I was sitting out on the front porch admiring the Impatiens that Pam and I planted. What a blast of color! Then I thought about what I feed them.
Before I get into that, let’s do a fertilizer crash course. On a bag of fertilizer you will see three numbers like 12-12-12 or 18-6-4 or 5-36-5. Here’s what the numbers mean and what they mean to you as a gardener…
The first number is the percentage of nitrogen in that particular bag of fertilizer.
Plants need and love nitrogen, but like banana splits, too much of a good thing is not a good thing. So you have to make sure you are not putting too much nitrogen on any particular plant.
By the way, I like Banana Splits. Can you tell?
The second, or middle number, on a bag of fertilizer is phosphorous. Phosphorous is like an under-the-hood tune up for plants.
Phosphorous plays an important role by helping the plant absorb and use the nitrogen and other nutrients that a plant needs from the soil in order to be healthy and happy.
Phosphorous really aids in the photosynthesis process and essentially makes and keeps the plant healthy. Which means the plant will produce more flowers and fruit.
So basically, it takes the correct amount of phosphorous for plants to flower beautifully.
The third, or last number, on the bag of fertilizer is the percentage of Potassium in the fertilizer. Also called potash.
Potassium gives plants stamina because it helps plants absorb and use water. Usually there is plenty of potassium in the soil but much of it is not in a form that plants can absorb.
The potassium in a bag of fertilizer is water soluble and easily absorbed by plants. Potassium helps plants survive drought conditions because it helps the plant use water more efficiently.
So what does all that mean?
That means that you have to use the correct fertilizer for the particular plant you are fertilizing.
Fertilizer companies have made this easy for us. A lawn fertilizer has a very high amount of nitrogen because your grass grows a lot more than typical plants and grass needs, and will use, more nitrogen.
A garden fertilizer might have a formulation of 12-12-12 or 14-14-14. You can use either one… don’t get too caught up in the details.
But a garden fertilizer is meant to be applied to your garden before you plant and it releases those elements very quickly upon application.
It’s good for a bare garden but not so good for established plants in your landscape, unless used very sparingly.
Fertilizer companies make fertilizers for things like hanging baskets, that are really high in phosphorous, to help the plants make lots and lots of flowers.
What I use on the flowers in my beds is a product called Osmocote. Osmocote has a lot of different formulations but what I often use is the 14-14-14.
Don’t confuse Osmocote 14-14-14 with a garden fertilizer that says 14-14-14 on the label.
Osmocote is a coated fertilizer that is engineered to release it’s formula very slowly over a period of months. Unlike a garden fertilizer that releases fully in a matter of days.
Some Osmocote releases over 3-4 months. Some of the formulations take as long as 8 or 9 months to release.
I like the Osmocote 14-14-14 that releases over 3 to 4 months for my flower beds because I just sprinkle it over the bed after I plant my flowers and let it slowly feed the flowers all summer long.
Here’s an example of the slow release fertilizer I use in my potted plants at the nursery:
What about things like Miracle-Gro, do they work?
Yes, Miracle-Gro is a good product. The liquid formula releases very, very quickly but is safe when used as recommended. It’s a quick release but a safer form of nitrogen.
So even if you have fertilized your flowers with Osmocote slow release granular fertilizer, you won’t hurt a thing by giving them a little Miracle-Gro along the way.
Another brand name that I’ve used successfully on my flowers is Jack’s Classic Plant Food, formerly known as Peters liquid fertilizer.
And more recently I’ve started using a product called Florikan. It’s less expensive, has more micronutrients, and longer release period (140 days with average temps).
Okay! That’s a lot but I hope you find it informative and useful. Questions? Comments? Leave them below…
Sheila M. says
I used Espoma Plant-Tone 5-3-3 around all my perennials this year for the first time and I also top-dressed with composted manure. I didn’t get many blooms. My perennials were green and put on growth but had barely any flowers. Do you think what I did resulted in too much nitrogen? Also, do you think I need to add phosphorus or a bloom-booster next spring, or will the nitrogen be out of the soil by then?
