GROW: Fertilizer 101 for your plants

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My secret to a beautiful, productive garden is healthy soil. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing food or flowers, or gardening in raised beds or containers, soil construction is essential. I start with annual applications of organic matter like compost or aged manure, add lime to adjust soil pH, and top up with fertilizers if needed.

When it comes to plant fertilization, you have plenty of options. You can choose between natural and synthetic chemical fertilizers and those in granular or liquid form. As an organic gardener, I opt for natural fertilizers made from plant, animal, and mineral nutrient sources like seaweed, bone meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal.

The advantage of choosing natural products is that they provide nutrients to plants and also nourish living organisms in the soil. Long-term use of synthetic salt-based fertilizers can harm the soil’s food web. In addition, organic fertilizers provide regular nutrition for several months compared to several weeks for most synthetic products. Organic products often cost a little more, but offer longer results.

If you’ve ever purchased plant food, you’ve probably noticed three numbers on the front of the package. These represent the weight percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the product. A packet of 6-3-6 contains 6% Nitrogen, 3% Phosphorus and 6% Potassium. The remaining 85 percent is a fertilizer-carrying product.

Regular applications of a liquid organic fertilizer help promote healthy plants and lots of flowers. -Niki Jabbour

Nitrogen promotes leaf and shoot growth, phosphorus influences root growth and flower and fruit production, and potassium promotes good vigor and general health. To help you identify the type of fertilizer you need, it’s a good idea to test the soil in your vegetable and flower garden every few years. A soil test indicates nutrient levels as well as soil pH and organic matter content.

Living in Nova Scotia brings us closer to a rich garden resource, seaweed. Marine plants are an excellent source of trace minerals and plant growth hormones. Gardeners can take advantage of these benefits by using algae-based fertilizers.

Organic fertilizers like SeaBoost provide nutrients and feed soil organisms.  -Niki Jabbour
Organic fertilizers like SeaBoost provide nutrients and feed soil organisms. -Niki Jabbour

Joe Mrkonjic is the owner of SeaBoost, a Nova Scotia company that harvests local seaweed to produce SeaBoost liquid seaweed and SeaMeal, a dried seaweed product. “When you consider the environment in which seaweed is grown and its ability to withstand year-round temperature extremes and salt water, you realize it’s an amazing plant,” says Mrkonjic. SeaBoost products are available at local garden centers and nurseries.

“Seaboost, overall, has the same nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels as farmyard manure, so those numbers aren’t high, but it contains the greatest range of natural plant growth promoters, cytokinins, gibberellins, auxins,” Mrkonjic notes.

SeaBoost is diluted with water and used as a foliar spray or drizzled into the soil around vegetables, ornamentals and houseplants in flower beds and containers. “The end result is healthier plants with vigorous growth,” he says, adding that the plants are also better able to ward off several types of plant diseases and pests.

Tomatoes are the number one crop grown in home gardens and I fertilize my plants with granular organic vegetable fertilizer at planting time.  I then apply SeaBoost every three to four weeks from early to late summer.  -Niki Jabbour
Tomatoes are the number one crop grown in home gardens and I fertilize my plants with granular organic vegetable fertilizer at planting time. I then apply SeaBoost every three to four weeks from early to late summer. -Niki Jabbour

Fertilizing with liquid kelp is an easy way to give plants a quick boost. I use it many times during the summer months on long season crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers.

Using a granular product, like SeaMeal, gives similar results, but over a longer period of time. Granular organic fertilizers can be incorporated into beds or containers at planting time or sprinkled around plants in mid-summer for an extra boost.

No matter what fertilizer product you use, be sure to read the label carefully and follow application rates. Too little is inefficient and can lead to nutrient deficiency and too much can burn or damage plants.

Niki Jabbour is the author of four bestselling books, including her latest, Growing Under Cover. She is a two-time winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award. Find it on SavvyGardening.com and on social networks.

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