WATER-LOK: Gardening Reference
ABOUT SOIL CONDITIONERS
Most gardens are planted where the gardener likes them to be, rather
than because of a perfect soil. Gardeners usually find that their soil
is lacking in some character of structure, as well as nutrients, either
because of past conditions or because of the type of plant you intend to
grow. Fertilizers can add nutrients, but soil conditioners, often called
soil ammendments, improve the ability of the soil to hold water and
deliver nutrients to the roots, as well as improve drainage and texture.
Some conditioners are more often found as components of fertilizers, but
are also sold separately as conditioners. Others merely raise or lower
the pH, depending on whether they are soil sweeteners or soil
WATER RETENTION CRYSTALS
POPULAR BRAND NAMES: AgrosokeTM, Water Gels, P-4, Water-Grabber, Aquagel
ALSO KNOWN AS: Water release crystals, root watering crystals, water
retention granules, water retaining soil additive, hydrogel crystals,
DESCRIPTION: Fine, white, transluscent, granules which absorb many times
their own weight of water (some brands claim 500X) in about 30 minutes.
They swell up to form moist, sticky beads of gel which then release
water evenly over a period of time, and they release almost all of it. A
non-toxic, non-biodegradable, and pH-neutral polymer. Lasts about 5
years. Sold in packets as small as 2oz.
USE: Reduces the frequency of plant watering. Mixed with soil, in lawns
but especially in containers, to maintain an even distribution of
moisture; sort of a moisture resevoir that acts like a sponge. Plant
roots actually attach themselves to the water-swollen crystals,
stimilating the production of feeder roots. Increase in size of crystals
aerates the soil, too. Minimizes transplant shock. Reduces watering
requirements by up to 50%, according to some manufacturers--one good
soaking may last three weeks, for example. Can be mixed into small
containers, placed around specific plants, or spread over entire
gardens. Helpful if you find it hard to water regularly.
USE TIPS: Add the crystals to the soil after they have aborbed water
(been "hydrated") so you can mix in the right about. A 6:1 ratio is
typical. Most brands last several years or more and are compatible with
fertilizers, but check the label to be sure. Helps prevent overwatering,
the scourge of houseplants, to a certain extent. Don't overload a
container with this, though, or you will end up holding so much water
that you'll create a swamp-like condition and rot your plant roots.
BUYING TIP: Amount of water that crystals soak up varies tremendously by
brand. Be sure to compare labels. Avoid starch-based versions, which do
not last long. Popular due to the interest shown in container gardening
by otherwise capable young urban professionals who can't seem to take
responsibility for even the simplest domestic chores.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Horticultural perlite
DESCRIPTION: White, light, hard, porous, gritty material similar to
Vermiculite (below) in appearance. Formed when lava (volcanic rock) is
heated, which causes it to expand. Non-toxic, sterile, and odorless.
Construction grade perlite is made of smaller, lighter particles.
USE: Increases drainage (loosens heavy soils), improves aeration (gets
oxygen to the plant roots), and decreases weight of potting soils, an
important consideration for planters on decks. Helps retain water, which
attaches to the particles' surface, as well. Can be used as a rooting
medium on its own. Construction grade perlite is used as loose fill
insulation and as a light agregate with concrete where weight is a
factor, such as on roof decks.
USE TIP: Use the finest ground forms of perlite. If it is not finely
ground, it tends to go to the top of a mixture. Goes well with peat moss
for lightweight container mixtures.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Peat moss, peat muck, sphangnum peat moss, sphangnum
peat, sphangnum moss
DESCRIPTION: Dried and partially decomposed roots, leaves, stems, moss,
and other plant debris that have been harvested from wetlands.
Compressed up to half normal volume and roughly ground up for
commericial packaging, peat is light, loose, and fluffy when unpacked.
Peat is much more commonly available than muck, which contains more
mineral matter and more decomposed plant matter.
Reed-sedge peat is the product of partly decomposed plant residues
(reeds, cattails, and grasses, and the like) that grew in a water-
saturated environment. Also called reed peat, fibrous peat, or sedge
Sphagnum Peat Moss (milled and unmilled) is partially decayed sphagnum
moss and other bog plants that grow well in parts of Michigan and
Canada. Most packages from Canada are also labeled in French, "Tourbe de
spaigne." It is the most common type of peat moss available. Michigan
Peat Moss is just peat from Michigan, though it is a bit darker and
richer than the regular Canadian peat moss
-Milled peat is dark brown to red/brown in color and is simply sphagnum
peat ground into a coarse powder. May be sold as organic seed starter.
Sold in 2:1 compacted form, and usually not labeled as unmilled. The
most common form of peat, sold in large, plastic packages of 1 to 6
cubic feet. Also available in super-compressed plates that expand when
-Unmilled peat is a greenish-light brown material that looks more like
you would expect dried moss to look like: fibrous, with small branches
and leaves visible. Usually sold in small, plastic packages.
Note the difference between two confusing terms: Sphagnum moss is gray
and stringy, harvested before it has decomposed. Sphagnum peat moss is
brown, and is made of decomposed plants.
USE: As a soil additive, particularly when the pH needs to be lowered
(mix with lime if acidity is a problem and you don't want to lower your
pH). Its main characteristic is that of great water-holding capcity:
peat absorbs between five and fifteen times its weight in water. Aids in
opening up clay soil for better aeration and supplies organic matter to
poor soil. Besides these special qualities, it improves all soils in
terms of water retention and porosity. Spaghnum peat is commonly used as
a mulch, as well (Chapter 2) for acid-loving plants, and breaks down
after about three years. Unmilled peat is used as a growing medium for
orchids and other epiphitic plants and bromeliads, or air layering, as
well as lining wire baskets to hold soil. Milled peat is used not only
as a conditioner but also as a seed-starting medium, and mixes well with
perlite and vermiculite for container gardening.
USE TIPS: Work the peat into the soil well; if it gets packed down it
might block water from reaching the plant (it makes bad mulch). Remember
that peat tends to lower the pH of soil as it breaks down. If you insist
on using it as a mulch, do not let it dry out--it will block water like
a thatched roof.
BUYING TIPS: Peat moss is sold in cubic foot bales. Usually, the larger
the bale, the lower the cost per cubic foot (usually around a dollar),
so don't hesitate to buy more than you might need right away. It keeps
well. Try to buy name brands of peat from reputable dealers, as good
peat tends to contain more organic matter.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Land Plaster, sulfate of lime
DESCRIPTION: Light-colored finely powdered rock or pellets containing
calcium sulfate. Similar products that are blends of calcium and sulfur,
are gypsite (crystaline form of gypsum) and lime sulfur (which is sold
as calcium polysulfide ). The latter may have a wetting agent which
makes for deeper soil penetration.
USE: Improves soils for water penetration and aeration by breaking up
particles of clay and neutralizing the salt in salty (high-sodium)
soils, without raising the pH as lime (below) does. Because it is a mild
soil acifidifier, gypsum may be used where the use of lime would pose a
problem to acid-loving plants. The process is a chemical one, whereby
sodium ions are exchanged for calcium ions, which separates the clay
particles enough to create "pore space" for air and water.
USE TIP: Supplies calcium and sulfur, both secondary nutrients (Chapter
3). Can be used in great quantities if warranted.
BUYING TIP: The pelleted form is easier to use than the powder form.
ABOUT GRASS SEED:
Purchasing the right seed for your site is one of the most important
steps in seeding and reseeding lawns. To help you make an informed
decision about which grass seed to buy a number of factors have to be
considered, but they are not too complicated. Typical among them are:
- How much time you have to spend maintaining the lawn. Some grasses and
combinations of grasses demand more care and maintenance than others.
- How sunny or how shady your site is.
- How much traffic your lawn will take. Will children be playing on it?
- How much water is available, and how often you will be able to water
- How much you need quick-growing cover.
