Foliar Fertilization of Vegetable Crops

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

Growers will apply most (>90%) of their plant nutrients for vegetable crops as soil applications (preplant, sidedressed, fertigated) based on soil tests and crop nitrogen needs.

To monitor vegetable nutrient status during the growing season, tissue testing is recommended just prior to critical growth stages. Growers can then add fertilizers to maintain adequate nutrient levels during the growing season or correct nutrient levels that are deficient or dropping.

Foliar fertilization is one tool to maintain or enhance plant nutritional status during the growing season. Often quick effects are seen and deficiencies can be corrected before yield or quality losses occur. Foliar fertilization also allows for multiple application timings post planting. In addition, there is reduced concern for nutrient loss, tie up, or fixation when compared to soil applications.

However, foliar fertilization has limitations. There is the potential to injure plants with fertilizer salts, application amounts are limited (only small amounts can be taken up through leaves at one time), multiple applications are often necessary (increasing application costs) and foliar applications are not always effective, depending on the nutrient targeted and plant growth stage.

Where foliar fertilization does have a good fit is for deficiency prevention or correction, particularly when root system function is impaired. This commonly occurs when there is extended rainy weather and soils are waterlogged. Foliar fertilization is also necessary when soil conditions, such as low pH, causes the tie up of nutrients so that soil uptake is limited. Foliar fertilization can also be used to target growth stages for improved vegetable nutrition thus improving color, appearance, quality, and yield.

Foliar fertilizers are applied as liquid solutions of water and the dissolved fertilizers in ion or small molecule form. Foliar nutrient entrance is mostly through the waxy cuticle, the protective layer that covers the epidermal cells of leaves. Research has shown that there is limited entrance through the stomata. While the waxy cuticle serves to control water loss from leaf surfaces, it does contain very small pores that allows some water and small solute molecules to enter into the underlying leaf cells. These pores are lined with negative charges. Fertilizer nutrients in cation form or with neutral charges enter most readily through these channels: this includes ammonium, potassium, magnesium, and urea (NH4+, K+, Mg++, CH4N2O respectively). In contrast, negatively charged nutrients (phosphate-P, sulfate-S, molybdate-Mo) are much slower to move through the cuticle (they must be paired with a cation). Movement through the cuticle is also dependent on molecular size, nutrient concentration, time the nutrient is in solution on the leaf, whether the nutrient is in ionic or chelated form (complexed with an organic molecule), and the thickness of the leaf cuticle.

Another factor in foliar fertilizer effectiveness is what happens once the nutrient enters into the leaf area. Some smaller molecules or those with less of a charge are readily transported in the vascular system to other areas of the plant (NH4+, K+, Mg++, Urea). Other larger molecules and more strongly positive charged nutrients stay near where they enter because they bind to the walls of cells in intercellular areas that contain negative charges. Tightly held nutrients include Calcium, Manganese, Iron, Zinc, and Copper (Ca++, Mn++, Fe++, Zn++, Cu++). Therefore, when applied as foliar fertilizers, calcium does not move much once it enters plant tissue, the negatively charged nutrients such as phosphorus and sulfur are very slow to enter the plant, and iron, manganese, copper, and zinc are slow entering and do not mobilize once in the plant.

The following is a list of the major plant nutrients that are effective as foliar applications, fertilizer forms best used for foliar applications, and recommended rates;

  • Foliar applications of nitrogen (N) can benefit most vegetables if the plant is low in N. Urea forms of N are the most effective; methylene ureas and triazones are effective with less injury potential; and ammonium sulfate is also effective. Recommended rates are 1-10 lbs per acre.
  • Foliar potassium (K) is used on fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and melons. Best sources are potassium sulfate or potassium nitrate. Recommended rate is 4 lbs/a of K.
  • Foliar magnesium (Mg) is used on tomatoes, melons, and beans commonly. The best source is magnesium sulfate and recommended rates are 0.5-2 lbs/a of Mg.
  • Foliar calcium is often recommended, but because it moves very little, it must be applied at proper growth stages to be effective. For example, for reducing blossom end rot in tomato or pepper fruits, foliar calcium must be applied when fruits are very small. Best sources for foliar calcium are calcium nitrate (10-15 lbs/a), calcium chloride (5-8 lbs/a) and some chelated Ca products (manufacturers recommendations).
  • Iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), or zinc (Zn) are best applied foliarly as sulfate forms. Rates are: Fe, Mn, 1-2 lbs/a, and Zn ¼ lb/a. While these metal micronutrients are not mobile, foliar applications are very effective at correcting local deficiencies in leaves.
  • The other micronutrient that can be effective as a foliar application is boron. Boron in the Solubor form is often recommended at 0.1 to 0.25 lbs/a for mustard family crops such as cabbage as a foliar application. Boron is very toxic to plants if applied in excess so applying at correct rates is critical.

For foliar fertilizers to be most effective they should remain on leaves or other targeted plant tissue in liquid form as long as possible. Urea and ammonium nitrogen forms, potassium, and magnesium are normally absorbed within 12 hours. All other nutrients may take several days of wetting and rewetting to be absorbed. Therefore, it is recommended that foliar fertilizers be applied at dusk or early evening when dew is on the leaves, in high volume water, and using smaller droplets to cover more of the leaf. Applications should also be made when temperatures are moderate and wind is low. While foliar fertilizers are sometimes applied with pesticides, for best effectiveness and reduced phytotoxicity potential it is recommended that they be applied alone. Use only soluble grade fertilizers for foliar applications (many are already provided in liquid form) and adjust water pH so it is slightly acidic.

Foliar fertilizers are most effective when applied to younger leaves and fruits. Research has shown that as leaves or fruits age, cuticles thicken, and these thicker cuticles absorb significantly lower amounts of nutrients such as potassium. However, younger plant tissue is also the most susceptible to potential fertilizer burn.

Because foliar fertilizers are in salt forms they can damage plant tissue if applied at rates that are too high. Generally a 0.5-2% fertilizer solution is recommended. Certain vegetables are more sensitive to fertilizer salt injury than others. Vegetables with large leaves with thinner cuticles (such as muskmelons) have greater risk of salt injury when compared to crops, such as cabbage, that have thick cuticles. Apply foliar fertilizers at recommended rates and dilutions for each specific vegetable crop.

In addition, some fertilizer sources are much more likely to cause injury than others. In the past this was given as the salt index for a fertilizer, the lower the salt index the less osmotic stress the fertilizer would place on the plant tissue. A better index would be the osmolality values for the fertilizer material. For foliar nitrogen materials, osmolality values (mmol/kg) for common N sources are as follows: Urea = 1018, UAN-28 = 1439, Ammonium sulfate = 2314, Potassium nitrate = 3434. This shows that potassium nitrate has over 3x the osmotic stress potential compared to urea when applied as a foliar fertilizer. This means that potassium nitrate has much more potential to cause salt injury to plants than urea and must be used at lower rates.