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Top Ways to Spring into Fertilizing Your Plants

Did you know there's a rodent in Michigan that dictates that Spring comes early depending on if he sees his shadow in February?  Be careful how you say his name,...

Did you know there's a rodent in Michigan that dictates that Spring comes early depending on if he sees his shadow in February?  Be careful how you say his name, Punxsutawney Phil. You might hurt yourself!  This is the 21st time since 1886 that he hasn’t seen his shadow, but as I write this document, it’s raining, it’s cold, and Spring sure hasn’t sprung as predicted by that famous groundhog. But blink your eyes, and it’ll be here.

I liken fertilizing plants to you and me taking vitamins.  When you and I take our vitamins, we feel better and the chances of us getting ill decrease tremendously.  Fertilizing plants kind of works the same way except we are the ones responsible for their health and well-being.  But, as with all things, too much isn’t good, and not enough might not be enough for plants to stay healthy.  Today, we’ll explore the top ways to Spring into fertilizing your plants.

Typically, we eliminate the concept of feeding our plants when the weather cools down, especially those that go into winter hibernation.  Deciduous plants like fruit trees (i.e., apricot, apple, peach, pear), nut trees (walnut, pecan, filberts), and shrubs (all varieties of roses, lilac) lose their leaves during winter to rest up for the upcoming seasons so they may produce.  Since they are void of leaves, there’s no reason to fertilize because plant roots aren’t active.  In fact, we don’t want to fertilize too early as it may wake up the plant prematurely, which can become a huge problem if the weather is acting like it is now across the fruited plain: unseasonable rain, hail, snow, and just downright chilly!  In other words, don’t be so quick to fertilize.

Weather forecasters are kind of like doctors.  They’re all practicing their trade, and you never know if what they say is actually going to happen.  But, like with both trades, technology is getting better, and so is their guessing.  Don’t get me wrong, heeding a forecast is important.  They can give us an idea of what the weather might be like.  If you match up what they say to the Farmer’s Almanac you can kind of guess what actually might happen.  When your gut feeling tells you it’s time to fertilize, then it probably is.  In fact, Mother Nature will slowly wake those plants up, and the second you see some swelling buds or leaves, you’re probably good to go.

When you go to the nursery it’ll become overwhelming with all the choices.  Some plants need specialty diets, like palms, orchids, and maybe avocados.  In general, however, what matters is what you want to put on.  Fertilizers come in all kinds of different formats.  Let’s take a quick peek at some of what we can find:

Homogeneous.  I wish I had a fancy fertilizer name like homogenous, but then you’d find out it means granular in plant realm talk. Some are fast-release release, while most are slow-release.  Granular fertilizers are typically synthetic fertilizers made in a laboratory from salts.  As a slow-release fertilizer each particle is a different size and breaks down at a different rate with water.  The bigger the granule the slower release it is.  The smaller, the faster.  That makes sense, right?  Some granular fertilizers brag they can stick around for 6-months or longer.

These types of fertilizers have regulations because the thought is they can bleed into our water system killing off fish and beneficial organisms.  Many states are beginning to ban granules unless the phosphorus is removed from the ingredients.  Technically, it’s not the end of the world because you can’t remove phosphorus from organic fertilizers.

Side Note: When I was in college, we had to identify homogenous fertilizers by taste, blindfolded! Although I’d never recommend that, I always wondered if that’s why my beard grows so fast.


When using homogenous fertilizers, you have to be careful to not put on too much as it can burn plants.  It’s also important to pay attention to the three numbers on the fertilizer analysis (also listed on the front of the bag by law) because if the first number is too high, it could be good for your lawn since they are needy in high amounts of nitrogen but for plants too much nitrogen can weaken cell structure (i.e., branches) and they become leggy or spindly.

A balanced 5-10-5 or even a 10-10-10 fertilizer is good for houseplants because granules normally don’t have a lingering smell, so a bit here and there could be a good thing.

Water Soluble.  Probably the most famous of all water soluble plant foods is Miracle-Gro.  Although they don’t have the market cornered you know the drill on how it works.  You put a bit of the grainy material into some water, and it disappears.  Water solubles, like the before mentioned, Peter’s or even Espom Salts (which is magnesium sulfate) have a long shelf life when they don’t get wet.  You’ll notice the three numbers can be quite high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but unlike granules, you’re watering it down quite a bit, and because of that, it’s harder to misuse it.