Thanks for your help.
That really doesn’t sound like too much fertilizer. But for the most part I really never fertilize any of the plants in my landscape.
I picked up a 25-lb bag of something called UltraSol 20-20-20 at the thrift shop around the corner for $5 last week – do you know anything about it? It’s water soluble – I guess you can tell that from the name – so I guess I’ll be using it for the foreseeable future. (If not the rest of my life.)
The package gives the mixing ratios in ounces/pounds per gallon – do I get a scale, or do you use the cup equivalents (“a pint’s a pound/the world around”) and do the arithmetic?
If this is a water soluble fertilizer chances are it’s a quick release, similar to peters or miracle grow. Probably safe, but not enough for container grown plants. More for seedlings etc.
Dale Black says
Are Osmocote and Florikan available in Canada and are Canadian members eligible for the discounts that you mention?
I don’t know the answer to that but if you contact our rep she can tell you. Details in the members area.
Carol L says
My kids gave me a potted Hydrangea tree for Mothers Day, May, 2018, Within a day, on the front porch it became laden down with flowers. Since then, it began to thin out (flowers and leaves.) When the weather turned cold, I brought it in the house and placed it where it could get adequate light. It continues to lose leaves and seems headed for dormancy. I give it 16 oz. once per week or every other week.. There is no new growth. Gave it a teasp. of fertilizer in late summer. Will the tree go totally into dormancy? And if it lives until Spring, should I give it fertilizer then?
This tree really needs to go dormant but it can’t do that in the house. Would have been better left outside, planted in the ground, where it could have gone dormant slowly. No fertilizer until the plant is stable.
Last fall I took some (3) cuttings from a Golden Privet bush and stuck them in little pots covered by baggies. They’re doing beautifully, with new growth on all of them there on window sill (without any of my new fertilizer), but what do I do about dormancy (which I never thought about at the time)? Will they just keep growing through to next fall now? And should I really put them under a grow-light as they get larger and needing more energy?
At this point you really have to keep them inside and they will need some light. If you were to move them outside the change would be far too harsh for them to adapt. Just make more in June, outside and allow them to go dormant naturally.
Mike, I just potted up tons of evergreens that I propagated last fall. I was hoping to hold off on the fertilizer until early spring, but the rooted cuttings are browning. Would fertilizer be a waste on them now or will they feed over winter? Fertilizer seems like my biggest expense. Will they die without fertilizer over winter. I was going to hold off on deciduous plants, just unsure about evergreens. thanks, mike
I wouldn’t fertilize them now, they’ll be fine until spring without it.
Elizabeth Castro says
This is in response to Bill Arnett who wants to grow milkweed. Last year I got two milkweed plants by “accident.” In August, I noticed several caterpillars in the plants so I researched and found that the plants are milkweed and the caterpillars are monarch butterflies. So I gathered the seeds, threw some in a pot (little plants are sprouting!) and saved the rest. I can mail seeds to anyone interested.
Carol Slominski says
I am interested in some of your milkweed seeds! Love those butterflies <3
I use milogranite
Giovanni Romolo Santelli says
In Italy we use a good slow release fertilizer called “cornunghia” a horn-hoof mixture, that works well. I wonder if something similar is used in USA.
Interesting, I have no idea.
Can Osmocote be used year round? If I use this product to fertilize in the late Fall, will it be wasted over the rainy, cold winter months or will it stay in the soil to help the plants once they come out of dormancy? Secondly, where do you buy this product for best bulk pricing?
It should be fine if applied in the fall. Our members, http://backyardgrowers.com/join, get a discount on products like this.
E.W. Brooks says
With a good soil program, there is no need to use any fertilizer whatsoever. You people waste too much money.
E.W., I agree, the plants in my landscape never get fertilized. Not even when planting. Plants in containers have to be fertilized.
I have developed a small Perinial Garden and sell plants in the Spring. Is it ok to leave my potted plants in the containers and sink them into my garden soil for the winter?