- What climatic zone you are in--do you need a Southern or Northern
grass? (These terms are interchangeable with warm-season and cool-season
There is a strong tradition in America of having a beautifully
maintained lawn, and that tradition is not about to die; a "perfect"
lawn remains a basic element of suburban life. It is, however, likely to
evolve somewhat as the high costs--environmental, monetary, and
labor--become unacceptable. In some parts of the country, water alone is
a major cost. Also, more and more homeowners are choosing to conserve
water by using less water-intensive landscaping than lawns.
Most people cannot afford to be so picky about lawns resembling
perfectly manicured outdoor carpets as professional "turf managers" who
care for golf courses and the like. After all, the model for perfect
lawns is British, and few places in this country have the ideal growing
conditions that they do (indeed, grass is native to few of our settled
areas), let alone the 200 years it took for them to get their lawns
going right. Just pouring chemicals and other products onto the ground
every weekend does not make a perfect lawn. A little thought and
planning can solve problems better than lots of money and products, and
a beautiful lawn can be had if the idea that it must be absolutely
"perfect" is put aside.
The sensible approach to lawns that many American gardeners are taking
today includes such notions as:
- A well-prepared and maintained site will produce a healthy lawn more
able to resist diseases, pests, and weeds without the need for synthetic
- Chemical herbicides are not the only way to a weed-free lawn (and that
the possible threat to the environment of herbicide abuse make a few
weeds seem quite tolerable);
-A semi-annual fertilizing is all that is necessary;
-The choice of the right grass seed and mixes to fit the site has as
much to do with how well the lawn will grow as anything else;
- We should break the typical American habit of over-dependence on
chemicals, especially new, "convenience" blends that may duplicate
others or include unnecessary products. Synthetic chemicals should be
used for what they do best: curing specific problems. Non-toxic methods
should be explored and adopted wherever possible.
The best time to reseed or seed a lawn of cool-season grasses in the
North is the fall. This allows the grass to establish a good root system
before winter. In the South, spring is best. Look for the grass seeds
and mixes long before you are ready to plant to assure yourself that you
will be able to get just what you want. Settling for just what is
available after the prime planting season will result in a poorer lawn
that needs much more work.
You can't just throw the seed onto the ground and expect it to grow
well. Soil preparation involves a fair amount of work. The soil should
be tilled to a depth of at least 8." All rocks, weed, and old grass
clumps should be removed. Hard soil should be opened up with milled peat
moss. Finally, the area should be leveled, rolled, and raked. After
seeding, the lawn should be kept moist for the first few weeks, and
covered with a biodegradable light lawn netting or a dust of peat moss
or straw to protect the seeds a bit from wind and rain.
ABOUT SEED TYPES AND MIXES:
In the North, many manufacturers offer pre-mixed seed specifically
developed for certain types of lawns, or the garden center may have its
own mix, and you can mix your own from the single types available. It is
always important to read the types and amounts of seed in the mix to
determine if you are really getting what you need. To do this, you need
to know a little about the types of grass you can grow and what they are
suited for, which is what this chapter is about.
Usually the Northern, or Cool-Season, mixes contain the ever-popular,
hard-wearing Kentucky bluegrass, some turf-type fast-germinating
perennial ryegrasses (as opposed to the "common" type) and some fine
fescue. The actual mix depends entirely on the part of the country where
it is sold and of course on your taste, budget, and needs. Southern, or
Warm-Season grasses are generally not mixes but rather one single type
of grass, most of which are sold as sod, plugs, or springs (individual
plants) instead of seed.
Some mixes are described in general terms, such as Play (for high
traffic), Sun (for more than four hours of sun daily), Shade (for less
sun), and Sun/Shade (for typical mix of areas). The local garden center
quality mix is often a good bet, especially if the ingredients are
listed so you can judge for yourself. And of course, mixing your own can
be a source of great satisfaction.
Particularly in the North, when you use just one variety of seed for
your lawn you are only courting disaster when a pest or disease hits it.
Lawns of single varieties will be wiped out by diseases that affect that
variety, whereas lawns which contain a mix of types of grasses are more
likely to have only some affected by the disease while the others
survive. Nothing is sadder than a completely browned-off and dead lawn
of a single type of grass, while surrounding lawns of mixed types
survive! A mixture of grasses also produces a lawn with more interesting
texture than the single-variety lawns. Pre-packaged pre-mixed seed is
convenient, as well, and there is no reason not to buy it.
The label on a mix lists the types of grass seed, crop seed, inert
matter, and weed seed. You want the lowest levels of the latter three
items, of course, like less than 1% (there should be no crop seed, or at
most a few tenths of a percent). Note the percentages of grass seed
types and see if that meshes with your needs and desires. This chapter
should help you decide what's best, or check with your local Cooperative
Extension Service for help (Appendix B). The percentage of seed
germination should be 80 to 90% and they should have been tested during
the year of purchase. The state of origin should not affect its growth.
The listing of the types of grass seed can be a little confusing, though
the following pages should help explain this. However, the world of
grass types is a little like the world of wine: if you are an expert,
the labels reveal much pertinent information that shows the differences
from one bottle to another; however, the differences are so subtle that
often only an expert can appreciate them. Cultivars (orcultivated
varieties, or named varieties, or proprietary types ) and hybrids (types
that are the result of crossing, or breeding plants of different species
or varieties to respond to a need ranging from pure aesthetics to better
disease and insect resistance) are specific types of grass that tend to
perform well; most are new and improved types, and new ones are
constantly being added to the market. Look for these when buying grass
seed. There are over 300 of them now, biologically different (they are
even patented or registered by the developers--the symbol is "PVP", for
"Plant Variety Protection"--but they are essentially similar to the
consumer. Only some of the more commonly found ones are listed in this
Manufacturers may swear by one or another, but they are listed by name
only on the following pages because the difference is so subtle (with a
few exceptions)--and performance of all grass seed is influenced by
weather, fertilizer, watering, and soil to such a great extent that you
really cannot generalize. Likewise, no miracles should be claimed by the
manufacturers, either. Be leery of any that do. Price generally reflects
quality, and national brands are dependable.
Most of the grass seed in a mix should be the "Fine-Textured" type, and
should be cultivars (see above for alternative names) or hybrids, rather
than the general name (or "unnamed", or "common" types). For example,
"Adelphi Kentucky Bluegrass" is better than "Kentucky Bluegrass." Much
like wine, the generic types are not as good nor as expensive as the
ones with more specifics on the labels--region, year, etc. The common,
unnamed variety is often listed as "Variety Not Stated." This is the
kind of seed labeled like simple "red table wine": "red fescue" or
"annual ryegrass." Try to find named seed for a more vigorous,
disease-resistant, and longer-lasting lawn. Unnamed varieties are better
for a special use such as a quick cover crop to prevent erosion or mud,
to solve a particular overwintering problem, or if you absolutely must
pinch pennies. The more named seed in the mix, the better the buy.
As to which specific cultivar is best for you, get all the advice you
can, experiment, and keep in mind that almost any of the new ones is
bound to do better (again, not much unlike wine--though you can never be
certain). The fact that they are named is sufficient to set them a cut
above the unnamed kind, and to make them worth a little bit more in
State land grant universities and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture tests
turfgrass types by characteristic and by overall performance on a
state-by-state basis, providing yet another way to decide which type is
best for you. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service (Appendix B)
for more information. With gene transplants entering the picture, we may
yet find the "perfect" grass seed--but don't hold your breath.
ABOUT NORTHERN GRASSES:
The following grasses grow well in the northern climates and at higher
altitudes in the South. Wherever there is a winter snow, they should
thrive, growing especially vigorously in the spring and fall.
COLONIAL BENT GRASS
BOTANICAL NAME: Agrostis tenuis
DESCRIPTION: Bent grasses are finer in texture than bluegrasses and
require more care; they are therefore more likely to succumb to
diseases. These grasses spread by stolons (a ground-level spreading
branch) above ground and have thin, erect blades.
