Plant Foods, Composting and Feeding

Plant Foods, Composting and Feeding

Plants get much of what they need from the soil and from the compost and manure used to improve it, but in a crowded garden there might not be enough going back in. The bigger the garden, the more organic matter you’ll be able to produce, but this isn’t always possible in a small garden and anyway, you need to be able to produce before you can compost. High performance plants, such as long-flowering varieties or heavy-cropping kinds, need extra feeding, as do container-grown plants. I hold my hands up here as a bit of an organic fan.


I don’t do a lot of feeding of container plants, but I do give them good compost to grow in, plenty of rainwater when they need it and take care of them when they’re looking tired or peaky by moving them into another position. Most, if not all, of our plants have been grown from seed or from cuttings. I use the same potting compost to start off all of these new plants, which contains plenty of nutrients for seedlings and cuttings, then repot into larger containers until planting in the ground. The remaining container-grown plants are likely to be heavy-cropping tomatoes or peppers, to be grown in the greenhouse. If you feel that your container plants need a supplement, use liquid or soluble feed once a week in place of plain water. Stop feeding when the plants stop growing.


Those plants which remain in the ground permanently – the shrubs and perennials – don’t get the opportunity to get organic matter dug in, unless you decide to dig up the whole bed and replant (a drastic measure when you don’t know your plants very well), so you can help them by sprinkling a general-purpose plant food or blood, fish and bone fertiliser over the bare soil between shrubs, roses, etc. This is best done in late spring, just before your plants start growing. Follow the rate recommended on the packet, and if you drop any fertiliser on the leaves of perennials, wash it off before it can scorch the leaves. Don’t exceed the recommended quantities and spread evenly. If the weather is dry, hoe in the feed lightly and water in well. The job is made much easier if rain is due or the ground has been moistened by previous showers.


Plants need different nutrients for different jobs. They need:

• NITROGEN for leaves

• POTASH for flowers and fruit

• PHOSPHATES for roots

• Minor trace elements such as IRON and MAGNESIUM

They need these minerals in the right proportions, but you’re not expected to be a chemist here, so most fertilisers contain a balance of all three main nutrients. As a beginner you probably don’t want to leave too much to chance, but I would urge you to wait and see what happens to your plants first. If the garden was well established there’s probably more than enough in the ground already to sustain your plants until you see what’s what. Trees and shrubs are best left and only fed in response to a known deficiency. If artificial fertilisers are overused chemical reactions can take place when the soil locks in the essential foods, which can make plants suffer deficiencies and cause diseases. Chemical fertilisers don’t help the soil or supply food for worms, and we want to encourage the worms. Finally, they are expensive and use valuable resources to manufacture them. They can become pollutants, as shown by the high levels of nitrogen in rivers and water supplies in some parts of the country.


LIQUID AND SOLUBLE FEEDS are taken up instantly by the plants and are the safest artificial feeds to use in pots and containers, as the nutrients are already in liquid form when you apply them. They are gulped down like a dose of salts, which is what they are. They may result in the plants putting on a spurt of soft sappy growth, which is prone to pest attacks and diseases. Use sparingly, measuring carefully and using at the recommended rate, or less.

GENERAL PURPOSE GRANULAR AND POWDER fertilisers are the cheapest. Use in spring or when preparing the ground before planting. Don’t use in containers as they may scorch the roots. Balanced fertilisers, such as the formulation Growmore, contain all three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Compound fertilisers are usually the same as balanced fertilisers, but don’t always contain all three major nutrients.

SPECIALIST FEEDS are available for roses, ericaceous plants like rhododendrons (lime-hating), lawns, etc. They are manufactured to provide the right blend for those plants.

SLOW-RELEASE FEEDS are handy if you are forgetful. They come as feed sticks for containers, or as a single dose mixed into potting compost at the time of planting, which should last the whole season. Feed sticks work the same way, but may not last the season.

FOLIAR FEEDS are sprayed directly onto the plant leaves and are quickly taken in. They are used as very weak solutions to avoid scorching. Don’t spray in hot sunny weather.


These contain ingredients from natural origins. You can buy organic versions of a good range of granular and liquid feeds. Use gloves when handling all fertilisers.

BLOOD, FISH AND BONEMEAL sounds horrific and certainly made my daughter squeamish at a garden centre recently, but it contains all the major nutrients and doesn’t look anything like its gory ingredients. The nitrogen content is released quickly.

BONEMEAL is a popular slow-acting fertiliser containing mainly phosphorus, but some nitrogen.

DRIED ANIMAL MANURE is available in various types. We use dried chicken manure, which doesn’t smell. Animal manures contain only a trace of the major nutrients, but a full range of the trace elements, needed in only very small quantities.

DRIED BLOOD is a fast acting nitrogenous fertiliser, ideal for when plants need a quick boost during the summer.

FISH MEAL contains nitrogen and phosphorus.

HOOF AND HORN contains nitrogen in slow-release form, which is suitable for sustained growth.

LIQUID ANIMAL MANURE contains a small amount of the three major nutrients, plus a full range of trace elements. Make your own health food drink for plants by dunking a cloth bag filled with manure into a bucket of water until it turns the colour of strong tea. Dilute this with four times as much water and use to water vegetables or tomatoes growing in the ground.

LIQUID SEAWEED AND NETTLES contains nitrogen and potassium, but little phosphorus, it’s good for supplying trace elements and some growth hormones. A similar cocktail can be made at home with nettle heads. Tie them in a cloth bag, as for the manure above, and when brewed, dilute as above. This makes a high-nitrogen feed for salad crops and herbs.

SEAWEED MEAL contains all the major nutrients plus many trace elements. It is best applied as a good all-round fertiliser, when the soil is warm.

WOOD ASH will provide potassium and a small amount of phosphorus. The exact make-up will depend on the woody material burned. If you burn garden waste, be sure that there is no plastic or other man-made material caught up in the pile. We are lucky enough to be able to have regular bonfires through the winter in our garden, so dispose of larger woody hedge clippings and small branches from trees and shrubs, along with perennial weeds that can’t be composted or shredded. The ash produced is dug back into the garden at the end of winter. If you are considering having a bonfire, bear in mind the neighbours’ washing, their desire to enjoy the fresh air on a nice day and relationships with the people you might choke. There may be local restrictions on bonfires in your area (in France, we are supposed to get permission from the mayor between May and October). In winter, also check for wildlife taking shelter in the bottom of the pile.

23. July 2014 by admin
Categories: Organics | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Plant Foods, Composting and Feeding


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