Fertilizer Facts For Your Garden
Flowering plants can limp along without fertilizer, but to produce a good color display, they need to be fed. Will you use organic or synthetic? What are the advantages and drawbacks for each? Which is what? How do you tell? Read on for a quick overview.
First, plants can’t tell the difference between organic and nonorganic fertilizer. Nitrogen is nitrogen, no matter its source. Actually, nitrogen, an element, cannot be synthetic. Manufactured actually serves as a better description, but most gardeners know the word “synthetic.”
The label will tell you a lot. Organic fertilizers base the ingredients on plants or animals (manure, seaweed or fish). However, if reading the label gives you flashbacks to high school chemistry class, then you’re looking at a synthetic fertilizer. Both organic and synthetic fertilizers work, but they feed the plants in different ways.
Slow-feeding organic fertilizer becomes available based on heat. As summer warms up, it kicks into gear. You actually feed the soil organisms, which then feed the plants. They rarely burn and help instead of harm the beneficial organisms present in soil. Most will improve the soil tilth (tillage). The package will be labeled with word “organic” – but note that “all natural” does not mean the same thing.
Water activates quick-feeding inorganic fertilizers. If applied wrong, they can burn the plant and harm the soil bacteria (the good guys), so always read and follow the directions. Synthetic fertilizers usually cost less.
Turf fertilizers also affect blade growth differently. Organic fertilizers promote the development of short, strong cell walls. Strong, thick blades lead to more photosynthesis, which leads to more energy for the roots. This leads to a deeper root mass, which means a healthy lawn needing less water and fewer mowings. Wide, thick blades shade the soil, leaving weed seeds to struggle.
Synthetic fertilizers make the blades grow by elongating the cell walls, which results in taller, faster-growing blades – a disadvantage if you dislike mowing. However, you may consider this a benefit if you depend on grass clippings for mulch and/or a nitrogen-rich compost amendment.
Over time, synthetics can add salt to your lawn, killing beneficial microbes and dehydrating the air spaces needed for good root growth. This increases the need for water, which activates the fertilizer, causing it to be used up faster. Extra watering can lead to nitrogen-rich runoff that can pollute our streams, rivers and eventually lakes and oceans.
Organic or synthetic? You get to choose.
Ask the Expert
Q: Is spring the best time to transplant peonies?
A: No. Transplant peonies in the fall, when the “eyes” are an inch or two below the surface.
Q: What are some good fillers for the bottom of big containers?
A: You will have a better container by using the same potting medium throughout. Water doesn’t move well between different textures. Also, roots like to grow downward. More space below the soil means a bigger display above.