CULTIVARS: Exeter, Highland
USE: A grass that does well in shade and sun and in acid soils that
won't support other grasses; mixes well with fine fescues. Present in
mixes bent grass to help produce a thick rich lawn in areas of the
country that are seasonally moist, such as the Northwest and Northeast
coastal regions, and some areas around the Great Lakes. Fares well in
New England, too. Avoid using in hotter, drier areas.
USE TIP: Colonial bent grass needs frequent mowing to a height of 3/4"
to 1", which often means mowing twice a week in areas where it grows
BOTANICAL NAME: Agrostis palustris
DESCRIPTION: Creeping bentgrass is a beautiful fine grass that spreads
naturally to produce a thick green carpet. Creeping is a term used
interchangeably with spreading.
CULTIVARS: Emerald, Prominent, Penncross
USE: This is the incredible stuff you find on putting and bowling
greens, mowed to as little as 1/4 inch.
USE TIP: These grasses need lots of moisture, fertile soils and much
attention. Not recommended for homeowners, unless your home is a country
club and you have (or are) a full-time groundskeeper.
BUYING TIP: Avoid any mix containing this seed for the reasons stated
above, though this is unlikely to be found in a typical blend.
Botanical name: Poa pratensis
DESCRIPTION: A fine-textured perennial grass with attractive dark green
color. It is often in sod because it spreads from rhizomes (underground
stems) to form a thick carpet. Over 80 cultivars have been developed,
making this one of the most common and popular grass seeds. Some are
listed here; researchers continue to develop better ones constantly.
CULTIVARS: Adelphi, America, Arboretum, Bensum, Birks, Bonnieblue,
Classic, Delta, Eclipse, Enmundi, Glade, Gnome, Majesti, Merion (from a
single plant found on the course of the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore,
Pa.), Merit, Monopoly, Nugget, Park, Plush, Ram, Sydsport, Touchdown
USE: Kentucky bluegrass seed produces a thick, good-looking lawn. It is
your basic Northern grass. In order for it to be able to compete with
weeds and withstand heavy traffic or play, and because it takes a while
for bluegrass to establish itself, it is often mixed with fine fescues
or perennial ryegrasses (below), which establish themselves much faster
and are a little hardier. Does best when mowed to about 1-1/2" and needs
a fair amount of feeding, moisture, and light, though types vary in
their needs. Glade, Bensum, and Eclipse are excellent performers in
shade, and Adlephi, Classic, and Gnome respond well to close clipping.
Adlephi is one of the most popular types.
USE TIP: Do not over-water during the hotter months. Mow grass often so
that it does not grow more than an 1-1/2 inches in height. Grows best in
sun, but some varieties tolerate shade better than others.
BUYING TIP: Select varieties and blends that include disease-resistant
cultivars. Specialized publications tell you which diseases each grass
resists. Avoid mixes of Bluegrass and turf-type tall fescues.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Turf-type Perennial Ryegrass
Botanical name: Lolium perenne
DESCRIPTION: A "bunchgrass" that does not spread. It does, however, grow
thicker by growing extra stems on a single plant.
CULTIVARS: There are very few differences among the more popular
cultivars, but these are a few you will find in garden
centers--All*Star, Blazer, Citation, Derby, Diplomat, Fiesta, Manhattan
(from a single plant found in New York City's Central Park), N K-200,
Omega, Pennant, Pennfine, Regal, Yorktown II
USE: Quick cover and tough, clean-mowing during the summer (they only
cut well with a very sharp mower blade during the late spring). However,
it often does not come back or does not do well the second year after it
is planted in locations with severe winter cold and little snow cover.
Found in mixes because it provides coverage while the slower growing
spreading grasses fill in.
USE TIP: Ryegrass needs the same care as bluegrass (above) and should be
mown as frequently. Grows best in full sun with plenty of water.
BUYING TIP: When mixing or buying in a mix with bluegrass and fine
fescue make sure there is no more than 20% ryegrass in the mixture. In
higher percentages in a mixture ryegrass crowds out the slower growing
grasses. Look for varieties that are newturf-types. 'Manhattan' and
'Pennfine' are good choices.
red fescue (Botanical name: Festuca rubra )
Chewings fescue (Botanical name: F. rubra 'commutata' )
hard fescue (Botanical name: F. ovina )
sheep fescue (Botanical name: F. ovina )
ALSO KNOWN AS:
red fescue: spreading fescue, creeping red fescue
DESCRIPTION: Thin-leafed and dark green in color, thinner and finer than
that of bluegrass. Often found in mixes with bluegrass because it is
particularly suited to northern areas of the country and faster to
red , or spreading, or creeping red fescue : Though it spreads slowly
(by rhizomes, a sort of swollen underground stem) it establishes itself
quickly in the first season and is therefore often mixed with
Chewings fescue: Tends to form dense clumps; named after the man who
developed it, a Mr. Chewings.Can be cut shorter than red.
hard fescue: Developed for an increased tolerance to heat and drought.
sheep fescue: Very clumpy, and better as an ornamental border plant than
for turf. Usually very blue.
Agram, Banner, Ensylva, Highland, Highlight, Jamestown, Koket, Ruby
USE: Most often found in mixes with other grass seed. Grows under drier
and shadier conditions than many other grasses--hardier in general than
bluegrasses. Fine fescues are tough grasses that wear well in traffic
USE TIP: Give this grass sun or dry shade and it does well even in poor
soil. Does not require as much fertilizer as bluegrass and can be mown
to a height of 1-1/2".
BUYING TIP: Buy in a mix with other grasses rather than alone. The
varieties Highlight, Jamestown and Koket are good Chewings types for
BOTANICAL NAME: Agrostis alba
DESCRIPTION: A coarse grass that forms a thin turf.
USE: Primarily as an erosion control or cover grass along highways and
open lands. Not a permanent grass, and too thin and unattractive for use
as a lawn.
USE TIP: Redtop requires minimum care and maintenance, and does well in
wet, cool sites. Does not require much fertilizer and grows in poorly
drained soils. Moisture is its primary requirement.
BUYING TIP: Avoid mixes with Redtop in them. It is not at all suited to
use as a lawn grass, though it was once found in grass mixes.
BOTANICAL NAME: Poa trivialis
DESCRIPTION: Light green prostrate grass (meaning it lies down) similar
to the bentgrasses. It spreads by surface stolons, but is not a very
USE: Does well in moist and cool shade but is not as drought-resistant
as other grasses as it is shallow-rooted. 'Sabre' is a cultivar which
grows well in the North and the South, but is used as a wintergrass to
overseed southern lawns after bermudagrasses go dormant during the
USE TIP: Does not grow well in sun or under dry conditions.
BUYING TIP: Buy this grass seed in shade mixtures with bluegrasses and
other seed. It is excellent for sites with cool, moist shade.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Kentucky 31 fescue
BOTANICAL NAME: Festuca arundinacea
DESCRIPTION: A coarse-textured bunchgrass that does not spread, but once
established, its deep roots allow it to be persistent. Relatively
disease, wear, and drought-tolerant. Good winter recovery and spring
greenup. New cultivars, known as turf type tall fescues, are much finer
CULTIVARS: Clemfine, Falcon, Houndog, Rebel
USE: Particularly suited to difficult sites in the central United
States. It can be used in areas that get little attention, as it does
well in poor soils without needing maintenance, and can be used wherever
bluegrass or the fine fescues have failed. Often considered a weed in
northern areas where it is difficult to remove from bluegrass lawns. It
does, however, prove useful in areas where nothing else grows well. If
it is found in a mixture, it should be the main component--over 90%.
Developed for use in the transition zones that fall between the Northern
and Southern areas of the U.S.
USE TIP: Tall fescue requires little care, though it keeps its color
better if fertilzed in the spring and fall. Mow 2" to 3" high.
BUYING TIP: In a major exception to the rule, this is not good to have
in a seed mix, especially if appearance is important to you. It doesn't
spread, but it does persist. Use it alone.
ABOUT SOUTHERN GRASSES:
Most of the following will grow only in the South, though some can be
grown in the so-called "transistion areas" at the lower altitudes.
