Oh what a glorious time in the garden—we have sprouts! It’s been a week since you planted your first batch of seeds and now they’re poking through the surface. Well, some of them, anyway. Not all seeds will sprout within the first week. In fact, many can take 10 days and more, like potatoes, peas and lettuce. And don’t even think about rushing your herbs. Parsley and dill can require 3 weeks for germination!
So don’t dismay when all your sprouts don’t pop up at once. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem. Instead, focus on the little greenies that are begging for attention, else they collapse from neglect. Like babies, these tender sprouts need food and water and diligent supervision—as in watching for signs of distress. If you don’t keep them moist—not too dry, not too wet, but just right—they will not be happy. Remind you of any fables you know?
“But what shall I feed them? And how much?”
Good question. Plants need nutrients to thrive and survive, some more than others. Many of these can be obtained without your help, like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (retrieved from the air and rainwater). However, other important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur may be harder to come by, at least in the amounts required for healthy, strong growth.
While plants have the ability to absorb these elements from the soil, they usually aren’t available in a sufficient amount—which means they rely on YOU to supply them. Your powerhouse nutrients known as N-P-K, will be prominently labeled on fertilizer containers, while calcium, magnesium and sulfur, if included, will be listed in smaller detail.
“But how will I determine how much of each they need?”
Signs of Distress
Your plants will clue you in by showing signs of distress. Fading green leaves? Need a little nitrogen over here! Purplish tints or spindly growth? Bring me some phosphorous—quick! But don’t let it come to that—please. You don’t wait until you’re sick before eating healthy, do you? No. So don’t allow it to happen to your babies—er, I mean—plants. (Though you will come to love them like your babies!)
The simplest way is to think of N-P-K in terms of what they do for your plant. Nitrogen helps to keep the leaves green, so when they begin to fade or yellow, consider adding nitrogen. Phosphorous helps your plant to develop and produce, including strong roots and delectable fruits. Signs of deficiency here can be spindly growth, poor flower and fruit production as well as a purplish tint to the leaves. Potassium promotes the overall health and wellbeing of your plants by regulating internal functions. It’s also harder to detect when insufficient.
Need to Feed
Now, think about what you’re growing. Plants like spinach and cabbage need a good supply of nitrogen because they’re all “green and leaves.” Zucchini is green and produces fruits, so give these guys lots of nitrogen and phosphorous. Generally speaking, when your plants become susceptible to disease and seem a bit “thin-skinned,” potassium is probably the culprit—especially in sandy soils where it’s easily leached by irrigation and rain.
When you “need to feed”, organic fertilizer is preferred by many gardeners over synthetic fertilizer. For nitrogen, composted manure works well, ie. cow, chickens and rabbits. Ewe, I know, but these are excellent sources of nitrogen that are readily available to your plants. Blood meal and fish emulsion are also great for a nitrogen boost.
For phosphorous, consider bone meal and rock phosphate. Potassium can be found in sulfate of potash, wood ashes and seaweed fertilizers. Calcium, magnesium and sulfur are usually present in adequate amounts, but not always (especially with tomatoes!) and can be gained by adding limestone, eggshells, Epsom salts and sulfur to your soil.
While these are not your only sources, they are solid organic choices with easily absorbed nutrients. Remember, organic is not only better for your plants, it’s better for the environment and your health, too. No nasty toxins to make their way into rivers and streams—or your bloodstream for that matter! More on the benefits of organic later, but until then, take care of your babies and give sprouts a lighter dose than you would full-grown.