Fertilizing 101

Plenty of options for a productive garden

NIKI JABBOUR lifestyles@herald.ca @NikiJabbour Niki Jabbour is the author of four best-selling books including her latest, Growing Under Cover. She is a two-time winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award. Find her at SavvyGardening.com and o



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My secret to a beautiful, productive garden is healthy soil. It doesn’t matter whether you’re growing food or flowers, or gardening in raised beds or containers, soil building is essential. I start with annual applications of organic matter like compost or aged manure, add lime to adjust the soil pH, and supplement when necessary with fertilizers. When it comes to fertilizing plants, you’ve got a lot of options. You can choose between natural and synthetic chemical fertilizers and those in a granular or liquid form. As an organic gardener, I opt for natural fertilizers which are made from plant, animal, and mineral nutrient sources like seaweed, bone meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal. The benefit of choosing natural products is that they provide nutrients to plants and also feed the living organisms in the soil. Long-term use of salt-based synthetic fertilizer products can harm the soil food web. Plus, organic fertilizers provide a steady feed for several months versus several weeks for most synthetic products. Organic products often cost a little more, but they offer longer results. If you’ve ever bought a plant fertilizer you’ve probably noticed three numbers on the front of the package. These represent the percentages by weight of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in the product. A package of 6-3-6 contains six per cent nitrogen, three per cent phosphorous, and six per cent potassium. The remaining 85 per cent is a fertilizer carrier product. Nitrogen promotes leaf and shoot growth, phosphorous influences root growth and flower and fruit production, and potassium encourages good vigour and overall health. To help you pinpoint which type of fertilizer you need, it’s a good idea to test your vegetable and flower garden soil every few years. A soil test indicates nutrient levels as well as soil pH and organic matter content. Living in Nova Scotia puts us close to a rich resource for the garden, seaweed. Sea plants are a great source of trace minerals and plant growth hormones. Gardeners can take advantage of these benefits by using fertilizers made from seaweed. Joe Mrkonjic is the owner of SeaBoost, a Nova Scotian company that harvests local seaweed to produce SeaBoost Liquid Seaweed and SeaMeal, a dried seaweed product. “When one considers the environment in which seaweed is grown and its ability to withstand the extremes of yearround temperatures and salt water, you realize it is an amazing plant,” says Mrkonjic. SeaBoost products are available at local garden centres and nurseries. “Seaboost, by and large, has the same nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium levels as barnyard manure, so these figures are not high, but it does contain the largest range of naturally occurring plant growth promoters, cytokinins, gibberellins, auxins,” notes Mrkonjic. SeaBoost is diluted with water and used as a foliar spray or watered into the soil around vegetables, ornamental plants, and houseplants in garden beds and containers. “The end result is healthier plants with vigorous growth,” he says, adding the plants are also better able to ward off several types of plant diseases and pests. Fertilizing with liquid kelp is an easy way to give plants a quick boost. I use it several times during the summer months on long-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers. Using a granular product, like SeaMeal provides similar results, but over a longer period. Granular organic fertilizers can be incorporated into garden beds or containers at planting time or sprinkled around plants mid-summer for an extra boost. No matter which fertilizer product you use be sure to read the label carefully and follow application rates. Too little is ineffective and can result in nutrient deficiency and too much can burn or damage plants.