Therefore most will only be found for sale in the South. Also, unlike
the Northern grasses, these are used alone and not in mixtures.
Generally only the common types are available as seed--all, except
bahiagrass, are propagated vegetatively, so they must be planted as sod,
plugs (small clumps of sod), or sprigs (individual grass plants).
ALSO KNOWN AS: Bahia grass
BOTANICAL NAME: Paspalpum notatum
DESCRIPTION: A coarse-textured grass that is easy to care for.
Considered a weed if mixed with other grasses. Has unattractive seed
heads. Available as seed.
CULTIVARS: Paraguay, Paraguayan 22, Pensacola, Tifhi, Wilmington
USE: Bahiagrass is an inexpensive, coarse grass that grows well in the
South, especially along the Gulf Coast. A few varieties can grow in
cooler regions where the temperatures get as low as 5 degrees F.
Bahiagrass grows in poor conditions, such as sandy soils, where little
else will grow. Drought-tolerant.
USE TIP: This is a relatively low-maintenance grass. It tolerates some
neglect and poor conditions, but of coures looks better if at least some
care is given. Mow high, between 2" and 3." Needs frequent mowing.
BUYING TIP: Bahiagrass in a mix with fine fescue produces a quick cover,
but the fine fescue dies out as the Bahiagrass fills in. Many Southern
grass mixes contain Bahiagrass seed.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Common Bermudagrass
BOTANICAL NAME: Cynodon dactylon
DESCRIPTION: Fine-textured grass with pleasant green color. Some types
are sterile hybrids which must be planted as sod, plugs, or sprigs--they
do not come as seeds. The first three listed below are the newest,
improved seeded types.
CULTIVARS: Cheyenne, Guymon, Sahara, Sunturf, Tifton, Tifgreen' (Tifton
328), Tiflawn (Tifton 57), Tifway (Tifton 419), U-3
USE: Easy-to-grow, wear-resistant grass that responds well to good care
in areas where the temperature remains high. Common, seeded types are
found in mixes for Southern or warmer areas of the country, intended for
lawns as well as golf courses.
USE TIP: Unlike Bahia Grass (above), Bermuda grasses demand much
attention. They generally require much watering and fertilizing to look
well, though some varieties are hardier than others. They only grow at
temperatures above 50oF. They turn brown at the first frost and remain
so until the return of summer. Lawns in areas with these temperatures
must be overseeded with cool season grasses to keep weeds from invading.
BUYING TIP: Often included in mixes sold in hospitable areas. Because it
is a high-maintenance grass, buy only mixes with a lower percentage of
Bermuda grass seed.
SAINT AUGUSTINE GRASS
BOTANICAL NAME: Stenotaphrum secundatum
DESCRIPTION: Attractive, rapidly-spreading, shade-tolerant, dark green
grass with flat tipped leaves. The leaves are in bunches and give the
lawn a thick appearance. Not available in seed form--it must be planted
from sod, plugs, or sprigs.
CULTIVARS: Roselawn, Coarse, Bitter Blue, Floratine, Floratam
USE: One of the best southern grasses. Grows well in shade and sun, and
tolerates salty soils. It is often used in sod or sold in small clumps
(plugs) to be set out in a grid pattern to fill in, as this grass
USE TIP: Though normally it should be relatively easy to care for, St.
Augustine grass has been affected by severe diseases and pests in the
last few years. Unfortunately, these problems require high chemical
maintenance, and if it were not for these plagues, St. Augustine grass
would be easier to grow. Also needs lots of water. Does best in neutral
to alkaline soils.
BUYING TIP: A very good grass for Southern lawns, but given the problems
recently with pests and diseases, try to buy more resistant varieties.
Check with your local Cooperative Extension Agent (Appendix B) for
TYPES (BOTANICAL NAMES):
ALSO KNOWN AS: Japanese carpet grass
DESCRIPTION: The thickest and most attractive of the southern turf
grasses, but its most distinguishing characteristic is that it turns
brown during its long off-season. Certain varieties have been developed
which will grow in the Midwest and other areas of the country. Similar
in appearance to Bermuda grass. Very slow to establish--it may take up
to 4 years to form a lawn. Zoysia japonica, also called Meyer zoysia, is
the most common improved variety, and has medium width leaves. Zoysia
matrella has the widest leaves and Z. tenuifolia has the finest. Common
seed is available in limited quanity; most is sold as sod, plugs, or
CULTIVARS: Belair, El Toro, Emerald, Flawn, Meyer, Midwestern
USE: Used in southern lawn mixes where a thick texture is desired, mixed
in with a good companion cover grass. It grows well in sun but not as
well in shade.
USE TIP: Though not as high-maintenance as Bermuda grass, Zoysia is slow
the germinate and mature. It does not recover as well as Burmuda grass
does to pests or damage by compaction. It should be mixed with other
grasses to provide a quick cover and crowd out weeds.
BUYING TIP: Zoysia grass seed is good in a turf mix in areas of the
country where it will grow. It should, however, be mixed with grasses
which mature quicker.
Fertilizers may very well be the most common product purchased in garden
centers as well as the one that causes the most confusion. Here's an
extended introduction to help orient the average beginning gardener who
wants to know the background for the terms used on fertilizer labels and
found in gardening advice.
Fertilizers come from a wide variety of natural and manufactured sources
and are marketed in many forms and mixes. What follows here should help
you understand the almost incredible array of choices that are available
Though often referred to as plant food, fertilizers are just part of a
plant food creation process. Green plants actually make their own food
through photosynthesis, the process whereby green plants use sunlight,
water, and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates that nourish the
plant. Sixteen elements, or nutrients, are essential in order for green
plants to do this. The first three elements needed are carbon, hydrogen,
and oxygen, and they come from water and air. Whenever the 13 other
nutrients are lacking in the soil (or just need to be replenished as
they are naturally leached out of the soil by water) they can be
provided by fertilizers.
The most important basic nutrients, commonly known as primary nutrients
(or macronutrients , or essential, or major nutrients) are nitrogen
(chemical symbol "N"), phosphorus Ñ referred to also as phosphate,
phosphoric acid, or phosphoric oxide Ñ (chemical symbol "P" or "P205"),
and potassium Ñ commonly referred to by its soluble name, potash Ñ
(chemical symbol "K" or "K20").
Each of these elements affects plant growth differently (and each plant
a bit differently) and must be chosen accordingly, according to whatever
you have determined that the plant needs. In general, though, the
primary nutrients work as follows:
Nitrogenpromotes the growth of green leaves and stems. (Grass is a big
consumer of nitrogen.)
Phosphorusaids in the production of roots, flowers, and fruit. (This is
most desirable for ornamentals, vegetables, and especialy bulbs.)
Potassium aids in the flowering and fruiting as well as the sturdiness
of the plant in terms of disease and stress resistance (like winter
weather). (Grass usually needs plenty of potash.)
All plants and soils require these nutrients in a particular balance,
and putting too much of one nutrient or another will cause stress and
problems for the plant. For example, plants getting too much nitrogen
will have plenty of green leaves, but they will be soft, the root system
will be underdeveloped, and the blooms for flowers or fruit will be
retarded. Read your detailed gardening guides carefully to determine
what your plants really need.
The three primary nutrients described above work in conjunction with
three secondary nutrients and at least seven trace, minor or
micronutrients, which ultimately just help the plant function, much as
vitamins do with us humans. Just as we can't live on food alone--we need
vitamins to turn our food into energy--neither can the plants process
the macronutrients without a proper amount of micronutrient minerals in
the soil. They also tend to balance out the pH of the soil, pH being the
term used to describe the relative acidity or alkalinity of soil (see
Note, Chapter 1, About Soil Tests).
The secondary nutrients are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, and are
sometimes lumped with the macronutrients. Like vitamins for us, these
usually occur in sufficient quantity in a normal situation but need to
be added when a deficiency is noticed, or to cure a particular problem.
And too much can be a bad thing.
