Feed me, Seymour

I was lucky enough to nab a ticket to Charleston Light Opera Guild’s sold-out performance of “Little Shop of Horrors”- hope you were too – it was great. 

After seeing the show, you know what’s on my mind? Fertilizer.

Feeding plants doesn’t have to be deadly. There are several ways to ensure the health of your plants and the soil that nourishes them.

One of the most common ways is using a ready-made or concentrated mix purchased at a garden center. These are ok. They are easy to use and apply. 

Add water, and you are good to go. I use them myself to give potted plants a boost.

Generally, they are 10-10-10. This means that the fertilizer is 10% nitrogen(N), 10% phosphate(P), and 10% potassium, sometimes called potash(K) and is often referred to as NPK.  

This NPK ratio is good, but let’s break it down to understand how each element feeds the plant.

Nitrogen promotes leaf growth. Think of it as giving energy to what is above ground. Too much nitrogen, and you will have all leaves and fewer blooms or fruit on the plant – but you will have very healthy leaves.

Phosphate reaches down into the plant’s roots and where energy is stored. This energy encourages healthy flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Fertilizer marketed to increase blooms is phosphate-heavy. Phosphate also helps the plant with photosynthesis. 

A quick sidebar reminder about photosynthesis: when the plant is exposed to sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, it turns them into a carbohydrate which gives the plant energy. The plant synthesizes these elements to feed itself, using what it needs for good health then releases excess oxygen into the air.  

Potassium helps the plant fend off disease and withstand harsh conditions, basically providing good overall well-being for the plant. 

That’s the highlight of my chemical knowledge. For anything deeper, you may need to get in touch with your high school chem teacher. But I do know that plants need levels of NPK to thrive.

Composting is a natural way to amend the soil. You can make your own or buy it from the store. I buy mushroom compost and try to work into the garden beds soil every year.

If making your own, the most important rule is no animal fats or dinner leftovers. This will only attract unwanted creatures to your garden. 

Collect eggshells, banana peels, orange and lemon peels, and add them to your compost pile. Toss in your coffee grounds, then add nitrogen to the soil. Composting is a big topic, and if done on a large scale and not in a kitchen bucket deserves more than a paragraph. But all of these everyday items are beneficial to the soil.

Soil:  that is where it starts for me. Healthy soil will give you healthy plants. Never stop working organic matter into the soil. This can be store-bought compost, “fertilizer” from the barn that has had time to cool, or the contents of your compost pail. All of this matter will add valuable nutrients to the soil.

Grass clippings (not weeds) can be used as mulch. Even the pine bark mulch that we all love and buy by truckloads breaks down and adds to the health of the soil. The pine gives our West Virginia clay soil acidity. Not only does the organic matter provide nutrients, but it also loosens the soil enough that air travels and the roots can breathe.

Hungry and thirsty plants in the garden will send their roots deep and wide, looking for food and water. Potted plants don’t have this luxury. They depend on the gardener to keep the soil healthy.

Most plants will survive without feeding and exist like the fictional Mushnik’s Flower Shop in New York City’s rough, rundown Skid Row neighborhood of “Little House of Horrors” fame. To increase the odds for show-stopping beauties, a monthly or even seasonal feeding is the answer.