Fertilizer vs Plant Food: Understanding the Difference 🌱💡

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Did you know that there are vast differences between fertilizer and plant food? A better understanding of fertilizer vs plant food can help you pinpoint their differences.

While many gardeners use the two terms interchangeably, fertilizer and plant food are pretty different. Nonetheless, either one plays a significant role in your plant’s life cycle. Here’s a detailed comparison of fertilizer vs plant food to shed light on how each one is handy for your plants.

Which Is Better Fertilizer or Plant Food?

NPK fertilizer being added to ground for plants
NPK fertilizer being added to ground for plants

There’s no definite answer when it comes to which is better – fertilizer or plant food. Comparing the two is unreasonable. This is because both fertilizer and plant food play an important role in plants. Moreover, plant food and fertilizer bear completely different applications to plants. Therefore, it makes zero sense to compare the two.

Main Differences between Fertilizer and Plant Food

The main difference between plant food and fertilizer is the way they are made and how they function. Fertilizer is a man-made product and is manufactured to support plant growth and development.  Fertilizers enrich the soil with micro and macronutrients that aid in plant growth.

On the other hand, plant food is all-natural. It is made by plants through photosynthesis to supply them with the essential nutrients they need to thrive and survive. Unlike fertilizers, plant food doesn’t require manual placement or application since it is made from within the plant.

What is Fertilizer?

Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food, Fertilizer for Indoor or Outdoor Flowers, Vegetables or Trees, 3 lbs.

Fertilizer is a man-made substance added to the soil to enrich it with essential nutrients. Growing in these rich soils, your plants can effortlessly grow and develop. An essential component of modern farming and gardening, fertilizer can be natural or synthetic/industrial/chemical.

In reality, fertilizer enriches the soil with several different nutrients. However, three key nutrients are the main focus components of fertilizers. These are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium or NPK. This explains why fertilizers are usually characterized by these NPK ratios.

Nitrogen is perhaps one of the most important macronutrients as microorganisms, plants, and animals alike need it to grow. While the atmosphere and air we breathe contain up to 78% nitrogen, we organisms are unable to extract the odorless and colorless nitrogen gas from the atmosphere.

Instead, different organisms get their supply of oxygen through various means. Animals and humans get nitrogen from high-protein foods we eat, like fish, meat, nuts, and beans. On the other hand, plants get their nitrogen from the earth, in the form of nitrates absorbed into the soil.

Different terrains will be unique to one another. Soil gets nitrogen or is fixed with nitrogen-containing compounds naturally without external interventions. The most common way is when lightning strikes the atmosphere and splits the nitrogen gas from the energy created in the lightning process.

As the nitrogen gas is split, nitrogen-containing compounds are formed and end up in the soil.  Secondly, the presence of microorganisms in the soil can also help fix nitrogen in the soil. Unlike plants and animals, some microorganisms can directly extract nitrogen gas from the atmosphere. 

These microorganisms then convert the gas into ammonium. Some of these microorganisms function in this symbiotic relationship with a few select plants to fix nitrogen into the soil, enriching it with the micronutrient. This explains why planting vegetables and legumes, like beans, is beneficial to the soil as they help fix nitrogen in the soil.

Even with these natural processes, natural soil enrichment may not be enough at times. This is particularly true in modern times. As the population continues to grow significantly across the world, so do the food needs.

Without nitrogen fertilizers, it would be impossible for sufficient plants to grow fast enough and produce more crops, enough to feed the world. Without fertilizers, food hunger can be an even bigger possible threat!

Types of Fertilizers

As previously mentioned, fertilizers can be natural, chemical, or industrial. Natural fertilizers are derived from natural compounds, like seaweed or limestone. Some fertilizers are even labeled organic fertilizers as they use 100% natural and organic ingredients.

For instance, seaweed sourced from the ocean with no extra components added can count as organic. Chemical fertilizers use chemicals put together in the lab. Shopping online or at a physical store for a small garden, you will end up buying natural, organic, or chemical fertilizer.

Industrial fertilizers are just like chemical fertilizers, put together in labs or industrial settings. However, these types of fertilizers are ideal for large or commercial farms that want to promote faster growth and higher crop yields.

