Fertilizering Containerized Plants IV
This topic has proven to be a fairly popular addition to the Container Gardening forum, having reached the maximum number of posts allowed on three previous occasions, so I'll post it for its fourth go-round. Nutrient supplementation has been discussed frequently, but usually in piecemeal fashion, on this forum and forums related. Prompted originally by a question about fertilizers in another thread, I decided to collect a few thoughts & present an overview that will hopefully be seen as a simplification and found to be helpful.
Fertilizing Containerized Plants IVcolor>size>
Let me begin with a brief and hopefully not too technical explanation of how plants absorb water from the soil and how they obtain the nutrients/solutes that are dissolved in that water. Most of us remember from our biology classes that cells have membranes that are semi-permeable. That is, they allow some things to pass through the walls, like water and select elements in ionic form dissolved in the water, while excluding other materials like large organic molecules. Osmosis is a natural phenomenon that is nature's attempt at creating a balance (isotonicity) in the concentration of solutes in water inside and outside of cells. Water and ionic solutes will pass in and out of cell walls until an equilibrium is reached and the level of solutes in the water surrounding the cell is the same as the level of solutes in the cell.
This process begins when the finest roots absorb water molecule by molecule at the cellular level from colloidal surfaces and water vapor in soil gasses, along with the nutrient load dissolved in that water, and distribute water and nutrients throughout the plant. I want to keep this simple, so I'll just say that the best water absorption occurs when the level of solutes in soil water is lowest, and in the presence of good amounts of oxygen (this is where I get to plug a well-aerated and free-draining soil). Deionized (distilled) water contains no solutes, and is easiest for plants to absorb. Of course, since distilled water contains no nutrients, using it alone practically guarantees deficiencies of multiple nutrients as the plant is shorted the building materials (nutrients) it needs to manufacture food, keep its systems orderly, and keep its metabolism running smoothly.
We already learned that if the dissolved solutes in soil water are low, the plant may be well-hydrated, but starving; however, if they are too high, the plant may have a large store of nutrients in the soil but because of osmotic interference the plant may be unable to absorb the water and could die of thirst in a sea of plenty. When this condition occurs, and is severe enough (high concentrations of solutes in soil water), it causes fertilizer burn (plasmolysis), a condition seen when plasma is torn from cell walls as the water inside the cell exits to maintain solute equilibrium with the water surrounding the cell.
Our job, because we cannot depend on an adequate supply of nutrients being supplied by the organic component of a container soil as it breaks down, is to provide a solution of dissolved nutrients in a concentration high enough that the supply remains in the adequate to luxury range, yet still low enough that it remains easy for the plant to take up enough water to be well-hydrated and free of drought stress. Electrical conductivity (EC) of, and the level of TDS (total dissolved solids) in the soil solution is a reliable way to judge the adequacy of solute concentrations and the plant's ability to take up water. There are meters that measure these concentrations, and for most plants the ideal range of conductivity is from 1.5 - 3.5 mS, with some, like tomatoes, being as high as 4.5 mS. This is more technical than I wanted to be, but I added it in case someone wanted to search 'mS' or 'TDS' or 'EC'. Most of us, including me, will have to be satisfied with simply guessing at concentrations, but understanding how plants take up water and fertilizer, as well as the effects of solute concentrations in soil water is an important piece of the fertilizing puzzle.
Now, some disconcerting news - you have listened to all this talk about nutrient concentrations, but what do we supply, when, and how do we supply them? We have to decide what nutrients are appropriate to add to our supplementation program, but how? Most of us are just hobby growers and cannot do tissue analysis to determine what is lacking. We CAN be observant tough, and learn the symptoms of various nutrient deficiencies - and we CAN make some surprising generalizations.
What if I said that the nutritional needs of all plants is basically the same and that one fertilizer could suit almost all the plants we grow in containers - that by increasing/decreasing the dosage as we water, we could even manipulate plants to bloom and fruit more abundantly? It's really quite logical, so please let me explain.
Tissue analysis of plants will nearly always show NPK %s to be very close to an average ratio of approximately 10:1.5:7. If we assign N the constant of 100, P and K will range from 13-19 and 45-70 respectively. (I'll try to remember to make a chart showing the relative ratios of all the other essential nutrients plants normally take from the soil at the end of what I write.) All we need to do is supply nutrients in approximately the same ratio as plants use them, and at concentrations sufficient to keep them in the adequate to luxury range at all times.
