Beginner’s Guide to Spring Fertilizing

When the garden wakes up from dormancy in early spring, rising temperatures stimulate a burst of foliage growth. Deciduous trees and shrubs are often the first plants to show signs of growth, followed by perennials. If some plants in your garden haven’t shown signs of growth, don’t just assume that they died over the winter. Nature works on its own schedule and sometimes it takes several weeks of rising temperatures for plants to realize that it’s spring.

All plants benefit from fertilization at some point in their life. Fertilizing in the spring is especially important to provide a boost of nutrients and encourage new growth. It’s a good idea to get your soil tested yearly to learn what nutrients are necessary and prevent over-fertilization. Chesterfield County offers free soil test kits available at the extension office or any Chesterfield County Public Library. Henrico County offers a similar program. For more information, check out Virginia Tech’s page for their soil testing lab. 

If you’ve ever visited our fertilizer section, you know that there are many different types of fertilizer suited for different plants. It can seem complicated to figure out which fertilizer your garden needs, but we’re here to help. As always, feel free to visit the nursery to chat with our team for recommendations or call for advice; it’s our goal to be a resource for the gardening community. 

Fertilizers are made up of three essential nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Often abbreviated to NPK, the ratio of these nutrients is listed on the packaging for each type of fertilizer.

N – P – K

10 – 10 – 10

A fertilizer with the same number listed thrice has equal amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The number indicates the percentage of that nutrient in the product; a 10-10-10 fertilizer has 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, and 10% potassium by weight. Some plants require additional nutrients, but N, P & K are considered the most important macronutrients. Nitrogen stimulates leafy growth and contributes to the vibrant green color of turf and plant matter. Phosphorus promotes the growth of flowers, roots, fruit, and seeds; fertilizers high in phosphorus are often called ‘bloom boosters’ for this reason. Potassium regulates the flow of water and nutrients throughout the entire plant, which aids in photosynthesis. 

Fertilizers can be liquid, granular, or dispersed in a soil mixture. Gardeners can choose organic or inorganic fertilizers depending on their preferences. Always read the instructions on fertilizer packaging and apply accordingly. It’s a good idea to apply fertilizer in the evening to prevent leaf burn.

A general 10-10-10 fertilizer is the best choice for perennial gardens and most woody trees and shrubs. Consider your growing medium and choose a fertilizer with a lower concentration of nutrients if you’ve already applied compost or manure. Whether you choose to apply a granular or liquid fertilizer, water your plants at the time of application to allow the nutrients to trickle down to the roots. For established plants, we recommend using Espoma Plant Tone or a comparable 10 – 10 – 10 fertilizer. For newly installed plants, apply Espoma Bio-Tone Starter to kickstart the growth process. 

A general fertilizer works well for most plants in the garden, but there are a few cases where we recommend applying a specialized fertilizer for plants that need specific nutrients. Tomatoes, for instance, need a fertilizer with added calcium to ensure blossoms develop into fruit. They are also “heavy feeders”, which means they need to be fertilized more frequently than other annual fruits and vegetables. Rhododendrons and especially azaleas benefit from fertilizers with added iron, like Espoma Azalea Tone. If the foliage on your rhododendrons begins to yellow, that’s a clear sign of iron deficiency and it’s time to fertilize. Berry bushes need an acidic fertilizer like Espoma Berry Tone to encourage fruit production. Japanese Maples are naturally slow growers and need a slow-release fertilizer with a lower percentage of nitrogen, like FoxFarm Happy Frog Japanese Maple fertilizer. When you visit Cross Creek to shop for plants, it’s always a good idea to ask a garden center associate if those plants would benefit from a specialized fertilizer. 

Applying fertilizer is an essential part of gardening. Without nutrients, the plants in your garden will produce fewer blooms and grow at a slower rate. Well fertilized fruits and vegetables produce higher yields for you to enjoy. Make sure to test your soil before fertilizing and as always, call or stop by Cross Creek for tailored advice and a wide inventory of fertilizer options. 

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