 Moreover, they usually require frequent application and monitoring. It’s also important to note that it is easy to over-apply industrial fertilizers as they usually contain strong chemicals. These chemicals can easily affect the soil ecosystem they are applied to.

Fertilizers will also come with varying ingredient lists, based on what you need.  The most common components of plant fertilizers are macronutrients, micronutrients, fillers, and ballasts. Nonetheless, no matter the fertilizer you go for, it’s important to ensure it contains the right ratio of the 3 main macronutrients, i.e. nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

A standard fertilizer will contain about 30-40% macronutrients, 10-20% micronutrients, and the remaining 50% will be fillers. The fillers take an active role in the mix as they help distribute the nutrients and boost soil or plant absorption rates. Moreover, the fertilizer can come in the form of liquid or granules. Liquid fertilizer is sprayed onto the plants while granular fertilizer is applied to the soil.

While all-purpose fertilizers will have equal parts of NPK, you can also choose fertilizers with different ratios based on the plants’ needs.

Macronutrients

Nitrogen: Of the three key macronutrients, nitrogen holds the most importance. In fact, without nitrogen, your plants will struggle and even be at risk of death. This is because nitrogen helps the plant actually use up the energy and food it creates. This mineral also plays a role in the process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll, metabolism, and energy transfer throughout the plant. Nitrogen also boosts plant germination and foliage growth.

Phosphorous: Phosphorus is mostly important for the process of photosynthesis. This mineral also promotes root development, flowering, and maturation. Additionally, phosphorus supports the conversion of sunlight energy into chemical energy for plants.

Potassium: Potassium protects the overall integrity of plants. It can shield plants from various pests and critters, irregular temperatures, and even loss of water. Potassium also protects your plants from other common stressors while supporting micronutrient absorption into the plants.

In addition to the three main macronutrients, several other macronutrients are beneficial to your plants. Some formulas will contain a small amount of all these macronutrients while others will have a few select. It’s best to go through the content list of your fertilizer to ensure it meets your plant needs before investing in one.

Alternatively, you can supplement your main NPK fertilizer with additional sources of these minerals to ensure your plants get what they need. For example, if your fertilizer formula lacks magnesium, you can always supplement it with limestone or Epsom salt.

Sulfur:  Similar to the main macronutrients, sulfur plays a role in promoting plant growth, more seed production, and the growth of stronger roots. Sulfur is also essential in vitamin, protein, and enzyme production in plants. In fact, without sulfur, your plants may struggle to execute this function. Sulfur also contributes to chlorophyll production, which is essential for the process of photosynthesis and plant food production. In colder seasons, sulfur can help insulate plants to a certain degree.

Magnesium: Magnesium is among the most important macronutrients that support photosynthesis. Found in chlorophyll, magnesium is an important mineral for the process of photosynthesis. Without it, your plant may struggle to efficiently execute this plant food production process. Magnesium also triggers several growth enzymes in plants.

Calcium: Calcium supports plant development as it helps maintain the structure of a plant’s cell wall.

 Micronutrients

Zinc: Zinc is an important nutrient for plants, especially during the earlier growth stages. This mineral aids in plant root formation and development, photosynthesis, auxin activity, and plant hormonal balance.

Iron: Like zinc, iron aids in photosynthesis. But, it doesn’t stop there – it also supports chlorophyll production, nitrogen-fixing, and lignin formation.

Copper: Copper helps your plant make full use of proteins while boosting root metabolism and plant reproduction.

Boron: Boron is responsible for primarily supporting sugar transportation across the plant. It also aids in amino acid production and flower development.

Cobalt: Cobalt supports nitrogen fixing, so it helps new plants get situated whether planted into the ground or pot.

Molybdenum:  Molybdenum controls nitrogen use while supporting sulfur and oxygen cycle.

Manganese: Manganese supports nitrogen and sugar metabolism in plants.

Chlorine: Chlorine is another important component that supports the process of photosynthesis.

