By Zachary Morton
With the new garden season upon us, there are many decisions to make. What do I want to grow? When do I want to plant flowers?
But before any of these questions can be asked, the most important question needs to be answered first:
What kind of fertilizer do I need to use?
Aside from proper watering, giving your plants the proper nutrition is the No. 1 priority. Too much of one nutrient can cause them to die. Without enough, they will not grow.
The first thing any gardener should consider is not what will make their plants grow. Rather, the question should be “What can I do to improve the quality of my soil to grow my plants?”
“The best thing to use in any kind of soil, in my opinion, is a good quality compost, said Jeff Rieves, Cooperative Extension agent for Union County.
“For a clay soil, it loosens it up. For a sandy soil, it fills in some of the gaps that air and water move through so rapidly. It adds some of the humus matter, the living part of soil, which is very important to a good vegetable garden.
“It can add a lot of the different nutrients that they need. A good quality compost has a lot of buffer effects that makes many beneficial changes to the soil. It changes the physical structure of the soil. It adds the nutrients and adds to the soil biology.”
Compost, which is essentially decomposed organic matter, helps to restore soil life by improving the soil food web. Many of the organisms in the soil, such as bacteria, fungi, among others, work together to improve the soil life.
Rieves said all this material gets churned up and turned over and creates dark crumbly “topsoil” — which is actually humus.
“And that’s really where a lot of the biology goes on, and to get that you have to keep adding organic matter to the soil.”
Aside from composts, there are other types of fertilizers that people use to get nutrients to their plants. The most popular are 10-10-10 and triple 17. The numbers refer to the percentage of the three important nutrients that all plants need: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
For much of the Piedmont region, the soil is nitrogen-deficient, Rieves said.
“The nitrogen levels are so low in most of the areas of the state, that when they do soil tests, they don’t even do a nitrogen test,” unless requested.
“It is just assumed that you need it, and most of the time the assumption is quite right. But again, with a good quality compost, most of that can be offset.”
While “soluble” fertilizers are popular and most of the time reliable, Rieves points out they are not the real solution to improving the quality of the soil.
“There are soluble fertilizers that work really fast (10-10-10, triple 17, etc.). They’relike a candy bar. You get a quick burst of energy from them, and then they’re gone, and you have to use them again.”
A slow-release fertilizer or compost gives a more balanced meal over a long period of time,” he said.
“It’s like pushing back from mama’s table on a Sunday. You are going to be fed from that meal for a very long time.
“And the compost really works, I think, best of all because it feeds the critters in the soil and lets them feed the plants. And I think folks get the most benefit from feeding their soil.”
Another popular, long-time favorite of many growers in the region is chicken and turkey litter, otherwise known manure. And while it can contain the essential nutrients for soils and plants, it can have its drawbacks.
“They can be kind of volatile in that you really don’t know how much of each of the different nutrients they have in them,” Rieves said.
“If you take some chicken litter right out of the house, it’s liable to have enough nitrogen in it to burn the living daylights out of your plants. At the same time, if you find a pile that’s been sitting for a while, even if it’s been turned, it may not have enough nitrogen in it for one corn plant. It is the uncertainty of it there.”
“Fertilizers and commercial compost, by law, have to have the nutrient levels on them. And usually, by law and by business practices, you have more reliable sources of those nutrients.”