Do you think of poop when you think of fertilizing your gardens? If you’re going the organic route of fertilizing (the best way to go), then yes, there usually is some form of animal poop in there (worm excrement is ah-mazing).
But what is Fertilizer? It’s what gives your garden that extra juice it needs to vamp up the plants and keep their fruits going all season long. You would be surprised how many people do not think about fertilizing their gardens. The plants are in the soil, they get watered and have plenty of sun. Done, right? Not so fast. If you really want your garden to reach its maximum potential in fruiting, fertilization is needed. Gardens can produce well without fertilization, especially if they're in super compost-rich soil, but if you compare the bounties with and without it. There is a huge difference.
Getting to Know the Fertilizers
There are an array of fertilizers out there on the market. Some come in liquid form, others in granules, tablets or sticks; each offering a certain amount of the three main nutrients plants need to thrive: Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K) and Nitrogen (N). Some plants need more and less of these during different stages of growing. You will usually find three numbers listed on the label. This is the ratio of those three important nutrients we just spoke of.
Let’s get to know the magic three. Phosphorus is what helps roots develop and grow strong. Potassium makes the plants strong and healthy to protect itself from diseases and Nitrogen is what gives the plant energy to create new leafy growth. This is why it’s important to have more Nitrogen when the plant has done most of its growth and is starting to fruit, and also why it's usually the lowest number in the fertilizer ratio.
With all the fertilizers out there, some tend to use processed over organic fertilizers. Processed (or synthetic) fertilizers can be more concentrated and tend to be quick- release and water soluble to give a faster nutrient boost. Which, depending on the situation, can be helpful. But slow-release fertilizer is what is best, and you’ll find that in organic fertilizers. Yeah–organic might be a bit pricer, but they release nutrients at a pace that’s more absorbable for the plants, so that they’re not overdoing it, and is way better for them (and you when you’re eating some of these veggies). It’s also more economical in the long run too since you need to use it less than if you went the processed route.
Before you grab that juicy bag of fertilizer, you might want to do a basic soil test in your garden beds. This is best done in autumn, so that you can have plenty of time to get the results back. Not many do this, but it is helpful in knowing what levels of nutrients you have in your soil. Especially if you’ve been diligent in applying fertilizer over the years, you might have built up enough nutrient levels so that you don’t need to add anymore. If you have super high levels of those three magical nutrients, you can actually prevent your plants from growing.
Now for fertilizing! Before you plant your seeds. Sprinkle granular fertilizer over the soil and mix into the top 3 to 5 inches of soil. If you are transplanting seedlings, side-dress those babies with the fertilizer and gently work it into the soil around them. Don’t use liquid fertilizer when transplanting. The liquid sinks into the soil fast and with the seedlings' tender roots, these little root hairs could be burned by the immediate contact of nutrients. Give those tender plants time to grow and establish their roots a bit more before you use liquid fertilizer, usually after 2 weeks. Don’t forget to water after fertilizing.
An early spring fertilizer can boost leafy greens such as kale, lettuce and arugula. But the majority of plants really need that extra juice, is during their peak growing season, usually around mid-summer. That’s not to say you can’t add a little fertilizer in the beginning for long season plants like corn and squash. But when the sun’s out longer and the weather is warm, this is when plants kick it into gear and use up the nutrients the most.
One of the heavy nutrient feeders is tomatoes. They need fertilizing when they start growing like crazy, but when they start flowering, change the fertilizer up and use one lower in nitrogen, so that you get more flowers and fruit. Choose a fertilizer specific for tomato plants so you can prevent blossom-end rot.
But overall most veggies need a little nitrogen boost. Legumes could use some when their blossoms begin. Brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli love it around 4 weeks after planting. Nightshade plants such as tomatoes and eggplants you can stagger fertilizing, so after 2 weeks of the arrival of the first fruit hit them up, then a month later hit them with the juice again.
But there are some plants that do not like the extra nitrogen, and those are the root veggies such as carrots, beets and turnips. Sweet potatoes and watermelons don’t care for the extra N either. In the end it’s all about getting to know each of you plants likes and dislikes. Kind of like getting to know a person. Know what makes them happy, so that during the growing season, you can take care of them well.
Most people have indoor plants (it would be weird if you didn’t have at least one). But whether it’s many or a few, they need fertilizer if you want to see them lush and happy. These green babies are limited to the containers they live in, so their roots can’t seek out other nutrients when their soil’s tapped out of it. When you first pot your plant with potting soil, it’s usually filled with rich material for your plant to thrive on. But this goes down after about two to three months when your nutrients leach out.
For indoor plants, liquid fertilizer works best. The liquid version is diluted, that way you can control the amount you’re giving to them. Keep the granular stuff for outdoors. If you’re starting your plants inside, Seedsheets recommends starting with Fox Farms Big Bloom to get your plants going, all while keeping them healthy. Remember to read the label and give the correct amounts. Too much fertilizer can actually be worse than too little. If you start getting stunted growth and yellowing leaves, you might be stressing them out with too much fertilizer. Some plants do go dormant in the winter. When this happens, chill on the nutrients. When you start seeing new shoots again, you can kick it up again with the added nutrients. For more on indoor gardening, read our How To Grow An Indoor Garden (That Won’t Disappoint) Blog to further enhance your gardening know-how to create your own green paradise indoors.
With all this talk about the magic of animal poop, there is a way you can make your own fertilizer tea with just weeds and herb trimmings. It’s not as packed with nutrients as the stuff you buy in the stores, but gives a nice burst of micronutrients, all while using up those obnoxious weeds.
It’s simple. First get a bucket and fill halfway with weeds and herb trimmings. Comfrey, stinging nettle and borage are great to add to the mix. Don’t forget to wear gloves when handling the stinging nettle and borage. Tear up the leaves for better surface exposure and to get at those nutrients better, then fill the bucket with water and cover up with a cloth or mesh net. Place in the sun for a day or two to steep (you can leave it longer, but it will get gross and stinky). To oxygenate the tea, mix it a couple times a day. This creates healthy bacteria. Strain the tea into a watering can and pour over the garden soil. You can also spray the leaves as well to feed the foliage.
Don't worry, you're not adding weeds to your garden with the tea, just the nutrients you extracted from them. So next time you’re weeding those dandelion flowers, use them for some healthy fertilizer tea.