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Beginner’s Guide To Gardening: Feeding Your Sprouts

What nutrients do plants need? What fertilizers should I use? How does companion planting work? We answer these questions to help your young sprouts grow.

Community Gardening With Fertilizers

Photo: rauchdickson (flickr)

A gardener adds fertilizer to beds sporting some young sprouts in a community garden.

Break On Through

Oh what a glorious time in the garden – we have sprouts! It’s been nearly a week since you planted your first batch of seeds and now they’re poking through the surface (some of them anyway).

Not all seeds will sprout within the first week. In fact, many can take 10 days and more, like potatoes, peas and lettuce. And don’t even think about rushing your herbs. Parsley and dill can require 3 weeks for germination!

So don’t dismay when all your sprouts don’t pop up at once. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem. Instead, focus on the little greenies that are begging for attention. Like babies, these tender sprouts need food and water and diligent supervision. If you don’t keep them moist – not too dry, not too wet, but just right – they will not be happy.

What Shall I Feed Them?

Plants need nutrients to thrive and survive, some more than others. Many of these nutrients can be obtained from the air and rainwater without your help, like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. However, other important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur may be harder to come by, at least in the amounts required for healthy, strong growth.

While plants have the ability to absorb these elements from the soil, they usually aren’t available in a sufficient amounts, which means they rely on you to supply them. Your powerhouse nutrients known as N-P-K, will be prominently labeled on fertilizer containers. Calcium, magnesium and sulfur, if included, will be listed in smaller detail.

How Do I Know What They Need?

Your plants will clue you in by showing signs of distress, like fading green leaves, purplish tints, spindly growth or become plain old ill-looking. But don’t let it come to that! You don’t wait until you’re sick before you eat healthy, do you? Of course not.

The simplest way is to think of N-P-K in terms of what they do for your plant.

  • Nitrogen helps to keep the leaves green, so when they begin to fade or yellow, consider adding nitrogen.
  • Phosphorous helps your plant to develop and produce, including strong roots and delectable fruits. Signs of deficiency here can be spindly growth, poor flower and fruit production as well as a purplish tint to the leaves.
  • Potassium promotes the overall health and well-being of your plants by regulating internal functions. It’s, unfortunately, hard to detect when insufficient.

Now think about what you’re growing. Plants like spinach and cabbage need a good supply of nitrogen because they’re all “green and leaves.” Zucchini is green and produces fruits, so give these guys lots of nitrogen and phosphorous. Generally speaking, when your plants become susceptible to disease and seem a bit “thin-skinned,” think potassium; probably the culprit in sandy soils where it’s easily leached by irrigation and rain.

But remember, when it comes to the health of your plants, too much of a nutrient can be just as bad as too little.

Organic Is The Word

When you “need to feed,” organic fertilizers are preferred by many gardeners over synthetic fertilizers because not only are they natural, they release nutrients at a slower rate. Chemical fertilizers can sometimes cause plants to burn, which means plants have been dehydrated by excessive fertilizer salt. Organic basically means “derived from natural sources” and poses no real danger for over-absorption of nutrients by your plants, just as Mother Nature intended.

When you need nitrogen, composted manure works well (i.e. chickens, rabbits and cows). Blood meal and fish emulsion, both considered organic fertilizers (albeit man-formulated), are also great for a nitrogen boost. You can also develop your own fertilizer called green manure which consists of cover crops – stay-tuned for more on that subject later!

Bat Guano Fertilizer

Photo: Chiot's Run (flickr)

Bat guano serves as a good fertilizer for fruiting plants like tomatoes.

For phosphorous, consider bonemeal and rock phosphate. Potassium can be found in sulfate of potash, wood ashes and seaweed fertilizers. Calcium, magnesium and sulfur are usually present in adequate amounts, but not always (especially with tomatoes) and can be gained by adding limestone, eggshells, Epsom salts and sulfur to your soil.

While these are not your only sources, they are solid organic choices with easily absorbed nutrients. Remember, organic is not only better for your plants, it’s better for the environment and your health. There are no nasty toxins to make their way into rivers and streams – or your bloodstream for that matter!

Determining A Feeding Plan

Feeding your plants once a week is a good rule of thumb, though go easy on your sprouts. For the first several weeks of their life, give them a half measure of the recommended fertilizer. Good choices during this period of their growth would be fish emulsion and/or a seaweed variety, or perhaps a liquid form of all-purpose fertilizer which can be easily diluted.

And don’t forget the compost! Adding compost improves soil structure and provides organic material to your plant beds which is rich in all the essential nutrients your plants need.

Mother Nature still reins queen when it comes to the business of growing, though she does appreciate an enthusiastic gardener to assist her in the process for which you will receive your just reward.

More: Next week, we’ll be talking about why organic gardening is the way to go.

Dianne Venetta

Dianne is an author, entrepreneur, and mother. She writes the blog BloominThyme and volunteers as garden coordinator for her children's school garden. At the end of the day, if she can inspire someone to stop and smell the roses (or rosemary), kiss their child and husband goodnight, be kind to a neighbor and Mother Earth, then she's done all right.

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