Fertilizer Uses

Fertilizing a small sapling
Fertilizing a small sapling
  • Enrich the soil or plant with natural nutrients to aid in plant growth and development
  • Boost flowering and fruit production
  • Correct soil nutrient imbalances
  • Can even correct soil pH (when the soil is too acidic or basic)
  • Replenish the soil with nutrients lost due to plant uptake, over-cultivation, flooding, and even soil erosion
  • Enriches nutrient-deficient or depleted soils

Pros and Cons of Fertilizers

Pros

  • Significantly boost plant growth and development
  • Accentuate fruit or crop production and yield
  • Efficient at delivering essential nutrients to the soil and plants
  • Can be quickly applied and begin to work equally fast
  • Chemical or industrial fertilizers are formulated to target specific plant needs
  • chemical fertilizers may even be formulated using slow-release nutrients that retain soil fertility and over a prolonged period

Cons

  • Some fertilizers – especially chemical ones – aren’t good for the environment (can harm aquatic life)
  • Concentrated or over-applied fertilizers can burn plants, stunt their growth, or even kill them
  • Concentrated fertilizers can disrupt the soil ecosystem and kill beneficial microorganisms
  • Soil pH outside the range of 5.5 to 7.0 can disrupt absorption potential and trap fertilizer nutrients in the soil
  • Fertilizer nutrients can also be washed away in extremely wet conditions as they are water-soluble – preventing the plants from absorbing them

What is Plant Food?

Jobes Houseplant Food Spikes

Plant food is naturally produced by plants as a product of the photosynthesis process along with oxygen. While fertilizer supplements the plant to aid in growth, plants are still smart enough to produce food on their own.  This explains why plants are autotrophs.

The process of photosynthesis takes place in the plant’s cells and is dependent on a green leaf pigment present in the chloroplasts of the cells known as chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs sunlight energy, which is a primary component of the photosynthesis process.

For successful photosynthesis, plants also need water, air (to extract carbon dioxide), and several key macro and micronutrients to drive different steps of the process. As a result, plant food, in the form of simple sugars or glucose and oxygen is released during photosynthesis.

Here’s how the process works;

Getting water: Plants get their water through absorption from the roots, traveling into the cells. Water doesn’t just aid in photosynthesis. It also carries essential minerals and nutrients with it from the soil into the plant and cells. Further, water supports cell turgidity and an inadequate supply of water to the plants hinders growth. This is a sign very easy to spot in your garden.

Ever notice your plant foliage withering when you forget to water it for a certain period and watch it come back to life a couple of minutes after watering it? Now, plants can spring back into action if you leave them dry for a few days to weeks. But, a prolonged loss of water in the soil will ultimately kill your plant.

Getting carbon dioxide and sunlight: Plants get carbon dioxide from the air and absorb it into the leaves where it will interact with chlorophyll.  Sunlight gets into your plants the same way – sunlight or UV energy is absorbed into the chlorophyll.

Photosynthesis: With all the necessary components, photosynthesis takes place, and as a result carbohydrates and sugar are formed. Sugars are made by the chlorophyll’s chloroplasts. Plants use the newly formed sugars along with the absorbed nutrients to make vitamins, enzymes, and proteins they need to grow, thrive, and protect them from diseases and pests.

Plants can also convert some of the simple sugars they make and convert into cellulose to store it as starch for later feeding or continue to build their protective cell walls. On the other hand, each nutrient absorbed into the plant also plays its role. This includes supporting photosynthesis, cell formation, enzymatic activity, and other necessary functions to foster the plant life cycle.

This also explains why plant food and sometimes, fertilizer are all important for plants. If your soil or growing medium is already enriched, then your plant is safe. All it needs is adequate watering, access to sunlight, and proper foliage ventilation.  However, if your soil is nutrient deficient, you certainly want to enrich it with fertilizer. Without these key nutrients, your plant won’t grow and may experience hurdles during photosynthesis.

Note: Plants are autotrophs because they create their food.

Plant Food Uses

The reason why plants need to synthesize their food is that they cannot move or hunt. The glucose plants produce serves as their food and provides them with energy. They also pair the sugars with absorbed nutrients to aid in other plant needs.

Pros and Cons of Plant Food

Pros

  • All natural and synthesized but plants – so plant food doesn’t affect the environment

Cons

  • Unbalanced soil pH levels may inhibit plant food production as it traps important nutrients
  • The insufficient supply of important components of photosynthesis (sunlight, water, or air) inhibits photosynthesis and the plant food production process

Main Similarities and Differences: Fertilizer vs Plant Food

Key Similarities

Fertilizers and plant food are two completely different things and serve varying functions to plants. However, there’s no denying that these two components strive for the same goal, i.e. plant growth and development. It’s just that they achieve this goal differently.

