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Fertilizing the Garden


When to fertilize, with what and how are commons question in the spring. It is important to look at the overall scheme of things in order to make the proper decisions on these questions.

Fertilizer is not plant food even though that's often stated on the packaging. Fertilizers are concentrations of elements which, when added to the soil or water, are then available for plants to use and make their own food.

Fertilizers are usually naturally occurring elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and calcium that exist in your soil. Whether they exist at the levels required for plants to grow to their potential is another matter. Over the years, gardeners and scientists have determined a rough estimate of what elements and how much of those are the best for plants and gardens. It is really the gardener's responsibility to use common sense, backed up with a bit of knowledge to make the right fertilization choices.

Fertilizers are available in a water soluble or granular form. Water soluble fertilizers are highly concentrated particles that dissolve in water and are then immediately available for plant root uptake. Since the plant can only take up so much at once, water soluble fertilizers are applied at low rates on a regular basis (every 2-3 weeks) in order to ‘spoon-feed' the plant. These fertilizers are ideally suited to annual flowers which are particularly fond of extra nutrients.

Hose-end application systems using water soluble fertilizers have made fertilizing larger beds in the outdoor garden an easy task. 10-52-10 is an excellent starter formulation for new seedlings. 20-20-20 is an all-purpose fertilizer that can be used if your garden has a mixture of flowers, foliage and shrubs. 15-30-15 is designed to benefit flowering plants more than foliar plants. These would be the top three to have in your garden shed. Should you have specific ‘challenges', there are types for acidic plants and so on.

Granular fertilizers are the most puzzling for most home gardeners. The numbers on the bags are similar and yet not the same, the prices make no sense and the ideal packaging is constantly being re-invented. The introduction of controlled-release fertilizers to the home market will add yet another product line and confusion to the equation.

For the gardener who likes to put some fertilizer in a pail and toss a handful around special plants, the ideal product is a fertilizer of low concentration (low numbers on the bag), which contains or is derived from organic materials. These have no risk of burn and are not full of filler. Pink Vigoro, 8-12-6, would be one example of this and the other would be Canagro 4-4-8. Pink gets its bulk from composted sludge and the Canagro products are derived from protein meals like bone meal and feather meal.

Recently, home gardeners have been introduced to controlled-release fertilizers for gardens. With these products, a plastic-type coating is put around fertilizer particles so that the fertilizers are metered out more slowly. If the particles are designed correctly, they will act as well as if you were ‘spoon-feeding' with a water soluble fertilizer. With these products, you mix the fertilizer into the soil and trust that every time it rains or you water, the fertilizer will be released. The ‘high tech' nature of these products make them more expensive but are worth while for the gardener who wants to ensure a steady supply of nutrients without constantly fertilizing.

Whichever fertilizer you use, it is only part of what it takes to ensure success with your plants. Keeping the soil enriched with compost or manure and selecting the right plant for the location are two other key ingredients.


© Daisy Moore, 2000.



Other spring garden tips:

(click on the tip you want to read)


Designing Gardens

Fertilizing the Garden
Ready for Spring
Starting Seeds Indoors
Pruning Trees and Shrubs
Dormant Spraying
Planning the Vegetable Garden
Planting Early Vegetables
Early Season Care of Perennial Beds
Plants for an Early Spring Show
Cut Flowers for the Home Garden
Growing the Perfect Potato
Lawn Care in Early Spring.....GRUB DAMAGE!
Spring Lawn Care
The Garden in May
Gardening with Native Plants
Sources of Native Plants
Shade Gardening
Planting Gladiolus and Other Summer Flowering Bulbs
Weed Control
Thatch in Lawns
Weeds or Wildflowers
Improving Your Soil
Marvellous Mulch
Selecting and Planting Shrubs
Planting Trees and Shrubs
Window Box Gardening
Growing Tomatoes
Fertilizing the Vegetable Garden



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© Daisy Moore 2005