how-to-choose-the-right-fertilizer0The Tampa Tribune recently published an article on properly fertilizing plants, written by Craig Chandler, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in southern Hillsborough County. According to the article, there are some common misconceptions about the role that fertilizer plays in aiding plant growth.

Many people who garden mistakenly believe that fertilizer is plant food. Green plants actually make their own food and do not need to receive it from an outside source. Green plants take energy from the sun and assemble carbohydrates, fats and proteins from simpler components. These components – water, carbon dioxide and nutrient elements – are obtained from the outside.

Plant growth may be limited by a deficiency in any of these elements and fertilizer helps prevent deficiencies. When used occasionally and in small quantities, fertilizer can be extremely beneficial to plant growth; however, too much fertilizer may damage plant roots. If there is heavy rain, nutrients can be washed into ponds and other water sources where they become pollutants.

Organic matter and clay particles hold nutrients in the soil, but sandy soils in Florida are lacking in both. When determining whether or not fertilizer is necessary, it is important to examine several factors.

If your plants are mature perennials, they have little to no need for fertilizer. These plants are in a state of equilibrium as their older leaves will die and decay into the ground, releasing nitrogen, potassium and other elements into the soil. In turn, new leaves are created when the plants roots take up those nutrients and use them for the creation of new leaves.

Smaller, immature plants or organic matter that are being regularly removed from the landscape (fruits, vegetables, clippings, etc.) are interrupting this form of natural recycling and may benefit from the use of synthetic fertilizer, manure or compost.

In addition to determining if plants need fertilizer, it is also important to determine what is an appropriate amount. The University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center is currently conducting a research project to determine how much nitrogen fertilizer is necessary to produce optimal growth for common landscape plants.

Homeowners can have a sample of their soil tested to assess the fertility of the soil in a landscape and receive fertilizer recommendations. The cost is only $10 per sample for analysis at the UF soil testing lab. There is more information available at the on-line UF extension publication “Soil sampling and testing for the home landscape or vegetable garden” . You can also call your local county extension office.

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