Nutrients for Trees

Before we dive into this subject, it’s important to know there are two aspects of ‘feeding’ trees and the one we are going to cover in this article relates to the nutrients that plants need in order to generate new cells and growth.

The other aspect relates to the nutrients which can contribute to a better growing environment for the plant – for example, increasing mycorrhizal fungi, reducing pathogens, and improving the community of bacteria interacting with the roots of the plant. You can read about those in Non-nutrient Additives.

In general true nutrients – as they are referred to in the literature – are elements – ie. they are not able to be decomposed into smaller components, and you will find them all listed on the periodic table of elements. There are 17 elements which are recognised as plant nutrients, and from these trees synthesise their own biomass as well as everything that’s needed to make it (like secondary metabolites, enzymes, carbohydrates, plants produce literally thousands of compounds).

Three of the required elements are derived from air and water (oxygen, carbon and hydrogen). Of the remaining 14, there are six macronutrients (present in higher volumes) and eight micronutrients (required in smaller amounts).

This is important for bonsai because trees usually obtain all of their nutrients from air, water or soil. Since bonsai are not planted in soil, they are vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. To learn more about how trees absorb nutrients, check out how roots absorb water & nutrients. For a description of each nutrient, why it’s needed and how it’s obtained by plants when not in a pot, please read the post on what each nutrient does. If you don’t want the detail, below is the (relatively) short version…

There are two ways in which nutrients are used by a plant and these relate to what the tree is, and what it does.

What are trees made of?

The main structural components of trees are lignin and carbohydrates. Lignin is a polymer which combines three types of alcohol (p-coumaryl, coniferyl & sinapyl) in different ways, which in turn combines with cellulose (a carbohydrate) to form wood. Lignin makes up 25–35% in gymnospermsref and 20–25% in angiosperms, cellulose makes up most of the rest, with 4-10% of other components. Whole text books have been written just on the topic of lignin and it isn’t fully understood as a substance – it could be considered the ‘secret sauce’ to tree success. Feel free to spend $183ref to learn more…or buy another nice tree instead!

Both lignin and cellulose are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, all of which is obtained from air & water through photosynthesis.

What do trees need to function?

A tree can’t become a tree with just carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, even though those elements make up most of its structure. It needs chemical reactions to take place throughout its life to create the cellulose and lignin, and to manage all of the processes needed to maintain life. This is why it needs other elements in addition to C, O & H.

Key reactions within a tree include photosynthesis, nitrogen capture, cell division and defence against pathogens – but there are millions of chemical reactions going on inside a tree at any given time. Many of these depend on enzymes, a type of protein which acts as a catalyst – that is, it enables something to happen without being consumed by the reaction itself.

As a protein, enzymes are made up of amino acids, which all contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and (sometimes) sulphur. This is where the first two nutrients come in – nitrogen is needed in every enzyme, and sulphur is needed in some.

Enzymes are really interesting because they don’t just make reactions happen, they also speed them up in really clever ways (to learn more see Jim Al-Khalili’s book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biologyref). To do this, they use other elements, including metals like potassium, iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, nickel & zinc. Boron, chlorine and molybdenum are non-metal enzyme co-factors (elements which enable enzymes to function).

The remaining two nutrients are calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is used by plants in a similar way to humans, as calcium pectate it acts as a skeleton, strengthening cell walls. It also acts as a chemical messenger as part of processes related to root and bud growth and responding to stress. Phosphorus has multiple roles, as a component of the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is used by all living things to store and transfer energy, as the structural framework for DNA & RNA and as part of the carbon fixation process.

How to obtain nutrients for trees?

So we know that plants need significant levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, calcium and magnesium and they also need smaller amounts of boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel and zinc. According to Hallé in his absolutely brilliant book ‘In Praise of Plants’, Nitrogen is a key limiting nutrient for plants. He says “Although they easily assimilate carbon, nitrogen remains a constant problem for plants. It is the reason that they are poor in proteins and rich in carbohydrates. The situation is the opposite in animals…”

Standard non-organic fertiliser does not contain all of these nutrients, so you need to make sure they are added somehow – either via an organic fertiliser or a combination of additives like liquid seaweed, compost or fermented/decomposed manure. Take care you understand what the definition of an organic fertiliser actually is. Unfortunately most fertilisers do not reveal their composition on their packaging, so look for one which does. My personal investment in fertiliser is my purchase of a Hotbin hot composting bin – this creates organic compost in 3 months and produces leachate which can be used as a liquid fertiliser. Also consider your carbon footprint. As mentioned in the what each nutrient does post, Ammonia production for chemical fertilizers is a major contributor to global warming as it uses fossil fuels as the main ingredient, as well as massive amounts of energy to produce, and contributes to ecosystem damage through nutrient runoff. Using compost with some manure is a more environmentally friendly way to provide nitrogen to your trees.

Consider your watering as well. Trees need *some* chlorine and grow better if they have a bit more than merely what they need – tap water can provide this nutrient if you use it for watering. You should check your local water company report as you may be able to obtain other nutrients from your water as well, including magnesium.

Whilst there are many research studies identifying the effects of nutrient deficiencies, there aren’t many with evidence for nutrient toxicity so it’s hard to work out if this is a myth or reality. Living things tend to have a system of homeostasis to manage levels of chemicals to avoid them getting too high (or low depending on the substance) so it may be that toxicity is rare due to homeostatic mechanisms removing excess nutrients.

Some bonsai practitioners are fans of foliar feeding. This can be useful in certain circumstances, but the better approach is to add nutrients to the soil.

How much is enough?

This is where the evidence starts to get very thin on the ground. Nutrient requirements vary between plant types and their ability to obtain nutrients is dynamic – it depends on the presence of other nutrients, temperature, pH, energy availability, the size of the plant – there are a lot of variables. Probably the best approach is to follow the guidance on the fertiliser you are using.

Reabsorption of Nutrients

A word of warning to those who like to remove those ‘messy’ dying leaves on deciduous trees at the end of the season. Towards the end of the growing season, once the tree has made enough wood and grown enough leaves, and, from the tree’s perspective, done everything it can to reproduce, it stops focusing on growth and goes into an orchestrated shutdown phase.

During this phase substances from the leaves are reabsorbed into the tree, to be stored in the rays and roots for use again next year – enzymes are again deployed to effect this absorption. This is why leaves change colour as different substances are reabsorbed. What is left in the leaf when it finally drops is actually quite low in nutrients. So let the tree drop its leaves as it wants, to optimise its health for next year.