Confession: I Rarely Fertilize My Garden

Photo: esemag.com

In a world where fertilizer manufacturers produce a multitude of fertilizers of all kinds, for roses, lawns, vegetables, conifers, and much, much more, each with—it’s claimed—the magic formula that will stimulate exactly the best growth, and where the salespeople push to the maximum the purchase of such fertilizers, I’m afraid I don’t play by the rules. In fact, I almost never fertilize my flower beds!

Instead, I let Mother Nature take care of the job.

In the fall, I let the leaves of my garden plants decompose on the spot. Yep, no clean up! After all, the very best fertilizer for any plant is its own decomposed foliage, so why would I remove it? I just let the leaves rot where they fall. 

Chopped leaves, very rich in minerals, are my favorite mulch and I use them abundantly. Photo: www.gardenworld.co.uk

In addition, I collect and shred the leaves that drop from the surrounding trees and use it as mulch. On everything! Of course, there are many reasons for using mulch—it keeps the soil more evenly moist, it prevents root damage due to repeated freezing and thawing, it keeps weeds from germinating, etc.—, but also leaf mulch enriches the soil by decomposing and releasing its minerals. With this double decomposition—the leaves of my plants and that of the mulch—, the soil of my garden remains rich, dark and airy: exactly the garden soil many gardeners dream of having; yet it happens all on its own.

If I ever fertilize a flower bed, it’s usually at the beginning of the garden, when I’m putting it in. That is, before the effect of leaf decomposition has begun to take effect.

Vegetables: A Different Story

Vegetables need more fertilizing than other plants. Photo: www.nanalyze.com

I do fertilize my vegetables, however. After all, even though I’m do everything to maintain the best possible soil in the vegetable bed, including using thick leaf mulch and annually adding compost, the fact that I harvest my vegetables means that I regularly “subtract” many of its minerals. 

Think of the soil in a vegetable bed as being like a bank account: if you take money (minerals) out regularly, you have to deposit more at some point, or there’ll be nothing left. In a vegetable garden, harvesting removes minerals, so you have to replace them.

You don’t need to use a fertilizer labeled “vegetable fertilizer,” “tomato fertilizer” or anything else so specific on a vegetable garden. That’s a marketing ploy invented by the fertilizer industry. A good all-purpose organic fertilizer is all you need.

Could the name “all purpose” be any clearer? It’s suitable for all plants. In most cases, you don’t need anything else!

Container Plants?

Container gardens need more careful fertilizing than other forms of culture. Photo: www.gardeningknowhow.com

This is the only group of plants that I fertilize quite heavily with a purchased fertilizer.

The peculiar environment created by growing plants in pots means that the decomposition of any mulch you apply will be less efficient than when growing them in the ground. In addition, any minerals present in the soil to begin with are quickly leached by rain and watering and are thus no longer available to plants that grow there. I always apply an all-purpose slow-release organic fertilizer at the beginning of the season, then I complete that initial fertilizer charge by watering with a soluble organic fertilizer (seaweed fertilizer, fish emulsion, etc.) throughout the growing season. All are considered all-purpose fertilizers.

You’ll find more information on this topic in the article With Container Plants, Double Up on Fertilizer.

In most cases, though, if you let Mother Nature help you fertilize your gardens, you’ll discover that you rarely have to “feed” your plants at all!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “Confession: I Rarely Fertilize My Garden

  1. A very good article. Congratulations

  2. That is no confession. That is just good horticulture. I only rarely use fertilizer, and only at work, either for plants that I could do without anyway, or for horticultural commodities that we need to speed along. Most things do not need help anyway.

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