Plants Can’t Read Fertilizer Labels

Illustration of plant with glasses reading fertilizer label.

There is a wealth of fertilizers on the market, each claiming to be more extraordinary than the next, many specifically designed to suit a certain plant group from lawns to orchids, vegetables, cedars, roses, tomatoes and so much more. You therefore feel compelled to buy at least one box of each kind to satisfy your vast plant family. And you have therefore just been taken for a ride by the powerful fertilizer industry.

You see, plants can’t read fertilizer labels … and really don’t care which fertilizer you give them! So, if you feed lawn fertilizer to your roses or orchid fertilizer to your cedars, they’ll grow just fine!

Indeed, the importance of specific ratios of NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) has been greatly exaggerated and often entirely invented. Sure enough, all plants* require the 3 major elements for healthy growth (and all the minor elements as well), but the exact proportion is of very little importance … so little, indeed, that you don’t even really need to take it seriously into consideration.

The most honest fertilizer on the market is all-purpose or multi-use fertilizer. It is aptly named, as it is suited to all plants*. But all those plant-specific fertilizers—the “dishonest” fertilizers as I like to call them—can also go on all plants.

My advice? When it’s time to fertilize, just grab the first fertilizer from your reserve and use it on all your plants, edible or ornamental, outdoor or indoor. When you run out, grab another one and use it up as well. When you just have no specific fertilizers left, buy an all-purpose fertilizer (because I feel one should reward honesty in packaging) or a fertilizer which does not refer explicitly to a type of plant: seaweed fertilizer, fish emulsion, blood meal, etc. The latter fertilizers, by the very fact that they make no claim to a specific use, are also all-purpose and therefore “honest”.

Personally, I always opt for organic fertilizer, because most organic fertilizers are complete ones and contain the full range of major and mineral minerals, but that’s a story in itself: one to cover in a future blog!

* Carnivorous plants are exceptions to the “all-purpose fertilizer suit all plants” rule: most don’t need any fertilizer at all!

Article originally published in this blog on September 9, 2015

5 thoughts on “Plants Can’t Read Fertilizer Labels

  1. Does this apply to succulents/desert plants as well? I’m constantly seeing warnings not to use high-nitrogen fertilizers on succulents as they apparently cause malformed growth and/or etiolation.

  2. We do formulate and use specialized fertilizer in production nurseries, but only to avoid wasting what particular crops do not need much of. Also, in some situations (such as the Santa Clara Valley) palm fertilizer helps queen palms that want more manganese and magnesium. Those nutrients are not often deficient, so are not so important in fertilizer.

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