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How to feed your house plants: The basics of fertilizing

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Back to My Roots

A calathea plant.

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When I first started getting into plants, I didn’t know that you had to fertilize the soil to introduce nutrients back into it. Unlike with outdoor plants who regain nutrients through natural outdoor processes, indoor plants only have the nutrients in the soil that they’re potted in; once those run out, your plant doesn’t have much to work with. 

Fertilizers contain three key elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is important in the process of photosynthesis and helps to produce healthy foliage. Phosphorus is important in the process of developing roots and helping plants flower. Potassium is important for helping the plant’s pores and allowing the movement of water vapor so that the plant doesn’t dry out.

You’ll know if your plant is experiencing nitrogen deficiencies if the older leaves are yellowing and newer growth is stunted. Phosphorus deficiency will cause the older leaves to darken in color and the tips will turn brown or black. Potassium deficiency will cause the leaves to curl, have pale spots on the leaves, and just look dried out. There are a lot of other nutrients that your plants can be deficient of, but these are some of the most vital. 

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A rubber tree.

Typically, you want to fertilize your plant every few weeks while watering during the growing season of spring and summer. Houseplants can also be fertilized occasionally during the winter months if the plant is still growing. Now as the weather is warming up and we are about to enter summer, start fertilizing today to make sure your plants have all the nutrients they need to produce beautiful and lush foliage and remain healthy and strong. 

There are a lot of different kinds of fertilizer, but the most common are slow release and liquid. Slow release fertilizer is included in the soil when the plants are potted and is released during the plant’s waterings. This is a great option for people who don’t want to worry too much about fertilizing. 

Liquid fertilizer is added when watering plants. There is more room for error with liquid fertilizer if you don’t follow the instructions on the ratio of water to fertilizer, as too much can burn the roots of your plant and damage it. 

I typically use a liquid fertilizer, because I didn’t really know about fertilizing at first and didn’t want to repot my plants to add a slow release fertilizer once I had gotten used to it. I use the Miracle-Gro Indoor Plant Food and Miracle-Gro Succulent Plant Food for my indoor plants and haven’t had any problems so far. I fertilize my plants about once a month during the winter months if I notice my plants are still producing foliage. During the growing season, I fertilize about every other watering, but it varies a lot. I don’t hold myself to a specific fertilizing regimen — if I remember, I add fertilizer into my watering can. 

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A dieffenbachia plant.

You can make fertilizer at home with everyday items by using compost — eggshells to add calcium, banana peels for potassium, coffee grounds for nitrogen and phosphorus, ash from fire pits for potassium. This is a great way to utilize household items for your plant’s well-being and reduce your waste. 

When I began fertilizing my first succulent, I immediately noticed the newer growth coming in bigger and healthier compared to the usual weak and fragile growth from the lack of nutrients. I didn’t know my plant was growing poorly and lacking nutrients until I fixed it. It felt good to see my plant doing so much better, and now I strive to make sure my other plants never look like that again. As the weather warms and the sun stays out longer, make sure you fertilize your plants to ensure optimal growth.

Reach writer Iseabel Nance at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @iseabel

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