Calcium is usually supplied by lime or other soil conditioners, and is
part of the cell-manufacturing process, particularly important for early
Magnesium is usually found with calcium, and is a prime element of seed
development and development of clorophyll.
Sulfur is supplied by most fertilizers and nature (including rain from
polluted skies!), often in some form of sulfate. Sulphur and sulphate
are acceptable alternative spellings. It is a primary element of plant
proteins and helps give plants a dark green color.
Micronutrients include iron, manganese, copper, boron, zinc, chlorine,
and molybdenum. As fertilizers, they are usually applied to specific
plants to cure specific conditions of deficiency, as opposed to the
general-use complete fertilizers mentioned above. They occur
sufficiently in normal, pH-balanced soils, although houseplants, being
in an unnatural environment, may need a boost sometimes via special
products which package them (see Chelated Micronutrients, below). They
should only be added when you know your soil needs
them[[Eth]][[Eth]]otherwise you may damage your plants, just as when
humans overdo it with vitamins. In most cases though, it is easier to
change the pH of your soil in order to get your micronutrient levels
where they should be. They are needed in very small quantities, so small
that the amount is called a trace, giving them the name trace elements,
although iron is needed in larger quantities to promote clorophyll
production and green color.
One important thing to keep in mind when using fertilizers is that only
the right amount will do. It only helps when the nutrients are needed;
more is not better and may be quite harmful (it is more harmful than
under-fertilizing), so do not over-apply. With many plants, such as
fruit trees, you can reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizer by
pruning and mulching, among other good gardening practices. Finally, no
amount of fertilizing can make up for serious environmental problems,
such as poor soil, rampant disease, extreme acidity or alkalinity, lack
of moisture or sunlight, or (and this is the hardest to accept for so
many of us) an inappropriate climate. Plants cannot be forced to grow
where they really don't want to just by pouring on more fertilizer.
ABOUT FERTILIZER LABEL TERMS:
Fertilizer packages are labeled with a host of confusing terms, the most
common of which are defined here. Note that some of these items are
mixed together to provide a balance of characteristics; the most
important thing to understand is that certain ingredients make them
fast- or slow-acting. The detail you find on synthetic product labels is
required by law that varies from state to state.
- Complete fertilizers: Fertilizers intended for general use which
contain significant amounts of the three primary nutrients (N, P, and
K). Hundreds of formulations are marketed for use as "plant food,"
"vegetable food," or for specific plants, as explained later in this
chapter. The percentage of these three elements contained in any mixture
(and their sources) is found, by law, on the package label and is stated
with three numbers separated by dashes, such as "5-10-5," or "8-6-4," or
"22-3-3." This is the grade, or guaranteed analysis, or NPK number. The
first number is always the percentage of nitrogen, the second number is
always the percentage of phosphorus, and the last is always the
percentage of potash. They are always stated in this order, and the
percentage tells you by default how much of each nutrient is in the
package, by weight, which is what you are ultimately concerned with
(fertilizer is applied at a rate of so many pounds per 1000 square feet,
usually). Obviously, these same numbers tell you the ratio, or
proportion, of one nutrient to another as well.
Keep in mind when comparing prices that you pay for the nutrient
concentration, not the weight per se. Once you have determined the
square feet of the area you wish to fertilize (most helpful if rounded
off to the nearest 1,000 square feet) and what your fertilizer needs
are, purchase the fertilizer with the appropriate grade for the amount
of nutrients you want, while taking into account the size of the bag.
For example, a common lawn fertilizer, Scott's Turf Builder, is rated at
22-3-3. A 12 lb bag contains 22% nitrogen, or 2.64 lbs. If you bought a
fertilizer rated 11-3-3 instead, you would need twice as much
fertilizer--24 lbs--to obtain the same amount of nitrogen. And always
note how much of it is going to be released quickly and how much
released slowly, according the information on the types of nitrogen
- Incomplete fertilizer: If a fertilizer contains only one or two of the
primary nutrients, it is called incomplete. This is not to say that it
is of lower quality, but simply to identify it as a fertilizer to be
used in specific way to treat a specific deficiency. An almost infinite
variey of mixes are made for specific applications, which is explained
later in this chapter. Keep in mind when shopping that the unit cost of
each nutrient increases as the package size decreases.
- Organic fertilizer: Any fertilizer produced by natural
sources--animals or plants--is "organic," "natural organic," "natural,"
"bio-organic plant booster," or "naturally derived." These products all
contain carbon compounds. (The opposite of natural organic is synthetic,
or man-made fertilizer--manufactured items made from non-living items,
called "inorganic," "chemical" or "petrochemical"). If a natural product
is mined and then treated in some chemical process, it is no longer
considered organic. The nitrogen in organic fertilizers is the
water-insoluble, slow-release type, meaning it lasts longer in the soil
before leaching out and probably not "burn" the plants. Some well-known
organic fertilizers are manure, blood meal, and fish tankage, all noted
below. They nourish the plants as they decay naturally with the help of
However, and this is terribly important, a fertilizer may be labled
"organic" even if part of it is from manufactured sources, as long as a
certain percentage of it is from water-insoluble materials (synthetic,
chemical products are almost100% soluble, which is why they work and
then wash out of the soil so quickly). Fertilizer labeling as to whether
something is organic or not is determined by standards set by each
state, which can vary quite a bit. "Natural organic" is the most precise
term, and the one generally used in this book, though it is used
interchangeably with just plain "organic." The fact that a product may
be labeled by its manufacturer as "organic" or "partly organic" when it
contains man-made chemicals or is chemically treated somehow is confus
ing at best and downright misleading at worst, especially in this day
when there is a certain cachet attached to the word "organic" by many
consumers. Caveat emptor.
- Water-Insoluble Nitrogen (WIN): This is a slow-release form of
nitrogen. A certain amount is desirable, especially when mixed with
faster acting nitrogen sources likes those noted below. A higher
percentage of this kind of nitrogen in relation to the fast-acting kind
means that the plant does not receive much nitrogen right away, but it
does eventually; this is usually desirable because the plant has time to
get the nitrogen in a useful way. Check your gardening guides to
determine how much to apply, as each percentage (say more than 50% or
less than 15%) dictates the application of the fertilizer. Tends to
make fertilizer more expensive, but less likely to "burn" the plant or
to leach out, like the fast-acting nitrogen sources. Organic fertilizers
are high in this kind of nitrogen. Container plants that are watered
frequently need this kind of nitrogen.
- Ammoniacal, Urea, and Nitrate nitrogen: Fast-acting ("quick-release"),
inexpensive, synthetic, water-soluble sources of nitrogen, which may or
may not raise the pH of the soil depending on the type of nitrate
compound used. Various nitrates are usually mixed in complete
fertilizers to lessen their effect on acidity. It acts quickly (it can
even "burn" the plant) and is generally inexpensive, but it also tends
to leach quickly from the soil, which is no help. Synthetic fertilizers
are high in this kind of nitrogen, which is the salt of an acid, and
because it is caustic, it should be handled very carefully. Too much
too fast, and your plants may weaken, making them susceptible to fungi.
Included in this group are ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate (sulfate
of ammonia), calcium nitrate, and nitrate of soda (though one brand of
nitrate of soda is organic: Bulldog, from Chile). While these are
usually components of complete fertilizers, most are also available
separately--they have up to 46% nitrogen--if you want to mix your own
fertilizer (not a great idea, by the way) or cure a particular major
deficiency in extreme conditions, such as cool weather, when nutrients
move slowly. Their labels indicate whether they acidify or alkalize the
soil; most acidify the soil (lower the pH), as indicated in the
Potential Acidity Equivalent, explained below.
- Urea-Form, UF , or ureaform, is urea reacted with formaldehyde to make
it largely water-insoluble and therefore slowly available and
non-burning, as opposed to plain form described above. It contains 35 to
40% nitrogen. Urea is a man-made form of nitrogen derived from natural
gas products, and even though it is synthethized, because it contains
carbon it is sometimes labeled "organic" or "synthetic organic." It is
not organic, according to all but the broadest definition of the term.
