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Feeding Plants: A Complete Tutorial

One of the essential aspects of plant care is ensuring that your plant gets the proper nutrients. Feeding your plant requires understanding the basics of plant nutrition and the types of fertilizer that can be used to encourage healthy plant growth. The following tutorial guide will help you understand your plants' nutritional needs, how to identify nutritional problems, the different types of fertilizer, and how to use them properly.

Feeding Plants: A Complete Tutorial

Your Plant's Essential Nutritional Needs

When a plant is grown in the ground, it can send out extensive root systems to find the exact nutrients it needs to thrive. However, when plants are grown indoors, their nutritional needs cannot be met through this natural process. Instead, it is up to you - the plant owner - to ensure that your plant's nutritional needs are met.

All plants have three essential nutritional requirements: potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen. Although plants have other nutrients that they require to thrive, these three nutrients are the most likely to be insufficient in plants grown indoors.

Nitrogen is an essential component in the process of photosynthesis.

Phosphorous helps the plant in energy transfer, impacting the growth of roots, fruits, flowers, and buds. Phosphorous also assists in healthy tissue production.

Potassium helps the regulation of stomata and promotes increased vitality in indoor plants.

Fertilizers will always list the percentage of these three nutrients directly on the label. The ratio will usually be listed as a trio of numbers, such as "10-10-10." This means that the fertilizer is made from 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorous, and 10 percent potassium; the remaining 70% is composed of organic material. Likewise, if the plant is “25-5-10” then the fertilizer contains 25 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorous, and 10 percent potassium.

For example, Crispy Wave thrives with a 24-8-16 fertilizer, while Tradescantia needs a 20-5-10 ratio.

Types of Fertilizer

There are numerous types of fertilizers on the market today. The following list includes the most common types of fertilizer that you might use with indoor houseplants.

Water-soluble fertilizer

This type of fertilizer is the most common for indoor plants. Water-soluble fertilizer can come in a variety of different forms, such as granules, crystals and liquid.

Best for: Fuller control over a plant’s fertilizer schedule. Water soluble fertilizer is designed to be diluted in water and given in doses, which will provide you with greater control over the amount of fertilizer being used on your plant at any given time.

Stick fertilizer

Stick fertilizers are also known as fertilizer spikes. Fertilizer spikes are designed to be placed into the soil; as long as the sticks are in the soil, the plant is being fed. Plant owners can easily remove the sticks when they feel the plant has enough fertilizer.

Best for: Convenience. Stick fertilizer is easy to stick in and easy to pull out. However, the distribution of fertilizer is uneven.

Slow-release fertilizer

A slow-release fertilizer is designed to gradually absorb into the soil, and therefore into the plant over time. Slow-release fertilizers are typically sold in the form of granules, which are placed on the top layer of soil and left for about 6 months to a year.

Best for: Hardy plants that don’t require demanding fertilizer schedules, since it will be released gradually over time.

Which fertilizer is best for your plant?

We prefer water soluble fertilizer because it offers the most control of any type of modern plant fertilizer.

Signs that Your Plant Isn't Getting the Right Nutrients (or is Getting "Overfed")

You may be wondering: how do I tell if my plant isn't getting the right nutrients?

Most plants will show some distinct signs that they are getting insufficient nutrients or an excessive amount of nutrients. Plants may receive too many nutrients if they are given too much fertilizer or if you use a fertilizer that is too strong for the particular plant.

Some signs that your plant may be getting too much fertilizer or using a fertilizer that is too strong include:

  • Slow or otherwise weakened growth

  • No flowering in flowering plants

  • Unusually small flowers in flowering plants

  • Lack of new leaves and shoots

  • Pale, weak colors

  • Yellow leaves

Some signs that your plant may be getting too much fertilizer or that you are using a fertilizer which is too strong include:

  • Wilted leaves

  • Stunted growth

  • Brown spots on leaves

  • Scorched leaves

  • Slow or weakened growth

  • Root rot

  • Root problems

  • Salt on the top soil layer

When to Fertilize Your Plants

As a general rule, you should fertilize most indoor plants during the growing season and then stop feeding them when they are out of their growing season. Most plants have a growing season that starts in spring and ends in fall, but winter flowering plants may have a growing season during the colder months as well.

It is important not to fertilize your plants outside of their growing season, as plants require a "rest period" during this time.

For example, our Tradescantia will grow well if it's receiving fertilizer every two months from April to October only, while fertilizer is not required from November to March. Crispy Wave needs to be fertilized once a month, only during the growing season (Apr-Sept).

How Much Fertilizer Should You Give Plants?

To determine the proper fertilizer dosage for your plant, you need to consider the guidelines from the brand and your particular plant's needs.

You should always use less fertilizer than the recommended dose for your first few uses on your plant so that you can gauge your plant's response to a particular fertilizer. Look for any signs of problems, such as discoloration or scorching, before gradually increasing the dosage.

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