COMPOST(93087)Credit: GNU free

Step one in gardening for beginners is fertilizer basics. Fertilizers are any substance added to the soil, water or to a plant directly to supply the nutrients necessary for more vigorous or rapid growth. These nutrients can be supplied via organic or inorganic compounds. In this case, the term “organic” merely refers to the presence or absence of carbon and does not refer to the origin or processing of the underlying compound.

The nutrients most needed by plants are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur but trace amounts of micronutrients are sometimes supplied via fertilizers. The beginning gardener needs to know a few simple acts about fertilizers and he will dramatically improve his gardening success.


fert numbersFertilizer Numbers

Every fertilizer container comes listed with a set of three numbers prominently displayed on front. These numbers represent the percentage by weight of the three most important nutrients necessary for plant growth; nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. There are, indeed, bags of fertilizer that show a number such as 46-0-0. This bag contains 46% of the nutrient nitrogen with the rest being inert filler.

More typically, you will encounter a mixed blend such as 5-10-5. Again, this blend is 5% nitrogen and phosphorus combined with 10% potassium and the rest is filler. There are dozens of combinations and your gardening pro can tell exactly what you need from a soil sample and the types of flowers, shrubs or trees you intend to plant.

The beginning gardener may ask why we do not fertilize with carbon since that element makes up the bulk of any plants composition. The reason is rather simple. Plants do not ingest carbon as a solid but rather chemically remove it from the carbon dioxide molecules that are taken in during respiration


The Macro Nutrients

Obviously, each of the nutrients is need for the healthy and rapid growth of any plant. Each nutrient, however, supports a different aspect of the plant’s health and has different effect on the look and growth of the plant.




This nutrient is essential to the production of chlorophyll, the compound which allows plant to grow quickly and gives them their green color. The addition of nitrogen makes lawns, plants and shrubs grow faster with a deeper green color. Increased maintenance in the form of more mowing and trimming is the price for his more vibrant color and expedited growth.



As previously stated, the second number indicates the percentage of phosphorus in the fertilizer blend. An abundance of this nutrient leads to larger root growth, larger flower blooms and more of them. This type of fertilizer is also highly recommended when establishing new trees, flowering plants and shrubbery.



Potassium is an all-around handyman of the plant world. It helps in many different but important ways. First, it helps the plant defend against diseases, increases its cold tolerance and even helps when water levels are low. In addition, it promotes root development and is essential in the photosynthetic process. That’s when the plant converts sunlight into energy.


Micro Nutrients

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of micronutrients. Each is needed in extremely low levels but their complete absence will cause a plant to grow poorly or not at all. The most important of these nutrients are boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. You need not worry too much about the micronutrients as they are, usually, only added if a specific problem is identified in a plant.


Digging(93148)Proper Application of Fertilizer

Contrary to the understanding of many novice gardeners, it is important to not over fertilize and to fertilize at the appropriate times. There are definitely times when fertilizing does more harm than good. This example is a perfect example of there being too much of a good thing.

Similarly, no matter how much fertilizer you lay down, your plants can only use so much. Excess fertilization risks burning the roots of your own plants and causing environmental damage to those around you such as contaminating ground water.

It is extremely important to follow the instruction on the fertilizer container for the best results. A haphazard attitude towards fertilizer application will produce similar results.


Organic vs. Inorganic Fertilizers

Another important consideration when it comes to feeding you plants is whether to use organic or inorganic fertilizers. True organic fertilizers are made from naturally occurring elements combined with an organic substrate. Inorganic ones, on the other hand, are synthetically derived from chemical processes.

The advantages of organic fertilizers are multifold. First, they are introduced to the plant in a more natural and healthful way. Second, they improve the overall condition of the surrounding soil. Lastly, the organic substrate, while not providing any of the “big three” nutrients, contains many of the trace amounts of micronutrients necessary for the healthy growth of your plants.

On the other hand, inorganic fertilizers are very specific in their targeting of your plants’ needs. They are, indeed, very efficient at introducing nitrogen to a poorly performing, yellow lawn. While the immediate results can be dramatic, these inorganic fertilizers do not address the fundamental deficiencies in the lawn and their use will need to be repeated many times.

In short, the proactive use of the right fertilizer at the appropriate time saves money, energy and heartache by building a foundation that plants can use to grow naturally. The use of quick fix inorganic fertilizers is, ultimately, more costly in terms of time, money and energy.


Watering(93146)The Bottom Line

If you’re one of those people who skip to the end to get the info as quickly as possible, you are missing a lot of valuable information. Still, remember that step one in gardening for beginners is fertilizer basics. Of course, fertilizing can always be done on an as needed basis but that technique misses the point. The growth of plants is a natural process that should be facilitated and nurtured not just supercharged as needed.

It is simply imperative that a beginning gardener should gain a basic knowledge of fertilizers.  Armed with that knowledge, he can produce greener lawns, more vibrant flowers with far more ease, significantly less cost and greater peace of mind.