Welcome to Grow Your Own Food, an informative series on gardening and growing your own food in Canada. Each month Redawna Kalynchuk draws on her extensive gardening experience to guide you through a year of growing your own food: planning, planting, maintaining, harvesting and putting your garden to bed for winter. This month, Redawna shares the basics about using fertilizer and compost to ensure healthy plants and bumper crops.
Do I Need To Fertilize?
A question most people have once their gardens get growing is, “Do I need to fertilize?” Yes, during the growing season we need to fertilize. Most soils don't have enough nutrients to grow and maintain healthy plants. And as your garden grows, the plants absorb the existing nutrients from the soil.
Well-fed plants are healthier, stronger and more resistant to bugs. They also have maximum growth and produce more flowers. That means bumper crops! With all the thought, planning and work that goes into your garden, your goal is to grow enough food to not only enjoy fresh produce but to have bountiful crops that we can freeze for the winter or share with our neighbours.
A Primer on Fertilizer
Water and fertilizer go hand in hand. The nutrients in fertilizer are dissolved in water. Water carries nutrients though the plant. The root hairs absorb the water, nutrients and oxygen from the soil and carry them up the stem to the leaves. The healthier the plant, the faster it will grow and the more water it will consume.
If you have ever seen fertilizer in the store you may have noticed a series of three numbers on the label. A common one is 20-20-20. Those numbers represent nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium/potash (N-P-K) percentages. There are different combinations for different growth stages of plants. They’re always listed in that order on any fertilizer you see in store. Getting to know these numbers and the nutrients they represent will help you not only have a showstopping garden, but you’ll be able to grow a better, healthier garden and achieve maximum results from your plants.
Some examples of what we’re looking for in the different stages are:
- 20-20-20 is an all purpose fertilizer that’s good all season long
- 10-60-10 is a great for when plants are going into bloom
Nitrogen (N) is the most important nutrient. It’s essential to the production of chlorophyll and is mainly responsible for leaf and stem growth as well as overall size and vigour.
Phosphorus (P) is necessary for photosynthesis. It’s associated with overall vigour. Plants use high levels of P during the germination, seeding and flowering stages of growth.
Potassium or potash (K) increases chlorophyll in the foliage and helps plants make better use of light and air. Potash encourages strong root growth and is associated with disease resistance and water intake. It’s necessary during all stages of growth.
Once you start looking at fertilizer at the garden centre you’ll notice there’s a large selection to choose from. Being armed with a little bit of knowledge will help you make better informed decisions when you’re in the fertilizer aisle!
The goal of fertilizing is to supply the plant with proper amounts of nutrients for vigorous growth. Fertilizers may be either water soluble (e.g., Miracle Grow) or gradual release, like compost. There are also different fish fertilizers, compost teas and compost itself.
What Is Compost?
I’m a strong believer in composting — it’s an excellent practice every gardener should get involved in.
Compost is decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer. Composting is the practice of combining organic matter to create nutrient rich soil. Grass clippings, leaves, twigs, fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grinds (including the filters), wood ash from your fire pit, straw, flower clippings, even newspaper (just the newsprint though — no shiny flyers, please) can be included in your compost pile.
An assortment of the aforementioned amendments, a bit of water, some additional soil and weekly turning generates heat to break the material down into a dark, nutrient rich soil that’s a natural organic fertilizer that puts back into the earth what the plants take as they grow through the season.
The Compost Area
Your compost area can be big or small. There are many options, depending on where you live and the space you have available. Many people like to use wood pallets to create an enclosed compost area. You can also find different types of compost bins or tumblers on the market. Or you can go the easy route and just find a corner of the yard or garden where you can build a pile. It will need to be turned weekly to speed up the composting process, plus you’re constantly adding amendments that need to be worked into the pile.
Choose a spot where the task will be easy and always build it directly on the ground to encourage worms! A great idea is to create a base of twigs or straw, then build the pile with layers. A good rule of thumb is to have one-third green amendments to two-thirds of brown. Greens are things like vegetable scraps, grass clippings and green leaves. Browns are amendments such as dried leaves, wood chips, straw, coffee grounds, peat moss and egg shells.
A few things to note: never, ever add meat or fish scraps to the pile. That will attract unwanted pests and the smell won't be favourable. Also avoid adding perennial weeds as they’ll actually spread to your garden. And if you have thistle, never add the roots to your compost. The main way thistle is spread is from the roots; a fragment of thistle root as small as 0.6 cm can create a 6 meter-diameter area of thistle in one month.
It's quite remarkable how with a little bit of work you can create, rejuvenate and enrich your garden spots with compost. In the past I was able to build up the soil quality in a garden spot that had been overggrown with thistle and weeds and severely neglected for many years into a lush, black gold oasis! To be able to take soil that was hard, unforgiving and nutrient deficient into the most spectacular garden ever is beyond rewarding. And by composting year after year you’re creating the perfect growing space. The rewards that come with that are huge!
In future articles we will dig deeper into the benefits of composting, talk about mulching and organic ways to rid your gardens of weeds.
As with any of the articles in the Grow Your Own Food series, feel free to message me or reach out through the various social media channels with any and all questions you have.
- Grow Your Own Food: Starting Seeds Indoors
- Grow Your Own Food: Choosing Seeds
- Grow Your Own Food: Know Your Canadian Gardening Zone
- Creating Your Own Edible Small Space Garden
- Gardening for Food Bloggers
Grow Your Own Food is written by Redawna Kalynchuk. Redawna is the writer, photographer and content creator at Nutmeg Disrupted. She has over 20 years of gardening experience and has gardened from indoors under high-powered lights to frosty zone 2b gardens in northern Alberta. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of traditional gardening and loves empowering others to grow their own food. You can follow her at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.