Should we fertilize shrubs in the Fall?

>> Thursday, September 25, 2008

The one thing that is constantly on my mind, where gardening is concerned, is feeding. Am I feeding my plants enough, am I over-feeding? Plants can’t tell me when they need to be fed. Oh sure, there are the usual signs that they are not getting enough, such as, drooping, discolored leaves and lackluster flowering. But by the time plants are displaying these dismal cries of starvation they are already stressing.

I want to have a plan that will provide all the nourishment my garden needs without over feeding or waiting for these obvious signs, which also stress me.

While I ponder this seemingly unanswerable problem of achieving the proper balance, I see ads from nurseries promoting fall fertilization. I never considered that anything should be fed this late in the season. Apparently, I have been remiss in my shrubbery duties. Being the skeptic that I am, I can’t help being a little leery of this latest bit of advice from someone who sells things for a living, because I am sure they want to get rid of any overstock they may have before winter sets in. Secretly though, I do believe they don’t want to give out bad advice, it just wouldn’t be in their interest to do so. Skepticism dies hard.

So, after searching for a solution to this constant source of a headache, I have learned that, yes, you should feed woody plants, such as shrubs and trees. But, and there is always a but, right, timing is very important.

Keeping in mind that fertilizing produces new growth, and that tender growth spurting forth just as frost is about to hit us and would therefore threaten the very life of the plant, feeding has to take place at just the right time. Of course, this timing will vary by region, but application of a fertilizer specifically made for shrubs and trees should be applied when three conditions are met: all new growth has ceased, daytime temperatures have begun to moderate and the soil holds adequate moisture. In other words, when plants seem to have given up producing anything new and just want to take a vacation from providing us with their beautiful foliage and flowers, day/night temperatures are staying fairly constant each day and are low enough that you have switched from wearing shorts to wearing long pants and a sweater when out in the garden, and there is no longer competition with the hot sun to evaporate every drop of water you are painstakingly pouring onto your garden. As a rule of thumb, about two to three weeks before your average first frost date, which, in my case, is about four or five weeks into football season.

One of the old time, and still very valid, rules of gardening is that you feed the soil and the plants will fend for themselves. The kingpin in making this rule work is, of course, compost. You can use your favorite designer chemical fertilizer, but compost is the very best way to go. There are many wonderful websites and blogs covering how to make compost, and truly, all of us throw stuff out everyday that could go into making a compost pile, large or small. Once you get one going you will be absolutely surprised at how easy it is to maintain a compost pile.

There is no such thing as bad compost. Except, of course, for toxic or nuclear waste, or if it is really, really so smelly that your neighbors complain about being in the same neighborhood with it. But aside from those easily avoidable situations, compost is king.

In nature, shrubs and trees are constantly nourished by the natural cycle of falling leaves and the soil micro organism activity that this natural compost supports. If you just keep this in mind and try to duplicate it on the very small scale that is your garden, you should do just fine. Shred the leaves from your trees, or talk your neighbors into giving theirs to you by convincing them that using them will help keep the smell down from your compost, and sprinkle them over your garden or, better yet, add them to your compost and sprinkle that over your garden.

So, for one final time of the year, feed your woody shrubs to nourish the root growth that is taking place to store reserves for next years growth. Your shrubs will have better foliar color, larger leaf size, and superior growth next year.

As always, be part of the solution and remember the future.


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