Feeding Your Plants

All our plants need food, but not all plant food is black and white and there's more than meets the eye.

We, as humans, try to formulate everything our empirical data into nice, neat, and repeatable numeric formulae. From the effects of gravity to the exact number of calories we're supposed to consume. I feel, in many ways, everything is broken down that was in order to easily pass our knowledge down from generation to generation via the educational system. Now that is all well and good, but in a lot of ways, I don't see how the complexities of life can be broken down that easily, or should I say, so overly simplified. Granted, there's some pretty complex mathematics that are associated with natural processes, but not nearly as overly simplified as we generally see.

Feeding plants has also been broken down in the same way into neat and tidy numerical representation in the form of our N-P-K numbers. Those numbers representing the available Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potash that's available in plant food - the so-called macro-nutrients that plants need the most of. As consumers we're taught that we need big first numbers for green growth, big middle numbers for roots, and big last numbers for hardiness. Micro-nutrients are seldom addressed, but are typically mixed in and include elements like Calcium, Iron, Sulphur, Magnesium, and so on. It's not something we worry about at home, but often watch for it in the greenhouse where plants like Calibrachoas often needed added iron or Poinsettias need a little extra Molybdenum.

When you look at nature and our soil, there's a time when you start to think of these traditional simplifications and question them. Not because any of the information is inherently wrong, but rather there's part of a complete picture that we're missing somewhere. Just as we as humans need a healthy and diverse diet to get all the goodies we need, plants need exactly the same. So instead of relying on just our N-P-K numbers, we began looking at other aspects of growing and giving our plants a healthy start.

Enter the term biostimulant. It's rather a modern-day catch-all buzz word that covers off anything you can provide to help your plants out that falls outside of the traditional N-P-K and micro-nutrient growing model. Products can be anything from snake-oil to providing real and measurable benefits. Their use can be rather fuzzy since they can change every part of the growing environment so you can no longer use traditional numbers or measurements to determine what to do next or what a plant may need. As the grower, you need to have your own symbiotic relationship with your plants reading how they're reacting and trying to determine what's good, what's bad, and what they need.

Our first foray into this new domain started a number of years back experimenting with Mycorrhiza. These are fungus that live in the soil and form a symbiotic relationships with plants. The help plant roots pull in nutrients from the surrounding roots and deliver nutrients to it. Imagine them somewhat like getting a bigger straw for your drink. These Mycorrhiza were added to our strawberry plantation first. Since strawberry plants are perennials and are kept for a number of years, the Mycorrhzia are an excellent benefit. There are also some strawberry plants that have a tendency to over-produce relative to their root structure leading to plant collapse. The Mycorrhiza seemed to have reduce that plant-collapse effects in our fields. In addition, some Mycorrhiza help battle away other fungus and pathogens that attack the host roots so you end up with another win-win situation. Traditionally, poinsettias need root fungicides regularly to prevent these root problems, but we have not used a single root fungicide on our poinsettias in over a decade since we began applying the Mycorrhiza.

Our next foray of this new category was a different plant food in the greenhouse. Instead of traditional synthetic water soluble plant food, we tried one derived from a fermented oilseed extract with added micro-nutrient goodies. Traditional N-P-K levels aren't really high and don't follow common practices. Some of the food is used in the water but there's also a component that's sprayed over top and the plant absorbs it through the leaves. Guides used to test "optimal" nutrient levels no longer apply with this type of food. That makes our jobs are growers more important and observation key. The results were rather astounding to us. Plants reacted and we could see the plants were far happier. Not only that, we observed a distinctly different pattern in the way they grew. Shorter stems, deeper greens in the leaves, more branching and flowering, and more drought tolerance. We had to change our water schemes, our scheduling, and many other aspects of our production since it was such a departure from tradition.

With the success we've had so far with these new models, we're looking at trying a few more concepts to help our plants out. The next experiment will be working with soil bacteria. Just like our own guts, we rely on bacteria to break down some of what we eat to be able to absorb those nutrients, soil bacteria do the same underground. Since roots are pretty much inside-out stomachs, soil bacteria can benefit plants by breaking down what's in the soil into forms the plant can use. It's fascinating, really, and we're exited to see the results.

So what can you do for your own plants? Luckily, the key bio-stimulants that we found do work are available for you at home (at least for now). If you can't tried them and have a nice veggie garden or a nice selection of indoor plants, you really should try them out. I rarely plug any products on this website other than our home-grown plants, but here are a few must-haves for your home.

  • Nature's Source Plant Food - We use this plant food for all our greenhouse and on our strawberries and plants love it. We do supplement a few other micro-nutrients a little to make things work in the greenhouse, but I've never seen a plant that doesn't love this food. It's easy-to-use and it works. Try it on your houseplants, succulents, cacti, and especially in your planters and hanging baskets.
  • Root Rescue - This is the Mycorrhiza you can use at home. I think the name doesn't really give it credit since it almost implies it as a curative product but it's a beneficial product. These Mycorrhiza stay with the plant for it's life so it's perfect to use when putting new plants in the garden.
  • Soil Activator - This is the new bacteria-based bio-stimulant we plan to apply on our strawberries and possibly in the greenhouse as well. By all accounts, a perfect match to complete the healthy diet.

I know there are also a myriad of other biostimulants available out on the Internet and in the wild, but these three would be my top picks. Keep in mind, when it comes to buzz-words and home-brew biostimulants, not all will bring you success and some may be no more than snake-oil. Two of the three I listed we've tested and use personally with great success and they're easy to purchase. The third is on the docket for 2020 testing.

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