Marine kelp or algae has been the secret weapon for elite farmers for centuries and the prevalence of kelp extract in agriculture has been steadily on the rise as research continues to provide reasons for how the organic compounds of kelp varieties affect plant growth. Even though farmers have already seen the benefits of kelp first hand over the centuries, the newer generations of growers demand proof.
What is Kelp and How is it Used in Growing?
Also known as seaweed, kelp grows as long divided stalks that tend to grow in such density that they are described as forests in marine environments along shallow rocky shorelines. For this articles sake, we will focus on the most commonly used species used in agriculture, Ascophyllum Nodosum. It is prized for its source of not only micronutrients, macronutrients, and minerals, but it also has a variety of organic compounds such as amino acids, hormones, enzymes, and general organic matter. When extracted, all of these beneficial compounds are readily available as a very concentrated material to be added soil, hydroponic nutrients, and foliar sprays alike.
Before kelp extracts even encounter direct uptake to a plant, the properties of kelp help with the condition of the soil (condition refers to the physical properties of the soil). The organic matter increases fertility and even tilth, the consistency of the soil that affects drainage, water absorption, and aeration by helping the soil break down to proper sizes to create an optimal environment for root growth and nutrient uptake. This isn’t simply due to physical consistency but rather it has an actual effect on the plants’ biochemistry.
Kelp’s Organic Compounds
Specifically, the following organic compounds can all be found in kelp varieties: alginates, amino acids, cytokinins, auxins, polysaccharides, betaines, and phytosterols (amongst others) all play a role in helping plants down to a cellular level. Beginning with Alginates, kelp contains these polymers of alginic acid that have general gelling properties that are useful in soil by increasing water holding capacity and do so in an environmentally friendly way, as they are naturally biodegradable. Amino acids work by providing chemical structures to help the plant’s biochemical reactions happen more efficiently and catalyze biochemical reactions (otherwise known as enzymes in certain cases). Where amino acids provide the blueprint for optimization, cytokinins (or phytohormones in this case) directly promote plant growth by increasing the rate of cell division and work in part with auxins to provide biostimulation of cellular activities. Similar to amino acids, auxins help create the structure for growth by promoting communication between cells so they are coordinated to behave correctly and guide the added growth factor from the presence of cytokinins in a beneficial way. When the cells are prompted to grow and divide, a greater presence of fuel is required to maintain the increased metabolic rate. This is where polysaccharides, or biological polymers that provide cellular structure and energy storage, become necessary. In plants, polysaccharides such as starch and glycogen provide the mitochondria a consistent source of energy for growth and continuance of the Kreb cycle; otherwise known as the process of respiration in which plants convert carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into usable energy. Other polysaccharides like cellulose and chitin provide physical structure to cell growth. Linking back to alginates, betaines help plants retain water but on the cellular level as the neutral chemical compound aid in cellular osmosis so that the cell itself retains water more readily. Betaines have also been believed to beneficially alter a plant’s DNA so that it can better react to abiotic (or environmental) stresses. Lastly, phytosterols present in kelp affect the cell membrane but does so to regulate the fluidity between cells to aid in cellular communication by allowing fluids (that contain biological data) to pass through at an accelerated rate.
Kelp Synergistically Helps Plant Development at All Stages
Due to the aforementioned roles of the biological and organic compounds found in kelp, a positive effect on overall crop yield and health has been seen by optimizing the health of the plant as opposed to eliciting a stress response as other amendments aim to do. An example of the later is adding chitosan protein that is found in exoskeletons of in pests like mites. The plant detects its presence and has a stress response alter its immune system to fight back. Whereas all the previously mentioned organic compounds that are present in kelp varieties synergistically help the plant at all growth stages and even affect the DNA of the plant directly as it helps to teach the plant to optimize and defend itself. Specifically, betaines are believed to increase a plants’ chlorophyll content from slowing the degradation of chlorophyll. This allows plants to mature at a quicker rate as the overall metabolism continues to operate at an optimized level. While cytokinins help promote overall growth from the increased cell division and can thus create a plant with greater overall density and greater nodal density through vegetative states by aiding in nutrient partitioning, helping the plant grow evenly throughout the branched structure. Cytokinins also help immensely in the floral and fruiting development by increasing nutrient mobility so plant’s reproductive organs are provided sufficient nutrients as well. Furthermore, polysaccharides also have hydrophilic properties that help plant cells conserve water but also have a chelating effect of on soil chemistry by stabilizing and ionizing nutrients for optimal uptake by the plant’s root system.
The aid that kelp and its derivatives provide in cellular growth activities doesn’t conclude in what you see above the soil or grow medium, but has just an important effect on the plant’s rhizosphere, or the root environment that blends the concepts of chemistry and microbiology together. Kelp can promote a healthy rhizosphere of beneficial microbes that secrete natural substances that help soil conditioning while also helping propagate mycorrhizae (or beneficial fungus) helps break down nutrients in the soil or grow medium so the plant can uptake at a more efficient rate. All the biostimulant properties mentioned about vegetative and floral plant growth apply directly to root and microbe health as well.
Moving back to life above the soil, all plants have to react to stress. Most notably, abiotic stress, environmental stresses like temperature extremes, droughts, and soil chemistry (like salinity). Gelling action of alginates helps the soil itself retain water to defend against droughts. Betaines help with osmosis and thus make the cells more resilient to both droughts but to freezing as well where crops like grapes were even seen to be more resilient to freezing temperatures through the use of kelp products. Cytokinins, along with the added helpful attributes of the other organic compounds, help cell growth and communication amongst the plant cells to help the plant become more agile and resistant to stressors and thus help manipulate the DNA of the plant to learn to protect itself. In general, the resistance to stress is most strongly linked to increased overall plant health as everything works in conjunction to react. This is especially true when it comes to the role kelp plays in helping with biotic stress, or stress caused by pests and pathogens. Where a healthy plant can regulate its own immune system to defend itself. Specifically, polysaccharides help a plant elicit defense mechanisms more readily as opposed to relying on the direct action of pesticides. This is especially useful in the rhizosphere as the plant mitigates problems itself while beneficial microbes have not shown to be affected negatively by the presence of kelp in the soil as it does not attack organisms directly as pesticide products do.
In closing, kelp as an agricultural amendment has progressed from age-old wisdom to a true act of informed science, all while yielding results regardless of knowledge. The complex organic structures found in kelp and its derivatives have been proven to help plants’ cellular structure not only grow more efficiently but to communicate to itself without a typical nervous system. It’s beautiful that every cell within a plant has the information to play any role within the system where the sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole.
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