Documents: Latest From: Donna Balzer :

Fertility in the New & Improved Garden
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

visit her blog at

August 6, 2000

After several weeks of planning and putting together the new, improved garden this spring it is suddenly time to look after it. Is there an easy way to get the plants thriving without a lot of special care? Is there any quick solution to success with planters and hanging baskets once they are at home? How about those in ground plantings? Are geraniums in the same care category as your new shrubs?

This week ­ part 5 of the 8 part gardening series "What to Do this Week" ­ there won¹t be any planting decisions to make- only maintenance suggestions- and the first thing to maintain is a good fertility level for the plants in your possession. In our short climate the best bet for success with annuals is the steady supply of nutrients. Many of these quick growing , long blooming annual plants can be kept in peak ­ straight from the greenhouse quality - if they are given a continuous supply of the building blocks for growth.

These building blocks are the major chemical elements plants need including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as the many micronutrients (minor elements). When elements are deficient- especially the mobile elements like nitrogen- the plant is forced to shuffle around its supply, moving nitrogen from its older, less productive bottom leaves up into its younger upper leaves . If the plant is doing this the lower leaves become noticeably pale before eventually dropping off. If your plants are being forced to shuffle around the basic elements like players in a game of musical chairs, they are not likely to produce the number or quality of blooms you would expect .

While plants dodge the mineral shortage time is wasted and the summer is over before the show is ready for production. Gardeners new to Calgary¹s high pH water and soils have an additional warning. Plants need to actually accept the nutrients you provide them. Like a complicated puzzle, the form of nitrogen and the way it is available to plants depends on many issues, but is particularly affected by the level of acidity in the soil and water. If the plants are going into Calgary soil using water that is coming out of a Calgary tap, the recommended fertilizers should be acidic in nature. Look for retail packages with names like Peter¹s Professional (30-10-10), Miracid (30-10-10), Plant Prod Ever-Acid TM (30-10-10) or Schultz Acid (33-11-11). In fine print you will also see the words "Chelated Micronutrients". This means the smaller quantity­ lesser known elements are available in a form which will not be affected by pH- they will be available to the plant roots and released on schedule as provided.

For the latest in fertilizer chemistry and a grower¹s insight I turned to Patty Bretin of Bretin¹s Flower Farm, a retailer of quality annuals just east of Calgary. Patty has a very strict grower¹s regimen for the annuals she produces and seems anxious about the care her plants receive once they leave home. To make life easier for her customers she has done a comparative analysis of the acidic fertilizers available has determined the acidic formulations mentioned work here.

Ironically Patty has never found an advantage in using starter fertilizers such as 10-52-10 ­ a commonly recommended product for people installing new flowers in the garden. "When we go to Œgrower¹s school¹ we never hear talk about elevated phosphorus- ever. You actually eliminate phosphorus (the middle number in fertilizer) and you still get root production when you raise greenhouse plants and plugs. The direction the nitrogen goes (either to root or shoot) depends on the associated ratios (of other cations). Calcium, for instance, is a building block for cell wall development and will help develop sturdy plants" commented Bretin.

While buying the right fertilizer for plants in pots and the garden is one part of the yard fertility scheme, supplying the lawn with its basic needs is also important. A slow release organic fertilizer ­ again with all three numbers- should do the trick in most households and this will give the green lawn most people expect when they maintain sod over several years.

Getting the fertilizer to the plants is the next logical question asked by gardeners once they have bought their fertilizer and it is especially importantly when people manage many flowers in extended gardens. On the balcony or within a small site it is possible to hand water by just mixing up a little fertilizer in the watering can. In a larger area it is more difficult to get even and consistent coverage. The easiest and most thorough way to give all plants the same rate of fertilizer is to invest in a small siphon system which hooks to your hose or water outlet. The system available at Garden Retreat and at Lee Valley Tools in Calgary is the Miracle Grow Siphonex. It retails for about $20.00 dollars. At Dig This, a newer garden supply store in Calgary, a similar product - the Plant Prod Hose End Sprayer is available for $10.99. Both systems allow the gardener to apply the needed fertilizers evenly to all the plants in pots or in the ground . It is even practical for applying nitrogen to lawns and shrubs in the outdoor garden if the area is small and if you don¹t mind the task of hand watering all your beds.

Strange leaf discoloration or interveinal chlorosis or general unthriftiness of plants in your care this summer can be avoided if you treat your annuals like "thoroughbreds " and give them the special feed they need to allow them to reach their full potential in our harsh and ­ did you mention frost ?- short blooming season. "Remember you can make Brownies with more than one recipe" offers Bretin, and high performance annuals like supertunias have higher needs than low demand plants such as morning glories."

Balzer, a garden consultant, is heard weekly on CBC radio in Southern Alberta and is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald. Visit her web page at or call 233-8999 for a consultation.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row