4 Types of Fertilizer and How to Choose One

Fertilizer plays a crucial role in plant growth and crop production. Selecting the right type of fertilizer can optimize yields, improve soil health, and reduce environmental impact. There are four main types of fertilizers, each with their own strengths and best uses. Understanding the key differences between organic and synthetic fertilizers, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium blends, allows you to make informed choices for your garden or farm.

Overview of the 4 Main Types of Fertilizer

The four broad categories of fertilizer are:

1. Organic fertilizers

Organic fertilizers are derived from plant or animal sources, such as compost, manure, grass clippings, and bone meal. They release nutrients slowly as they decompose. Organic fertilizers improve soil structure and microbial life.

2. Synthetic fertilizers

Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured chemically. They dissolve quickly in water for rapid nutrient uptake. Common types are urea, ammonium nitrate, and superphosphate.

3. Straight or single nutrient fertilizers

Straight fertilizers contain only one macronutrient, either nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium. For example, ammonium nitrate is a nitrogen-only fertilizer.

4. NPK fertilizers

NPK refers to fertilizers that contain a blend of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The NPK ratio is optimized for different plant needs.

Now let’s explore each of these fertilizer types in more detail.

1. Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilizers come from natural materials like plants, animals, microbes, and minerals. Using organic fertilizers can improve soil health over time by adding organic matter and nutrients.

Here are some of the most common organic fertilizer options:


Compost is decomposed organic matter made from food scraps, manure, leaves, and other plant-based ingredients. Compost releases a diverse range of essential nutrients as it breaks down. It also improves soil structure, aeration, water retention, and microbial activity.

Compost can be produced at home in backyard compost bins or piles. High-quality bagged compost can also be purchased from garden stores. Compost works well applied as a top dressing around plants or tilled into garden beds.

Manure and guano

Manure from livestock animals like cows, horses, chickens, and rabbits makes an excellent organic fertilizer. It provides a complete range of major nutrients, plus organic matter. Composted manure has reduced odor and pathogens compared to fresh manure.

Guano refers to bat or seabird droppings which are naturally high in phosphorus and nitrogen. Guano should be composted before applying to soil.

Grass clippings

Fresh grass clippings from mowed lawns are high in nitrogen. They can be applied in thin layers directly to garden beds as mulch. For compost, dried grass clippings are preferable to avoid matting and rotting. Never use clippings from lawns treated with herbicides.

Bone, blood, and feather meals

Bone meal is made from ground animal bones that provide calcium and phosphorus. Blood meal and feather meal come from slaughterhouse waste products and are excellent sources of nitrogen. These meals require composting for several months before use to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

Seaweed and fish emulsions

Liquid seaweed extracts contain nutrients, amino acids, and plant hormones that stimulate growth. Fish emulsions are made from fish waste and provide quick nitrogen and phosphorous. Both are sprayed directly onto plant leaves and absorbed quickly.

Wood ash

Wood ash adds potassium, calcium, and trace minerals to soil. Only use ash from untreated, unpainted wood. Small amounts of wood ash can raise pH significantly so test soil before applying.

Cover crops and green manures

Cover crops like clover, vetch, and buckwheat are grown to improve soil fertility and quality. The crops can be cut down and left to decompose in place as “green manure.” This adds organic matter and releases nutrients where they are directly accessible to other plants.

Pros of organic fertilizers:

  • Improves soil structure and moisture retention
  • Releases nutrients slowly over time
  • Boosts microbial life and activity
  • Safe for people, plants and the environment
  • Made from natural, renewable resources

Cons of organic fertilizers:

  • Nutrients are not concentrated compared to synthetic fertilizer
  • Nutrient ratios cannot be customized
  • Application and decomposition take more time
  • Bulky to transport and store
  • Potential odor from manure-based products

2. Synthetic Fertilizers

Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured artificially using chemical or industrial processes. The most common types are detailed below:


Urea contains 46% nitrogen in a highly soluble form that is rapidly available to plants. It is commonly used for fertilizing grain crops and grasses. Urea breaks down into ammonium which can volatilize into the air if not incorporated into soil.

Ammonium nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is another synthetic source of nitrogen at 33-34% concentration. It readily dissolves in water for fast uptake by plant roots and leaves. This fertilizer is prone to leaching and runoff so care should be taken with application.

Ammonium sulfate

Offering 21% nitrogen and 24% sulfur, ammonium sulfate is a popular fertilizer for crops with high sulfur needs like corn and brassicas. The sulfur also helps lower soil pH in alkaline conditions.


Superphosphate is a mined mineral providing phosphorus and calcium. Triple superphosphate has even higher phosphorus concentrations. These are commonly used when soil tests indicate the need for supplemental phosphorus.

Potassium chloride

Also known as muriate of potash, potassium chloride contains 60% potassium in water-soluble form. This common fertilizer provides potassium needed for fruit production, root growth, and disease resistance.