That should work.
Bernardita l. Calipusan says
My heartfelt thanks. So informative.
Rita Griebel says
Ok Mike, Have fruit trees, both new and old. I am told to fertilize them in the fall. What should I use?
On new fruit trees (less than 4 years old), what do I use and how about the 40 year old apple trees?
I’d use a slow release as described in this article.
Jack in Central Michigan says
Thanks, I’m sure it will be quite helpful to a lot of people You suggest using Osmocote to top up things annually in our flower gardens, but i am unsure what you suggest for potted and hanging plants, which like our flower gardens can have a wide range of types of plants from Petunias to Ivies. Your photo image seems to imply you are using Osmocote in your potted plants too, but I am unsure.
I have been using Miracle-Gro mostly for indoor plants, and some years ago sprayed my garden plants periodically as a foliar feeder. Should i go back to foliar feeding my outdoor plants?
All of my containers get Osmocote or similar once a year.
Ien van Houten says
What about trace minerals? I much prefer a fertiliser based on naturally occurring substances like seedmeal, seaweed, soft rock phosphate. I don’t know if it is available in the USA, but I love Gaia Green 4-4-4.
Hi, If you want some of the best and free organic fertilizer, You can Use urine diluted 10 to 1 with water , also add 1 tsp per gallon of epsom salts , and you can use 1 tsp of Sea 90 (dehydrated seawater that has almost all trace minerals once a month , do not use sea 90 to often as the salt it contains can harm plants if overdone ) Using this formula even shines the leaves of plants and makes them look amazing ! Another good organic fertilizer is worm castings , or tea made from the castings. These fertilizers are fast acting , you add a little and if more is needed in a few days add a little more until the plants look healthy.. Be careful rock phosphate can be radioactive depending on where it is mined ! You can also use compost made of leaf mulch , rabbit manure etc !
Alice Herron-Ray says
I have next door neighbor hat decided my sir Harry Lauded was on his property, so, he mangled 3/4 of it .after I cried, I gathered up the branches ( it was there about 20 yrs) please tell me if it is possible to root the cuttings? Just simple small yes or no
They are very difficult to root, probably a waste of time.
walt emerson says
Mike, Thank you for this info, it will be really helpful.
Jacki8e Bedwell says
This blog article with good information about fertilizing my plants was just what I needed to read. I do have a question, though. I heard about Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster, and I saw that the formulation was pretty extreme, 10-30-20. I used it anyway and had spectacular results. However, I am concerned that the formulation is like steroids for plants, and wonder if continued use of that formulation might in the long run do damage.
I will look for your reply and hope that you share your opinion of this particular Jack’s product. You did indicate in the fertilizer article that Jack’s Classic Plant Food was okay. Is it a different formulation than the 10-30-20? What do you recommend?
I have had great fun following your instructions on rooting plant cuttings. It has opened a whole new world for me. Thank you!
The jacks that you are using is fine. That’s a different kind of nitrogen and less likely to burn plants. But shorter benefit as well. Thus the higher numbers.
darlene p white says
Do you ever use liquid Fish Fertilizer? Stinky, I know.
I do not, but it’s a great fertilizer but doesn’t work for a long period of time.
I have never seen Osmocote in our area but usually use miracle grow once and done fertiliser when I’m doing pots but they certainly need more long before the season is over. I err on the side of caution not to add to much so my plants suffer and in comparing with my sisters who uses every fertilizer known to man mine look sick! I’d love to find the right fertilizer so my plants don’t suffer but don’t want to burn them either.
Janet, just use a slow release as mentioned in the article.
If you have a Walmart or Lowes in your area, they have Osmocote
Bill Arnett says
Thanks for the info…I would like to grow milk weed for Monarch Butterflies. Best source and planting suggestions. Thanks
I have no experience with Milkweed, but maybe somebody else?????
