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Does a Lot of Fertilizer Make for Better Plants?

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I walked into my first job after graduating college at the beginning of summer. Things were going well. All the annual flowers for the company I worked for were healthy and thriving. The colors were bright, the weeds were not bad and I was looking forward to a bright career with the company. Two months later I was fighting disease and pests and seeing many of my plants tipping over because my trainer didn’t show me the right standard for keeping plants at the right height in Atlanta’s hot humid summers (coleus never gets five feet tall in Utah, so I did not know it needed to stay short).

Downsides to Quick Growth

It was such a relief to start with a fresh planting of pansies in October. Things went well until spring started showing itself in early March. Massive infestations of aphids tackled entire beds of pansies. Spraying did not seem to touch them a bit and I had to rip out entire beds of them well before summer annuals went in. My boss never chided me for the problems, but they bothered me because I had never seen such failures in Utah and I was not just going to chalk it all up to Georgia’s weather. Instead I turned back to some of the basic plant science from one of my early horticulture classes. When plants grow quickly they tend not to spend much energy on defense against disease and insects. I figured that by cutting fertilizer, the one plant growth factor that I could control, I might cut down on the end of season problems as well as reduce some of the maintenance earlier on.

Trying Something Different

As soon as we walked away from the pre-season training meeting I told my most experience worker, Christobal, that we were not fertilizing as usual and showed him how I wanted it done. Christobal told me I was crazy, but he followed my instructions even though they were much different than he had been doing for the years in the company. For the next few months I waited for the change to show itself and for the owner of the company to call me out to look at the problems. I could see the difference between my flowerbeds and those of my teammates, and it was clear that mine had slightly less color and brilliance. Eventually we got to August and plants started dying right and left. We had orders to spray first and ask questions later. Most of the crews were looking forward to pansy season just to get a break from the frantic efforts to keep flowers alive.


I wasn’t having any problems with my flowers. The only beds that got sick were a few that were planted by another crew and transferred to my care. I even had beds that had been planted with the same type of begonias that died the year before that thrived until they were pulled out for fall pansies. Despite all this the boss never seemed to notice the difference.

Sometimes Less is More

So, be careful with the fertilizer. While it can give you a robust thriving looking plant, it can also bite back at you and lead to death and destruction. If you have the choice start with less than recommended on the package. Unless I have prior experience that says other wise, I never go more than half the fertilizer recommended on the label. That is when I use commercial fertilizer at all.

I’ll be talking a bit more about fertilizer over the next couple of months, so check back often. We have a lot of important stuff to talk about.


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