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Fertilizing Houseplants

How to Feed Houseplants

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Fertilizing Houseplants

Common indoor plant food, including liquid and slow-release formulations.

Photo © Jon VanZile

Many people overlook the importance of fertilizing indoor plants. That's unfortunate because feeding is essential to keeping healthy, beautiful plants. Unlike an outdoor garden, where nature provides rain and plants can send new roots searching for food, the nutrients available to a houseplant are strictly limited by the amount of dirt in the pot and whatever else you give it.

Think of fertilizer as the second half of your potting soil. When your potting soil is fresh, your plants won't need much if any fertilizer. This is especially true of modern, fortified potting soils, which often have fertilizer and other enhancements mixed in. But after about two months, the plant will have consumed the nutrients in the soil, so you'll have to fertilize if you want continued, healthy growth.

As a word of warning, always follow the label instructions on your fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can kill a plant or scorch its leaves, and there are environmental concerns to fertilizer overuse as these nutrient-rich solutions find their way into groundwater supplies.

Different Types of Fertilizer

Fertilizers come in several different varieties: liquid, sticks and tablets, and granular and slow-release forms. Of these, the two best suited for indoor use are liquid and slow-release fertilizers. Sticks and pills seem convenient, but they don't distribute nutrients very well through soil and, once you've shoved a fertilizer stick into your pot, you have no control over its release. Granular fertilizers are really designed for outdoor use.

  • Liquid fertilizer. Liquid fertilizers are added to your watering can. Depending on label instructions, you might fertilize every time you water or every other time. There are literally dozens of liquid fertilizers on the market. The advantage to liquid fertilizer is a steady supply of nutrients that you control. It's easy to suspend feeding when the plant is dormant during the winter months. The disadvantage is remembering to do it every time.
  • Slow-release fertilizers. These products have quickly become favorites for many gardeners and professional growers, both indoor and out. Slow-release fertilizers, like Dynamite and Osmocote, are coated in time-release shells that slowly leech nutrients into the soil. A single application of Dynamite can feed your plants for up to nine months, while Osmocote lasts about four months. Their main drawback is their price, but because they last so long, it evens out in the end.

Buying Fertilizer

All general-purpose fertilizers contain the basic macronutrients that plants need to grow, including nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. Each macronutrient has a special function:

  • Nitrogen encourages healthy foliage growth
  • Phosphorous encourages root growth
  • Potash encourages bigger, healthier blooms

Specialty fertilizers, such as African violet fertilizers, contain optimized proportions of these nutrients for particular kinds of plants.

In addition to these macronutrients, better quality fertilizers also contain micronutrients such as boron, magnesium and manganese that will encourage healthier growth.

For a detailed look at reading fertilizer labels, see How To Make Sense of a Fertilizer Label.

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