Liquid.  Now, these are some of my favorites because they are as foolproof as you can get, and even if you read the instructions backward plus upside down, chances are you’re going to be just fine.  Normally, when thinking of liquids old, school fish emulsion comes to mind.  Fish emulsion is the lowest grade of fertilizer because after fish is used for other purposes like removing oils, pet food, and make-up, the balance is cooked to soften, then ground into a slurry, then solids are strained, sulfuric acid might be added to kill off microbes, and now you have a stinky fish emulsion.

The counterpart to fish emulsion is fish hydrolysate, which is the caviar (see what I did there?) in the world of fish fertilizers.  After a fish is caught, it’s filleted for edible purposes.  The balance of the fish is cold processed, leaving in all the nutrients.  When managing your water with Root Quencher’s hands down, fish hydrolysate is ideal.  There are two ways your get your plants fed: (1) simply pour diluted fish hydrolysate into your Root Quencher or (2) install a simple fertilizer injector that will deliver a selected measured amount of food to all of your Root Quenchers at once!  This is especially handy when using Root Quencher Spikes in hanging baskets.

It’s also fun to explore using liquids because you’ll find there’s more than fish on the market.  For instance, worm tea is an actual thing as are unconventional sea products like shrimp and seaweed extracts. All the liquids we talked about are organic, but some aren’t, so keep an eye out for that if that’s important to you.

Regardless of the type of liquid you use, feeding your plants every 4-6 weeks is ideal for their well-being during their growing season.  Let’s not forget liquids are fast-acting, available to roots right away and you can even spray plant leaves for an extra oomph. 

Anhydrous.  Another fancy word we use for dry products like animal manures which all are organic.  The king of the anhydrous is steer manure.  You can smell it a mile away!   But some animal manures like pelletized chicken, bat guano, worm poo, and cricket dung have more of an earthy smell that’s not so offensive and is equally effective for fertilizer.  

Believe it or not, you know that compost pile you’ve been working on?  That’s loaded with nutrients, too.  Feel free to spread the cheer around your plants. 

Feather meal, blood and bone meal are also real fertilizers, too.  Like with the liquids try something different just for fun.  Just make sure you wear gloves and a mask because the dust and touch is kind of weird.  I mean, think of it.  Do you know which end of the steer the manure comes from?  Gross!

As with all organics, it takes a lot of time for them to kick in.  Over the long run, it’s worth it, but I still favor the liquids.

Homemade.  Unlike this article, not everything on the internet is true.  You’ll come across all kinds of crazy homemade fertilizer concoctions.  I’ve seen people lay banana peels next to their plants.  If you want gnats and rotting peels, then go for it.  Otherwise, make compost out of it with all of your kitchen scraps. 

Homesteading is a huge craze; even I do it, so raising chickens for eggs has never been more popular.  If you use eggshells, they have to be processed, or they’ll take a millennium to break down into calcium. Wash the empty shells, then bake them until they are brittle.   Grind with a pestle and mortar then use the powder.  Works great on peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes to curb blossom end rot, which is that brown leathery lesion found on calcium-deficient plants.

Aquarium water and cooled-down boiled vegetable water are cute and can be used, but there’s really not a whole lot of nutrients in it.  You do have to get rid of the water, so why not on the plants but don’t think of it as a fertilizer because you’re actually just watering your plants.

Coffee grounds are another biggy as it’s one of America’s most favorite beverages.  In fact, the world’s largest coffee chain has so many grounds they’ll actually give you bags of it each day for free!  Beware though as not all things that are free can be worth it.  Coffee grounds in excess will actually kill your plants so let’s not overdose them with caffeine.

In conclusion, Spring fertilizing is important.  It’s a start for your plants to have the best life possible especially from coming out of dormancy.  When they go back into dormancy, you can stop feeding and simply monitor the amount of water they get.  But, for evergreens.  Keep on feeding all year!  I personally have used every single form of fertilizing as outlined and sticking to liquids is the best way to get it done for tree and shrub care. 

Nick Federoff,
Syndicated Radio & PBS TV Horticulturalist

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