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Fertilizer - Know Your N-P-K's

Written by; Chad Simco / TCCN Staff Writer
Added on: Sun Jun 28 2009



Every bag of fertilizer in every nursery or home improvement retailer has three ginormous numbers prominently printed on all sides. Amongst the greenistos, the numbers are known as N-P-K's, signifying Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium. Those chemicals are the building-blocks of plant life, and without them fertilizer becomes, well, just more dirt. The numbers always appear in the same order, and they indicate the percentage, by weight, of each essential nutrient. Among the most common lawn fertilizers, you will see 24-8-4, meaning the mix is 24% nitrogen - very good for grass and clover - 8% phosphates, and 4% potash. Among "starter" fertilizers, the middle number - the phosphorous measure - usually is highest, because phosphorous contributes to root growth.

The name and the numbers ought to correspond. High nitrogen fertilizers should emphasize greening and growth, because nitrogen helps plants develop more chlorophyll, the sine qua non of plant metabolism. When lawns get just enough nitrogen, they grow longer, and they become darker green. If a lawn gets too much nitrogen, though, it will fade and look anemic. "Bloom Boosters" for flowers should have high concentrations of phosphorus, because it promotes metabolism and mitosis in blooming cells. Canada banned phosphorus from detergents, because, when it leaked into streams and ponds, it made the algae bloom profusely. And potassium builds strong plant bodies at least twelve ways, contributing most to plants' immunity, drought tolerance, and ability to protect themselves against the cold.

A few rules of green thumb

  1. Like vitamins and oxygen, fertilizer has limits. In the right doses and proportions, it promotes healthy growth and bountiful blooms. In excess, it makes the plants sick, and it can kill them. If a plant naturally grows slowly, more fertilizer will not accelerate its growth; if anything, it will inhibit new growth. And some plants cannot tolerate all fertilizers: nitrogen, for example, is kryptonite to otherwise indestructible and ever green conifers.

  2. Don't apply nitrogen-fixers to dry ground or on extremely hot days, because it will not penetrate the soil. Botanists call it "gentrification," and it results from soil-bacteria converting the nitrogen back to its gaseous state and releasing it back into the atmosphere. Cool temperatures and wet soil slow down the insidious little bugs, so the nitrogen can sink in.

  3. Use 1-1-1 fertilizers on fruit trees. If you give them too much nitrogen, fruit trees put all their energy into growing branches, and they fail to bloom and produce fruit. Common sense might suggest that more phosphorous would promote their blooms and fruit production, but a very little phosphorous goes a very long way.


Copyright: 2009

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