Plants can absorb inorganic nutrients and water through their root system, and carbon dioxide from the environment. The combination of organic compounds, along with water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight, produce the energy that allows plants to grow. Inorganic compounds form the majority of the soil solution. Plants access water though the soil. Water is absorbed by the plant root, transports nutrients throughout the plant, and maintains the structure of the plant. Essential elements are indispensable elements for plant growth. They are divided into macronutrients and micronutrients. The macronutrients plants require are carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Important micronutrients include iron, manganese, boron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, chlorine, nickel, cobalt, silicon and sodium.
Plants obtain mineral nutrients from the soil. Soil is the outer loose layer that covers the surface of Earth. Soil quality depends on the chemical composition of the soil, the topography, the presence of living organisms, the climate, and time. Agricultural practice and history may also modify the characteristics and fertility of soil. Soil consists of four major components: 1) inorganic mineral matter, 2) organic matter, 3) water and air, and 4) living matter. The organic material of soil is made of humus, which improves soil structure and provides water and minerals. Soil inorganic material consists of rock slowly broken down into smaller particles that vary in size, such as sand, silt, and loam.
Soil formation results from a combination of biological, physical, and chemical processes. Soil is not homogenous because its formation results in the production of layers called a soil profile. Factors that affect soil formation include: parent material, climate, topography, biological factors, and time. Soils are classified based on their horizons, soil particle size, and proportions. Most soils have four distinct horizons: O, A, B, and C.
Atmospheric nitrogen is the largest pool of available nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems. However, plants cannot use this nitrogen because they do not have the necessary enzymes. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. The most important source of BNF is the symbiotic interaction between soil bacteria and legumes. The bacteria form nodules on the legume’s roots in which nitrogen fixation takes place. Fungi form symbiotic associations (mycorrhizae) with plants, becoming integrated into the physical structure of the root. Through mycorrhization, the plant obtains minerals from the soil and the fungus obtains photosynthate from the plant root. Ectomycorrhizae form an extensive dense sheath around the root, while endomycorrhizae are embedded within the root tissue. Some plants—parasites, saprophytes, symbionts, epiphytes, and insectivores—have evolved adaptations to obtain their organic or mineral nutrition from various sources.