Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gardening Thursday – Feeding Your Plants

Our last blooming azalea has run amoke - it's 9' from the walk to the wall. It probably said "grows 4' across and 3' tall" on the tag when we bought it.

Ever wonder what the old man looks like after 4 hours of serious garden labor - I'm sure the answer is no, but here's a picture anyway with the garden's first kohlrabi.  These hats are Korean and cost about 50 cents and I like them because there is not a tight fitting hat band but rather a little air gap at each seam.  Since I'm prone to skin cancer, a hat is mandatory even though I look like a dufus - function overrides style, especially at 64.  My shirt is not discolored, that's honest labor sweat and looks worse further down - serious gardening requires serious work.

Before I discuss feeding, let’s talk about soil – the base of your garden. With bad practices, you can have a bad garden in good soil and with good practices, a decent garden in bad soil, but for a really good garden, you need good soil. It structurally supports your plants and provides them with the water and nutrients they need to produce well. I know many of you are foodies so my question is how effective would you be at baking a cake if you didn’t know how much of each ingredient you had or what temperature you were baking at – my guess is not very. The same situation exists in your garden if you’ve not tested your soil – especially the pH (oven temp). Vegetables like a slightly acid soil in the 6.5 pH range and a supply of the essential nutrients.

If you haven’t, I encourage you to contact your County Extension Agent and spend 20-30 bucks on a test for pH, macro and micro nutrients and you’ll be glad you did – same applies for flowers, grass, fruits, etc. Soil testing is done by the state university extension agency and the website for your state will tell you how to go about it. I did a search on “soil testing in (your state name)” for several states and got the necessary info each time – best to give your local office a call though. Many folks use home soil testers and they are ok, but a lab analyzed soil test will not only provide accurate info but also tell you what you need to do.

Besides water and food, your plants need sunlight and most veggies require a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun per day, and some, like onions, may need 14 or more. So make sure your plants get plenty of sun – ever notice the giant veggies that come from Alaska with nearly all day summer sun.

After pH the basic nutrients you need to know about are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) – the three numbers shown on all fertilizer bags. Different plants like different amounts of them but the main one is N. The P & K remain in the soil for extended periods of time (years), but the N generally leaches out within 3 months and must be replaced – don’t be surprised if your soil test shows no N or doesn’t even test for it. So adding nitrogen to your garden in November (unless you have a winter garden) is useless as it will be gone when you plant your spring garden. I just assume I have no N at the beginning of the spring garden and proceed from there.

Once you have your soil test, you’ll know exactly what your soil needs and you can go from there. A key to high productivity is to tailor the fertilizer to the plant – in general plants where you eat the leaves (cabbage, lettuce, greens, etc) like a lot of N, just as your grass does, but for plants where you eat the fruit or flower, too much N will grow great plants at the sacrifice of fruit (like tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli – we eat the flower buds). There is a wealth of info on the net that tell you what each plant needs.

When it comes to fertilizer the plants generally don’t care about the source or brand as they all dissolve in the soil moisture and are used by the plants as elements. The one big difference between chemical and organic fertilizers is the chemical fertilizer can force feed your plants, whereas the organics will only be used as the plants want them. I use both kinds so it’s really up to you. If you are an organic gardener, Gardens Alive is a good source of products.

I could easily spend several pages on this topic, but let me boil it down to these key points.

1. Get your soil tested
2. Tailor the fertilizer to the plant and apply at the proper time
3. Nitrogen must be added at least every 3 months
4. Get your soil tested
5. Get your soil tested

Katherine and AJ Aucoin checking out the garden after the blogger breakfast.  Photo from Laurie Myers.  Those are blueberries around us.
The garden looked pretty crappy for the blogger breakfast on Saturday, but after 10 hours over Sunday and Monday, it now looks pretty good, except for a few weeds, whose days are numbered.

I'll be discussing various plant supports next week.

Hard to believe but it's 38* here this morning - 30* less than a few days ago.  There's frost on the roof and it's 2 weeks past the AVERAGE last frost date, which is generally what is listed in frost charts.

All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Have a great day and thanks for stopping by Almost Heaven South.

One year ago:  Grilled Pork Tenderloin With Sauce



  1. You look my hubby when he's out working in the yard!

  2. Like I said, I'm surprised I can even grow a weed. That azalia plant is breathtaking!

  3. I am continually impressed at your knowledge of plant life. I can't seem to keep anything alive - plantwise that is :)
    38? Wow... I'll send you some of our's supposed to be like 98 today!!!

  4. Both my husband and I look just like you every weekend in the gardens! I totally respect SWEAT! I agree about the soil and fertilizer issues.....too bad, the soil is so bad down here and needs so much amendment. But gardens are worth it! Happy on vacation tomorrow, so my comments will be few for two weeks. Roz

  5. Oh forgot to tell you, I added your blog to my list of favorites on my've been a great blogging friend! Bye for now!

  6. Thanks for the info on organic fertilizers. I love that it came from a pink shirt wearing, kohlrabi toting gardener. :) I can't believe how big your garden is . . . I have to put up deer protection, so mine is much smaller.

  7. Great info... I am starting a small garden this year, with big expansion plans for years to come... Some day i want to be you!

  8. I'm glad we weren't the only ones suffering the 38 degree temps! Your garden looks wonderful.

  9. Well said on the comparison between baking and soil. It is so true. You have to love your garden and plants. I really like your thursday posts I look forward to them every week.
    I gave you an award today!

  10. Your post only reinforces my need of getting my soil tested this year!! I've been gardening for 3+ years now with marginal results - I blame our short growing season & high altitude in CO for a lot of it - but I know my soil it to blame for a lot of it too. You've got quite the garden plot there! WOW!

  11. Larry, Even in your gardening projects/efforts, the 'engineer' in you is obvious. the hat! Has to be effective in keeping the sun off your head. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

  12. Great idea to frame this in terms a foodie understands.

    Our problem is that we used a series of planters and I'm willing to be the soil composition in each is probably different. I'd have to pay for 6-7 tests.


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