- Coated Slow-Release Urea Nitrogen: This is the above-mentioned quick-
release nitrogen coated with sulfur to delay its release, adding sulfur
to the soil at the same time (which reduces the pH, meaning it acidifies
the soil) and reducing the tendency of chemical "burn." Sometimes
abbreviated SCU (sulfur coated urea). You must decide, though a soil
test or plant behavior, if your soil needs pH-reducing sulfur or not.
Each coated granule is called a prill. Another form of synthetic,
slow-release, treated nitrogen is IBDU, or isobutylidene diurea, which
has about 30% nitrogen that releases at low temperatures over a long
period of time.
- Potential Acidity Equivalent: Thistells the degree to which a
synthetic fertilizer will change the pH of a soil (organic fertilizers
are not obliged to list this), expressed in terms of pounds of calcium
carbonate per ton, that is, the amount of CaCO3 needed to neutralize the
acidifying effect of the fertilizer, and can range from none to over
2200 pounds, with anything over about 250 being considered acidic, and a
range up to about 1,000 being common. Most gardeners can ingore this--it
is only important if a soil test indicates a pH problem or you are
concerned about plants that are fussy about pH, such as
hydrangeas--because the actual degree of effect is not acute and really
depends on many other factors. It's really more a question of building
up acidity over time. Check your how-to books to find out if your plants
need an acid or alkaline soil, and take soil tests to determine where
you stand. Organic fertilizers do not create this problem as much as
synthetic fertilizers, which tend to be acidic, especially the faster
acting, less expensive ones.
- Chelates, or chelated secondary and micronutrients: Water-soluble
compounds, a form of nutrient that is readily available to the plants as
a foliar spray (one that is sprayed directly onto the leaves) or applied
to the soil like any other fertilizer. These nutrients would not be
available to the plants unless they were chelated. Micronutrients may be
aided in their becoming rapidly available by an unamed chemical catalyst
called achelating agent. Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc
are the most common ones sold individually, although some products
include more. Many gardeners consider these to be professional products
ABOUT FORMS OF FERTILIZERS:
-Liquid . These fertilizers are sold as concentrations of either
water-soluble powders or liquids that need to be diluted with water.
Liquid fertilizers, also called nutritional sprays, may be used as a
foliar spray (applied to the leaves--also called a nutrient leaf spray)
or applied to the ground in a ground spray to be absorbed through the
roots. They are more easily applied (especially in small quantities) and
usually more readily available to the plant than other forms. However,
they are less practical for large areas and easy to over-apply by
mistake, which may burn the plant, and they are also easily leached from
the soil. Most are meant to be a special boost to plants in difficulty,
and usually have more micronutriens than the other forms of fertilizer.
-Powders . As the name suggests, these are plant nutrients in powder
form. They offer quick sources of nutrients to plants, but are easily
leached out of the soil. They may be blown away by the wind and can cake
in storage, but generally cost less.
-Time-released or Controlled release. These are fertilizers that come in
capsule form (sometimes called a prill ), covered with a resin membrane
that disolves slowly when the plant is watered and as the soil
temperature is raised, thus releasing the nutrients over a period of
time. Often a sulfur coating, it lets water in through osmosis or else
just breaks down slowly. Some brands may last in the ground up to 9
months, releasing fertilizer as the plant needs it. Osmocote is a
well-known brand name of this sort.
-Pelletized or Pelleted. These are powders that have been compressed
into pellets. As it takes longer for the pellets to break down, the
easily leached nutrients are released slowly. They flow through
spreaders (Chapter 8) easily, aren't affected by wind like powders are,
and resist caking. Very large pellets may be called tablets, and are
used mostly by profesionals for planting shrubs and trees when they want
the fertilizer to last up to two years.
-Spikes . 2"-3" sticks or stakes made from a compacted fiber impregnated
with fertilizer. These are often used for houseplants but are also
in larger sizes for trees and outdoor shrubs. The fertilizer is released
slowly as the spike disintegrates in the soil. Some spikes also contain
pesticides. The most convenient form for houseplants and small gardens.
- Granular or Granulated. Granules designed tobe used with spreaders,
consisting of larger particles than found in dusts or powders but
generally smaller than pellets. The granules stick to the plant and
break down over time with exposure to moisture, releasing the chemical
slowly. This is the most common form for top- or side-dressing (putting
fertilizer on the soil surface).
- Trionized. Granules of vermiculite or other lightweight material to
which the three nutrients are bonded, making for a very even
distribution of nutrients. Each granule is homogenous.
- Simple-mix. Variously-sized granules of nutrients which may be
unevenly distributed in the bag because of their different weights and
textures, and therefore may deliver fertilizer unevenly to a lawn or
- Polyform. The lightest, most concentrated form of fertilizer. The
nutrient granules have been screened, so they are all the same size.
GENERAL BUYING TIPS: As with many products, fertilizer is usually
cheaper per pound in the larger packages, often dramatically so. Keep in
mind that the grade--the three numbers on the label--indicate the
percentage of the package by weight of each major nutrient, and that
therefore you need less of a fertilizer with a higher grade than one
with a lower grade in order to obtain the same results.
As for specialized fertilizers, most gardeners can get by with nothing
more than the general mixes of the 5-10-5, 10-6-4 (for lawns,
evergreens, and trees), and10-10-10 varieties. The others are for
fine-tuning when you known precisely what kind of problem you are
addressing, and for personal preference in terms of brands, forms,
price, and the like. One thing is sure: gardening is far from an exact
science. It is quite amusing to hear people (sellers and consumers
alike) absolutely swear by one product or another--with totally opposite
An alarming aspect of fertilizer merchandising which takes advantage of
this manic search for the one, perfect product is the common practice by
manufacturers, particularly those among the best-known and most widely
distributed, to have the exact same fertilizer sold under different
labels. For example, Flower as well as Shrub, Tree, & Ground Cover
fertilizer, or lawn food and garden food. This may help the gardener who
needs to be told that a particular product is OK for his or her garden
or lawn or flowers, but it also might encourage that same gardener to
buy twice as much as needed, that is, two containers when one would do.
It is not difficult to read the labels to see if they are any different
from one another.
DESCRIPTION: Sold in all possible forms: pellets, granules, liquids,
powdered concentrates to be mixed with water, or powders to be applied
dry. Whether synthetic or organic, they come in two general types:
slow-acting and fast-acting.
Many specialized products are made for starting new lawns. These may
have a higher percentage of nitrogen than phosphorus or potash
becausethe leaf of the grass is the primary part of the lawn, and
fertilizers high in nitrogen help promote this leaf growth. "Greenup"
fertilizers heature extremely high nitrogen content. However, others,
made for application in the fall and early spring to start patches and
promote root development, contain more phosphorus.
Popular brands and types:
Starter Lawn Food (10-18-12): Particularly good for building roots
during fall and winter. Added iron prevents yellowing.
Lawn and Tree Food (10-6-4): Good both spring and fall, for both new and
established lawns, and for any other leaf crops.
Lawn and Garden Food (10-10-10): Good general use fertilizer.
USE: Keeping lawns healthy and green. This is not just for aesthetics or
impressing the neighbors: a healthy lawn is more able to compete with
weeds and more resistant to pests and diseases. Lawn fertilizers may be
broadcast by hand, applied with a hose attachment (Chapter 8) or applied
with a hopper spreader (Chapter 8).
USE TIPS: Follow label directions carefully. Too much fertilizer or too
high a concentration of liquid fertilizer will burn and brown-off a
lawn. Almost all lawn fertilizers need to be watered in well; failure to
do so evenly will result in dead areas where the fertilizers were not
watered in and thus did not enter the soil.
Slow-acting lawn fertilizers are best applied only once or twice a year.
Organic forms are less likely to burn the lawn. Fast-acting lawn
fertilizers produce greener lawns within hours of application, but do
not continue to fertilize a lawn over a long period of time, making it
necessary to reapply them every month or so during the growing season.
This is a case of a choice between instant and delayed gratification,
but if you go for the instant kind, you have to have the time and the
money to repeat the application every month or more.
Lawns should be fertilized either in the spring or in the fall. Most
experts recommend early fall fertilizing of lawns to ensure good growth
and root development, especially in areas of the country where winters
are below freezing. As a general rule, fall is the best time for many
other lawn care practices too, such as seeding and sodding.
Remember that rain is going to leach out the chemicals you put on your
lawn, and therefore the repeated application of certain chemicals is
likely to pollute your water supply. Caution and moderation are the way
to go here.
BUYING TIPS: Which form of fertilizer to buy is pretty much a question
of your own preference. Some people prefer to use a dry fertilizer which
they then water in well. Others enjoy the practice of liquid feeding.
Avoid a fertlizer in which all of the nitrogen is supplied by ammonium
nitrate, ammonium sulfate, or urea--the synthetic, water-soluble forms
of nitrogen which act so fast that they break down very soon after
POPULAR BRAND NAMES: Miracle-Gro All-Purpose
ALSO KNOWN AS: Garden fertilizers, garden food, tomato food, vegetable
DESCRIPTION: Concentrated powders, pellets, liquids and granules, with
an equal or higher percentage of phosphorus than nitrogen or potash.
Perhaps the most common type of fertilizer purchased. Typically 5-10-5
or 10-10-10. Often fortified with micronutrients including chelated
iron, too. Sold in bags from 5 to 20 lbs.
USE: To promote the early development of fruiting vegetables, and to
help with the bloom set (when the blooms appear). Slightly different
formulation than those for blooming ornamental (non-food) plants.
USE TIPS: Too much fertilizer is worse than too little: Excess nitrogen
promotes leaf and stem development at the expense of blooms or fruit,
for example. Vegetables benefit from fertilizer at the young seedling
stage and again just before bloom set. When fertilizing at these times,
follow label directions carefully. More nitrogen may be beneficial prior
to bloom set, but more phosphorous is needed afterward for bloom and
BUYING TIPS: A general purpose 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 is a good garden
fertilizer and cheaper than special vegetable foods with their added
micronutrients. In fact, some micronutrients, like chelated iron, lower
the pH of the soil, and that may be unncessary in your case. Don't buy
it if you don't need it.
HOUSE PLANT FOOD
POPULAR BRAND NAMES: Liquid Miracle-Gro All-Purpose, Stern's Therapy for
House Plants, Schultz Instant Liquid Plant Food, Granny's Bloomers,
Granny's Jungle Juice, Jobe's Houseplant spikes, Peter's, Ra.Pid.Gro
DESCRIPTION: Concentrated liquid applied directly to soil, powdered
concentrate mixed with water, or spike, specially formulated for
houseplants with chelated iron and other micronutrients usually lacking
in indoor growing media. Normally should not lead to buildup of salts.
Liquid sold in small bottles ranging from 2 ounces upward. Grades tend
to be 8-7-6, 10-8-7, 10-5-10, and the like.
USE: Fertilizing houseplants, especially counteracting the effect of
being in an unnnatural place.
USE TIPS: Usually formulated to be quickly available to the plant. Often
very concentrated so that it can be sold in small containers, it must be
dilluted according to instructions or else it might harm the plant.
BUYING TIPS: There is lots of competition for this market, so experiment
until you find a product that gives you the best results. Each plant may
react differently to the various formulations available. Furthermore,
this is an intimate process, and your selection may have as much to do
with the way you like to care for your plants as does the actual effect
of the fertilizer. Ultimately, house plant food is not that different
from garden food except in the high degree of concentration and the
packaging or form.
DESCRIPTION: A complete fertilizer that contains more phosphorous than
nitrogen or potassium, typically in a 4-12-5 or similar grade. Often
blended natural organic (bone meal, above) and synthetic materials. Sold
in small bags for the home gardener.
USE: Encourages healthy root development so essential to bulbs.
SAMPLE BRAND NAMES: RA-PID-GRO, PETERS, MIRACLE-GRO for Roses, BANDINI
ROSE FOOD, OSMOCOTE Plant Food, VERDI-SOL, SEQUESTRENE 330 Fe, Rose-Tone
DESCRIPTION: Premixed liquids, liquid concentrates, powder concentrates
to be mixed with water, pellets, and all of the other forms that
fertilizers can come in. Sold as complete fertilizers, rose foods
usually have equal or higher percentages of phosphorus, such as
20-20-20, 6-12-6, 6-6-4, or18-24-16, although there are some exceptions,
such as RA-PID-GRO at 23-19-17 and OSMOCOTE at 18-6-12.
USE: Promoting foliage growth, especially bloom set of roses.
Specialized formulations encourage brilliant color.
USE TIPS: Read labels carefully, because many are concentrates that if
not diluted properly could easily damage the plants. Others may contain
unneeded micronutrients which could change the pH of your soil in a
damaging way. If you know your soil conditions, you will be wise to
avoid fertilizers that contain additives you may not need.
BUYING TIPS: These products are usually reliable, but at a price. Roses
grow best in a soil with a pH around 6.5. To help you maintain this pH
level most rose fertilizers list the potential acidity equivalent on the
label. Liquid rose fertilizers (concentrates and premixed) are readily
available to the plant roots and leaves, while pellet and granular
fertilizers are not as readily available to the plant but may have the
advantage of working over a longer period of time, eliminating the need
to fertilize more frequently. Make your choice based on the time you
have to spend fertilizing. Sometimes the convenience of application (as
with preformulated fertilizers) is worth the extra cost.
ACID-LOVING PLANTS FERTILIZERS
POPULAR BRAND NAMES: Holly-tone, Miracid
DESCRIPTION: Granular or liquid fertilizer, often with chelated iron and
other micronutrients and soil acidifiers. Other ingredients that may be
found include aluminum sulfate (bauxite that usually has been treated
with sulfuric acid), ammonium sulfate, or sulfate of ammonia, which has
20-1/2% available nitrogen, and iron sulfate, which helps correct iron
deficiencies. A grade of 4-6-4 is common, as is 5-10-10, 7-7-7, and
4-12-12, depending on the plant it is intended for, but 30-10-10 is also
available. Aluminum sulfate (Soil Conditioners, Chapter 1) is packaged
pure as well, as a soil acidifier. Sold in bags from 5 to 20 lbs.
USE: Fertilizing hollies, azaleas, rhododendrons, evergreens, tomatoes,
and the like, all plants which crave acid soils, by promoting growth and
good color. Aluminum sulfate imparts a blue color to hydrangeas.
USE TIPS: Spring and fall feedings, depending on the particular brand.
Follow directions on the bag for each type of plant.
BUYING TIPS: Sulfate of ammonia is slow-acting but long lasting.
FLOWERING OR FRUITING PLANT FERTILIZERS
ALSO KNOWN AS:
DESCRIPTION: Complete fertilizer heavily weighted to supply nitrogen and
potash or equal amounts of all three macronutrients; however, large
fruit trees generally do not need much phosphorus, calcium, or
USE: Encouraging normal growth and fruiting. Slightly different from
fertilizer for vegetable crops.
USE TIPS: Sprays are not useful on fruit trees except when a superficial
fix is desired; ground application in the fall or early spring is the
best. One good application to large trees such as apple trees can last
for years, especially when accompanied by hay or straw mulching and
heavy pruning. In fact, these practices can eliminate the need for
DESCRIPTION: Granular form of rapidly available nitrogen usually in a
USE: Fast-acting source of nitrogen for quick greening of turf grasses
such as fescue, bluegrass, and Bermuda grass, especially during cool
USE TIP: Extremely concentrated; may burn. Most people are better off
with traditional sources of nitrogen.
BUYING TIP: Considered a professional product--not necessarily available
in small packages.
DESCRIPTION: Granular source of fast-acting nitrogen and phosphorous,
usually rated at 16-20-0.
USE: For fast growth of lawns.