Remember that we can maximize water uptake by keeping the concentrations of solutes low, so a continual supply of a weak solution is best. Nutrients don't often just suddenly appear in large quantities in nature, so the low and continual dose method most closely mimics the nutritional supply Mother Nature offers. If you decide to adopt a "fertilize every time you water" approach, most liquid fertilizers can be applied at 3/4 to 1 tsp per gallon for best results. If you decide that is too much work, try halving the dose recommended & cutting the interval in half. You can work out the math for granular soluble fertilizers and apply at a similar rate.
The system is rather self regulating if fertilizer is applied in low concentrations each time you water, even with houseplants in winter. As the plant's growth slows, so does its need for both water and nutrients. Larger plants and plants that are growing robustly will need more water and nutrients, so linking nutrient supply to the water supply is a win/win situation all around.
Another advantage to supplying a continual low concentration of fertilizer is, it eliminates the tendency of plants to show symptoms of nutrient deficiencies after they have received high doses of fertilizer and then been allowed to return to a more favorable level of soil solute concentrations. Even at perfectly acceptable concentrations of nutrients in the soil, plants previously exposed to high concentrations of nutrients readily display deficiency symptoms, even at normal nutrient loads.
You will still need to guard against watering in sips, and that habit's accompanying tendency to ensure solute (salt) accumulation in soils. Remember that as salts accumulate, both water and nutrient uptake is made more difficult and finally impaired or made impossible in severe cases. Your soils should always allow you to water so that at least 10-15% of the total volume of water applied passes through the soil and out the drain hole to be discarded. This flushes the soil and carries accumulating solutes out the drain hole.
I use a liquid fertilizer with a full compliment of nutrients and micronutrients in a 3:1:2 ratio. Note that 'RATIO' is different than NPK %s. Also note how closely the 3:1:2 ratio fits the average ratio of NPK content in plant tissues, noted above (10:1.5:7). If the P looks a little high at 4, consider that in container soils, P begins to be more tightly held as pH goes from 6.5 to below 6.0, which is on the high side of most container soil's pH, so the manufacturer probably gave this some careful consideration. Also, P and K percentages shown on fertilizer packages are not the actual amount of P or K in the blend. The percentage of P on the package is the percentage of P2O5 (phosphorous pentoxide) and you need to multiply the percentage shown by .43 to get the actual amount of P in the fertilizer. Similarly, the K level percentage shown is actually the level of K2O ( potassium oxide) and must be multiplied by .83 to arrive at the actual amount of K supplied.
To answer the inevitable questions about specialty fertilizers and "special" plant nutritional requirements, let me repeat that plants need nutrients in roughly the same ratio. 'RATIO' is also an entirely a separate consideration from dosage. You'll need to adjust the dosage to fit the plant and perhaps strike a happy medium in containers that have a diversity of material.
If nutrient availability is unbalanced - if plants are getting more than they need of certain nutrients, but less than they need of others, the nutrient they need the most will be the one that limits growth. There are 6 factors that affect plant growth, vitality and yield; they are: air, water, light, temperature, soil or media and nutrients. Liebig's Law of Limiting Factors states the most deficient factor limits plant growth, and increasing the supply of non-limiting factors will not increase plant growth. Only by increasing most deficient nutrient will the plant growth increase. There is also an optimum combination/ratio of nutrients, and increasing them, individually or in various combinations can lead to toxicities and be as limiting as deficiencies.
When individual nutrients are available in excess, it not only unnecessarily contributes to the total volume of solutes in the soil solution, which makes it more difficult for the plant to absorb water and nutrients, it can also create an antagonistic deficiency of other nutrients as toxicity levels block a plant's ability to take them up. E.g., too much Fe (iron) can cause a Mn (manganese) deficiency, with the converse also true, Too much Ca (calcium) can cause a Mg (magnesium) deficiency. Too much P (phosphorous) can cause an insoluble precipitate with Fe and make Fe unavailable. It also interferes with the uptake of several other micro-nutrients. You can see why it is advantageous to supply nutrients in as close to the same ratio in which plants use them and at levels not so high that they interfere with water uptake. I know I'm repeating myself here, but this is an important point.
What about the high-P "Bloom Booster" fertilizers you might ask? To induce more prolific flowering, a reduced N supply will have more and better effect than the high P bloom formulas. When N is reduced, it slows vegetative growth without reducing photosynthesis. Since vegetative growth is limited by a lack of N, and the photosynthetic machinery continues to turn out food, it leaves an expendable surplus for the plant to spend on flowers and fruit. Plants use about 6 times more N than P, so fertilizers that supply more P than N are wasteful and more likely to inhibit blooms (remember that too much P inhibits uptake of Fe and many micro-nutrients - it raises pH unnecessarily as well, which could also be problematic). Popular "bloom-booster" fertilizers like 10-52-10 actually supply about 32x more P than your plant could ever use (in relationship to how much N it uses) and has the potential to wreak all kinds of havoc with your plants.
