Feed Your Garden: Fertilizing for beginners

I have been gardening for as long as I can remember. Yet, up until a few years ago, I never fed my gardens. It’s no wonder the plants in my garden really didn’t produce THAT much, or look like I imagined they should.

After having a discussion with a farmer friend, it became apparent that I was starving my garden of crucial nutrients—and making it worse year after year. So, I started reading and decided to implement some new practices to fertilize my garden.

I focused on consistently building up organic matter while also supplementing with organic all-purpose fertilizing blends consisting of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. Here’s how.

Building up organic matter

Build up organic matter within the soil by adding compost, aged manure, cover crops, or mulch. This can be done any time throughout the season. I personally believe that fall is the best time to add these components since it’s right after harvest when the soil has been depleted the most, and it gives the organic matter plenty time of to get integrated into the soil before spring.

  • Compost: Add a few inches to all garden beds at the end of the season. You can also add compost to soil at the beginning of the planting season, top-dress plants with it throughout the season, or use it as a mulch whenever it is convenient. Adding plenty of compost helps create a cohesive biome within the soil, which is the home to your beloved plants!
  • Aged Manures: Cow, horse, rabbit, or alpaca manure are great ways to provide organic matter and nutrients to a garden. Always be careful when adding manure to your garden. If it’s too fresh it can burn your plants. Aged manures work best.
  • Cover Crops and Crop rotation: Take notice where you grow certain vegetables each year. Night shades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants take up A LOT of nitrogen, so you may want to plant them in a different spot in your garden the next year. Once you have harvested, think about growing a cover crop before winter sets in. Buckwheat, rye grass and alfalfa are common cover crops and easy to grow. These can be planted at the end of a harvest and then tilled in the following spring to replenish nitrogen.
  • Mulch: Mulch is a diverse word. You can mulch your garden throughout the season using various techniques. Some people mulch with compost. Others use straw. Grass clippings from non-treated lawns can be added directly to plants to add a very direct source of nitrogen. If you are using bark mulch, make sure it’s undyed, and keep in mind that depending what you’re growingthe acidity level of bark can compromise the growth potential of your plants.

Supplementing with fertilizer

Add an all-purpose organic fertilizer blend to supplement soil fertility.

It can be very overwhelming to choose a fertilizer, especially when there are so many options out there for specific plants and various ratios of nutrients. It is always a good idea to test your soil, but when in doubt, look for an all-purpose organic fertilizer in either dry or liquid form.

Be sure to follow the usage directions on the label.

1. Dry all-purpose organic fertilizers

Dry organic fertilizers can consist of materials like blood meal, alfalfa meal, rock phosphate, kelp, or some combination thereof. The most effective additives tend to be a mixture of several materials. I like to keep the blending to the professionals.

Here are a couple dry organic blends I’ve used:

Gardener’s Supply All-Purpose Fertilizer 5-5-5
Pro Gro 5-3-4

When adding granular organic fertilizer, it’s best to broadcast, then rake and hoe it into the top 4-6 inches of the soil (before planting).

Add small amounts when planting seeds or transplants directly. Side dress during crucial plant growth.

Always follow the directions on the label, and be sure to water immediately after applying. Watering helps disperse fertilizers throughout the soil instead of keeping them close to the surface where plant tissue and roots can be damaged.

2. Liquid all-purpose organic fertilizers

One of the easiest ways to get nuturients to plants is by spraying the leaves directly, since plants absorb nutrients more efficiently through their leaves than their roots. If your plants need a quick boost, spray periodic mists of natural organic foliar fertilizer.

I’ve had success with the following liquid mixes:

Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer
Compost tea (View recipe)

The best time to apply liquid fertilizer is in the morning. This will allow the leaves to absorb crucial nutrients that can get baked off in the heat of the day.   

Also consider applying fertilizer after a rainfall, as heavy downpours can deplete your soil of nutrients.

How Much is Too Much?

Compost brings magical properties to any lawn or garden, but too much organic matter can result in drainage issues and an excess of some nutrients. Conducting a soil test is a great way to find out how much organic material your soil has (or needs).

In some cases, too much fertilizer can be worse for your plants than too little.

To prevent over-fertilization:

  • Test soil first
  • Follow product label directions
  • Use a broadcast spreader for more even distribution
  • Always water thoroughly immediately after applying

Keep in mind that local independent garden centers are always staffed with knowledgeable professionals who can steer you toward the right product to keep your plants happy. 

Without these additives, many plants will still grow, but you’re sure to see big, bold improvements in your garden by making sure that your plants are getting exactly what they need.


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