reflect green wavelengths from the white light of the sun.
Chlorophyll also plays a crucial part in photosynthesis by transforming certain sunlight waves (red and blue) into energy and food for the plant. We'll talk more about the photosynthesis process in #3.
2) Assists the growth of vital plant tissues
Nitrogen is a building block of plant protoplasm. This translucent substance is actually the living matter in plant cells, acting as a catalyst for the minerals required for plant growth. Protoplasm is responsible for rapid shoot growth, flower differentiation, the vitality of flower buds and the quality of the fruits or vegetables produced by the plant.
As part of this "green team", nitrogen is crucial in giving all plants the energy they need to develop from the ground up: roots, trunks, stems, vines, leaves and flowers all owe their development to nitrogen. Nitrogen also plays a part in the reproductive cycle of plants, instrumental during seeding, germination and the production of fruit and vegetables (the plant equivalent of giving birth).
In plants suffering from nitrogen deficiency, one of the more common and visible symptoms is yellowing leaves. So, as a pro tip for gardeners: if it's turning yellow, it needs more "green" (nitrogen)!
Something gardeners should keep in mind: not all plants absorb nitrogen equally. You may need to supplement your soil around and beneath certain plants more than others (for example: corn in particular needs lots of nitrogen).
3) Strengthens Plant DNA
As you probably know, DNA is the critical factor determining our genetics. Something you may not have known: nitrogen is actually a significant component of the nucleic acid in DNA.
Nitrogen helps retain the genetic code within a plant’s nucleus. Crop survival is reliant on strong, adaptable DNA. Without responsive genes, entire crops can be wiped out by a fungal or viral infection. Strong DNA also helps positive traits surface when reseeding: for example, natural selection helps produce bigger blossoms, juicier tomatoes and redder roses!
4) Assists with photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is how plants turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars and starches which the plant consumes for energy.
Nitrogen is crucial to this process. As a component of the green molecule chlorophyll, which reflects green light but absorbs blue and red light, nitrogen plays a big part in gathering sunlight, and transforming it into plant food. Plants with adequate nitrogen experience higher rates of photosynthesis and display more rampant growth.
Did you know that plants aren’t the only organisms to utilize photosynthesis? Certain slugs, spotted salamanders, the oriental hornet, and others can generate energy from light!
How do I spot nitrogen deficiency in my plants?
A lack of nitrogen results in severe health issues for plants. Deficiencies occur when minerals such as carbon infiltrate the soil and prevent roots from accessing it.
Most notably, leaves will start becoming wilted and yellow. Discolouration occurs due to an inability to produce chlorophyll – making photosynthesis less efficient.
A nitrogen deficiency also results in inhibited leaf growth, in which they die prematurely. To access nitrogen, plants stunt the growth of their various tissues to focus instead on root growth.
How do I naturally increase the nitrogen in my soil?
If you're reading this, you're likely already committed to growing your plants organically, without the aid of synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers can be toxic for humans, pets and wildlife. Additionally, artificial fertilizers do not improve soil structure on their own. In poor conditions, they may run off into water systems–resulting in algal blooms, which cause long-term ecological damage.
You can increase the nitrogen levels in your soil by adding store-bought natural fertilizers, such as animal manure, blood, feather or bone meal, or compost. You can also use your FoodCycler's by-product as a homemade fertilizer or soil conditioner. The FoodCycler takes your household food waste and transforms it into a nutrient-dense fertilizer, with an average NPK of 4-1-1 (extremely rich in nitrogen).
To ensure nitrogen is easily accessible to your plants using the FoodCycler method, discover the 5 ways we've developed on incorporating your homemade fertilizer into your garden soil.
Although nitrogen forms over three quarters of the Earth’s atmosphere, plants must harness it from the ground. This vital nutrient is crucial for survival, and helps plants thrive in many ways:
It assists the growth of tissues, including leaves, roots and trunks
Helps yield better crops long-term
Assists with photosynthesis
Allows for better chlorophyll production
Prevents discolouring in leaves
By adding nitrogen to the soil, your plants will reap immediate benefits. The FoodCycler is a compost alternative that provides nitrogen-rich homemade fertilizer; If you would like to store it for later use or even offer some to a friend, check out our post on how to store your homemade fertilizer!