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What are the Different Types of Chemical Fertilizer?

By Debra Durkee
Updated: May 16, 2024

Chemical fertilizers are made from ingredients that are not organic. Instead, they are created by a chemical process that varies among the types of chemical fertilizer. Many include some proportion of the three major nutrients needed for plant growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

There are a number of different types of chemical fertilizer, all manufactured for applications in different soil conditions for a variety of plants and crops. Most contain significant amounts of the three nutrients known as macronutrients. If the soil lacks any of these three nutrients, plant growth and production will suffer. Due to different planting mediums and soil conditions, chemical fertilizers are often created with this in mind.

Most brands are labeled with three numbers, such as 10-20-30. These numbers refer to the nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) content of the fertilizer. What has to be added to the soil often dictates what type of chemical fertilizer is best. For example, soil low in nitrogen will take a fertilizer where the first number is the highest, indicating it is high in nitrogen content. A complete chemical fertilizer contains a percentage of all three macronutrients.

Some chemical fertilizers contain nutrients in addition to the three main types. Ammonia and urea are common additions to chemical fertilizers. Occasionally, there can be a need for fertilizers that add copper, iron, sulfur, zinc, and manganese to the soil. These nutrients are usually present in a smaller percentage than the macronutrients, and are known as micronutrients. They are also necessary for the healthy growth of plants, but in smaller quantities.

Nitrogenous fertilizers are so named because other chemicals are combined with the nitrogen element of the compound. Ammonia, urea, and sodium are all common combinations. Similarly, phosphorus fertilizers have other nutrients combined with the phosphate element. Chemical fertilizers that have salts or chloride combined with a high percentage of potassium are known as potash. These types of fertilizers should be applied carefully, as it is easy to raise the potassium content of the soil too high.

Chemical fertilizers are typically available in three different forms. Liquid forms are often created in a concentrate mixed with water before being applied. Granular forms may or may not be water soluble, and are often time-release fertilizers that only need to be applied occasionally. Powder forms have grains that are much smaller than granular types, and are much more convenient to dissolve in water.

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Discussion Comments
By feasting — On Jan 16, 2013

I put a fertilizer with the numbers 13-13-13 on my azaleas in spring and in summer. I only use it when they start to look sickly or aren't performing well.

Last year, the leaves started turning yellow, and the plants weren't producing blooms. A few days after I applied fertilizer, the leaves turned a happier shade of green and buds started to form.

By StarJo — On Jan 16, 2013

@kylee07drg – I weighed the pros and cons of chemical fertilizers vs. organic fertilizers years ago when I got into gardening. Organic won the battle for me, because there are several things that I can use to alter the soil without harming the environment.

If you need to make the soil more acidic, add a layer of pine needles a few inches thick. As they spend time on the soil getting rained on and decaying slowly, they will increase your soil's acidity.

For plants like roses that don't like acidic soil, try adding wood ash. I scoop some up from the burn pile out back where I burn all the fallen tree branches in my yard. I put it around the base of the rosebushes.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 15, 2013

I am concerned about the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers on the environment. I know that there must be natural fertilizers out there that can fulfill my plants needs, but I'm not sure which ones to use for which plants.

I have some plants that need the soil to be acidic, while others need the opposite. What can I use in different areas to accomplish both?

By wavy58 — On Jan 14, 2013

I use a granular plant fertilizer made especially for roses. I mix one tablespoon of fertilizer with a gallon of water in a sprinkling can and pour it over my rosebushes.

It really does make a difference. My roses produce more buds and healthy leaves after a dose of fertilizer.

This stuff is blue and looks like laundry detergent. I only have to use it once every two weeks, so a box of it will last a long time.

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