How to fertilize/side dress tomatoes/peppers in your garden

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When your fruiting plants are flowering and bearing fruit this is a good time to give them a little extra boost.  Though you don’t want to throw any old fertilizer at them at this point.  You want them to get the nutrients they need to produce high yields of produce, though you don’t want to shock them with an abundance of nitrogen to stimulate new vegetative growth when you would rather the plant expend its energy making you food.

The solution to this problem is to provide your plants with a low dose of balanced fertilizer.  I couple of my favorites are compost and alfalfa pellets applied every couple weeks while the plants are blooming/fruiting.  This ensures the plants have all the nutrients they be lacking without throwing the plant into a growth spurt.

If you have a little extra time take the compost and add some water and let it sit in the sun for several hours and water or spray onto the foliage for a great dose of compost tea.

If you forgot to apply a little bone meal when you planted your peppers/tomatoes this is also a good time to sprinkle a handful under your plants and work into the couple inches of soil to provide your plants with a boost of phosphorous and also a little calcium to help prevent blossom end rot.

Hopefully with these tips you can help your green tomatoes turn into bright delicious red tomatoes.

If you want to learn more about the chemistry of organic fertilizers I have a whole post on that subject

Chemistry of Gardening: What nutrients do plants need?

ChemistryOfGardeningIf I ask my four year old what it takes for a plant to grow she can quickly respond with response, “Sun, water, air, and soil”  This is a great answer for photosynthesis since plants need energy from the sun.  They leverage the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water (H2O) to create starches and sugar.  Now the soil part of this answer is where things get a little more complicated.  Soil gives plants the ability for roots to expand and grow but also provides many nutrients to help them as well.

Similar to humans, plants need various minerals to live healthy lives.  The primary macronutrients Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K) are required to sustain life.  These are the nutrients that plants consume significant amounts which is why these are advertised in big letters on the outside of packages of fertilizer.

MACRONUTRIENTS – PRIMARY

Nutrients Benefits Signs of Deficiency Sources (N-P-K)
Nitrogen (N) Provides energy to allow vegetative growth.  Leafy plants can’t get enough, root plants need very little, fruiting plants need plenty in beginning but too much later in growth cycle will result in big/tall fruitless plants. Light green to yellow leaves; growth stunted Bloodmeal (14-0-0)
Alfalfa meal (7-3-4)
Soybean meal (6-1-2)
Cottonseed meal (6-2-2)
Fish emulsion (5-2-2)
Chicken Manure (3-4-3)
Compost (1-1-1)
Cow Manure (.2-.2-.2)
Phosphorus (P) Makes plants more stress resistant, allows for fast growth, encourages bloom and root growth. Red or Purple leaves; cell division slowed Bonemeal (4-12-0)
Chicken Manure (3-4-3)
Alfalfa meal (7-3-4)
Compost (1-1-1)
Potassium (K) Helps with photosynthesis process, immunities to disease, and increased quality of fruit. Vigor reduced; susceptible to disease; thin skin; small fruits Alfalfa meal (7-3-4)
Greensand (0-0-3)
Wood ash (0-1-3)
Chicken Manure (3-4-3)
Compost (1-1-1)

We could live off a simple food like gummy bears for quite a while, but our quality life will decrease once we picked up scurvy and exhibit significant bone and muscle loss.  The same idea goes for plants, they can live simply on the primary macronutrients but they will live poor and possibly fruitless (literally) lives.  This is where the secondary nutrients come in.  With the exception of Calcium, these are not consumed in nearly the volumes as the primary macronutrients though supplementation may be required.

MACRONUTRIENTS – SECONDARY

Nutrients Benefits Signs of Deficiency Sources
Calcium (Ca)

Helps with cell wall structure imperative for strength of plants

Growing points of plants damaged Dolomitic limestone, gypsum, egg shells, antacids
Magnesium (Mg) Required as part of the chlorophyll required for photosynthesis Yield down; old leaves white or yellow Epsom salt, Dolomitic limestone, organic material
Sulfur (S) Required for to allow plants to create protein, enzymes, and vitamins.  Helps with seed, root growth, and resistance to cold. Light green to yellow leaves; growth stunted Rainwater, gypsum

Finally are the macronutrients, these are the nutrients that most of the time, as long as you are not growing with hydroponics. should exist in your soil and rarely need to be supplemented due to the small amounts that are consumed by plants, nevertheless are still very important for plant growth.

