Proper nutrition the key to growing healthy plants

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— In the recent production of the "Little Shop of Horrors" at Steamboat's Seventh Street Playhouse, the featured plant in the flower shop exhorts Seymour to 'Feed me! I'm hungry' which leads to unexpected consequences. That can happen to us gardeners if we aren't careful what we feed our plants.

Our flowers, vegetables and lawn grasses are somewhat like us: they require nutrients to grow. Given that we typically don't have the luxury of starting over with our lawns and flower beds every spring, the next best thing is to determine what the soils might need as supplements to ensure strong plant growth.

Colorado State University (CSU), through the Cooperative Extension Offices and dozens of soil analysis laboratories around the state, can provide routine soil tests of pH (acidity/alkalinity); nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (nutrients provided by most commercial fertilizers); and other minerals. With these test results, you will have the option of adding commercial supplements or improving your soil organically through mulches, composts and manures.

Of the three major nutrients, crops in Colorado respond most often to the addition of nitrogen (legumes add nitrogen organically) and phosphorous.

A response to the addition of potassium is rare. In fact, adding fertilizers containing phosphorous and potassium when soil tests indicate they aren't required may lead to problems.

Organic materials generally contain all the nutrients essential to plants, but they may not be present in the ratio gardeners would like. That's why commercial fertilizers are popular.

Commercial fertilizers are sold with three bold numbers on the bag, "20-0-0" for example, indicating percentages of nitrogen. This example concentration will provide 20 percent of the contents of the bag in nitrogen; therefore, a 50-pound bag will add 10 pounds of nitrogen. The remaining 80 percent of the material in the bag is inert; filler to carry the nitrogen.

If your soil test indicates a requirement of 4 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn, it might be applied one pound at a time over a four-month period starting in spring. The application method and timing for specific plants may vary; consult your local cooperative extension agent or a Master Gardener.

Maury Bunn is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County.

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