Top 10 Fertilizing Tips for Florida Gardens
You want to feed yourself and your family fabulous produce that you grew in your yard, and that’s awesome. There’s nothing like that sense of accomplishment when you bring in baskets full of wonderful vegetables, or pop a beautifully sun-ripened cherry tomato in your mouth that you just picked off the plant. When two-thirds of your dinner plate is colorful, delicious vegetables from your garden, you know you’re living a fantastic, purposeful life.
But when do you feed the plants that give you those great vegetable harvests? Well, they will need a little something extra at several points during their growing cycle, and here are some tips for you to ensure that your plants will have everything they need to feed your family and still live happy, healthy plant lives.
Before I dive in, there is one little thing that is important to know about fertilizer – it’s not technically “plant food” – rather it is a supplement of nutrients the plant needs to successfully create all of the nutritional molecules it needs to survive and thrive during its own photosynthesis process. Think of fertilizer as something akin to taking Vitamins rather than eating a meal – it actually helps with knowing when it’s best to fertilize!
Here’s our top tips for fertilizing Florida Gardens – an article inspired by feedback from you, our customers!
#1 – Fertilize at Planting Time
Whether you’re planting seeds or starter plants, work organic fertilizer, nutrient-rich compost, or slow-release into the top 4-6” of soil of your planting area. You can also drop a “3-finger pinch” into the planting hole, as long as it’s worked into the soil as well – you don’t want to burn the roots with too much nitrogen matter. Always water fertilized areas well to activate the release of the nutrients from the dry granules. I recommend a 3-3-3, 6-6-6, or 8-8-8 for this purpose. Also, if you are planting peppers and/or tomatoes, you really should add dolomite lime to the soil you are planting those plants in, it will help you avoid blossom-end rot.
#2 – Fertilize When Seedlings Have First True Leaves
If you started with starter plants, this will not apply to you. If you started from seeds, your sprouts will have their initial leaves – known as “seed leaves” or, scientifically, Cotelydons – that get the photosynthesis process started for the plant. These leaves are responsible for getting the plant embryo inside the seed from the initial “rooting & shooting” stage to establishing a more complex and environmentally-engaged root system – they create the energy needed to establish the plant for better survival immediately.
These leaves usually look a little different than the leaves at the time of fruit production later in life – so they probably won’t look like the pictures on the seed packet (and that’s ok). The leaves that form after the cotelydons are the true leaves, and true leaves will usually be higher on the stalk than the seed leaves.
If you didn’t fertilize into the seed or seedling hole directly at the time of planting, work a small handful, or “a palm-full,” of fertilizer into the top inch of the soil around the bottom of the plant, keeping about 1” away from the stalk so that you don’t disturb the fragile newly-formed root ball too much. You could still go for the 3-3-3, 6-6-6, or 8-8-8 for this purpose (could do 10-10-10 if that’s all you have – just something balanced in all the NPK nutrients).
#4 – Fertilize When Plants Have First Flush of Fruit – if you missed the first Flower Buds
Sometimes you look away for 5 seconds, and all of a sudden, you didn’t even see the first flowers – you now just have little fruits forming everywhere. It’s ok – your plant is doing well with what you already fed it! Just give it a little nudge now. A small fist-full into the top 1” of the soil as a side dressing along each plant will work for this.
You can encourage the size of your fruits by giving them a little phosphorus and potassium (“K” in the NPK number) push when they set their first round of fruits. Another great idea is some micronutrient boosters, such as FoxFarm’s Kelp Me Kelp You supplement – made from sustainable Kelp sources and teeming with all the right stuff for fantastic fruit.
Your Plants should be good through a harvest now.
#6 – Fertilize When Second Fruiting is Underway
Most plants are nearing the end of their “annual” lives by now, and the second flush of fruits can often be more productive than the first (really depending on the plant!). It’s like they’re really hitting their groove. Biologically, the reason the plant fruits so much in the second fruiting is that it’s trying to produce viable seeds to continue the genetic line before the plant dies.
They’re going to need some Phosphorus for heavy fruiting and Potassium for overall healthy growth and support, so a high- P and K fertilizer is good here.
#8 – Fertilize On A Schedule If Your Plants Have a Mixed Flowering/Fruiting Cycle
What if #5 & #6 above don’t really apply? Some plants don’t “flush” with flowers and fruits consecutively – rather, they will have flowers and fruits at the same time over the long haul. A plant that comes to mind for me is pole beans, which function in a “the more you pick, the more I’ll produce” kind of behavior until the plant has exhausted all of its resources. In that case, you can figure out when to fertilize based on production.
For example, when your two jalapeno pepper plants hit 30 peppers harvested and still has flowers, go ahead and fertilize and add dolomite.
After a season or two of growing and harvesting, you’ll be able to tell when your leafy kids need a boost. If you notice your pole beans start to slow down production, but you still see some flowers and the leaves look healthy, give them a good fertilizing and some compost tea and see if you can increase the bean count. If not, well, you didn’t lose much with the experiment, and if you do get an increase, you know that your plant was just catching its breath and needed some nutrients to recover.
This is where your garden journal really comes in handy at tracking your growth and harvest cycles.
#10 – Be Consistent and Observant
I saved this tip for the very last because it is the thought I wanted to leave you with. Even if consistent gardening for you is 10 minutes a day – 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening – be consistent about it. Observe your plants’ behavior and you will learn when it needs a little push. You’ll know when it’s growing fine and doesn’t need more nutrients. You’ll know when there’s too much fertilizer (plants look burned from too much nitrogen). You’ll also know when your plant is eventually spent and can be pulled (and added to the compost pile if it’s not diseased) and replanted with something else. Giving your plants building blocks so they can make the nutrients they need, when they need it, is one of the most important things we can do to help our gardens grow, thrive, and produce for us.