 It’s also important to note that, sometimes, plant food and fertilizer have a co-dependent relationship. Without enriched soil conditions, your plant will need a boost from fertilizers to give it the much-needed nutrients. These nutrients from fertilizers that enrich the soil and plants also play a role in producing food through photosynthesis.

Main Differences

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the differences between fertilizers and plant food;

Natural vs. Man-made Occurrence

As mentioned earlier, fertilizer and plant food occur pretty differently. Fertilizers are manmade, either organically or chemically, and applied to the soil where the plant grows. You can find a wide range of fertilizer brands on the market.

These brands also offer a wide range of fertilizers based on your plant needs. You can even find all-purpose fertilizers that work for most plants if you aren’t sure of what you need. It’s important to note that since fertilizer isn’t naturally occurring, you want to track its application. Too much fertilizer can harm instead of good for your plants.

On the other hand, plant food is naturally occurring as it is produced by plants through the process of photosynthesis. As a gardener, you don’t really have to do much, other than ensuring your plants have the right resources to photosynthesize. These include growing the plants in settings with adequate air and sunlight and providing the plants with the appropriate amount of water they need.

Commercial Availability

Fertilizers come in a variety of options, including natural, organic, and industrial/chemical. Of these, you will also find the fertilizer in different forms, including granular and liquid fertilizers. Further, fertilizers come in many brands, types, formulas, and prices.

This is not the same for plant food. Plant food is exclusively naturally occurring and can only be made by plants. Therefore, there shouldn’t be a need to buy “plant food”. If you are an avid gardener, you’ve probably seen a couple of fertilizers labeled as “plant food”.

Now, this commercialized term shouldn’t be confused with actual plant food. This is because it is impossible to recreate synthetic plant food. Commercial “plant food “ is labeled as such as it offers the benefits of plant fertilizer – including promoting plant growth.

 This explains why some manufacturers refer to fertilizer as plant food. Instead of spending money on ineffective products, all you need to do is ensure your plants are in the right conditions to photosynthesize to produce adequate food.

Functionality and Uses

The fact that plant food and fertilizer aid in plant growth and development is indisputable. Furthermore, both plant food and fertilizer provide plants with a fair amount of macronutrients and micronutrients.

However, the degree of their functionality still greatly varies. Fertilizers mainly enrich the soil and produce plants with macronutrients. This is what aids the plants in proper growth and development. However, fertilizers are only needed when the soil your plants grow in lacks these nutrients.

Moreover, fertilizer can never serve as a replacement for plant food. Rather, the macronutrients fertilizers offer simply aid in the production of food. Plant food is sustenance to plants, the same way humans consume food daily. Plant food provides the primary nutrition plants need to grow, develop, and fight off diseases.

Nutrient Content

Fertilizers and plant food contain completely different nutrients, explaining their different functions. While both fertilizer and plant food foster healthy plant growth and development, their nutrient content makes them a little different. Fertilizers and plant food contain macronutrients and micronutrients.

Note: Macronutrients refer to the most essential nutrients a living organism uses in the largest quantities. These nutrients are usually important for various key functions, including providing energy and boosting growth and development. On the other hand, micronutrients refer to essential dietary nutrients plants need for a range of physiological functions to maintain health and survival. Micronutrients also help fight off potential plant diseases.

Plant food contains more micronutrients than macronutrients. These include nutrients, such as zinc, iron, boron, and copper, to mention a few. But, this is where it gets interesting! For plants to successfully produce food that harnesses these micronutrients, the soil they grow in needs to be rich in macronutrients.

This is where plant fertilizer comes in. Plant fertilizer enriches the soil with the macronutrients and micronutrients it needs. You can easily tell if your soil doesn’t have adequate nutrients for plants to produce food. The signs will be displayed through the poor growth of your plants with symptoms such as leaf discoloration and wilting. 

Fertilizers are rich in macronutrients, primarily containing nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This explains why many fertilizers are listed with the ratio, NPK.  Plants require these macronutrients to grow. The reason why you see commercial fertilizers with varying NPK ratios is that different plants will have varying NPK needs.

