January 14, 2009
Last week, I was telling you about the importance of having a quality soil for growing things in your garden. Once you have a quality soil, your plants should grow well. However, any soil will eventually need to have some type of supplement added to the soil to keep the plants growing over the season or over the years. The supplement is called fertilizer.
Now, before all of the organic people begin to cry foul, you can add compost to the soil to add nutrients to the soil. However, many of the newest varieties of annuals and vegetables are very heavy feeders. Even using compost each year may not be enough to keep the annuals and vegetables producing at their best. There are many supplemental organic fertilizers you can use to feed your plants. I will get to that in a moment.
In very simple terms, plants take nutrients out of the soil and through a process called photosynthesis, turn those nutrients into food that the plant uses to grow. Depending on the amount of soil available to the plant and the number of plants growing in a given area of soil, the nutrients can be removed slowly or they can be removed quickly. As an example, if you have flowering plants growing in a hanging basket, the plants can remove the nutrients from the soil very quickly. The reason is that there is a relatively small amount of soil in the basket in relation to the amount of growth happening to the plants. If you have a hanging basket of petunias, the plants grow quickly and the roots will remove the nutrients from the soil at a rapid rate. A hanging basket will need to be fertilized on a regular schedule if you are going to keep the plants growing. It is almost a given that each June, we will have people coming into the store and asking for help with hanging baskets that have stopped flowering. When they are asked about how often they are fertilizing the plant, the answer is usually” I have to feed the plants?” In the case of the hanging basket, you may have to fertilize every 10 days to keep the plant growing.
Now think about your lawn. Normally, you fertilize your lawn 4 times during the year. But think about how much your lawn grows between applications of fertilizer. The thing that allows the lawn to go so long between applications of fertilizer is that there is a large amount of soil to hold the nutrients that are used by the lawn. To repeat last week’s info, a lack of good quality soil in sufficient amounts can lead to poor growth in a lawn. The soil just cannot support the lawns’ growth even with the addition of fertilizer.
Now let’s think about the other end of the spectrum. Rhododendrons and azaleas generally only need 1 application of fertilizer per year. The fertilizer is applied just as the plants are dropping their flowers. The reason is that these plants put out the majority of their growth for the year right after the plant drops it flowers. These plants just don’t need a lot of fertilizer all through the year. The term a little goes a long way does apply to fertilizing rhododendrons and azaleas.
It is important to understand that many of the new hybrid plants will use a lot of nutrients. They need to use the nutrients to produce lots of flowers or lots of vegetables. By fertilizing your plants on a regular schedule, you will get the optimum growth out of the plant.
You can really get gardeners going by getting people into the debate of organic fertilizer versus chemical fertilizers. The simplistic truth is that organic fertilizers last longer in the soil, yet they release the nutrients slowly. Chemical fertilizers release quickly but don’t remain in the soil as long.
All arguments aside, the plants in your garden need to be fertilized on a regular schedule. It is up to you to learn what plants need for fertilizer and how often those plants need to be fertilized. This may seem to be a daunting task, but once you know the “schedule” it doesn’t vary much from year to year. If you have a preference on organic versus chemical you will find that there are a zillion choices of fertilizer for you to use. There isn’t necessarily one “best” fertilizer. As the old saying goes, if it works for you, don’t go trying to fix it. If you find a fertilizer that you like and it makes the plants happy, stick with that fertilizer.
Paying attention to fertilizing your gardens is one of the best ways to have a great garden. It may seem confusing on how to set up a fertilizing schedule, but spending a few minutes talking to other gardeners or with people in the lawn and garden industry, should allow you to quickly learn when and how to properly fertilize your plants.
Well, that’s all for this week. I’ll talk to you again next week.