Chuck Palsa says
Look on the internet (EBay) or a reputable seed exchange sight for Milk Weed seeds. Before doing that research what milkweed plant you desire. There are some that produce nice flowers that will be an asset to your yard/landscape/forest area. Once you know what you want do a search for seeds. They are not expensive and there are plenty of sellers out there.
The seeds need to experience a period of hardening off to break their dormancy. I put mine in the frig for a minimum of 30 days. You can find directions on the internet. I then set them under fluorescent light – nor further than 4 inches away – until they germinated and grew to the light. Then just raised the light and let the plants grow. When the stems become sturdy I trimmed them back and forced them to split.
As soon as the weather was warm I put them outside and hardened them off. Then stuck them in the ground. They need to get the tap root established in their 1st year. They will produce seed in that 1st year too. After then, your crop should be ready to go.
Hope this helps!
Charles I Roberts says
I live on Long Island, NY and throw 10 10 10 fertilizer in all my flower beds in March and April before the Daylilies and other plants start to grow (the thinking is that I wont burn the leaves if the fertilizer gets on them), Do you think this a good idea or will the leaves be ok if they get the fertilizer on them?
Charles, fertilizer on the leaves is never good and triple 10 releases very fast.
Jerry Stirtz says
I live in Del Mar CA. Is there a club in that area. I raise plumerias from cuttings. Is there a market for that plant? Thank you for the helpful info. Jerry Stirtz
Not familiar with the plant, but if it’s nice then I can assure you there is a market.
Thanks for the tips on fertilizer. I make my own compost, and I was told not to put coffee grounds in it. What is your take on it?
I think the coffee grounds would do more good than harm. ???
frank s rubenstein says
you talked about propagation. i have seen plastic bags, plastic bottles, and the clam shell air propagator. what is the best? thank you, frank
That really depends on what you are doing and when. I don’t use the clam shells just so you know. https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2015/01/easy-summertime-plant-propagation-techniques-can-home/ https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2015/01/easy-winter-time-plant-propagation-can-home/
and this; https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2016/09/hardwood-cuttings-winter-of-20152016/
Johnny Ryan says
Holy Snikies Mikey!
I finally got a first comment. Guess everyone else is out selling plants. I sold mine early this morning.
Have you noticed much difference between the Osmocote and the Florikan?
I pay less for the Florikan and our members, http://backyardgrowers.com/join, get a discount. And it’s working great for me.
Jim Bauder says
Mike : Very good introduction
For those wondering what 12-12-12 (or similar number combinations) means As Mike wrote they give the amount of the three nutrients in that fertilizer mix.
The numbers give the amount of that nutrient per 100 pounds of the fertilizer.
12 means that there are 12 Lbs of that nutrient within 100 Lbs of that fertilizer.mix.
100 divided by the nutrient number (12) will give the amount (8) in pounds of that mix to mix to give/make 1 (one) pound of that nutrient as applied.
Long time reader
Does ash from a wood stove or fireplace have any value.?
I’d say a little, but not that much.
Isaiah H. says
Wood ash effectively balances pH in soils.. It is slightly basic so don’t add it to areas planted with acidic soil loving plants like blueberries or azaleas. Wood ash has a wealth of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and other elements plants need. It may be used as a border around plants to deter slugs as well which I can confirm through experience. I think wood ash has more than a little value but will definitely be harmful if overused.
Hi Mike! A fertilizer that I’ve used on my lawn is pure Urea Nitrogen. Everyone be completely sure it’s going to rain to dilute it It’s 45 Urea from a local mill or farm supply. It will burn your lawn if not watered in. It will ‘green’ your lawn without making the grass grow. With weed control, it makes for a beautiful lawn. John about 50 miles south of you.
I was told in the distant past just think N P K as Shoot Root and Fruit and you won’t go far wrong
Anita Malherbe says
I am from SA and would like an organic fertilizer to give my hanging baskets and clivias. I want to use alfalfa,molasse ect, but don’t know the ratios, specially for a bosster for flowering plants. Can you please assist?
I really can’t but there should be a formula online.