Updated: Jun 21
How to Overcome 7 of the Most Common Fertilizing Mistakes
Soil is the lifeblood of plants, supplying the nutrients they need to grow and produce. In fact, soil is the starting point for all life on Earth. Yet humankind is quick to destroy it by using chemical fertilizers, over fertilizing and under fertilizing, and too often not understanding what they really need for healthy growth.
In order for soil to take care of us, produce bountiful harvests of nutritious fruits and vegetables, and create beautiful environments, we need to take care of our soil, by carefully nurturing the sensitive underground eco-system and managing nutrients responsibly.
Here are some of the most common fertilizing mistakes people make and how you can overcome them.
Giving Plants Too Much of a Good Thing
Many people think that by giving their plants more fertilizer, their plants will yield lusher foliage, bigger blossoms, and produce a more bountiful supply of fresh vegetables and fruits, but this is not the case. While a healthy dose of organic fertilizer is good for your plants, giving them too much of a good thing can come with some unintended consequences.
Most plants prefer the different nutrients to be available in the amounts they need at any given time. Providing more organic fertilizer than necessary, when utilized by the plant, can throw off their nutrient balance and weaken their growth rather than help.
It is better to err on the side of lighter fertilizing as you can always add more later. Too much fertilizer will enrich the soil more than the microbial community and plants like, and it is much harder to remedy this situation, than just adding a second application of fertilizer.
Remember organic fertilizer is predominantly slow release, feeding the microbial community that provides plant uptake over a period of time as the plant needs. If you overfeed this balance, you run the risk of making another nutrient unavailable or helping undesirable metals to become more available. This can lead to your plants not getting the appropriate nutrients they need and diminishing plant health.
Save money and resources by using only the recommended amount of organic fertilizer in your soil.
Not Knowing What your Plants Want
When it comes to nutrients, not all plants are created equal, and a blanket approach to fertilizing does not work. Some plants prefer a highly acidic soil, while others enjoy the simple life in a just slightly acidic soil. Some plants are even “DIY-ers,” creating their own nitrogen while others suck up every nutrient you throw their way like a kid going crazy in a candy store.
Before starting any fertilizing program, do some research on your particular species of plants and find out what nutrients they need to thrive. For instance, tomatoes like fertilizers that are rich in phosphorus while lilacs prefer just a small sprinkling of all-purpose organic fertilizer once or twice a year. Beans make their own nitrogen while growing, so they do not need a lot of fertilizer, and sweet corn is a nitrogen sucking monster.
Not Using Manure the Right Way
Fresh poop should never be used in any growing operation! Manure, such as chicken and cow dung, is loaded with parasites, bacteria, and diseases that can make you very sick. Fresh chicken manure also decomposes at a high temperature, which can cook the roots of your plants.
If you choose to use manure as a soil builder, be sure that it is aged (composted) appropriately to kill off any health hazards, weed seeds, and crappy smells. Also remember that manure can be used to add more organic matter to your soil but it does not necessarily contain large amounts of nutrients.
Low Quality Organic Fertilizers
Not all organic fertilizers are made the same and you get out of your soil what you put into it. Before purchasing organic fertilizer, be sure to do your research and inspect the ingredients to insure you are applying a good quality product.
Avoid low quality fertilizers with lots of filler ingredients or ones from less desirable sources: these are typically fertilizers that have a high formulation of organic matter such as chicken litter, but a lower slow release nutrient content … kind of like junk food in the soil amendment world! Granulated organic fertilizers are superior to meal fertilizers as you get an even distribution of ingredients with each scoop without the heavier ingredients settling to the bottom of the bag.
Overlooking the Importance of Calcium and Magnesium in Soil
With so much emphasis on getting the N-P-K of the soil up, many well-intentioned gardeners forget about the importance of having enough calcium and magnesium in their soil. Calcium is the powerhouse that other elements in fertilizer and in the soil react to, to create energy. Calcium is like an underground superhero that is often forgotten about. Magnesium pairs with Calcium and need to be in balance. Magnesium is a key building block for bright green plants. It aids in chlorophyll production and makes plants look healthy.
Not Fertilizing at the Right Time
Find out the “feeding schedule” of your plants before applying fertilizer. Some plants are big eaters while others watch their diet very closely. Organic fertilizer is not “plant food,” but rather a “soil food” making available the necessary soil nutrients that plants need for photosynthesis and healthy growth. Summer food crops should be fertilized early in the spring, with additional applications applied as necessary during the growing seasons for those veggies that enjoy a hearty dose of nutrients.
Many perennial plants and shrubs go dormant during the colder months of the year and do not require any fertilizer until they wake up with the early spring sunshine. This sparks their first need for nutrition and is often much earlier than we realize and normally fertilize. You can get ahead of the game by applying fertilizer and compost during the fall season so that it overwinters and is available to plants as they start to wake up in early spring.
Understanding that Fertilizing is not a Silver Bullet
Fertilizing alone is not a silver bullet when it comes to healthy plants, lush turf and highly productive gardens – it all starts with the soil. To fertilize your soil correctly, you need to understand what type of soil you have and what it needs. Download our Down & Dirty PDFto learn the hands-on ways of understanding your soil’s needs.
You may also want to get your soil tested for its nutrient content and organic matter. Use your soil test results to determine what types of fertilizers, conditioners, and soil builders it needs. A great lab that works with organic gardeners is Wallace Labs in Segundo, CA. Remember to always use organic products that build up your soil over time as prolonged use of chemical fertilizers will eventually render your soil lifeless.