Celebrating the Seasons

Gabby Gardeners

Question: Most of the asparagus in my three-year-old bed didn't come up this year. I only harvested three spears! What's the problem?

Rebecca says: A major loss like that may be due to a late spring frost. Hopefully, if the damage wasn't too bad the crowns will recover and the plant will be back. Asparagus, unlike most vegetables, is a perennial plant so it's critical to select its home wisely. Highest yields come from medium-textured sandy loam soils. Asparagus roots can grow six feet deep; high water tables will drown roots and kill the plant.

Question: I'm a new gardener and would like to know more about fertilizers. Can you explain the numbers on the bag to help me choose the best one?

Rebecca says: Plants need 16 nutrient elements to grow. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are three nutrients plants need in relatively large quantities. Unfortunately these elements are not always readily available in soil. That's why fertilizers usually contain these elements, listed as N-P-K. The N stands for nitrogen, the P for phosphorus, and the K for potassium.

What does each nutrient do? In addition to other roles, nitrogen helps plant foliage to grow strong. Phosphorous helps roots and flowers grow and develop. Potassium (potash) assists plants in forming starches and proteins, thus promoting plant hardiness, disease resistance, and a tolerance to drought and cold.

These numbers tell you the total weight (amount) of each of the elements that is contained in each bag. The first number tells you the percentage of nitrogen present, the second the percentage of phosphorus, and the third is the percentage of potassium. The three numbers represent the weighted total of each element per bag. For example, a 100-pound bag of 30-10-10 fertilizer has a ratio of 3:1:1; where 30 percent of the 100 pound bag (30 pounds) is nitrogen, 10 percent (10 pounds) is phosphorus, and 10 percent (10 pounds) is potassium. The additional 50 pounds are filler ingredients often used to help you apply the product. These various element combinations help create the optimal blend for each purpose. Typically for most garden vegetables and flowers, a well-balanced fertilizer with equal amounts of N, P, and K, such as 10-10-10, is all you need. Specific plants, such as grass, will appreciate more nitrogen in the spring.

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