Types Of Fertilizer And When To Use Which Type -

Types Of Fertilizer And When To Use Which Type

hand holding types of fertilizer

Using fertilizer is a basic gardening task that should be included in your routine of planting and maintaining your gardens.

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However, with all the different types of fertilizer on the market today, we know it's confusing to the novice gardener. Just walking down the isles of your local garden center is likely to give you brain freeze!

Explaining the different types of fertilizer available could get into the world of scientific analysis of chemicals and plant needs.

First, we want to explain the ins and outs (and benefits) of different fertilizers and how they work. Yes, it will be a little technical, but don't worry. After the tech talk we'll get into the easiest way to determine what type of fertilizer you should be using.

Finally we'll give you examples of the actual fertilizers we use on our clients' gardens and lawns as well as our own. You'll be happy to know it's only a few, so if you keep those in your shed or garage, you'll be good to go.

Here we go...

Types Of Fertilzer - Granular Vs. Liquid

If you've looked at fertilizers before, you've probably seen they come in dry pellets and liquid forms. Let's talk about that.

Granular Fertilizer:

  • Breaks down over longer periods and supplies nutrients to the plants over time, say 2-6 months or longer, so you only need to apply them once or twice during the growing season.
  • Applied directly to the ground by working into the soil when planting, or sprinkling over the garden before mulching
  • Good to use when planting so you can get it mixed into the soil.
  • Will usually need water to break down so the nutrients are available to the plant.

Liquid / Water Soluable Fertilizer

  • Comes in powder form that dissolve in water or liquid consentrates that you dilute by adding to water.
  • Needs additional tools to apply - use a sprayer or watering can.
  • Available to the plants right way but used up quickly, so you need to reply often.
  • Mainly used to give plants a quick boost, say, when the folliage is healthy and growning but the plant isn't flowering much.
  • Usually syntheticly produced (non-organic). Therefore, they help the plants in the short term but do little to enrich the soil.
  • Using too much of a synthetic product can damage plants and your lawn, so it's important to read the labels for correct application.

Next we want to talk about organic versus synthetic.

We know that many of you want to be environmentally conscience. We all do, so using organic fertilizer may be your only choice. However, before we say that for certain, you should know the differences so you can make a decision that's right for you.

Types Of Fertilizer - Organic Vs Synthetic

Organic Fertilizers

  • Organic Fertilizers are materials derived from plant and animal parts or residues, such as compost, manure, mushroom soil (which we have here in my region, etc).
  • These types of fertilizer actually enrich the soil by providing miro-organisms that break down particles in the soil into a nutrient rich matter, able to be absorbed by the plants.
  • Because they are organic, you won't see results quickly, they happen more over time but last longer.

Synthetic Fertilizers

  • Man made inorganic compounds - usually derived from by-products of the petroleum industry.
  • Do not enrich the soil so they are used up by plants and need to be reapplied during the growing season.
  • Run off into streams and waterways is more of an issue than with organic.
  • Most popular types of fertilzer are synthetic because of ease of use and the fact that they are usually cheaper.

Fertilzer Numbers And What They Mean

Have you ever seen those numbers on containers of fertilizer and wondered what they mean? Well, we'll tell you and give you an easy way to remember them.

All fertilizer labels will contain certain proportions of 3 different nutrients, commonly referred to as the N-K-P ratio. They are:

N - Nitrogen
K - Phosphate
P - Postasium

The proportions of each of these elements will determine the type you choose, depending on what you hope to accomplish. Therefore, choosing the right fertilizer for the results you want is the goal.

For instance if your bag says 10-10-10, it means the bag contains 10% of each of the 3 nutrients. Now you might say that's only 30%. How about the other 70%. Well, plants need more than just these 3 nutrients, although these are the most important and the ones to which you should be paying attention. Every bag of fertilizer contains other beneficial ingredients as well - which make up the other 70%.

If you're getting your soil tested and the results indicate you should add 5 lbs of nitrogen to the soil, how to do you know how many lbs of nitrogen are in a bag of fertilizer? Simple math, that's how.

If you have a 10 lb bag and the numbers are 10-10-10, it means that 10% of the bag is nitogen, or 1 pound. If your bag says 34-0-5, it means 34% of the bag contains nitrogen or 3.4 pounds.

All well and good you say, but how to I determine which nutrients my plants need. Well, you could get your soil tested. Most extention agencies will do this, some for free, some will charge a fee. Search your area for your local agriculture extension to see if that's an option for you.

You could also determine your needs based on what you see going on with your plants. Here's what each of these nutrients do for your plants:

There's an easy way to remember that I heard a while ago and it always stuck with me.

Think up, down and all around.


Nitrogen helps above the ground; that is, good for healthy foliage and leaf growth.


Phosphorus is good for under the ground; that is, it promotes good root growth but also helps with flowers, bigger and healthier blooms. I know blooms are above the ground, but sometimes, rules and sayings aren't perfect. Look at the fertilizer bags in your garden center and you'll find the fertilizers that are labeled for flowers are high in phosphorus.


Potasium is considered important for all around plant health. It help's build strong cells within the plant and helps the them withstand various stresses like cold, heat, diseases and insects. For example, winterizing fertilizers are high in potassium.

The Bottom Line - What Types Of Fertilizer Should You Use

How do you choose a fertilizer type? It depends on what you want to accomplish.

Do you want to fertilize plants that are already in the ground? Are you planting new plants? Are they shrubs, trees, flowers?

Here's what we do as pros and it always works to give our clients the best looking gardens.

If we're planting a new garden, we use soil amendments to enrich the soil, either by tilling and mixing them into the entire gardens, or by adding them to the holes dug for plants. See our posting for more details about how to prepare a flower bed to grow oustanding plants. Our soil amendment of choice is Miracle Grow Garden Soil For Inground Use.

This works for all plants and there's no need to add additional fertilizer at this time.

However, for an even bigger boost to flowers and annuals, we always add a slow release granular fertilizer to areas where flowers are being planted. The fertilizer we use is called Osmocote.

Apart from that, plants may need fertilizer from time to time throughout the year. If you see stresses in plants, or an overall decline, you might want to dive deeper to determine the problem and address is accordingly - sometimes by adding a specific fertilizer.

When individual plants are having problems, that's the time to treat them with whatever fertilizer is the best for that plant. For instance, if your azaleas are not looking vibrant and putting on new growth,  you would use a product called Hollytone, which is specifically for all acid loving plants including azaleas.

If you need to treat certain plants, you'll want to find out the nutrient needs of the plant and use the appropriate fertilizer.

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There you have it. That is our fertilizing program and our guide for the types of fertilizer you should be using and when to use them.

We find that the best cure is an ounce of prevention. Start with a good, enriched soil and you'll be standing on much more solid footing when it comes to fertilizing

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