Category Archives: fertilizing

Fertilizing – What, How and When

I have to chuckle when I see someone admiring a basket of blooming fuchsias. "How do they get them to bloom so much?", they say. I tell them you have to fertilize regularly like the growers do. "Oh, you have to fertilize?"
Yes, plant are living things with basic requirements just like us. Here are a few tips that can make it easy to have those lush, bountiful blooms you see in all the magazines.

There are lots of ways to fertilize and many kinds to choose from. Some plants, like established trees and shrubs, need little help from us as long as they exhibit normal leaf size, color and desired growth. Young plants and fruit and nut trees, especially those growing in infertile soil, may grow more quickly, however, after fertilization. is usually the only nutrient to which woody plants respond. Slow release fertilizers are better because a fertilizer that releases nutrients quickly can injure plant growth if applied too heavily or incorporated into the planting hole.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts ( non-organic fertilizers ). The salts kill the good bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix.  Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well. Rapid growth from excess fertilizer can cause bark to crack allowing entry of fungi. Too much fertilizer also promotes excessive succulent foliage which can increase pest populations that prefer tender new growth.

As a general rule, California natives thrive in nutrient-poor soils. You probably will not need to fertilize on a regular basis, even with organic fertilizer, unless your soil is severely depleted or if the plant you are trying to grow only occurs naturally in soils with much higher fertility.

If you decide to add nutrients to the soil around natives or established trees and shrubs, the best time is when the plants are actively growing. For natives this is late fall to spring. for other plants late winter to late spring is best. Choose from organic fertilizers such as compost, chicken manure, bat guano, blood meal, cottonseed, kelp, feather or fish meal. Organic fertilizer is also available in bags or liquid and usually contain humic acid and beneficial soil microbes. Most organic forms of nitrogen must decompose before being absorbed by plants and are therefore slow acting, remaining in the soil longer where they are stored until needed by the plant.

What about those fuchsia baskets- what is the best way to fertilize them? Containers that are watered regularly will need to have nutrients replenished as they leach out with each watering. Nitrogen especially washes out of the soil. A nutrient-deprived plant can’t produce flowers which is its whole purpose in life. The more flowers, the better chance to reproduce.

Fast acting inorganic liquid or granule fertilizers are like candy bars for a plant. Their nutrients are immediately available and this capability can be useful if a plant is stressed due to pest infestation or has lost leaves and vigor. Slow release fertilizers, like Osmocote, although inorganic are available to the plant over a much longer time. Their nutrients are released depending on soil temperature so as our days warm, the soil does, too, right when your plants are vigorously growing.

Perennials fall somewhere in the middle in their nutrient requirements. Drought tolerant perennials don’t require heavy feeding. A fresh layer of compost and a light application of organic fertilizer in the spring are all that they need. Other perennials will benefit from another application or two of fertilizer in addition to fresh compost. As the plant absorbs nutrients through its roots, it can’t ell the difference between an organic and an inorganic fertilizer. However organic fertilizers are less likely to burn plants, especially when it’s hot. They feed the soil and its microscopic organisms not just the plant and won’t contaminate the ground water.

Remember you can kill a plant with kindness so follow the directions on the label whatever type you choose.


Garden Tips for March

Spring is in the air. It’s always exciting to see the plants in the garden come to life. I’ve been invited to tour a  garden in Scotts Valley in April when many of the early flowering plants will be in bloom.  I’ve been to this garden before and there’s always an interesting tree, shrub or flower to enjoy.

One of my long term goals is to view the great gardens in the Santa Cruz Mountains. If you have a garden that you think others would like to hear about and you are willing to share it with me, please contact me. I’d love to spend time with you in your garden.

There’s so much to do now in the garden. If you are feeling overwhelmed here are some suggestions for the more important to-do’s.

* Check drip systems for leaks or clogged emitters. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly.

* Finish pruning and clean-up of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials. This includes fireblight die-back on pears, apples, hawthorn, pyracantha, photinia, crabapple quince and toyon., Prune out and discard diseased branches making the cut at least 6-8" below blighted tissue. Clean the pruning blades with alcohol or a 1:5 solution of household bleach to prevent spread of the disease. Also finish pruning and cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses. Go ahead and give grasses a 3-5" crewcut so fresh growth can emerge. Cut back old foliage of maiden hair ferns to allow new growth to take center stage. If you have Western sword ferns or another type that has winter or thrip damage, remove shabby looking fronds. Even if you have to cut back the entire fern it’s OK. It will regrow in just of couple of months.  Prune any other frost damaged plants when you see new growth begin.

* Spread fresh compost around all your plants. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer compost and or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth.

* As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier and more resistant to disease. Organic matter, such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure, boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.

* Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus, shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of nitrogen. You can also spread a thin layer of composted manure over you lawn. Leaving you grass clippings on the lawn will benefit it by shading the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to phosphorus especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming before feeding them.

* The most important to-do for March is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.

Watering, Fertilizing and Weed Control

Whether you grow a full-blown vegetable garden or a few herbs and edible flowers in containers, celebrate this Fourth of July by serving a menu created with produce harvested from your own garden. It may be too early for your corn or tomatoes to be ready but peas served with a touch of basil would be delicious. A fellow gardener recently told me that she loves steamed baby zucchini cooked with a small pinch of lavender flowers. I haven’t tried this myself but it sounds interesting, maybe garnished some some edible nasturtium or viola flowers.

Actively growing vegetables and flowers need a boost from They use a lot of nutrients, especially nitrogen, at this time of year. Add water soluble fertilizer to your drip irrigation system or apply it through a hose-end sprayer. Sprinkle dry fertilizers over the soil around the plants or apply in trenches next to the rows. Water deeply afterward.

Remember that weeds compete with vegetables and flowers for moisture, nutrients and sunlight. Weeds can also serve as alternate hosts for disease and pest problems. You can prevent weeds from getting out of control by using the "half-hour" rule. Weeding for just half an hour every couple of days will save you hours of hard work in the future. By staying ahead of the weeds, you’ll grow more healthy produce and flowers.

If you battle dandelions and don’t want to use chemical weed killers around pets and children, get out the white vinegar from the cupboard. On a hot sunny day spray straight white vinegar directly on the weed. This method will kill whatever it touches so direct the spray carefully. If the dandelion is in the lawn, wait a week, pour some water on the dead spot to dilute any lasting effects of the vinegar. then pole a bunch a holes and drop in some grass seed. Sprinkle a bit of fertilizer where the seed is planted and keep the area moist. In three weeks you won’t remember where the dead spot was and the dandelion will be long gone.

Trees are the most important living asset on your property. They cool your house and offer shade and protection for your plants. They provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. Summer heat can take a toll on trees. Fruit trees, citrus and flowering trees need a deep irrigation every other week. Less thirsty established trees like Chinese pistache and strawberry tree need irrigation about once a month. Newly planted trees need water regularly. Gradually reduce frequency after a year or so.

There are ways to maximize the efficiency of the water you apply.  Drill several 4" wide holes about 24-30" deep around the drip line of the tree, being careful not to damage large roots. Fill the holes with compost and water.   Or you can use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water the tree.   Mulch heavily all planting beds. Do not use rocks or gravel as a mulch because hey add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster.

Happy Fourth of July.