Arts & Leisure

Ask a master gardener: Give your veggies a boost

Now that it’s July, you may be noticing that your garden plants are starting to flower or even set fruit. Adding fertilizer by side-dressing heavy-feeding vegetables can give them the boost they need for optimal production. 

Heavy feeders are those that have higher nutrient needs. Oftentimes, these vegetables take longer to reach maturity and are those that we plant after the temperatures warm up. Examples of heavy feeders are tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, melons and cucumbers. Other common garden vegetables that can benefit from some extra nutrition are broccoli, cabbage, beets and carrots.

There are a number of options for delivering necessary nutrients to your plants mid-season. Compost, granular fertilizers and liquid fertilizers are all readily available at your local garden center. Manure is not recommended unless it is completely composted. 

Whenever possible, always choose an organic fertilizer. Correctly applied organic fertilizers are the safest choices for the environment.

If you choose a commercial fertilizer, look for one that is well-balanced, labeled 5-5-5, for example, which means it contains 5% nitrogen, 5% potassium and 5% phosphorus. Unlike the fertilizer you may use for your lawn, vegetables should not be given high nitrogen fertilizers mid-season. A burst of nitrogen can encourage the plant to focus on foliage production rather than the desired vegetables.

All fertilizers will have application directions on the label. You will need to determine the appropriate amount for the plants you intend to fertilize.

Liquid fertilizer often will need to be diluted. If using a household container to dilute, please mark its contents to avoid cross-contamination or accidental poisoning. 

Take care when applying fertilizer around your vegetables. Non-diluted liquid fertilizer or granules applied too close to the plant can cause damage.

To avoid this, it is important to read the directions carefully and sidedress. Sidedressing means fertilizing alongside a row of crops or around the base of an individual plant.

Before applying fertilizer, weed the bed and lightly cultivate the soil. Lightly cultivating around the plants will help prevent run-off, especially when using a liquid fertilizer, keeping the fertilizer where it should be.

Apply the fertilizer four to six inches from the base of the plant. I find it helpful to mark the area I want to fertilize by making a shallow trench with my garden trowel. If your garden is mulched, pull back the mulch where necessary.

If applying granular fertilizer, spread it over the appropriate area and incorporate into the soil. Gently mix it in, taking care not to disturb roots. Your hands are perfect for this task, or gently use a hand cultivator. Liquid fertilizer, diluted if necessary, can be poured over the soil a safe distance from the plant. 

Compost also can be used as a sidedressing. Generally, a handful per plant is enough. Try to place compost before a rain, which will help the nutrients make their way to the plant roots.

Wait until tomatoes, peppers and squash are flowering before sidedressing. Another application can be made about four weeks later.

Broccoli, cabbage and their relatives can be fertilized beginning about four weeks after planting and every two to three weeks afterward. For root crops, like carrots or beets, fertilize after you have thinned.

Andrea Knepper is a UVM Extension Master Gardener intern from Bolton.

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