Soil Conditions

Soil conditions, particularly the soil pH are important when it comes to the functioning of plant food and fertilizer. The soil pH will tell whether your soil is acidic or alkaline. It’s essential to measure the soil pH before you sow seeds or plant seedlings and during the growth period.

Different plants will grow slightly varying pH levels, with some surviving in slightly acidic soil and others in slightly alkaline soil. But, the average pH level for most plants is around 6.5. Now, the production of plant food highly relies on maintaining the right soil pH. To achieve these ideal pH levels, you need adequate amounts of macronutrients, particularly nitrogen.

Rich soils will contain adequate levels of nitrogen and if they are low, you can enrich them with fertilizer. Higher levels of nitrogen make the soil more acidic. But, there needs to be a balance. Too much acidity leads to the loss of key nutrients, making the environment not-so-ideal for plants to survive.

Plant Uptake

Fertilizers are faster-acting compared to plant food. This is because plants will absorb fertilizer much faster. After production, plants absorb plant food pretty slowly. But, this rate allows the plants to efficiently take up as many nutrients and evenly distribute them.

Interaction with Plants

The interaction between plants and plant food is always positive and beneficial. After all, with the right resources, plants will produce the food they adequately need. The only downside to this setup is that the plant may not get the primary nutrition it needs if it is unable to create a sufficient food supply. This is typically caused by poor growing conditions (lack of sunlight, air, and/or water) and will be displayed through signs, like leaf discoloration.

The same cannot be said for fertilizers. When choosing a fertilizer, you need to pick the right kind and apply just enough for your particular plants. For instance, heavy-feeding plants, like tubers and legumes, can easily eat into your soil’s nutrients. So, you need to supplement them with an equally powerful fertilizer.

Alternatively, you want to do the opposite for light-feeding plants, like herbs or some flowers. When in doubt, an all-purpose fertilizer can be handy as you adjust its applications based on your observation of the plant’s uptake. However, very little or too much fertilizer can be a bad thing.

Too little fertilizer means that your soil is still under-enriched so plants fail to get sufficient nutrients. Too much fertilizer can easily affect the plant, burning its roots and even interrupting the little nutrient absorption the plant tries to achieve.

Environmental Concerns

The production and functions of plant food are all natural processes. So, plant food has a non-existent impact on the environment. The production of plant food is highly dependent on the environment. As a bonus, the process of photosynthesis which produces plant food, yields glucose for the plants and more oxygen for the planet. This is why plants are important to the planet’s life!

The same may not be said about fertilizers. In moderation, fertilizers are just as good as they enrich the soil to allow for successful and effortless plant food production. However, excessive application of fertilizer to the soil bears the potential to impact the environment. This is particularly true for industrial or chemical fertilizers. With nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, fertilizers are pretty acidic.

Now, the constant application ultimately renders the soil equally acidic. This, in turn, creates a toxic environment, one that cannot foster the survival of important microorganisms. As the problem persists, the acidic soil can even drain into water sources, polluting them and furthering the damage to the environment. Therefore, care and attention are very much needed when using fertilizer.

Plant Food is Essential While Fertilizer Isn’t Always

No matter what, plants require plant food and will continue to produce it as long as the plant survives. But, you don’t always have to apply fertilizer to the plants. You only need to apply nutrients when the soil doesn’t have adequate nutrients or when the plant depletes the current soil nutrients. Adding fertilizer to already enriched soil may lead to over-fertilization.

Other Alternatives to Consider

Plant food is naturally occurring within the plants and so, it cannot be avoided or replaced. On the other hand, fertilizer is manmade and manually applied but equally irreplaceable when the soil needs enrichment. Nonetheless, you can always complement your fertilizer with additional compounds to give your plants the best results.

Compost

Compost is sometimes considered fertilizer. However, compost doesn’t function as fertilizer. Instead, it serves as a soil amendment or builder.  Sure, compost enriches the soil with a good amount of nutrients. But, its primary purpose is to amend and improve the soil.  Compost can also serve as an insulator around where your plants grow helping to retain soil moisture and nutrients and controlling soil temperature. This is something fertilizers don’t do.   Compost is a dark and rich organic matter, made from recycled and decomposing organic waste. These include everything from decomposed leaves, grass clippings, and worm castings to vegetable peels. Using compost is a great way to make use of organic waste generated inside and outside your home. Instead of tossing out those vegetable peels and other compostable kitchen byproducts, you can always turn them into compost!

