Applying the right fertilizer to your plants

The main thing to realize when purchasing fertilizers is the percentage of nutrients that are available and the form it is applied.

There are almost as many ways to fertilize as there are types of fertilizers. Each offers its own advantages and special use. With a little information any gardeners can buy the right fertilizer for their plants and apply it according to the label.

The main thing to realize when purchasing fertilizers is the percentage of nutrients that are available and the form it is applied. Plants take nutrients into the roots as elements in a water solution. Plants have no way of differentiating between elements that come from organic materials or inorganic fertilizers that are man made. To the plant, it’s all simply nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

Apply fertilizer when the plant is actively growing or shortly before bud breaks dormancy. Spring is generally the preferred time, but early fall will work. Plants should not be fertilized with a high nitrogen formulation in the fall because it encourages succulent new growth that can be killed by freezing weather.

Whenever possible, incorporate fertilizers into the soil before planting to provide nutrients throughout the root zone. This is especially helpful for ensuring the available of all nutrients, especially phosphorous and potassium, that do not readily move in the soil. Organic nutrients and liquid fertilizers are normal the fertilizer of choice because they will not burn the roots.

When a hole is dug for the plant, place the fertilizer directly in the planting hole. This is generally recommended with organic, slow-release fertilizers with low percentage of quick-released nitrogen. Bulbs can also get a boost when high phosphorous fertilizer is placed in the planting hole.

A slow-released fertilizer is usually a sulfur-coated or plastic-coated fertilizer that releases the nutrient as the coating breaks down. This releases the nutrients at a slower rate rather than all at once.

Broadcasting applications are the most common way to apply granular fertilizer. To broadcast in small areas and in garden beds, measure the amount of fertilizer needed and fling it by hand or use a small hand-held fertilizer spreader. For larger areas such as for trees and lawn, use a broadcast spreader or a drop spreader.

A broadcast spreader spreads the fertilizer by dropping the fertilizer granules onto a rotating disk that propels the granules outward. These are suited for large areas where precise application is not needed. Be sure to promptly sweep up any fertilizer that falls on sidewalks, driveways or other hardscape surfaces.

Drop spreaders have an agitator that is the width of the hopper where fertilizer granules drop down through openings in the bottom of the spreader. These adjustable openings can be made larger or smaller to regulated flow, depending on the application rate desired. Because drop spreaders deliver products directly beneath the hopper, application can be more precise. The spreader should be slightly overlapping each run of the application to avoid striping the lawn. In addition, be sure to turn off the spreader when making turns.

With both spreaders, maintain and even walking speed when pushing the spreader. Never pull a spreader backwards because the spreader will apply far more product when pulled. Also divide the amount of fertilizer needed, then apply half in one direction and the other half at a right angle. This will give an even distribution of fertilizer.

Liquid fertilizers can be sprayed or poured on plants. The most common application used is the hose-end sprayers. With hose-end sprayers, place liquids or soluble fertilizers in the sprayer’s container. As water flows through the sprayer, it mixes with water at a set application rate. Purchase those hose-end sprayers that can be adjusted to control the rate of application.

To ensure good results, thoroughly wet the soil with all fertilizers. This allows the plant to take in the nutrients and prevent fertilizer burn especially where granules come in contact with plant parts.

Jim Coe lives in Lawton and writes a weekly garden column.