The lone voice of horticultural reason

Fertilizer Frenzy Part I

5-20-1999 — Circle the wagons, gird your loins, wake the kids and if standing, be seated, for in this and my next column we tackle the most hopelessly confounding topic in gardening: fertilizer.

I recall a spring when I was gardening out near my road, applying granular fertilizer to some hosta. A nice woman who often walks past stopped to chat, and in the course of our conversation asked, “Oh, do you need to fertilize hosta?” Luckily, before I could be snide, the truth hit me, and I thought, well … no. No, you don’t really need to fertilize anything.

Do not the untamed meadows bloom? And wilderness wildflowers in the spring, many miles from man? I recall a springtime trip through the Scottish Highlands, where the twelve-foot rhododendrons were in screaming bloom, great rivers of color from the valleys to the peaks as far as the eye could see. Had the shepherds been carefully mixing and pouring gallons of Miracid about their roots all the summer before, or dispersing Franks Tree & Shrub Food from the air? I don’t think so. And how about those orange lilies that bloom in the ditches alongside county roads (outhouse lilies, my grandmother called them)? Who tends to them? No one. Yet they grow like weeds.

So the first thing to realize is that anything that flowers is wont to bloom. It’s a key component to procreation-plants flower in order to advance to the fun step, which is the creation of seed. No seed and the species will die out, and like any species, plants have an inherent hunch that life is where it’s at.

Then why do we fertilize? We fertilize because many plants, particularly annual and perennial flowers, as well as many garden vegetables, need our help. Try as we might, our Minnesota soil doesn’t quite match the rainforest loam of Puerto Rico that impatiens so naturally (and natively) love. The muck from the swamp that covered the meadow when the stream backed up due to the beaver dam ten years ago (and a hundred years ago, and a thousand years ago) is why that wilderness meadow blooms. Our gardens are not so lucky.

Create magnificent garden soil by mixing lots of compost and peat moss and some sharp sand into rich black dirt and you may not need to fertilize at all-if your finished concoction should happen to hold the necessary amounts of nutrients the plants you wish to grow need to become healthy, blooming, seed-spewing specimens. Even if that should happen, it won’t last, because we clear trees out when they crash in our yards, and yank weeds from our garden beds, and basically do not let nature take its course, which is the organic recycling of plant matter-life-into the soil. About the most we’ve learned is to leave our grass clippings on the lawn, where, over the course of a summer, they break down and add a healthy dose of nitrogen, the macronutrient that makes grass green. Most of the time, our soil doesn’t have what it takes, so we add it, in the form of fertilizer.

The other reason we fertilize is to get the most out of our plants. We’re greedy. Why have our tall phlox bloom moderately, when with fertilizer it will bloom bigger? Why grow and eat small tomatoes when we can add fertilizer and make them larger, and in most cases with vegetables, tastier? Nothing wrong with that.

These, then, are the reasons why we fertilize. Next column we’ll all take a deep breath, then I’ll take my best stab at explaining the what, the when, and the how.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener