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How badly do we need different types/ratios of fertilizer?

Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

I have a container garden of about 24 pots, some veggies, some herbs, one bloommaster flower box, and some ornamentals. I have been using tapla's 5-1-1 mix, and his recommendation of a soluble fertilizer of the 3:1:2 ratio. Everything seems to be doing well.

But as I wander the aisles of garden stores, I wonder about all the other fertilizer ratios, and the specialty fertilizers, like for roses.

Are they useful? Do veggies need something that flowers don't, or vice versa? Will a no-dig or square foot garden need some different that containers don't? Or do I just continue using the 3:1:2 for everything? (I am also giving FertiSorb a try.....)

Seeking elucidation..... :-)
Thank you!

(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

Good question. I'll be curious to see the answer since I seem to have too many and think I could get by with fewer.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Maybe more than you bargained for. I wrote this and posted it on another forum site, but it explains why, with very few exceptions, one fertilizer should suit all your containerized plant's requirements for nutrition.


This subject has been discussed frequently, but usually in piecemeal fashion on the Container Gardening forum and other forums related. Prompted originally by a question about fertilizers in another's post, I decided to collect a few thoughts & present a personal overview.

Fertilizer Program - Containerized Plants

Let me begin with a brief and hopefully not too technical explanation of how plants absorb water from the soil and how they obtain the nutrients/solutes that are dissolved in that water. Most of us remember from our biology classes that cells have membranes that are semi-permeable. That is, they allow some things to pass through the walls, like water and select elements in ionic form dissolved in the water, while excluding other materials like large organic molecules. Osmosis is a natural phenomenon that is natureís attempt at creating a balance (isotonicity) in the concentration of solutes in water inside and outside of cells. Water and ionic solutes will pass in and out of cell walls until an equilibrium is reached and the level of solutes in the water surrounding the cell is the same as the level of solutes in the cell.

This process begins when the finest roots absorb water molecule by molecule at the cellular level from the surface of soil particles and transport it, along with its nutrient load, throughout the plant. I want to keep this simple, so Iíll just say that the best water absorption occurs when the level of solutes in soil water is lowest, and in the presence of good amounts of oxygen (this is where I get to plug a well-aerated and free-draining soil), ;o). Deionized (distilled) water contains no solutes, and is easiest for plants to absorb. Of course, since distilled water contains no nutrients, using it alone practically guarantees deficiencies of multiple nutrients as the plant is shorted the building materials (nutrients) it needs to manufacture food, keep its systems orderly, and keep its metabolism running smoothly.

We already learned that if the dissolved solutes in soil water are low, the plant may be well-hydrated, but starving; however, if they are too high, the plant may have a large store of nutrients in the soil, but because of osmotic pressure, the plant may be unable to absorb the water and could die of thirst in a sea of plenty. When this condition occurs, and is severe enough (high concentrations of solutes in soil water), it causes fertilizer burn (plasmolysis), a condition seen when plasma is torn from cell walls as the water inside the cell exits to maintain solute equilibrium with the water surrounding the cell.

Our job, because you cannot depend on an adequate supply of nutrients from the organic component of a container soil, is to provide a solution of dissolved nutrients in a concentration high enough to supply nutrients in the adequate to luxury range, yet still low enough that it remains easy for the plant to take up enough water to be well-hydrated and free of drought stress. Electrical conductivity (EC) of, and the level of TDS (total dissolved solids) in the soil solution is a reliable way to judge the adequacy of solutes and the plantís ability to take up water. There are meters that measure these concentrations, and for most plants the ideal range of conductivity is from 1.5 - 3.5 mS, with some, like tomatoes, being as high as 4.5 mS. This is more technical than I wanted to be, but I added it in case someone wanted to search "mS" or "EC". Most of us, including me, will have to be satisfied with simply guessing at concentrations, but understanding how plants take up water and fertilizer, as well as the effects of solute concentrations in soil water is an important piece of the fertilizing puzzle.

Now, some disconcerting news - you have listened to all this talk about nutrient concentrations, but what do we supply, when, and how do we supply them? We have to decide what nutrients are appropriate to add to our supplementation program, but how? Most of us are just hobby growers and cannot do tissue analysis to determine what is lacking. We can be observant and learn the symptoms of various nutrient deficiencies though - and we CAN make some surprising generalizations.

What if I said that the nutritional needs of all plants is basically the same and that one fertilizer could suit almost all the plants we grow in containers - that by increasing/decreasing the dosage as we water, we could even manipulate plants to bloom and fruit more abundantly? Itís really quite logical, so please let me explain.

Tissue analysis of plants will nearly always show NPK to be in the ratio of approximately 10:1.5:7. If we assign N the constant of 100, P and K will range from 13-19 and 45-70 respectively. (Iíll try to remember to make a chart showing the relative ratios of all the other 13 essential nutrients that donít come from the air at the end of what I write.) All we need to do is supply nutrients in approximately the same ratio as plants use them, and in adequate amounts to keep them in the adequate to luxury range at all times.

Remember that we can maximize water uptake by keeping the concentrations of solutes low, so a continual supply of a weak solution is best. Nutrients donít often just suddenly appear in large quantities in nature, so the low and continual dose method most closely mimics the nutritional supply Mother Nature offers. If you decide to adopt a "fertilize every time you water" approach, most liquid fertilizers can be applied at ĺ to 1 tsp per gallon for best results. If you decide thatís too much work, try halving the dose recommended & cutting the interval in half. You can work out the math for granular soluble fertilizers and apply at a similar rate.

The system is rather self regulating if fertilizer is applied in low concentrations each time you water, even with houseplants in winter. As the plantís growth slows, so does its need for both water and nutrients. Larger plants and plants that are growing robustly will need more water and nutrients, so linking nutrient supply to the water supply is a win/win situation all around.

Another advantage to supplying a continual low concentration of fertilizer is it eliminates the tendency of plants to show symptoms of nutrient deficiencies after they have received high doses of fertilizer and then been allowed to return to a more favorable level of soil solute concentrations. Even at perfectly acceptable concentrations of nutrients in the soil, plants previously exposed to high concentrations of fertilizer readily display these symptoms.

You will still need to guard against watering in sips, and that habitís accompanying tendency to allow solute (salt) accumulation in soils. Remember that as salts accumulate, both water and nutrient uptake is made more difficult and finally impaired or made impossible in severe cases. Your soils should always allow you to water so that at least 10-15% of the total volume of water applied passes through the soil and out the drain hole to be discarded. This flushes the soil and carries accumulating solutes out the drain hole.

I have recently switched to a liquid fertilizer with micronutrients in a 12:4:8 NPK ratio. Note how closely this fitís the average ratio of NPK content in plant tissues, noted above (10:1.5:7). If the P looks a little high at 4, consider that in container soils, P begins to be more tightly held as pH goes from 6.5 to below 6.0, which is on the high side of most container soilís pH, so the manufacturer probably gave this some careful consideration. Also, P and K percentages shown on fertilizer packages are not the actual amount of P or K in the blend. The percentage of P on the package is the percentage of P2O5 (phosphorous pentoxide) and you need to multiply the percentage shown by .43 to get the actual amount of P in the fertilizer. Similarly, the K level percentage shown is actually the level of K2O ( potassium oxide) and must be multiplied by .83 to arrive at the actual amount of K supplied.

To answer the inevitable questions about specialty fertilizers and "special" plant nutritional requirements, let me repeat that plants need nutrients in roughly the same ratio. Ratio is an entirely a separate consideration from dosage. Youíll need to adjust the dosage to fit the plant and perhaps strike a happy medium in containers that have a diversity of material.

If nutrient availability is unbalanced - if plants are getting more than they need of certain nutrients, but less than they need of others, the nutrient they need the most will be the one that limits growth. There are 6 factors that affect plant growth and yield; they are: air water light temperature soil or media nutrients. Liebig's Law of Limiting Factors states the most deficient factor limits plant growth and increasing the supply of non-limiting factors will not increase plant growth. Only by increasing most deficient nutrient will the plant growth increase. There is also an optimum combination?ratio of the nutrients and increasing them, individually or in various combinations, can lead to toxicities.

When individual nutrients are available in excess, it not only unnecessarily contributes to the total volume of solutes in the soil solution, which makes it more difficult for the plant to absorb water and nutrients, it also often creates an antagonistic deficiency of other nutrients as toxicity levels block a plant's ability to take up other nutrients. E.g., too much Fe (iron) can cause a Mn (manganese) deficiency, with the converse also true, Too much Ca (calcium) can cause a Mg (magnesium) deficiency. Too much P (phosphorous) can cause an insoluble precipitate with Fe and make Fe unavailable. It also interferes with the uptake of several other micro-nutrients. You can see why itís advantageous to supply nutrients in as close to the same ratio in which plants use them and at levels not so high that they interfere with water uptake. I know Iím repeating myself here, but this is an important point.

What about the high-P "Bloom Booster" fertilizers you might ask? To induce more prolific flowering, a reduced N supply will have more and better effect than the high P bloom formulas. When N is reduced, it slows vegetative growth without reducing photosynthesis. Since vegetative growth is limited by a lack of N, and the photosynthetic machinery continues to turn out food, it leaves an expendable surplus for the plant to spend on flowers and fruit. Plants use about 6 times more N than P, so fertilizers that supply more P than N are wasteful and more likely to inhibit blooms (remember that too much P inhibits uptake of Fe and many micro-nutrients - it raises pH unnecessarily as well, which could also be problematic). Popular "bloom-booster" fertilizers like 10-52-10 actually supply about 32x more P than your plant could ever use (in relationship to how much N it uses) and has the potential to wreak all kinds of havoc with your plants.

The fact that different species of plants grow in different types of soil where they are naturally found, does not mean that one needs more of a certain nutrient than the other. It just means that the plants have developed strategies to adapt to certain conditions, like excesses and deficiencies of particular nutrients.

Plants that "love" acid soils, e.g., have simply developed strategies to cope with those soils. Their calcium needs are still the same as any other plant and no different from the nutrient requirements of plants that thrive in alkaline soils. The problem for acid-loving plants is that they are unable to adequately limit their calcium uptake, and will absorb too much of it when available, resulting in cellular pH-values that are too high. Some acid-loving plants also have difficulties absorbing Fe, Mn, Cu, or Zn, which is more tightly held in alkaline soils, another reason why they thrive in low pH (acid) soils.

So, If you select a fertilizer that is close in ratio to the concentration of major elements in plant tissues, youíre going to be in good shape. Whether the fertilizer is furnished in chemical or organic form matters not a whit to the plant. Ions are ions, but there is one major consideration. Chemical fertilizers are available for immediate uptake while organic fertilizers must be acted on by passing through the gut of micro-organisms to break them down into usable elemental form. Since microorganism populations are affected by cultural conditions like moisture/air levels in the soil, soil pH, fertility levels, temperature, etc., they tend to follow a boom/bust cycle in container culture, which has an impact on the reliability and timing of delivery of nutrients supplied in organic form. Nutrients locked in hydrocarbon chains cannot be relied upon to be available when the plant needs them. This is particularly an issue with the immobile nutrients that must be present in the nutrient stream at all times for the plant to grow normally.

What is my approach? I have been very happy with Miracle-Gro 12-4-8 all purpose liquid fertilizer, or 24-8-16 Miracle-Gro granular all-purpose fertilizer - both are completely soluble. I incorporate a granular micro-nutrient supplement in my soils when I make them (Micromax) or use a soluble micro-nutrient blend (STEM). I would encourage you to make sure your plants are getting all the micro-nutrients. More readily available than the supplements I use is Earth Juiceís íMicroblastí. Last year, I discovered a fertilizer by Dyna-Gro called Foliage-Pro 9-3-6. It is a 3:1:2 ratio like I like and has ALL the primary macro-nutrients, secondary macro-nutrients (Ca, Mg, S) and all the micro-nutrients. It performed very well for me.

When plants are growing robustly, I try to fertilize my plants weakly (pun intended) with a half recommended dose of the concentrate at half the suggested intervals. When plants are growing slowly, I fertilize more often with very weak doses. Itís important to realize your soil must drain freely and you must water so a fair amount of water drains from your container each time you water to fertilize this way. This year my display containers performed better than they ever have in years past & they were still all looking amazingly attractive at the beginning of Oct when I finally decided to dismantle them because of imminent cold weather. I attribute results primarily to a good soil and a healthy nutrient supplementation program.

What would I recommend to someone who asked what to use as an all-purpose fertilizer for nearly all their container plantings? If you can find it, a 3:1:2 ratio soluble liquid fertilizer (24-8-16, 12-4-8, 9-3-6 are all 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers) that contains all the minor elements would great.

How plants use nutrients - the chart I promised:

I gave Nitrogen, because it's the largest nutrient component, the value of 100. Other nutrients are listed as a weight percentage of N.
N 100
P 13-19 (16) 1/6
K 45-80 (62) 3/5
S 6-9 (8) 1/12
Mg 5-15 (10) 1/10
Ca 5-15 (10) 1/10
Fe 0.7
Mn 0.4
B(oron) 0.2
Zn 0.06
Cu 0.03
Cl 0.03
M(olybden) 0.003

To read the chart: P - plants use 13-19 parts of P or an average of about 16 parts for every 100 parts of N, or 6 times more N than P. Plants use about 45-80 parts of K or an average of about 62 parts for every 100 parts of N, or about 3/5 as much K as N, and so on.

If you're still awake - thanks for reading. It makes me feel like the effort was worth it. ;o) Let me know what you think - please.


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

There's no problem for me with switching to MG but now what do I do with the specialty fertilizers for tomatoes, roses, azaleas, Epsom Salt, etc.? Use them up first? Use them on a rotating basis?

Thanks for your help, Al.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

There is no reason you can't use them up if you want to, but I would be cautious about using too much of anything with the middle number (P) higher than either the first or third (N or K) numbers.

The 'specialty fertilizers' are just not necessary. A good friend of mine recently had a conversation with a big wig at Dyna-Gro who revealed that their bloom formula is only on the market because people buy it, not realizing that it actually is ineffective at stimulating more blooms on their plants over what the labeled formula for foliage plats produced. IOW, they were happily buying P their plants would never use.

Honestly, for all my containerized plants, indoors and outdoors, I have used nothing but MG 24-8-16 (occasionally 24-8-16, but it's the same fertilizer except in liquid form) and Dyna-Gro's Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 for several years. I think you've seen pictures of my plantings that give ample sway to the fact that what I'm sharing is much more than theory - that it's proven to work exceedingly well in practical application as well. It's really nothing new, though. If you pick up any greenhouse production guide, you'll find it laden with mixtures that test out at 3:1:2 for uncontrolled vegetative growth and 2:1:2 for controlled vegetative growth where stocky plants, perhaps that are sexually mature (bedding plants in bloom) are desired.

Oops - I don't want to hog Gilraen's thread any more than I already have.

Take care, all.


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

You've explained it quite well and I do "get" the 3:1:2 ratio. I appreciate knowing about the controlled growth formula of 2:1:2. Which product do you buy for the 2:1:2?

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

3:1:2 formulations have ample P, so I just use them, reduce the dosage, and add a little ProTeKt 0-0-3, which has the added benefit of containing silicon for sturdier plants with better resistance to insects and disease. You could also alternate between 3:1:2 and 1:1:1 ratios like 20-20-20 to keep N levels down. There aren't many (if any - I can't think of any) commonly available soluble fertilizers in the 2:1:2 ratio, so you'd have to improvise or just go to the 20-20-20 if you think you need a reduced N supply.

If you have a micro-nutrient supplement, you can easily get by simply reducing the dosage of the 3:1:2 ratios and adding the ProTeKt; or, if you KNOW you're going to be going on a reduced N program at some point, simply add a little potash to your soil and use the reduced dose + the micro-nutrient supplement.

It's not really doesn't have to be that complicated. About the only time I find advantage in intentionally withholding N is when I want to prevent too much vegetative growth well into the season on tomatoes and to prevent super-refined bonsai from growing out of their well-groomed state too quickly. Other than that, practically everything gets 3:1:2 ratios like 24-8-16, 12-4-8, or 9-3-6.


