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How Nutrient Antagonism Leads to Nutrient Deficiency in Plants

By David Kessler
Published: August 8, 2018 | Last updated: April 23, 2021
Key Takeaways

If you're feeding your plants plenty of magnesium, but it still show signs of magnesium deficiency, check this out. Even plants being fed nutrients can become deficient. Here's why.

It is possible that feeding an excess of nutrients to your plant can still result in deficiencies. This is because sometimes plants suffer from “nutrient antagonism.”

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Nutrient antagonism is when an excess of a particular element blocks the absorption of another element the plant needs and can happen with elements of a similar size and charge (positive or negative).

Some of the most common antagonisms are iron blocking manganese (or the reverse), magnesium blocking calcium (or the reverse) and potassium blocking both magnesium and calcium.

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Another reason for a plant being deficient in an element applied in an appropriate dosage is called binding. Binding occurs when elements mix together and bond, forming a compound that is insoluble and cannot be absorbed by a plant’s roots.

This is seen when concentrated acids or bases are mixed into nutrient solution and a cloud of precipitate forms. The precipitate, or milky cloud that is formed, is the result of elements binding and becoming unavailable to the plants.

Binding may also occur when iron or zinc is mixed in a solution of phosphates (HPO4-2) and a mineral called strengite forms.

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This compound is completely insoluble and will make both the phosphorous and the iron or zinc unavailable to plants.

A heavy flush with plain pH adjusted water, followed by an application of fresh nutrient solution can usually solve both of these types of issues.

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Common Nutrient Antagonisms




Nutrient in Excess

Induced Deficiency

Ammonium (NH4), Potassium (K), Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg),

Potassium (K)

Potassium and/or Calcium

Magnesium (Mg)

Chlorine (Cl)

Nitrate and Sulfate

Nitrogen (N)

Potassium

Calcium (Ca)

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium (Mg)

Calcium (Ca)

Calcium (Ca)

Boron (B)

Phosphate (PO4)

Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Zinc (Zn),
or Copper (Cu).

Iron (Fe)

Manganese (Mn)

Manganese (Mn)

Iron (Fe)

Molybdenum (Mo)

Copper (Cu)



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Written by David Kessler

Profile Picture of David Kessler
David Kessler heads research and development at Atlantis Hydroponics and writes for their popular blog. David has more than two decades of experience and multiple degrees from the State University of New York. An accredited judge for the American Orchid Society, he travels the world judging events. Follow his blog at atlantishydroponics.com.

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