USE TIPS: Reapply every 60 days--this goes fast. Not recommended for
ALSO KNOWN AS: Epsom salts
DESCRIPTION: White powder containing 9.6% magnesium and 14.5% sulfur.
USE: Source of magnesium when need is indicated by a soil test. Most
concentrations are spread at 1/2lb per 100 square feet.
USE TIP: Usually applied as a foliar spray to fruit trees with foliage;
mix with a spreader-sticker (Chapter 4). Dolomitic limestone (Chapter
1), a good source of magnesium, is more often applied to the soil when
you have time--this is a quicker treatment.
MURIATE OF POTASH
DESCRIPTION: Granular fertilizer that consists entirely of 60% soluble
potash (0-0-60 or 0-0-55). Made from potassium chloride, a potash salt,
which actually ranges from 48 to 62% soluble potash. Another, similar
source is sulfate of potash, or potassium sulfate, which has no less
than 48% soluble potash.
USE: Potassium supplement for accelerating root and tuber growth;
typical component of fast-acting, acidic, synthetic complete
USE TIP: Add only when your soil test tells you that your soil is quite
deficient in potash. Also good for melting ice and snow on driveways and
BUYING TIP: Fritted potassium is the organic alernative to muriate of
potash in complete fertilizers.
Nitrate of Soda
ALSO KNOWN AS: Sodium Nitrate, Chile Saltpeter
DESCRIPTION: White, granular substance sold in bags. A salt
traditionally mined from natural deposits in Chile or more recently
produced synthetically by reacting nitric acid with sodium carbonate.
Pure nitrate of soda (NaNO3) contains 16% nitrogen (16-0-0), but also
27% sodium (Na). One brand from Chile--Bulldog--is considered natural
USE: Concentrated, highly water soluble source of quickly available
nitrogen. Encourages rapid leaf and stem growth.
USE TIP: Use carefully, or you may burn your plants.
BUYING TIP: Old source of nitrogen that was more common before the
development of modern synthetic ammonia fertilizer plants.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Rooting powder
POPULAR BRAND NAMES: Rootone, Hormo-Root, Dip' N Grow
DESCRIPTION: Powder containing growth regulators and fungicides.
USE: Rooting cuttings (getting new roots to grow) faster and without
rotting or succumbing to disease.
USE TIPS: Dip just the first inch or so of a cutting into the powder and
shake off the excess.
BUYING TIPS: Because you only dip the end of a stem into the container,
even small amounts last a long time.
DESCRIPTON: Powder containing live bacteria of the Rhizobia family.
USE: Mixed with legume (bean family) seed prior to planting in order to
encourage the formation of nodules which in turn take in extra nitrogen,
even from the air. This process is known as nitrogen fixation.
USE TIPS: A little bit of vegetable oil mixed in with the seed helps the
inoculant adhere better. Make sure you are matching the correct bacteria
to your particular type of plant. Do not use on seed that has been
treated with fungicide: the bacteria you just bought will be killed
along with the bacteria that the fungicide was intended for.
BUYING TIPS: Especially helpful in soil never planted with legumes
before; not usally all that helpful in soils that have already been
SULFATE OF AMMONIA
ALSO KNOWN AS: Ammonium sulfate
DESCRIPTION: Granular, acidic fertilizer made from ammonia treated with
sulfuric acid, with 20.5% available nitrogen (20-0-0). Generally sold in
small, 5 lb bags. Sometimes considered a soil conditioner, as an
USE: Fertilizing acid-loving plants; often blended into complete
fertilizers as noted above in Acid-Loving Plant Fertilizers. Longer
lasting but not as quickly available as Nitrate of Soda (above), but
still considered fast-acting. Acidifies the soil (lowers the pH) and
feeds sulfur to the plants, immediately.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
DESCRIPTION: Bagged white or gray granular fertilizer. During the
nineteenth century, superphosphate was made from bone black, a product
derived from charred bones,but since then has almost exclusively come
from phosphate rock. Superphosphate today is created when rock
phosphate, a subtropical mineral deposit found in South Carolina in 1867
(mined in huge open pits there and in Florida and Tennessee), is treated
with either sulfuric acid or phosphoric acid or a combination of the
two, making this a synthetic product. A very common kind of phosphorus
fertilizer. (Pure mined rock phosphate is an organic fertilizer noted
Normal superphosphate contains up to 22% phophorous. Made from natural
phosphatic material which has been exposed to sulfuric acid. Formerly
known as regular, single, standard, simple, or 20% superphosphate.
Typical grade is 0-20-0.
Enriched superphosphate contains from 22% to 40% phosphorus and is also
derived from natural phosphatic material treated with sulfuric and
Concentrated , Also Known As double, treble, triple, or multiple
superphosphate , is any grade that contains 40% or more available
phosphorus, which is the highest percentage of available phosphorus
sold. Commonly graded 0-46-0.
USE: Rapidly available source of phosphorus.
BUYING TIPS: Superphosphate maybe a better buy than bone meal (above),
particularly when planting bulbs and seeding in lawns.
DESCRIPTION: Inexpensive source of synthetic organic nitrogen, derived
from natural gas products. Granular, with at least 35% but commonly with
46% available nitrogen (46-0-0). Acid-forming, non-staining and
non-corrosive. Sold in bags of all sizes, including 5 lbs. Another,
similar product is nitroform, at 38% nitrogen.
USE: Foliar feeding and side-dressing of all plants. Also melts snow and
ice. Slow releasing, with some fast release.
DESCRIPTION: Powdered, granular, or liquid form of water soluble
compounds of the metallic nutrients made with organic chelating agents
which make these micronutrients available to the plants when they
normally wouldn't be. Very similar to vitamin pills for humans--in fact,
some are sold mixed with vitamin B-1. Micronutrients include iron,
manganese, zinc, boron, copper, chlorine, and molybdenum.
(Macronutrients are available in a variety of forms listed in this
chapter, but are also available in "pure" concentrations).
USE: Treating certain soil deficiencies of micronutrients.
USE TIPS: Use only as directed, and only when you are quite sure that
you need them. Normally balanced and well-fertilized soils should not be
lacking in micronutrients, and a major deficiency should be thorougly
analysed. Iron is the most commonly deficient micronutrient, causing
BUYING TIP: Professionals have more use for these items than amateurs.
If you must absolutely buy them and have trouble finding them in a
garden center, try to find a professional source though a landscaper or
SYNTHETIC PLANT CARE PRODUCTS
ABOUT SYNTHETIC PLANT CARE PRODUCTS:
There are many chemical products sold in garden centers other than
pesticides and fertilizers. These products promise to cover tree wounds
and help remove stumps, and other important tasks.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Tar, tree wound dressing, pruning seal, sealer, tree
wound spray, tree paint
DESCRIPTION: Black petroleum asphalt base liquid sold in either aerosol
form or as a liquid to be brushed on. Some brands contain an antiseptic
fungicide, such as copper napthenate, to help prevent disease.
USE: Seals the stump of a limb or branch that has been pruned against
weathering, drying out, decay, pests, and infection. A specialized
version of tree paint is made for use as a grafting compound. Also used
after pruning rose bushes and other shrubs and vines, and for
USE TIP: We now know that it is unecessary to paint over the stump of a
normally, cleanly pruned limb, as the tree isolates the area and seals
it itself, providing a scar tissue that does not allow decaying to
advance into the tree. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service finds that wound
dressing does not prevent rot. However, tree paint may be of value to
help seal damaged bark or trees which are wounded mechanically,
preventing insects or diseases from entering the tree through the wound.
It also fills an aesthetic function where large, prominent scars have
been left. Smaller cuts, such as made for grafting, should be covered
with grafting wax instead.
BUYING TIP: Can also be used to waterproof wooden tubs and planters.
DESCRIPTION: Potassium salt of nitric acid (potassium nitrate) usually
in powder form.
USE: When poured onto tree stumps accelerates the natural rotting
process, making the stump and roots porous throughout. Holes can be
easily drilled into the rotted stump, filled with kerosene, and set
USE TIPS: Generally not dangerous to other plants. Check label to be