Manure

Manure is another form of organic matter obtained naturally from decaying plants or animals. The main difference between manure and compost is that manure is a byproduct of animals. A good example of manure is cow dung – a popular choice of manure. Unlike compost which undergoes natural decomposition, manure takes a shorter period to form as it is simply dried by products.

In fact, peasant farmers who lack access to commercial fertilizer use manure, like cow dung, as fertilizer. In addition to its soil conditioning properties, manure is rich in nutrients which make it a sufficient alternative to fertilizer. Manure, such as cow dung, is comparable to all-purpose fertilizer.

Compared to other animal by-products, it is quite forgiving and not too concentrated. This makes it great on most plants while also boasting all the essential nutrients, including nitrogen. If your soil and plants need a slightly acidic environment, manure is also great as it is slightly acidic.

But, while it is high in soluble nitrates, you have to be careful when applying manure. It is highly concentrated so over-application can lead to soil leaching, salt build-up, and plant burning. Nonetheless, if you live on a farm or have access to manure, it offers a more natural and cost-friendly alternative to commercially available fertilizer.

Homemade Fertilizers

Homemade fertilizers are another incredible alternative to commercially available fertilizers. The only difference is that they don’t have precisely gauged formulas to fully know the amount of each nutrient. While you know what nutrients you will get from them, you can pinpoint the exact amount.

Here are some of the best homemade fertilizers;

  • Coffee grounds: Coffee grounds are great for acidic soil and acid-loving plants, like blueberries, tomatoes, and roses. You can even use coffee grounds to amend your soil pH if it becomes too basic.
  • Egg shells: Egg shells do the opposite of what coffee grounds do, helping to lower the acidity of the soil. If you need to low soil acid, these should be your go-to options. Egg shells are over 90% calcium carbonate, which makes them a base – explaining their acid-balancing ability. If for some reason you have no access to egg shells, you can opt for lime or limestone (which is also calcium carbonate).
  • Banana peels: Banana peels soaked in water for a couple of hours or days tend to unleash potassium into the water. You can then spray your plants or pour some of the water into the soil (at the base of the plant to easily reach the roots) so the plants can soak up the potassium-rich water. Alternatively, you can bury banana peels alongside your plants to let them compost naturally.

FAQs 

Do Plants Really Need Fertilizer?

Plants need nutrients that fertilizers provide. But, this doesn’t mean that plants always need fertilizer. If you the soil in the garden bed or pot they grow in is rich in nutrients, you don’t need fertilizer. Your plants will only require fertilizer when nutrients have been depleted in the soil or when you are adding new plants to a nutrient-depleted environment.

However, once you apply fertilizer to the soil, this will not be the last time. You will still have to apply fertilizer from time to time as the plant absorbs the nutrients. Different plants will have varying needs – heavy feeders will consume more in a shorter period than light feeders.

What Type of Plants Need Fertilizer?

Plants growing in nutrient-deprived soil most certainly need fertilizer. Most plants will benefit from fertilizer as it provides the right nutrients to boost plant growth. Different plants will benefit from different fertilizer types and formulas. But, if you are a beginner and don’t know where to start, you can always pick an all-purpose fertilizer to get you started.

What is Better – Manure or Compost?

Whether manure or compost is better highly depends on your needs. If you simply want to amend and build your soil, compost is a better idea. But, if you want to enjoy more nutrients, go for manure. Manure is packed with enough nutrients, including nitrogen, to be used in place of regular fertilizer.

Conclusion 

Ultimately, there’s no better option than the other when it comes to the comparison of fertilizer vs plant food. Either compound is essential to plants, both serving equally important functions. Therefore, as a gardener, it is a good idea to learn the difference between the two and how they benefit your plants.

As pointed out, plant food is naturally occurring without any human interventions – all you do is provide the right conditions. On the other hand, the manmade and manually applied fertilizer is equally essential – but with some precaution. Fertilizers should only be applied when needed to avoid a high concentration. A high fertilizer concentration in the soil will do the opposite for the plant.

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