When To Fertilize

Written by Sarah Provost
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Fertilization is one of the more complex aspects of backyard gardening. What do all those numbers mean? When should I fertilize, and how much? Proper fertilization can make the difference between a bounteous, flavorful harvest and a crop that is mediocre of worse.

One very important point to remember is that plants need different types of fertilization at different points in their growing cycle. A fertilizer that would ensure your mature tomatoes produce a bountiful crop might well burn tender seedlings. Fertilizer applied too early might result in magnificent foliage but no fruit.

The numbers on the fertilizer bag refer to the proportions of the three basic nutrients your garden needs: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is the most important. It is essential to the production of chlorophyll and is responsible for leaf growth. Phosphorus is necessary for photosynthesis and is used at its highest levels during germination, seedling and fruiting stages of growth. Potassium increases chlorophyll levels in the foliage, and is important in all stages of plant growth.

Fertilization Schedule for Vegetables

Initially, your seedlings will rely on the nutrients in the seed itself. But as soon as the first true leaves appear, you should feed them a "starter formula" of 5-10-10. (Too much nitrogen is what burns seedlings.) Once the first blossoms appear, apply a side dressing of 10-10-10 fertilizer every two weeks throughout the harvest. You might also use a time-release formula, in which case you should follow the directions on the packaging.

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