How do I fertilize my plants with plant food?

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The best way to know how much, and at what proportion, to add nutrients to the soil is with a soil test. Simple soil tests can be purchased at garden supply centers. Once you determine what nutrients are lacking or in abundance, you can amend the soil to correct most problems.

There are four main nutrients that are most likely to be a problem in the soil: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. The first three nutrients are found in most mixed fertilizers, and calcium can be purchased separately in the form of limestone.

Nitrogen is necessary for new cell formation in all parts of a plant. Compared to other nutrients, nitrogen is typically the most lacking. A symptom of a shortage of nitrogen is yellow-green stunted growth. Potassium (potash) is necessary for strong roots and stems as well as deep flower color. A symptom of potash deficiency is weak stems and yellowing or browning leaf tips and edges. Phosphorus is necessary for the development of roots and stems. This nutrient also stimulates fruit and seed production. A symptom of Phosphorus deficiency is red or purple discoloration of leaves. Because phosphorus can become fixed to soil particles, it is important to place it close to the roots.

Fertilizer needs to be somewhat soluble; available to plants soon after application.

The nutrients in organic plant foods, such as compost, manure, bone meal, and blood meal are not readily available to plants. These materials must break down, which makes them slow-acting.

The nutrients of inorganic plant foods are in soluble form, which are readily available to plants. Inorganic plant foods are not long-lasting, therefore, frequent fertilizing may cause the chemicals to destroy the plant. If applied in concentrated form, do not allow the fertilizer to come in direct contact with foliage and roots as the plant may be damaged or killed. The ratio of nutrients is indicated on the fertilizer container. The numbers indicate the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash respectively – the higher the first number, the more nitrogen, etc. An inorganic fertilizer labeled as 20-20-20 indicates equal portions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash and is typically used in gardens with little nutrient discrepancies.

 Due to the difference between organic and inorganic plant foods, a combination of the two may produce the best results.

  • Liquid plant foods are good for accurate applications for container plants.
  • Slow-release fertilizers feed plants over an extended period of time, which is good for lawns. This type of fertilizer can be applied without the risk of burning the grass.
  • Limestone (calcium) neutralizes the acid level in soil.
  • Side dressing adds fertilizer to plants during the growing period. Apply the fertilizer on top of the soil at least six inches away from the base of the plant.
  • Base feeding is especially good for shrubs and roses. Apply fertilizer on top of the soil at least six inches from the base of the plant and extend to approximately twelve inches beyond the branch tips. Scratch the fertilizer into the soil without disturbing the roots.

FERTILIZER REQUIREMENTS:

PLANT TYPEWHEN TO FEEDCOMMENTS
AnnualsBefore plantingSpread fertilizer before turning soil. Feed again when plants are divided.
BulbsEarly spring of fallAdd food to planting hole. Cover food with a light layer of soil so bulbs are not sitting directly on top of food.
EvergreensEarly spring of fallIf pruned, feed again in fall. Use an acid food.
Fruit TreesFall or springSupplement with nitrogen in early spring in addition to annual feeding.
HedgesSpringIf pruned, feed again in fall.
PerennialsWhen new growth appearsFeed again when flower buds appear.
RosesSpring and summerDo not feed in fall as newly encouraged growth may be damaged by cold weather.
ShrubsSpring or fallFor mature plants, one feeding per year should suffice.
TreesSpringFeed again in fall if tree is damaged, diseased, or stressed.
TubersEarly spring of fallAdd food to planting hole. Cover food with a light layer of soil so tubers are not sitting directly on top of food.
VinesSpring or fallPrior to establishment, feed in spring and fall. Once established, feed once a year.