From the Desk of Ed Hume: Feeding Vegetables- When and How

June 5, 2012 at 2:23 PM Leave a comment

How do you know if the vegetable garden needs to be fed?  When do you apply fertilizer?  Is there a special way to apply the fertilizer?  These can be puzzling questions for first time or even avid gardeners.  My response has always been ‘never feed plants for the sake of feeding, only fertilize plants if they need it’.  So how do you tell if it’s needed?  Off-color leaves, stunted growth, or poor yield are the most frequent indicators that there is a possible need for additional nutrients.  I say possible need, because over-feeding (fertilizer-burn) could also cause any of these conditions.  Let’s try to sort it out!

SOIL TEST: An extensive soil test will indicate what your soil needs in NPK, what is the pH of the soil, plus other factors.  It is really the best way to know exactly how to go about getting your soil in tip-top condition.  Unfortunately, most home owners don’t bother to test their soil, so here are a few basic ideas.


The first time you add fertilizer is when you prepare the soil for planting.  This feeding may be in the form of soil additives like well-rotted manure or compost.  On occasion, a small amount of fertilizer is also added.  The second feeding, if needed, is applied a few weeks later.  For long maturing crops, a third feeding may be necessary 6 or 8 weeks later if the plants indicate poor color, stunted growth, etc.


Generally a vegetable or all-purpose garden fertilizer is used to fertilize vegetables.

You’ll need to decide whether to use an organic or chemical type fertilizer.  My experience has been that the organic fertilizers take about 2 to 3 weeks to begin working, but are longer lasting.  On the other hand, a chemical fertilizer often begins working in about 7 days, but is not as long lasting as the organic types.  An exception to this rule would be if there were a slow release type fertilizer added to the mix.

Next you need to decide whether to use a liquid or dry type fertilizer. Generally the liquid fertilizers are fast acting, but not long lasting. Many can be applied on the leaves (foliar feeding), all can also be applied on the ground. Dry type fertilizers are slower acting, but longer lasting. So it really comes down to which is easier for you to apply.

It is essential that you apply any fertilizer according to label instructions.  Most labels do not indicate the need to water-in the fertilizer after application.  Let me stress to you the importance of two things: 1) Never spread the fertilizer under the plant.  Apply it at the drip line of the plant, as that is where the feeder roots are located.  If you apply plant food under the plant you are apt to burn the surface feeder roots and do more damage than good.  2) Water-in the fertilizer for two reasons.  First, if dry it can burn surface roots.  Second, it needs the water to activate the fertilizer.


Leaf crops benefit from feedings of fertilizer that contain higher nitrogen content.  Root crops are just the opposite; they benefit from a lower content of nitrogen, as you are trying to establish underground growth, not top growth.

Corn crops will benefit from a feeding of just nitrogen, applied around the 4th of July.


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