Fertilizers: “Fast Food” vs. Slow Food

October 26, 2013

Steve Boehme

Modern gardeners are hungry for a return to traditional gardening methods, like building garden soil with organic compost and fertilizers. Petro-chemical based fertilizers actually weaken soils over time, defeating the natural process of renewal that makes good garden soils and healthy plants.

For one thing, petrochemicals don’t do anything to improve soil texture. Good soil needs “looseners” like compost and peat moss, and turning the soil to mix it with air. Well-rounded nutrition depends on living organisms and trace mineral elements, neither of which can be found in a bag of 12-12-12 or a bottle of Miracle-Gro.

In our own gardens we use organic powdered plant foods like Holly Tone, Plant Tone, Rose Tone and Bulb Tone by Espoma Organics. These are balanced meals containing lots of wholesome natural ingredients like gypsum, greensand and bone meal to help break up clay soil. They also contain Micorrhizae, soil micro-organisms that help your plants digest fertilizer and trace minerals. Espoma Organics is a modern version of the old-fashioned fertilizer mill; a factory where ground-up natural ingredients like bone meal, cottonseed meal and other components are blended into powdered fertilizers that build and replenish tired soils. We call Espoma fertilizers the “magic dust”.

The best way to fertilize is to mix the fertilizer with the soil when you plant. This has a “timed-release” effect because the roots find the food as the plant grows. It helps the roots spread quickly. For established plantings you should sprinkle powdered fertilizers generously around your plants before mulching. This way the fertilizer doesn’t have to find its way through the mulch to get to the roots.

Timed-release powdered fertilizers work better than liquids because plant feeding is affected by soil temperature. They are stable and will remain in the soil until the plant uses them, while liquid fertilizers are washed away.

Lots of people ask us for “Miracle Gro” and we sell it in our garden center. But when we sell it we always think of those I.V. drip bags in the hospital, “feeding” you through a tube into your arm. It will keep you alive but it’s NOT a balanced diet. For a real-life demonstration of this compare a hothouse tomato with one from an organic garden. Hydroponic tomatoes get a liquid diet similar to Miracle-Gro.

Liquid fertilizers are useful for fertilizing hanging baskets, window boxes and planters where potting soil is used and roots are confined in a small pot. Professional growers use a weak solution of fertilizer in their irrigation water to encourage rapid growth. Another good use of liquid formulas is force-feeding distressed plants, such as Azaleas that aren’t well established and can’t absorb enough food from the soil. Rather than using Miracle Gro, we prefer liquid fish emulsions like Neptune’s Harvest, made just for this. You can water it in or spray it on the leaves, and it will perk plants up quickly.

Think twice before you put your plants on a fast food petrochemical diet. You probably wouldn’t like it for yourself!

Steve Boehme and his wife Marjorie own GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located at 9736 Tri-County Highway, near Winchester, Ohio. More information is available at or call (937) 587-7021.