Do right by your dirt and know how to fertilize

GardeningJune 27, 2012 

I don't write about fertilizing much, other than the soil food web concept of providing the right mulches and composts for the microbial growth and to keep the NPK numbers down below 10-10-10 when you do apply fertilizer. Basically, I am of the belief that if you have good organics in your soils and keep adding back more with applications of compost and mulches, you really don't need to feed plants. The soil food web will take care of that job for you.

On the other hand, many of us grow in containers, without adding mulches and use the same soil for a number of years without adding compost, either. We may not treat out garden soils any better; worrying, for example that if we add mulch or compost we will lose available nitrogen (which is not really the case unless you till it in). And, as gardeners, we take flowers, fruits and vegetables, weeds and dead plants out of the gardens without adding enough back to replenish the soil nutrient stores to the same degree as the things taken out would have had they been left and allowed to decay.

I've already mentioned the absolute need for testing soils to see what they lack. You only need one test. You can follow up next year or the year after to see if you have fixed anything that is wrong with your soil. This should be -- but sadly isn't -- a must-do for all gardeners at least once every few years. Remedy this.

Way too often, gardeners fertilize their plants when they see symptoms of deficiencies, say yellow leaves or purple colorations. Unfortunately, this is usually too late to save the plant or for the plant to recover and perform as advertised. This is especially so with crops in places with a short season, like Alaska. Really, there is no reason to add fertilizer to a tomato plant in August thinking you are going to get any more or better tomatoes as a result. You won't. There isn't enough time.

No, if you must knee-jerk react to fertilizing the Alaska garden, now is the time to do it so that the application will do some good. Things happen so fast. You have to catch soil deficiencies early in the season.

Go out and look at your plants. Look at the leaves, compare plants that are alike. Look at similar plants around town. Think about what you may have, given their soil in terms of compost and mulches, and then try to do the right thing. You may have to check the Internet to see if you can match suspected symptoms.

For the most part, our soils are going to be acidic. You can look up deficiencies of each for specific plants if you want, but I will never forget reading a Sunset Magazine experiment that tested all sorts of fertilizer formulations on plants and concluded as long as there was NPK, annuals and vegetables all did the same. So, before you go out and buy special foods, use up the organic formulas you already have. They should serve your plants -- their soil actually -- just fine. Then buy whatever organic food catches your fancy.

In the future, however, there are a few practices we all would benefit from following. The first, of course, is that soil test every few years. The next is to add compost and use mulches. It is particularly important to summer crops, both annual flowers and row vegetable crops, that lots of mulch be applied in the late summer so that it can break down during the winter months.

Compost teas are great for recycling organics in the soil. They can be applied any time plants are growing, but it takes a week or two for the microbes to get going. So why not apply it now, but only if you have compost, mulches and organics in and on your soils. Potted plants too, benefit from these mulches.

Most important, is to follow The Law of Return whenever possible. It is how nature fertilizes the Chugach. Put back for the soil what comes from it, be it clippings, leaves, twigs, branches, chips or logs. Most of us do this around and under trees and shrubs and in woodsy areas of our yards. These never need fertilizing as a result. The goal is to get our flower and vegetable gardens to the same point.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com and hear him (and call in) on the Garden Party from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR, 700 AM.

Garden calendar

LIGHT HOUSE GARDEN TEA: JULY 3 IS YOUR CHANCE TO VIEW THIS WONDERFUL ALASKAN GARDEN AND HOMESITE ON EAGLE RIVER. AN ANNUAL BENEFIT FOR THE ALASKA BOTANICAL GARDEN, THIS IS A MUST-DO EVENT FOR ALL GARDENERS LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET TICKETS. IT IS SO MUCH FUN! TICKETS REQUIRED AND LIMITED NUMBERS SO ACT NOW: EVENTBRITE.COM/EVENT/2672909745?REF=OBTAIN

WATER: DON'T RELY ON MOTHER NATURE. YOU HAVE TO WORK WITH HER. FOR AN ACTIVE GROWING LAWN YOU NEED TO APPLY 1 TO 2 INCHES PER WEEK, PREFERABLY ALL AT ONCE. IF YOU DON'T CARE WHAT COLOR YOUR LAWN IS, DON'T WATER. PERENNIALS AND ANNUALS NEED AT LEAST 1 INCH PER WEEK, BUT CHECK LEAVES OF INDICATOR PLANTS (ONES THAT DROOP EARLY WHEN THEY NEED WATER) TO MAKE SURE THEY HAVE ENOUGH.

NURSERIES: STILL OPEN. STILL SERVING YOU. SALES, SALES, SALES. VISIT THEM AND TAKE HOME SOME GREAT THINGS TO FILL IN GAPS THAT HAVE DEVELOPED.

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