In a recent conversation with the CEO of Dyna-Gro, he confirmed my long held belief that circumstances would have to be very highly unusual for it to be ever beneficial to use a fertilizer in containers that supplies as much or more P than either N or K. This means that even commonly found 1:1:1 ratios like 20-20-20 or 14-14-14 supply more P than is necessary for best results.
The fact that different species of plants grow in different types of soil where they are naturally found, does not mean that one needs more of a certain nutrient than the other. It just means that the plants have developed strategies to adapt to certain conditions, like excesses and deficiencies of particular nutrients.
Plants that "love" acid soils, e.g., have simply developed strategies to cope with those soils. Their calcium needs are still the same as any other plant and no different from the nutrient requirements of plants that thrive in alkaline soils. The problem for acid-loving plants is that they are unable to adequately limit their calcium uptake, and will absorb too much of it when available, resulting in cellular pH-values that are too high. Some acid-loving plants also have difficulties absorbing Fe, Mn, Cu, or Zn, which is more tightly held in alkaline soils, another reason why they thrive in low pH (acid) soils.
So, If you select a fertilizer that is close in ratio to the concentration of major elements in plant tissues, you are going to be in good shape. Whether the fertilizer is furnished in chemical or organic form matters not a whit to the plant. Ions are ions, but there is one major consideration. Chemical fertilizers are available for immediate uptake while organic fertilizers must be acted on by passing through the gut of micro-organisms to break them down into usable elemental form. Since microorganism populations are affected by cultural conditions like moisture/air levels in the soil, soil pH, fertility levels, temperature, etc., they tend to follow a boom/bust cycle that has an impact on the reliability and timing of delivery of nutrients supplied in organic form, in container culture. Nutrients locked in hydrocarbon chains cannot be relied upon to be available when the plant needs them. This is a particular issue with the immobile nutrients that must be present in the nutrient stream at all times for the plant to grow normally.
What is my approach? I have been very happy with Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 liquid fertilizer. It has all the essential elements in a favorable ratio, and even includes Ca and Mg, which is unusual in soluble fertilizers. Miracle-Gro granular all-purpose fertilizer in 24-8-16 or liquid 12-4-8 are both close seconds and completely soluble, though they do lack Ca and Mg, which you can supply by incorporating lime or by including gypsum and Epsom salts in your fertilizer supplementation program. Ask if you need clarification on this point.
I often incorporate a granular micro-nutrient supplement in my soils when I make them (Micromax) or use a soluble micro-nutrient blend (STEM). I would encourage you to make sure your plants are getting all the micro-nutrients. More readily available than the supplements I use is Earth Juice's 'Microblast'.
When plants are growing robustly, I try to fertilize my plants weakly (pun intended) with a half recommended dose of the concentrate at half the suggested intervals. When plants are growing slowly, I still fertilize often, but with considerably reduced doses. It is important to realize your soil must drain freely and you must water so a fair amount of water drains from your container each time you water to fertilize this way. Last year, my display containers performed better than they ever have in years past & they were still all looking amazingly attractive at the beginning of Oct when I finally decided to dismantle them because of imminent cold weather. I attribute results primarily to a good soil and a healthy nutrient supplementation program.
What would I recommend to someone who asked what to use as an all-purpose fertilizer for nearly all their container plantings? If you can find it, a 3:1:2 ratio soluble liquid fertilizer (24-8-16, 12-4-8, 9-3-6 are all 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers) that contains all the minor elements would great.
How plants use nutrients - the chart I promised:
I gave Nitrogen, because it is the largest nutrient component, the value of 100. Other nutrients are listed as a weight percentage of N.
P 13-19 (16) 1/6
K 45-80 (62) 3/5
S 6-9 (8) 1/12
Mg 5-15 (10) 1/10
Ca 5-15 (10) 1/10
To read the chart: P - plants use 13-19 parts of P or an average of about 16 parts for every 100 parts of N, or 6 times more N than P. Plants use about 45-80 parts of K or an average of about 62 parts for every 100 parts of N, or about 3/5 as much K as N, and so on.
If you're still with me - thanks for reading. It makes me feel like the effort was worth it. Let me know what you think - please.
Here is a link to the previous posting of A Fertilizer Program for Containerized Plants, in case you'd like to review some of the exchanges.
Another thread that has proven very helpful to a goodly number of forum participants can be found by following this link to information about How Water Behaves in Container Media. You'll find it a fairly detailed discussion about container soils.
Take care. Good luck and good growing!