Pros of synthetic fertilizers:

  • Highly concentrated nutrients
  • Nutrient ratios can be customized as needed
  • Nutrients are rapidly available for plant uptake
  • Relatively affordable per pound of nutrients
  • Precise application based on soil tests

Cons of synthetic fertilizers:

  • Petroleum-based manufacturing depletes non-renewable resources
  • Salts can build up in soil over time
  • Salt-based forms can potentially burn plants
  • High solubility causes nutrient leaching and runoff
  • Does not improve soil structure or microbial life

3. Straight or Single Nutrient Fertilizers

Straight fertilizers contain just one of the three macronutrients – either nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium. Having access to single nutrient products allows you to customize your fertilizer regimen to match your unique soil composition and plant requirements.

Here are some examples of popular straight fertilizer sources:

Nitrogen fertilizers

  • Urea
  • Ammonium nitrate
  • Ammonium sulfate
  • Calcium nitrate
  • Sodium nitrate

Phosphorus fertilizers

  • Superphosphate
  • Triple superphosphate
  • Monoammonium phosphate (MAP)
  • Diammonium phosphate (DAP)

Potassium fertilizers

  • Potassium chloride
  • Potassium sulfate
  • Potassium nitrate

The choice comes down to finding the right source that provides the macronutrient you need in the proper chemical form and concentration for your conditions. Always follow soil test recommendations for single nutrient fertilizers to avoid skewing your overall nutrient balance.

4. NPK Fertilizers

NPK fertilizers provide a blended ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) in each granule or bottle. This balanced approach eliminates the need to buy and apply separate straight fertilizers.

The proportions of NPK are tailored to match the needs of different plants and growth stages:

High nitrogen (N) for leafy growth:

  • NPK ratios like 25-10-10 or 15-5-5

High phosphorus (P) for root growth:

  • NPK ratios like 10-20-5 or 4-14-4

High potassium (K) for flowering and fruiting:

  • NPK ratios like 10-5-20 or 5-10-30

In particular, the middle number represents the percentage phosphorus. A “bloom booster” with higher P promotes flowering, while a “vegetative” formula with more N and less P suits leafy growth.

Some NPK fertilizers also contain micronutrients like magnesium, sulfur, copper, iron and zinc. These provide balanced nutrition in one application.

How to Choose the Right Fertilizer

With so many options available, it can be confusing to decide which type of fertilizer is right for your needs. Here are some tips:

Know your soil

A soil test reveals pH and nutrient levels in your garden. This takes the guesswork out of choosing amendments. Local extension offices provide low-cost testing and interpretation.

Understand crop needs

Some plants thrive with higher nitrogen, while others demand more phosphorus or potassium at certain growth stages. Research your specific plants’ nutritional needs online or consult local experts.

Consider application method

The fertilizer form affects how easily it can be applied. Liquid fertilizers work for pots and through irrigation systems. Granular types are perfect for broadcast spreading.

Factor in cost

While budget is a consideration, it’s usually worth investing in quality fertilizers to nourish your plants and soil properly. Apply the minimum needed to achieve results.

Time it right

Make applications based on plant growth cycles for optimal efficiency. For example, fertilize tomatoes heavily when first fruiting, then taper off later in summer.

Combine approaches

Using both organic and synthetic fertilizer together leverages their different strengths. For example, follow compost with a balanced NPK to provide an immediate nutrient boost.

Avoid excess

More is not necessarily better with fertilizer. Excess salts and nutrients can leach into groundwater or burn plant roots and leaves. Always follow label directions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Fertilizers

What fertilizer is best for vegetable gardens?

Balanced NPK fertilizers with micronutrients cover all the nutrient needs for vegetables. A 10-10-10 or 5-10-5 ratio works well, applied according to individual plant and growth stage needs.

When should fertilizer be applied?

The best times are early in the growing season, right after transplanting, and when plants are actively growing and setting fruit. Avoid fertilizing after mid-summer or growth may be excessive and susceptible to frost damage.

How often should fertilizer be applied?

Generally every 4-6 weeks during the active growing season is sufficient, though some plants benefit from weekly or biweekly feedings in smaller doses. Always follow label rates carefully.

Is liquid or granular fertilizer better?

Liquid fertilizers provide immediate nutrient availability while granular types break down over time for a slower release. Using both at different times can support multiple growth stages.

Is it okay to mix different fertilizers?

It’s fine to use compatible organic and synthetic products together in the same season. Just avoid blending or co-applying incompatible fertilizers like urea and superphosphate that may chemically react.

What is the difference between organic and chemical fertilizer?

Organic fertilizers come from natural plant and animal sources that feed soil microbes and improve structure over time. Chemical/synthetic fertilizers are manufactured with concentrated, readily soluble nutrients.


Choosing the right fertilizer involves understanding the unique properties and strengths of the four main types: organic, synthetic, single nutrient, and blended NPK. Select fertilizers that address identified soil nutrient deficiencies and match the needs of your particular plants. Aim for a balanced approach, combining both natural and manufactured products to get the best results in your garden or farm. Always apply fertilizers at recommended rates and timings for optimal plant growth and minimal environmental impact. With informed fertilizer choices, you can boost yields, improve quality, and maintain productive soils for future seasons.