Fertilizer – When, What and How

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Plants don’t really start digesting fertilizer until the soil temperature warms up to 60 or 70 degrees. This is a great reason to use slow-release dry fertilizers instead of liquids like Miracle-Gro, because quick-release liquid fertilizers can wash out before your plants need them. It’s best to use powdered organic fertilizers because they stay in the root zone until the plant is ready to feed. Time-release powdered fertilizers work better than liquids because they are stable and will stay in the soil until the plant uses them. Liquid fertilizers are easily washed away, so they may not be there by the time the soil warms up enough for plants to feed on.

Today’s gardeners want a return to traditional gardening methods, like building garden soil with organic fertilizers and compost. Petrochemical-based fertilizers like 10-10-10 actually weaken soils over time, defeating the natural renewal process that makes good garden soils and healthy plants. In our own gardens we use organic powdered plant foods like Holly Tone, Plant Tone, Garden Tone and Bulb Tone by Espoma Organics. These are balanced meals containing many healthy natural ingredients like gypsum, greensand and bone meal to help break up clay soil. Espoma Organics is a modern take on the old-fashioned fertilizer mill; a factory where ground natural ingredients like bone meal, cottonseed meal and other components are mixed into powdered fertilizers that build and replenish tired soils. They also contain micorrhizae, soil microorganisms that help your plants digest fertilizers and trace minerals.

The best way to feed your plants is to mix the fertilizer with the soil when you plant. This has a “timed release” effect as the roots find the food as the plant grows. It helps the roots spread quickly so the plant can establish itself. Good root systems help plants survive drought and prevent them from being blown over. For established plantings, you should sprinkle powdered fertilizer liberally around your plants before mulching. This way the fertilizer doesn’t have to work its way through the mulch to reach the roots.

Petrochemical fertilizers do nothing to improve soil texture. Good soil needs “decompressors” like compost and peat moss, and turning the soil over to mix it with air. A balanced diet depends on living organisms and trace minerals, none of which can be found in a bag of 12-12-12 or a bottle of Miracle-Gro. Instead, consider using mushroom compost for new gardens and existing plants. Mushroom compost has well-balanced nutrition, including soil microbes and trace elements. Good mushroom compost is completely sterile, so you can apply it as a mulch to prevent weeds, and it will gradually improve the quality of your soil. Just be careful using mushroom compost around new plants and seeds; it is strong and could burn them. With new plantings, it is best mixed with other soils.

Many people use “Miracle Gro” and it is a well-known brand. It reminds us of those intravenous bags in the hospital, which “feed” you through a tube in your arm. It will keep you alive, but it is NOT a balanced diet.

Steve Boehme and his wife Marjorie own GoodSeed Farm Landscapes, a landscape installer/design-build landscaper specializing in outdoor living spaces. More information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm & Garden at (937) 695-0350.

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