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The Garden Writers Association


Last Update 07/09/08

Florida Friendly Gardening

ABWA Presentation July 9, 2008 page 3


Many people have been taught that plants require fertilizer for proper nutrition. Plants do need nutrients, but they don't necessarily need fertilizer. Plants use their leaves to make food from sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients. Nutrients in the soil are necessary for structure, regulating metabolism, growth and reproduction. Some key nutrients for plants include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and manganese.

If a plant is appropriate for the soil and site where it is located, it may not require additional nutrients from fertilization. Fertilizers are generally used to achieve a specific goal: more or larger blooms, faster growth, greener leaves or more fruit. If one of these is your goal, you basically have three choices: using compost, applying packaged fertilizer or applying a specific mineral, such as iron.

A great way to improve your soil is by adding compost, which can be made from partially decomposed yard or kitchen waste. Adding compost will:

* Improve soil structure, texture and aeration and increase the soil's capacity to hold water;

* Help loosen compacted soils and bulk-up loose soils;

* Promote soil fertility and stimulate root development in plants;

* Create a favorable environment for microorganisms and larger creatures, such as earthworms -- nature's "soil builders".

Generous amounts of compost frequently added to the soil surface can replace petroleum-based, nitrogen fertilizers. And unlike quick-release fertilizers, nutrients in compost are released slowly so landscape plants can use them. Also, composting or mulching with yard wastes helps reduce the amount of stuff that must be hauled to the landfill.


Composting is easy, just place leaves, grass clippings and small cuttings behind shrubs or in a hidden corner of the yard and letting nature take its course. I you want to go big time homemade or store bought compost bins are another option to consider and will allow you to easily compost kitchen waste, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells and coffee grounds.

Some tips on composting:

Bins aren't necessary but they help keep piles neat, retain heat and moisture, and prevent complaints from neighbors. The minimum recommended size is three feet square by three feet high.

* Proper moisture is necessary for microorganisms to compost the material. Covering the pile helps retain moisture and prevents the pile from getting too soggy when it rains. You should not be able to squeeze water from the material produced at the bottom of the pile.

* Heat is important in composting, so a sunny location is better than a shady one.

* Combining different materials, such as grass clippings and leaves, in the pile can help achieve the right proportions of carbon and nitrogen for effective composting. Always bury kitchen waste in the pile to discourage pests and to prevent odor from rotting fruit and vegetables.

* Generally, for fastest composting, the pile should be turned with a pitchfork or stirred on a weekly basis in warm weather.

* Never place meat, animal fat, dog or cat feces or dairy products in the compost pile.


If compost is not available or if you need to fertilize, a basic fertilizer that contains slow-release, water-insoluble nitrogen and other essential nutrients is the most environmentally safe and cost-effective alternative. At least 30 percent of the nitrogen in the fertilizer should be listed as water insoluble.

When shopping for fertilizer, you will usually see three numbers like 6-6-6, 15-0-15, or 16-4-8 on the front of the bag. The first number refers to the percent of nitrogen content, the second number refers to phosphorus and the third refers to potassium. Read the label to find out if other important nutrients are included. This is not much more difficult to do than reading the nutrition facts on a box of crackers.

If possible, the first and third numbers (nitrogen and potassium) should be the same. Recommended blends include 12-5-8 for plants such as citrus, avocado, raspberry, blackberry or Muscadine grapes.  8-4-8 for Palms, Ixoras and other ornamentals, and 10-60-10 to encourage blooms on flowering plants. Try to select a fertilizer containing at least 30 percent slow-release, water-insoluble nitrogen and only use fertilizers if absolutely necessary.

Avoid using fertilizers that contain weed killer or insecticide. These chemicals should be used only as a last resort when environmentally-friendly pest control fails.

Fertilizer is most often required for turf areas that have higher nutritional needs. If the lawn just won't green up, even after a good rain, first try applying chelated iron or iron sulfate instead of a complete fertilizer. An iron deficiency may be causing the color issue.


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