Fertilizing Your Vegetable Garden

If your vegetable garden has fertile soil enhanced by compost and other organic materials, fertilizing may not be urgently necessary. Still, vegetables are a hungry group, and feeding them can certainly speed growth and improve your harvest.

The main nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), which is why the labels of general-purpose fertilizers have three numbers. A fertilizer such as 10-10-10 is a balanced fertilizer because it contains equal proportions of all three nutrients, whereas a 15-0-0 is obviously nitrogen-heavy. Other elements are necessary for plant growth, but plants need them in much smaller amounts, and they're often already present in the soil (also, many commercial fertilizers include them).

Nitrogen enhances the growth of leaves and stems; phosphorus helps flower, fruit, seed, and root production; and potassium ensures general vigor and increases your plants' resistance to disease. So for most vegetable crops, your best bet is a balanced fertilizer.

Fertilizer is anything, organic or inorganic, that provides nutrients for growing vegetable plants. (Soil conditioner, on the other hand, is material that improves your soil structure.) Just to give you some context, here are different ways to nurture your crops:

  • Side-dressing: This term means sprinkling some fertilizer beside the plant, rather than on the plant itself. Dry fertilizer can be scratched into the soil with your fingers or an implement such as a trowel or fork. See Figure 13-8.
  • Foliar feeding: You add foliar fertilizer to water (diluted according to label directions, of course) and then spray it right onto the leaves — plant foliage.
  • Top-dressing: Top-dressing is when you apply fertilizer over the surface of the garden.

Always follow label directions regarding how much to apply. Too much is not good — you can overdose or burn your plants. Good timing is also important. Usually, you're advised to feed the plants at planting time to get them off to an early and vigorous start. A second, midseason application is worthwhile if you're growing a succession of crops in the same row or intercropping (see "Sketching out your plan," earlier in this chapter, for info on these growing methods).

Liquid fertilizers are concentrated, so you have to dilute them in water according to label directions; you're allowed to do two half-strength doses rather than one full-strength, if you like. Liquid fertilizers are mostly used for foliar feeding. Dry ones, on the other hand, come as powder or granules and need to be watered in.

Figure 13-8:

Side-dressing fertilizers.

Figure 13-8:

Side-dressing fertilizers.

Dry fertilizer that remains dry never does any plant any good. Dampen the garden before and after watering so the fertilizer can get into the soil and down to the roots, where it's needed.

For information on how to decide between organic and inorganic fertilizers, please see Chapter 4.

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