MICRONUTRIENTS

Nutrients Benefits Signs of Deficiency Sources
Boron (B) Helps in production of sugar and carbohydrate
s.  Essential for seed and fruit development.
Small leaves; heart rot (corkiness); multiple buds Organic Matter and borax
Copper (Cu) Helps in plant reproduction Multiple buds; gum pockets Copper sulfate, neutral copper
Chloride (Cl) Helps with plant metabolism None known Tap water
Iron (Fe) Helps in formation of chlorophyll Yellow leaves; veins remain green Iron sulfate, iron chelate
Manganese (Mn) Helps in breakdown of carbohydrates and nitrogen Leaves mottled with yellow and white; growth stunted Manganese sulfate, compost
Molybdenum (Mo) Helps in breakdown of nitrogen Varied symptoms Sodium molybdate, compost
Zinc (Zn) Regulates growth and consumption of sugars by the plant Small, thin, and yellow leaves, low yield zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, zinc chelate

Nutrient Deficiency Information from “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible”

Now you are armed with plenty of information, though unfortunately you can not act on any of this without knowing the chemical composition of your soil.  If you simply went by the signs of deficiency (for example yellow leaves) could be caused by one or many nutrient deficiencies.  Fortunately you can get this information to act on by running a soil test on your soil.  There are a couple options for this if you are simply concerned about primary macronutrients there are cheap DIY home tests, electronic testers, or you can send a sample to a soil lab to give primary/secondary macronutrient and micronutrient levels and recommendations to get your soil back on track.  You may also want to check with your local municipal office they may have a cheaper/free option available to you.

Just remember, your perceived lack of a green thumb my have nothing to do with your ability but the chemistry of soil you are working with.

Make your Garden/Lawn into a gigantic worm bin

My soil is consisted of a high percentage of clay, as a result I am required to aerate my lawn twice a year to avoid my soil getting too compacted. I am cheap so I purchased a $10 aerator from Home Depot which I walk around the lawn giving it a nice look of a goose bathroom until the next good rain or mowing. Of course nature has an answer which is the garden earthworm. As a finished limping behind my aerator I thought how can I get more earthworms to do some of this work for me, which brought me to the conclusion to turn my lawn and garden to a gigantic worm bin.

As worms wiggle through the ground they break up the soil and provide pathways for water and air to flow and while they are at it drop their nutrient castings along their way. Now looking at my tips on how to care for a worm bin, the same principles apply to doing the same on a larger scale. Our course my wife and HOA would appreciate me just throwing our kitchen waste out in our front yard so I have to be a little more creative. For organic matter to feed the worms (and the lawn) I will be using alfalfa pellets and grass clippings (mulch) As for moisture, given I live in the Seattle, WA area our frequent rains take care of this until mid summer where short frequent watering will keep the grass and the worms happy. I will avoid chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides using organic options to control weeds and pests and occasional application of alfalfa pellets to fertilize the lawn.

At this time the results look good the lawn looks great and I have definitely seen an increased number of worms in my garden and yard. The birds have also noticed and are taking advantage of my increased population and taking care of some of the excess in my lawn (guess it is better than them eating my seeds planted in the garden)

Just as a warning like everything in life too much of anything is normally not a good idea which can apply to worms as well. Worms can move enough soil and leave piles of castings on the surface which can create a lumpy lawn, which as long as you don’t have a putting green for a lawn this will probably not be unsightly and on the next rain will give some extra nutrients to your soil/lawn. Given the current state of my soil I have quite a while until I am burdened with having too loamy soil and need to be concerned on how to drive the worms away.