bathroom with lots of plants in it Did You Know...?

Plant Food vs. Fertilizer: Understanding 8 Key Differences in 2023

Many turn to plant food and fertilizer to ensure their plants grow fast and healthy. These substances are ideal for any gardening tasks, from growing perennial foods to tending houseplants. But what’s the plant food vs. fertilizer difference?

Fertilizer and plant food are both popular options for helping plants grow. Some assume they’re the same, but that’s not always true. You’ll likely find fertilizer products if you search for plant food online. Unlike fertilizer, you can’t find plant food in stores or online because plants produce it.

Continue reading to find out the differences between plant food vs. fertilizer.

Key Takeaways of Plant Food vs. Fertilizer

Plant food and fertilizer provide nutrients for growing faster and bigger. But plant food comes from a natural process, while people make fertilizer with chemicals to help plants grow.

Before delving into their differences, we must discuss what each one is and how they function.

hand putting egg shells into a potted plant

beginnerhouseplant_ / Instagram

What Is Plant Food?

The primary source of food plants use as energy to grow is glucose, which they produce through photosynthesis. This process occurs when plants convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into energy. When plant roots absorb water, they take in nutrients from the soil that promote their growth.

Carbon dioxide and sunlight react in plant leaves’ chloroplasts and produce glucose. Water absorbed by the roots spreads the glucose throughout the plant. If a plant doesn’t receive enough water, it begins wilting.

Plants can use glucose to build their cell walls and enhance their growth or store it as starch for later. Since plants can make their food, they have the immediate ability to use their energy. This natural element is something manufactured fertilizers lack.

Since plant food can only form in soil with rich nutrients, the lack of nutrients can interrupt plant growth in unsustainable soil. When soil isn’t rich enough for plants, fertilizer steps in to help.

Our Favorite Plant Food Assistance for Indoor Plants: Burpee Granular Plant Food  

Bag of plant food

What Is Fertilizer?

Fertilizer is a product you can add to the soil to enhance plant growth properties to provide specific lacking nutrients. Most fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are essential for restoring nutrients after plants use them to produce food.

Fertilizer is a manufactured product that comes in many forms. Some brands offer granular fertilizer, while others are available as a liquid. Fast-release formulas are ideal for plants that need an extra nutrient boost, and slow-release fertilizer is suitable for gardeners who prefer feeding their plants at a steady pace. 

Fertilizer’s duration varies from brand to brand. It can last a few weeks to several months. Liquid fertilizers don’t last as long as granular fertilizers. Their shorter duration stems from their faster absorbance into a plant’s soil and roots, as most fertilizers activate after you water them with your plants.

Our Favorite Fertilizer for Indoor Plants: Fox Farm Happy Frog All-Purpose Fertilizer

bag of fertilizer

What Are the Differences: Plant Food vs. Fertilizer

There are several differences between plant food and fertilizer. While they both help plants grow, it’s important for gardeners to know they aren’t the same. It took me some time to tell them apart when I started gardening.

As a seasoned gardener, it’s important to know how both work to ensure your produce thrives. Although some might consider one better than the other, it’s up to you to decide which one works for your gardening preferences. 

1. Occurrence

One factor to consider when discussing plant food vs. fertilizer differences is each one’s occurrence. Plant food occurrence is greater due to photosynthesis, which continues as long as plants can access sunlight, water, and air.

Fertilizers are typically applied to the soil near the base of the plant to enhance its growth. Some fertilizer brands have organic ingredients in their formulas. Because plants themselves can’t produce fertilizer, it’s crucial to track their fertilizer placement, so you don’t exceed the limit.

2. Commercial Availability

Fertilizer has more commercial availability to gardeners than plant food. You can find granular, liquid, synthetic, organic, and water-soluble formulas on the market. Depending on the brand and fertilizer type, their average prices can vary.

Plant food doesn’t have the same commercial availability as fertilizer. This difference is essential because only plants can produce their own food. If you see products labeled as plant food online or in stores, it’s most likely fertilizer. Since plants produce food by themselves, you don’t have to pay for it by the pound.

3. Micronutrients and Macronutrients

Another key difference between plant food vs. fertilizer is their macro and micronutrient content. They’re essential for healthy plant growth in indoor and outdoor areas. Their levels can vary depending on your stance on plant food vs. fertilizer.

Plant food tends to have more micronutrients than macronutrients, including iron, zinc, boron, copper, chlorine, manganese, and molybdenum. These nutrients aid with plant development and fighting botanical diseases. 

Plants receive these nutrients to create food if their soil is rich, but they can’t produce food if the soil lacks essential macronutrients and micronutrients. Signs of insufficient nutrients include wilting and discolored leaves.

