Category Archives: Fertilizers

Spikes, Spikes Everywhere

phalI have a number of phalaenopsis orchid plants and right now, they’re spiking away. In “orchid speak,” spiking is when an orchid starts to produce an inflorescence.

I’ve grown orchids in the past but I’ve never had them grow so well and spike so much as these plants are doing right now. For the first time, one of the plants is sending up two spikes and on others, the spikes are branched and filled with buds.

Phalaenopsis with two small spikes

Phalaenopsis with Two Spikes

What’s different? I’m growing them with the same lighting conditions as in the past. Most of the plants are growing in clay orchid pots with sphagnum moss. There’s only one thing that’s different – this year I’ve made a conscious effort to fertilize the plants regularly.

There’s an adage out there that says orchids should be fertilized “weekly weakly,” the idea being that a weak fertilizer solution should be added to the plants once a week. I haven’t gone to this extreme but I have been fertilizing them at the middle and end of the month. I have some liquid fertilizer for African violets and that’s what I’ve been using. The orchids don’t seem to mind that the fertilizer is made specifically for them!

Branched Phalaenopis Spikes

Branched Phalaenopis Spikes

The difference is amazing. The leaves are healthy and green and the plants have all been growing well. And now all of the spikes just shows that fertilizer really is important when growing orchids (and other plants as well).

Eventually I’ll learn the lesson that fertilizer is vital and makes a big difference in how plants grow, blossom and produce. Every time I look at these orchids, I have a visual reminder of what a little bit of good fertilizing can accomplish!

My Purple Tomato Seedlings – Feed Me!

It’s time for a confession – I can sometimes be obsessed with words and their usage. This is especially the case when it comes to plants. If I hear someone say “the plant needs a drink,” I can feel my back tightening up! Plants can’t drink; they absorb water through osmosis and hydrate. Like I said, I can get a little obsessive about word usages.

Because of this tendency, I also don’t like phrases like “plant food” and “feeding your plants.” I hear the word “food” and I think of eating – plants don’t eat. Plants take up needed nutrients and minerals and through the process of photosynthesis make their own “food,” or what I’d prefer to call photosynthate!

But one of the dictionary definitions of “feed” does make sense when it comes to plants – “to furnish something essential to the development, sustenance, maintenance, or operation of.” I guess you can “feed” a plant.

I write all of this because of something that recently happened with my tray of tomato seedlings. I noticed that one side of the tray was green and growing well while the other side had plants that were smaller with a purple tint to the leaves and stems. It looked like there were two different varieties of tomato in the tray but that wasn’t the case – they were all the same variety.

Tomato Seedlings - note the smaller, purple plants on the left.

Tomato Seedlings – note the smaller, purple plants on the left.

Phosphorus deficiency can often lead to plants that have a purple color in the stems and leaves. But why would half of the tray be OK while the other half was suffering from a deficiency of this nutrient?

I thought back on what I had done to this tray of tomatoes and it all started to become clear. The potting mix that I like to use is a local gardening center’s own formula. I’ve found that plants grow well in it but it doesn’t have any added fertilizer. I had started the seeds of the tomatoes in this mix and I had used this mix when I transplanted the seedlings into the tray. A few weeks ago I had made up some worm casting tea and poured some of it on the tomatoes. But I hadn’t poured it on the whole tray; I had added it to one side of the tray, assuming that it would infiltrate into all of the soil.

If I had added a lot of the worm casting tea to the soil, drenching the tray of seedlings, I wouldn’t have had this problem. But the mix wasn’t very wet when I added the tea so the nutrients in the liquid stayed localized. One side of the tray had plants that were growing well – you could say they were “well fed.” The other side of the tray of seedlings was starting to show signs of nutrient deficiency. The purple leaves and somewhat stunted growth was a clear signal that “something essential to their development” was missing – they weren’t being “fed.” If those tomatoes were like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, they would have been crying out, “Feed me, Marc!”

So that’s what I did. I have some African Violet “Food” that has micro nutrients and a 7-7-7 N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) ratio so I knew it would provide what the tomatoes needed. I added this liquid fertilizer to the entire tray of seedlings and now, only a few days later, I can see a difference. The youngest leaves on the phosphorus deficient plants are more green and less purple.