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

We're told dahlias shouldn't have an excess of N so that's why I asked.

Belmont, WI(Zone 4b)

A big thanks to gilraen and pirl for asking the question and to tapla for taking the time to answer. I have learned alot.
Thanks Greg

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

There are very few plants that won't thrive on a diet of nutrients with a 3:1:2 ratio, but sometimes a plant comes along that is easier to bend to our will if we stress it by withholding a certain element. IOW, if we ask the organism, it probably would order a 3:1:2 ratio, but because we want to achieve a particular goal, we might restrict its diet by supplying one or more elements at deficiency levels. To give an example of intentionally stressing a plant to achieve our ends, we can go straight to the practice pf keeping some plants root bound to force additional blooms. There is no question that the plant would prefer not to be grown tight, but we do it so we get more blooms. This practice of intentionally stressing the plant is so widespread, that the comment that "(this or that plant) PREFERS to be root bound" is commonly parroted; but it couldn't be further from the truth. The actual truth is WE prefer the plant to be stressed and root bound so we can easier bend it to our will.

Getting back to the Dahlia. I know that it's often suggested that Dahlias get fed a 1:2:2 ratio fertilizer, but then we find suggestions all over the net advising us that this and that plant needs this or that fertilizer - which I just spent considerable time dispelling. The thoughts above aren't just guesses on my part, they're gleaned from university level texts and books that are considered bibles for those in the business of plant production. Though I've only come around lately to the idea that 1 fertilizer can indeed satisfy the needs on 99% of my plants (the last 6-7 years), my observations of how my plants respond to a steady supply pr 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers bears out the premise in fine fashion.

I grow dahlias every year in the ground and in containers. I don't fertilize the in-ground plants (blessed with rich and fertile garden soil), but I do use 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers on the potted plants, and I'm very happy with the vitality the plants exhibit as well as the bloom size/count - but I don't profess to be an expert at rearing dahlias - those are only my personal observations.

1:2:2 ratio fertilizers will be difficult to get, and you'll pay the long dollar for a specialty fertilizer. If you are willing to invest in a small bag of superphosphate and potash, you can incorporate a teaspoon of each per gallon of soil when you pot the plants. This will raise the level of both P and K in the soil and allow you to use any commonly found 1:1:1 ratio fertilizer, like 20-20-20 so you will be supplying low N doses and still covering the bases with higher P and K. I can assure you though, that you will NOT need that much P in the soil, so you could probably have better results by supplementing only the K with potash when you make the soil or with ProTeKt 0-0-3 when you fertilize and using 20-20-20. Alternately, and probably easier is to purchase a 0-10-10 fertilizer and simply alternate your applications of 3:1:2 with 0-10-10.

Finally, High-P fertilizers are difficult to use effectively. Both the lack of N and the high levels of P combine to cause chlorosis (yellowing). When we see the yellowing, you think, "Ahhh - they need more fertilizer", so you add more high-P fertilizer, which further compounds the problem and leaves most growers scratching their heads as they look at a combination of the effects of low N and antagonistic deficiencies of Fe, Mn, or both, as well as other micronutritional problems related to increased pH, all from excess levels of P.

TTYL ;o)


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

I bought superphosphate in the fall just to have it for dahlias. When I plant the dahlias I use our own compost (we have 6 bins) and have always added some superphosphate. When we grew our own onions we bought a big bag of 0-20-20 and I've always added that to each dahlia hole as well. I do value your opinions and thank you for the research you've done to help gardeners.

Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

I also thank you for your research, and your quick answers, Tapla. I was hoping you'd reply, and you did. No need to apologize for hogging the thread.

Since I already seem to be following your instructions, I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing, with the assumption that I will continue having fairly good success.

Happy gardening!

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Thanks, guys. ;o) I have no doubt you'll do very well, Gilraen. Take care.


Chalfont, PA(Zone 6b)

Great info! Just in time to head out and by fertilizer. Thanks for the detailed explanation.

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