Fertilizer: When, what and how


Plants don’t really start to digest fertilizers until the soil temperature warms to 60 or 70 degrees. That’s a great reason to use dry slow-release fertilizers instead of liquids like Miracle-Gro, because quick-release liquid fertilizers can wash away before your plants need them.

It’s better to use powdered organic fertilizers, because they stay in the root zone until the plant is ready to feed. Timed-release powdered fertilizers work better than liquids because they are stable and will remain in the soil until the plant uses them.

Liquid fertilizers are easily washed away, so they may not be there anymore by the time the soil gets warm enough for plants to feed.

Today’s gardeners want a return to traditional gardening methods, like building garden soil with organic fertilizers and compost. Petro-chemical based fertilizers like 10-10-10 actually weaken soils over time, defeating the natural process of renewal 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 lots of wholesome natural ingredients like gypsum, greensand and bone meal to help break up clay soil.

Espoma Organics is a modern version of the old-fashioned fertilizer mill; a factory where ground-up natural ingredients like bone meal, cottonseed meal and other components are blended into powdered fertilizers that build and replenish tired soils.

They also contain Micorrhizae, soil micro-organisms that help your plants digest fertilizer and trace minerals.

The best way to feed your plants is by mixing the fertilizer with the soil when you plant. This has a “timed-release” effect because the roots find the food as the plant grows. It helps the roots spread quickly so the plant can get established.

Good root systems help plants survive drought, and prevent them from being toppled by wind.

For established plantings you should sprinkle powdered fertilizers generously around your plants before mulching. This way the fertilizer doesn’t have to find its way through the mulch to get to the roots.

Petrochemical fertilizers don’t do anything to improve soil texture. Good soil needs “looseners” like compost and peat moss, and turning the soil to mix it with air.

Well-rounded nutrition depends on living organisms and trace mineral elements, neither of which can be found in a bag of 12-12-12 or a bottle of Miracle-Gro.

Consider using mushroom compost instead, for new gardens and existing plants. Mushroom compost has well-balanced nutrition including soil microbes and trace minerals. Good mushroom compost is completely sterile, so you can apply it as mulch to prevent weeds, and it will gradually improve your soil quality.

Just be careful using mushroom compost around new plants and seeds; it’s strong and could burn them. With new plantings it’s best to mix it with other soils.

Lots of people use “Miracle Gro” and it’s a well-known brand. It reminds us of those IV drip bags in the hospital, “feeding” you through a tube into your arm. It will keep you alive but it’s not a balanced diet.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.


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