Tomato Seedlings after Adding Phosphorus

Tomato Seedlings after Adding Phosphorus

Next time I’m starting plants in this potting mix, I’m going to be more conscious about fertilizing the seedlings. I know the dangers of over-fertilizing so I tend to go to the other extreme and under-fertilize. It’s time to seek a middle ground regarding fertilizer.

The amazing thing in all of this is that the plants let me know what they needed. The purple leaves were a message delivered loudly and clearly. The message I took from those leaves was that something essential was missing from the seedlings’ soil. But maybe I can lighten up a little bit and admit what the message really was – “Feed me!”

(But if the soil ever gets dry and the plants wilt, I’ll won’t say they “need a drink” – I have my limits!)

Worm Power

This past Christmas I receives a box of Worm Power Shower from my sister. I’d seen Worm Power in the Harris Seed catalog but I’d never tried it.

Worm Power Shower

Worm Power Shower

Worm Power is an organic fertilizer that’s worm castings – the nice word for worm excrement. It’s made through a process called vermiculture or vermicomposting. Instead of allowing only bacteria and fungi to break down materials into compost, worms are used to speed the process and also enrich the resulting product. Their movement through the material mixes the compost and their eating breaks down the materials faster.

You can do your own vermiculture if you’re interested. A great book describing how to do it is Worms Ate My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Mary F. Fenton. I haven’t tried it but the process seems pretty easy. It’d be a cool project for kids or for school groups. You could make some compost and learn about worm biology in the process.

But back to Worm Power. This company in Avon NY is affiliated with a dairy and uses manure and worms to make the Worm Power. The castings are odorless and the levels of fertilizer in them is low enough that you’re unlikely to cause any fertilizer burn. You can purchase boxes of Worm Power casings or get them in small pouches to make worm casting tea.

Worm Power Tea - storing it in an iced tea jug might not be the best idea!

Worm Power Tea – storing it in an iced tea jug might not be the best idea!

My Christmas gift was a box of the pouches to make casting tea. After soaking the pouch in water for 24 hours the product really does look like tea. I’ve used it on some of my houseplants and seedlings for the garden and they appear to have responded well to it. Also, after brewing the tea, the pouch can be cut open and the castings used as a top-dressing for potted plants.

Worm Power seems to be a good product but there are a couple of issues that I have with Worm Power and the Worm Power Shower packets in particular. Each pouch makes one gallon of casting tea that needs to be used within 4 days – I would imagine all kinds of things would start growing in the tea after 4 days! I have no problem using a gallon of tea but if you only have a few houseplants or one pot on the deck, this would be a lot of fertilizer to use.

The biggest issue for me is the cost. A box of Worm Power Shower that makes 5 gallons of tea costs over $12. I could get enough MiracleGro to last many years for that price. I’m not knocking the company – I’m sure the price is fair for what they’re offering. But for me it’s just too much for a weak fertilizer. If I used it just for my houseplants, I’d go through 5 gallons in a little over a month during the summer. And if I used Worm Power on outdoor potted plants – forgetaboutit – the 5 gallons wouldn’t even fertilize them all one time! I’ll be using up the pouches I have but from that point on, I’ll be going back to MiracleGro for my houseplants and outdoor potted plants.

But I haven’t given up on Worm Power. The Harris Seeds web site mentions that you can mix Worm Power with potting mix to act as a safe and slow release fertilizer. A 3 pound bag of Worm Power can be added to 15 quarts of potting mix. I like this idea. When I’m growing transplants for the garden, I struggle a little with fertilizing them. I always wonder if I’m fertilizing too much or too little and I know my tendency is to fertilize too little. Worm Power would solve the fertilizing issue in trays of transplants. It’s too late for this season but maybe I’ll give it a try next year.

Worm Power’s an interesting product. It makes a great gift and conversation starter for a gardener. For the right people in the right situation and for those who will only use organic products, it could be the fertilizer for them to use. For me, I have too many plants for it to be practical.

When it comes to growing transplants, it might be just the answer to fertilizing that I’ve been looking for. But then again, adding some Osmocote to the soilless mix might do the same thing for a fraction of the cost. Who knows? I’ll decide next January!