Fertilizing Your Favorite Summer Plants!
One school of thought is if your soil is great when you start, no fertilizer is needed for the rest of the season! Then there are others who fuss and mother attentively weekly, even daily. The rest of us do what we can when we can or if we have to. Do your best. Most of all, watch your plants. Check on them frequently – at least that, especially after drying winds, super hot days. They will tell you what they need. If you don’t understand the ‘symptoms,’ you can get help and figure it out. If you are container gardening, regular fertilizing is a must because nutrients are leached away as you water.
Humble homemade compost just can’t be beat as a fertilizer! Whether you do it in a bin, a pile, lasagna garden or sheet compost in place, it adds a wide variety of nutrients that are easily taken up by your plants, adds tilth to your soil, that’s loamy nutrient laden soil with excellent water holding capacity. Compost is not only a soil enhancer, but a water saver! Even manures, that are also excellent for your soil, need to be composted first. Composting stabilizes the Nitrogen.
Use the NPK of organic fertilizers to your advantage!
1. Nitrogen – N gives leaf growth, and lots of it! If your plant looks tired, and leaves are yellowing, give them a fertilizer high in N. Plants can uptake blood meal quickly; use it for emergencies. Bone meal decomposes slowly. A handful in your planting hole is good to feed your plant later in its season. Too much N makes your plant grow fast and soft, more susceptible to diseases and pest attack.
2. Phosphorous – P promotes a strong roots, prolific flowering and fruiting! Use quick uptake fertilizers high in P if you, oops, put too much Nitrogen around and are only getting leaves.
3. Potassium – K works in tandem with P, and helps your plants resist disease.
The critical times for fertilizers are
- when you plant
- when your plant starts into production, at and/or just after flowering – see below, and fruiting, when it is working its hardest
Beans – produce their own Nitrogen, grabbing it right out of the air and sending it to little nodules on their roots. But, give them a light feed AFTER heavy blooming, and at pod set. Use fertilizers higher in P, for more blooming. If your beans look tired, production slowing, and they start to yellow, common late in the season, give them a little fish emulsion/kelp boost or scratch in very small amount of chicken manure to perk them up and extend their production time.
Brocs – Summer brocs are usually making tons of side shoots after having made that main head in winter or spring. You can see they are still working hard. Scratch in a thin layer of chicken manure, lay on a mulch of clean well aged horse manure a couple inches deep, scratch in bunny poop if you can get it, within the entire drip line area of your plant so all its roots get a taste!
Cukes, Zukes, Melons – Fertilize when the vines are about a foot tall, but before the vines start to run. Give them double what you give your other plants, because these babies are hungry monsters! Fertilize them a week after blooming and again 3 weeks later. They are working hard. If you are growing dwarf or container/patio varieties, give them about the same as your other plants.
Corn – TLC at12” to 18” tall. Higher in N, because that is a mighty stalk with huge leaves your plant is making. Unless you are growing early maturing, smaller, or dwarf varieties. Then if you jazzed up the soil at planting, you may not need to fertilize at all. Your corn knows what to do.
Kale – to keep your kale in vibrant production, feed it generously. It is another plant that we use for the leaves it is constantly producing. It is one of the workhorses of your garden.
Lettuces, chard – scratch in chicken manure every couple of weeks or if production slows or the leaves yellow. They are constantly making new leaves and you are constantly removing their biggest lower leaves. They need food. If you are not a manure fan, do a fat tablespoon of fish emulsion/kelp mix even every week and keep ‘em well watered!
Peppers – magnesium and sulfur! OK, those babies can be as hot as brimstone, so they need some uppity fertilizer. They take up sulfur and magnesium most easily by foliar feeding. A tablespoon Epsom Salts in a gallon of water will do the trick. Water your plants before you apply, not after and wash it away. Do it early to midday so the plants have time to take it in before evening dews and it just runs off the leaves. Put it on right away at transplanting, again at first flowering and at fruit set. Also give them a taste of manures.
Strawberries – they are a continuous heavy producer per the size of the plant! Fish emulsion/kelp every other week makes them very happy. In their case, pine needle mulch is a form of ‘fertilizer’ because it causes the soil to be slightly acidic. Strawberries like that.
Tomatoes – Magnesium deficiency in the soil may be one reason your tomato leaves yellow between the leaf veins late in the season and fruit production slows down. Epsom salts can keep plants greener and bushier, enhance production of healthier fruit later in the season, and potentially help reduce blossom-end rot. 1 tablespoon Epsom salts per gallon of water at transplanting, first flowering, and fruit set. A taste of manures for your toms too, one to two weeks before, and after, first picking. In Santa Barbara first picking is usually right about the 4th of July. Remember, we want production not leaf, so fertilizers higher in P at this time.
When I say scratch in….
• I recommend you only do it on two sides of your plant, not in a circle around the plant breaking all the tiny horizontal roots. This is one time you don’t want a heavy hand that would damage significant roots either.
• It’s important to cover your fertilizer with soil, get it into the top 2 inches, because the N simply off gases if left exposed. It dries, it dies.
Worm castings are not a fertilizer. Not. They have negligible Nitrogen, usually like .05%. Their NPK rating is 1-1-1. See? But they are a terrific amendment for other reasons! They have special plant-growth hormones. The humus in castings improves your soil’s capacity to hold water. Castings suppress several diseases and significantly reduce parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites. Add some castings when you add your other fertilizers. You can add some wonderful compost too. It IS a fertilizer. The best results I have observed at Pilgrim Terrace, for super healthy vibrant plants, has been with chicken manure. It is efficient for the space it takes up and the price paid. A couple of us are going to be using bunny poop, so I am excited to see how it does.
Water it in. That’s like making compost, manure, worm tea in place! The water helps disperse the fertilizer and percolate down into your soil for hungry roots to feed on.