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To Feed or Not to Feed

To Feed or Not to Feed

By Susan Martin for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners

Do I really need to feed my plants? It’s a question we hear often this time of year and you might be wondering, too. After all, no one fertilizes the plants in the forest and they grow well on their own, right? Not exactly.

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Maximize your flower power by feeding your plants the nutrients they need this summer. Pictured: Sunglasses recipe.

The natural growth and decay cycles of the forest are responsible for sustaining plant life. Leaves fall in autumn and slowly decompose, releasing their Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (N-P-K) back into the soil. Leaf litter also improves the soil texture and its water holding capacity which benefits all the plants growing in the forest. Observing this natural cycle teaches us that shredded leaves are a wonderfully rich soil amendment we can all use to enrich our garden soil.

But what happens to plants in containers? Container gardens are each their own “forest”—everything the plants require needs to be contained within the pot they are growing in. If we don’t provide those nutrients, how will they get them? That’s where the importance of using plant food comes in.

Feeding Flowering And Foliage Annuals

Have you ever wondered why some people’s flowers look extra robust and floriferous? The secret may very well be what they are feeding them. Most annuals enjoy frequent feeding—all that flower power and leafy growth takes plenty of nutrients to sustain.

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Continuous release plant food will provide nutrients for your plants slowly over the whole season.

When you first plant your annuals in spring, it’s a good idea to mix continuous release plant food into the soil as an “insurance policy.” It will feed your plants slowly over the summer, releasing more nutrients as the temperature heats up. If you didn’t add it in spring, do so now by scratching some continuous release plant food into the top of the soil around your annuals planted in containers and in the ground.

In addition to that slow release of nutrients, you’ll maximize your plants’ flower power and robust growth if you feed them with water soluble plant food every third time you water, or about once per week. It’s important to keep up the feeding during the hottest part of summer and also during rainy periods. Your plants will use up those nutrients quickly and reward you with more vibrant blooms and lush foliage.

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When you mix up Proven Winners water soluble plant food, you’ll notice the blue crystals turn the water reddish brown. The dark color comes from the water soluble Iron that plants need to maintain their rich green foliage.

Feeding Perennials

While annuals are the “hungry teenagers” of the plant world, perennials need far less fertilizer than annuals to thrive. Most do well with a single application of continuous release plant food or a topdressing of compost once in spring. This increases nutrient levels in the soil, which is especially important in sandy or rocky soils where minerals tend to get flushed through more quickly than in heavy clay. It is always a good idea to get a soil test from your local university extension office before adding any specific amendments.

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Daylilies like Rainbow Rhythm® ‘Going Bananas’ respond well to a second feeding in midsummer, often rewarding you with fresh growth as a result.

Certain perennials like lilies, daylilies, peonies and tall garden phlox appreciate a second feeding in midsummer before July 4th to boost their growth. Additionally, perennials like lungwort and daisies that you cut back after they were done blooming to encourage new growth will also appreciate a midsummer feeding. Be sure to get the job done before the July holiday. Fertilizing perennials in late summer and fall isn’t a good idea because it encourages a flush of soft new growth which is easily damaged by frost.

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‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Russian Sage won’t appreciate any added fertilizer. Save it for your hungry annuals instead. Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens.

Some perennials actually grow better in soil that is low in nutrients. Such plants will have weaker stems and become floppy if they are grown in nutrient-rich soil or if they are given too much fertilizer. A few perennials that won’t appreciate those extra calories include:

  • Yarrow - Achillea
  • Blue star - Amsonia
  • False indigo - Baptisia
  • Lavender - Lavandula
  • Catmint - Nepeta
  • Beardtongue - Penstemon
  • Russian sage - Perovskia
  • Creeping Phlox – Phlox subulata
  • Perennial Salvia - Salvia
  • Stonecrop - Sedum
  • Ornamental grasses

Learn More About Feeding Your Plants:

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Patent Info: ‘Going Bananas’ Hemerocallis USPP17164 CanPBR3454; ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Perovskia USPP28445 CanPBR5568

Susan Martin is an avid zone 6 gardener, garden writer and speaker who enjoys spreading her passion for plants to her fellow gardeners across North America.

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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