#3 – Fertilize When Plants Have First Flower Buds
You’ve probably been waiting awhile for the first flowers to show up. It’s worth the wait! Your plants are growing long root structures and creating relationships with the microbial life in the soil, growing strong stems to support the eventual fruits that are coming, and the leaves it needs to feed all those processes. It’s a complex and wonderful time for a plant.
You can use the same fertilizer as above, but I would recommend a high Phosphorus (“P” in the NPK number on the fertilizer bag). Phosphorus concentrates on growing strong blooms and fruits, and roots too, which are needed to feed said above-ground plant features. Encouraging flowering will give you more fruit, and fruit is why we work so hard at vegetable gardening, right? Work a small fist-full into the top 1” of the soil around each plant.
#5 – Fertilize After First Harvest & Second Flowering Starts
You’ve harvested your first flush of fruit, pinched back the stems that had those fruits on them, and now you’re seeing more flowers starting to bud on new stems. Give your plants some more 3-3-3, 6-6-6, 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. It’s also a good time for some more dolomite lime in the soil for those peppers, tomatoes, and the like. If you have it, work some veggie compost, earthworm castings, mushroom compost into the soil as well to feed the roots (a great time to weed thoroughly!!), and do a couple of waterings with compost tea.
**Simple Compost tea recipe: spread out a cheesecloth, a little bigger than a bandana, and place a double-handful of compost in the middle of it. Tie off the cheesecloth so that it makes a pouch tied with a single top knot. Fill a 5-gallon bucket with water (rainwater if you have it) about 2/3 full and submerge the compost-in-cheesecloth in it. Cover, and leave for 24-48 hours, agitate it whenever you’re out and about in the garden. Use the water from that bucket to give your plants a nutrition-rich drink – they will love you for it – you’ll see! It can be used at any growth stage, but I like to do it at this point to “recharge” the plant for it’s second round of production. Throw the dirt from the cheesecloth back in your compost, or add it to your garden’s soil for an extra boost.**
At this point in the plant’s life, it’s just run a marathon for you, and you’re helping it recover so that it can start training again for a second go! See what I mean about the “Vitamins” analogy?
#7 – Fertilize Again If Your Plants Are Game For Round 3
If it seems like your plants are game for a third round, you can continue the above fertilizing pattern for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes Annuals and Vegetables in Florida continually produce because our weather is so mild here. They will slow down in cooler weather, usually, but if it doesn’t get really cold, something you plant in Spring may be still producing in December – so don’t be surprised!
Actually, our Florida garden’s most fearsome enemy is the unabating heat of summer – where it’s still 90+ degrees in the middle of the night, the roots and leaves don’t get a rest.
#9 – Specialty Fertilizers and Soil Additives Can Really Help
I’m sure you’ve seen the shelves in the fertilizer section with a myriad of different things with strange names on them. Bone meal, blood meal, hydrated lime, bloom boosters, liquid kelp, bat guano, microbial enhancers/inoculators, Superthrive, acidifiers, micronutrient boosters, and so many more. It can be overwhelming! That’s why it’s important to have people on your side that you can talk to, like our staff at Shell’s Feed & Garden Supply. Stop in and ask us!
There are fertilizers that are formulated specifically for different kinds of plants as well, like Citrus, Palms, Azaleas/Rhododendrons, Roses, Tomato, Lawn & Landscape, and more. Soil additives like Soil Conditioner helps add more organic and/or moisture-holding materials into the soil you already have. Florida soil in most areas is really sandy, so adding organic material and vermiculite or perlite help hold water near your plants’ roots longer so that they can have time to absorb it before the water runs through is helpful.
Shell’s also formulated several fertilizers specifically for Florida soils to help your gardens thrive – please ask us about them! We have Organic too!
Another product that is helpful in keeping water near plant roots is Hydretain, which is an environmentally-friendly liquid that you apply through a hose-sprayer. It works wonders in areas of lawn, garden, and landscape that seem to not retain water at all, such as slopes. I find it also helps to extend the crop life into the blistering heat of our summer.
I really hope this article is a good foundation for establishing your fertilizing “schedule” in your garden. Please keep in mind that every single garden, and plant in it, is different. So while these tips work generally, your plants may need more, or less, depending on their individual environments, growing cycle, weather for that year, watering habits, soil microbial health, and many more variables.
In the future I plan to bring you articles about nutrient deficiencies, so come visit us again for some helpful articles about that and other things.
For now, though, if you have questions, concerns, or comments about my tips here or any article in my blog, just contact me – I’m easy to find. And you can always ask our experts at the store for your garden product and problem questions – that’s what we do!
Take care, and happy gardening!
Marissa – Writer for Shell's Feed & Garden Supply
I'm an over-educated, passionate, gardening and pet enthusiast, and I have found the perfect job! My writing is based on my studies in Biology and Health, and my experiences from gardening with my family as a child.
The great thing about gardening is that it is a life-long learning process. The many blunders and successes of my own gardening projects over the years have been invaluable to me. The late, great, J.C. Raulston once said, "If you're not killing plants, you're not stretching yourself as a gardener." Learn by doing, gain knowledge from the failures, but more importantly, relish the successes, (because they're delicious!) Thanks for reading!
Special thank you to Abby's Farms, where the photo on the left was taken. Shell's Feed & Garden Supply sponsors the chickens and chicken coops there. Visit their website here.