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Stop Starving Your Plants: Making a Case for Fertilizer

I was inspired to do an entire blog dedicated to fertilizer after briefly touching on the topic in my last series of blogs about planning. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to give your plants the nutrients they need to thrive. While most homeowners never fertilize, you will see a dramatic difference once you do.

Different Types of Fertilizers

If you know me at all, you’ll hear me spout the benefits of a slow-release fertilizer versus a liquid one. You can also choose between organic or synthetic — I generally use organic, however, a synthetic for your annuals is also ok.

Slow-release fertilizers will take a few weeks to start working but each application will last between three and four months. If your plants need something sooner, liquid fertilizer is a great way to fill-in-the-gap. Imagine liquid fertilizer is food for today, while slow-release is food for tomorrow.

Speaking of food, Miracle-Gro is like a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant. It sounds great, is easy to get, and the price is right — but it’s lacking real nutrition. You don’t have to throw this product away if you already have at home. I just recommend using it sparingly and as part of a more wholesome fertilization plan.

Established Landscape Plants

If you want your shrubs, trees, and perennials to be lush and healthy, you need to fertilize at least once per year — ideally twice — to replenish the nutrients in the soil. This can be as simple as adding a layer of compost. However, what I recommend is applying a good broad-spectrum fertilizer evenly over the surface of the soil, avoiding the base or crown of your plant.

Apply your fertilizer to established plants in the spring and for perennials that you buy in the spring, give them a good feeding in the fall. While every product provides specific instructions for how much to use, generally a small handful per established shrub is sufficient. One that I like to use, and a brand that we carry at the greenhouse, is Plant-tone by Espoma.

Annuals and Tropicals: Beds and Pots

If you want outstanding looking plants that are green and big and awesome, fertilizer is the difference. Start feeding right away — annuals will not have any extra feed in their soil. Plant them in a potting soil that does not have slow-release, and then add fertilizer on top. At home, as soon as my patio pots are planted, we add a nice dose of slow-release which means every time they’re watered and every time it rains, they are getting a dose of the good stuff.

Come August, when everything is huge and crazy, and probably drying out every day. You may need to up your fertilizer game with another dose of slow-release or including a liquid fertilizer with your watering every two days. My recommendation is to use this time to give your baskets a trim, feed them with both a slow-release and liquid fertilizer, and this will keep them going until October.


Building up your soil health every year is key. Adding a layer of compost and then working some more into each hole as you plant is a great start. Espoma has Garden-Tone and Tomato-Tone, both of these work well if you want to skip a year of adding compost or your planting in pots. Alternatively, if you do just compost, I recommend applying a shot of fertilizer a month after planting. This will help the plant to overcome common nutritional disorders once it starts producing flowers and fruit.

Common Signs of a Starved Plant

Browning Leaves

The most common sign that a plant is hungry or nutritionally imbalanced is if the leaves at the bottom of the stem are browning and dropping from the plant. For plants in a patio pot or planter, sometimes the browning will look like it’s coming out of the middle of the plant. The reason for this is that plants steal nutrients from the oldest part of the plant and feed it to the newer parts. While a plant can sustain that for a while, the best way to alleviate the situation is with boost of fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer will be a week-long solution while slow-release will last a month or longer.

Young Growth is Lime-Green

Common in our area is water with a high pH level (meaning the water is basic). Many plants, like petunias, blueberries, and million bells, do not like that. They prefer a lower pH, so if you’re seeing plants that are going lime green at the very tip — on the youngest growth — that is generally a sign that your pH is too high. At the greenhouse, we will address this issue during watering, but you’ll want to find a fertilizer that is good for acid-loving perennials such as Holly-Tone or Soil Acidifier from the Espoma line.

Green with Envy

With everything in gardening, trying to stay ahead of the plants’ needs is the best way to guarantee success. Be forewarned! Your neighbors will want to know your secret.

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