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About Garden Fertilizers

Tree Branch

Confused over what fertilizers to apply, when, and how often? What do all these fertilizers do for your plants anyway? Is it really that important? Is more better? These are all common questions around one of the most confusing parts of gardening. Fortunately, you do not need to have a degree in chemistry to garden. Nor, do you need a n degree in agriculture to decide upon a basic fertilization program for all of your plants.

Did you know? You should apply different types of fertilizer at different times.  Different plants need different kinds of fertilizers. This is one of the ideas this section can help you with.

The Big Three

Nitrogen (N), Potassium (P) and Phosphorous (K) are the three most important chemicals your plant needs to grow and thrive. When you purchase a bag or box of fertilizer, it's easy to tell home much N-P-K is in the container. The percentage of these three chemicals is expressed in big, bold numbers (like 5-10-5).

Here is a simple fertilizer plan:

1. Early in the season, use a fertilizer that is high in Nitrogen, the first number.

2. Just before the flowering period for (flowers and vegetables), switch to a fertilizer high in Potassium. Potassium promotes big blooms, and blooming in general.

3. After fruits and vegetables begin to appear, switch to a fertilizer higher in Phosphorous.

Many plants will respond well to a balanced fertilizer, like 10-10-10. If it's too much trouble to switch fertilizers, just get a bag of balanced, multi-purpose fertilizer, and use it all year. This works really well for people with small gardens. Getting three bags, can be too much.


With Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous, your plants should be off to a good start. But, plants require many micro-nutrients, too. They are called "micro-nutrients" because they are needed in small amounts.

Most important among these is calcium. Calcium helps the plant to absorb other important chemicals, most notably Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. Calcium is best in liquid form, which is readily available to the plants.

The other important micro-nutrients are:

  • Boron

  • Copper

  • Iron

  • Magnesium

  • Manganese

  • Molybdenum

  • Sulphur

  • Zinc

Organic Fertilizers

Many home gardeners want to garden organically. There are plenty of organic fertilizers on the market. Just look for it on the label. Other ways to organically feed your plants come from natural compost and manures.

Liquid Fertilizer gives your plants a quick boost, and allows you to foliar feed.

Fertilizer spikes are also quick and easy to use. Just pop them under the surface of the soil, and it feeds your plants  for weeks.

Soil Tests and Soil testers

Anything you add to your soil can change the pH. Regular soil tests are recommended. There are two ways to have your soil tested:

  1. Have your soil tested by your local Cooperative Extension Service. (CES) They will test pH, N-P-K, and micro-nutrient levels. It will cost 15-$25 per test. Find your Local CES office.

  2. Do it yourself with an electronic soil tester. It tests pH and a second test for fertilization levels. It is not as detailed, but it can be used over and over and over again. Buy a Electronic Soil Tester now!

More on soil pH

Tree Branch


For more on composting, see Composting and Mulch at The Gardener's Network.



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