The most common macronutrients in fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which plants need large quantities of to grow. Most fertilizers list this nutrient ratio, or NPK, on their bags. Some plants take in more nutrients than others, so it’s always essential to have extra fertilizer to provide these macronutrients.

putting dropper food into a plant

bontanopia_ / Instagram

4. Soil pH

A soil’s pH measurement determines its alkalinity or acidity for plants. Before planting bulbs or seeds, consider measuring the soil’s pH levels.

The average soil pH level suitable for the healthy growth of most plants is 6.5. You can measure this pH level in neutral soil. Some plants can’t survive in more acidic soil, while others can’t survive in alkaline soil. Plant food production relies on the soil’s conditions for providing nutrients. 

Soil pH levels can change based on how much nitrogen you add via fertilizer. The more you add, the more acidic the soil gets. When soil becomes more acidic, it loses essential nutrients for keeping plants alive.

5. Absorption Rate

You must acknowledge their absorption rates when choosing between plant food vs. fertilizer. 

Plant food’s absorption is slow yet effective, letting plants distribute their nutrients over long periods. Fertilizer tends to have a faster absorption rate than natural plant food. Other factors that impact the absorption rate include the type of plant you grow and the soil quality.

6. Role

Both plant food and fertilizer play a major role in cultivating your garden. They offer a reliable source of nutrients throughout the growing season. Despite having similar roles, they tackle them with slight differences.

Plant food’s main role is to act as a primary nutrition source for plants. Their natural instincts tell them to produce it as long as we give it the sun, air, and water they need.

Fertilizers’ role is to provide nutrients when they’re unavailable for plants. This valuable substance is ideal for caring for indoor and outdoor plants. For all its advantages, it’s not a permanent replacement for natural plant food.

7. Side Effects on Plants

Sometimes, using plant food or fertilizer can impact plants after extended use. When heavy-feeding plants produce plant food, they might overindulge in the soil’s nutrients. This event causes nutrient deficiency in the soil, leading to the plants wilting.

Adding fertilizer to plants without water can cause root damage, and this effect impacts nutrient absorption throughout the plant. Consider measuring your fertilizer content before adding it to your plants’ soil.

8. Environmental Impact

Many gardeners strive to care for their plants while preserving the environment. When looking at plant food vs. fertilizer, consider each one’s environmental impact.

Since plant food is a natural process, it relies on the environment to sustain plants in the soil. Plants making plant food are less likely to cause pollution, and their autotrophic nature won’t cause immediate damage to the environment. Besides producing glucose for plants, this process provides oxygen to the planet.

Fertilizer can be helpful for many occasions if you don’t overuse it. Adding excessive fertilizer to your soil can cause environmental harm if applied without extra care because the chemicals can destroy microorganisms in the soil if you add too much. Most fertilizer contains phosphorus and nitrogen, making the soil too acidic and causing unwanted damage. Fertilizer runoff can also pollute waterways if left unattended.

Fertilizer can be helpful for many occasions if you don’t overuse it. Adding excessive fertilizer to your soil can cause environmental harm. The best way to counteract it is to measure it before adding it.

bottles of fertilizers

smallplanty / Instagram

Final Verdict

Plant food vs. fertilizer isn’t just different names for the same substance. Plant food is a natural product made by plants. Fertilizer is a manufactured product used for assisting plant growth.

Plants can produce plant food by themselves via photosynthesis. Fertilizer needs manual placement to enrich the soil with essential macronutrients. As a natural by-product, you can’t find plant food at local gardening stores or online shops. Fertilizers have more commercial availability for anyone who wants to use them. 

Plant food and fertilizer are both essential for helping plants in your garden or home grow healthy yields. The next time you look for fertilizer at the store, remember this insight about how it isn’t the same substance as plant food.


Which is better, plant food or fertilizer?

Since plants produce food from nutrients, the soil they thrive in might not always have it. Fertilizer provides extra support for plants to grow healthy. There’s no real ‘better’ choice.

Does plant food actually work?

Plant food works when they have enough nutrients available in a stable environment. If the soil has enough nutrients for the roots to absorb water, it can produce the glucose they need to thrive.

Can you overuse plant food?

Yes, you can overuse plant food, too much fertilizer can damage the plant and root system, causing an imbalance of beneficial microorganisms. The results of overusing plant food can look like: crust of fertilizer on the top of the soil, yellowing or wilting leaves, loss of leaves quickly, no growth over a period of time, and limp and darkening root systems. 

Should I feed my plants every day?

Since plants produce their food by themselves, you don’t have to feed them daily. If you prefer using fertilizer, consider feeding them every few weeks. For instance, you can fertilize tomatoes, which are heavy nitrogen feeders, every two or three weeks.