Your Plants are Hungry – What Should You Feed Them?



Have you noticed that days are getting longer and the sun is getting stronger?

Your plants have.

They’re waking up after a long, dreary winter   . . . .

and they’re hungry.

But what should you feed them?

I remember when I started growing orchids, I didn’t really pay much attention to what “plant food” I was using. If the package was shiny and colorful, it must be good stuff.

That was a big mistake! After switching to hydroponc growing (18 years ago) I took the time to learn about the elements of plant nutrition how they affect the plant’s health.

I learned that the fertilizer I was using was actually doing more harm than good!


Is it “Plant Food or “Plant Fertilizer”?

Don’t confuse “plant food” with “plant fertilizer”. The real “food” plants use for growth comes from a process called photosynthesis. With the power of the sun, they combine air, light, and water to make carbohydrates, which is the real food they use for growth.

Plant fertilizer (or nutrients) aren’t really the actual “food” plants use to grow. They simply enhance the process of photosynthesis. The real food is air, light, and water.

If your plants aren’t getting the real food they use for growth – air, light, and water –  your choice of fertilizer won’t matter.


Plants need air to breathe
Plants need light to grow
And roots need water



How Fertilizers (or Nutrients) Work


Fertilizers vary and not all of them work the way you think they do.

In nature, live bacteria, enzymes, and microbes break down matter into minerals the plants can use. Unfortunately this process is almost impossible with potted plants. Potting materials are sterilized, which kills the bacteria, enzymes, and microbes needed to transform minerals into a form your plants can use.

That means the fertilizer you’re using must be in a form your plants can absorb immediately. If  not, your plants won’t be getting what they need. And the problem is compounded becuase unused fertilizer turns into salt – which can burn the roots.

So your fertilizer could actually be harming your plants!


2 Most Important Things to Look For in Your Fertilizer


nutrient-bottles202x207Fortunately, manufacturers are required to follow a set of rules and when listing the chemical elements inside the package. Comparing fertilizers isn’t difficult when you know how to read the label.

Here are the 2 most important things to look for in your fertilizer (and it’s not the numbers on the front – we”ll look at them in my next post).

1. Avoid Urea!

Read the back of the package – Nitrogen is the main ingredient in all fertilizers and it will be the first element listed. Look for the source of the nitrogen – it should be “Ammoniacal” or “Nitrate” – NOT UREA.

Urea is a cheap form of nitrogen and plants can’t absorb it until it’s broken down by bacteria and enzymes. And that simply won’t happen with most potting mixes. Great for outdoors but doesn’t work for potted plants. If you see the word “urea” – skip that fertilizer!


fertilizer label








2. Make Sure Everything Your Plants Need Is In There!

You should see 14 elements listed on the back of the package. These are called micro-nurients. Many fertilizers skimp on the micro-nutrients and rely on the growing media to provide them. That simply won’t happen. If you don’t have 14 elements listed you’re plants are missing out.


This popular fertilizer contains only 6 elements!

More on How to Read the Label

Comparing fertilizers isn’t difficult when you know how to read the label. Fortunately, manufacturers are required to follow a set of rules and when listing the chemical elements inside the package.

Nutritional elements are divided into 2 categories; macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients. Plants need large amounts of some elements (macro-nutrients) and only trace amounts of of others (micro-nutrients).

Macro-nutrients –  All fertilizers contain 3 main elements; Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potash (K). These minerals are called macro-nutrients. Three numbers on the front of the package describe the percentage of each  elements inside. So if your fertilizer package has 7-9-5 on the front panel, it contains 7% nitrogen, 9% Phosphorus, and 5% Potash.



Micro-nutrients – Micro-nutrients, or trace elements make up the remaining 11 elements needed for a complete nutritional diet. Fertilizers will always contain the 3 main elements (or macro-nutrients), but many skimp on micro-nutrients to cut costs Look on the back of the package – there shouuld be 14 elements listed.




Don’t get too caught up on trying to understand all the micro-nutrients. Just make sure there are 14 elements listed on the back – and then you’ll have a complete, balanced nutrition program.


What About Organic Fertilizers?


Organic means “the nutrient is derived solely from the remains of once living organisms”. This includes animal wastes, crop residues, compost and numerous other byproducts.

Organic fertilizers sound good but most are incomplete in their nutritional value. They contain only one or two elements so blending different products is necessary. The result is uncontrollable, difficult to measure, and usually carries an odor. You never really know what your plants are getting.

Earthworm castings, seaweed, and bat guano head the list of organic remedies. Do you really want to put this stuff on your plants – in your home? Why take a chance when complete, balanced nutrition is so easy?



Complete, Balanced Nutrition is Easy

With right fertilizer, complete, balanced nutrition is easy. I use (and recommend) Dyna-Gro products. Dyna-Gro products are developed from research with hydroponics which means they don’t rely on the growing media for anything, They contain everything your plants need for healthy growth – in a form that can be used immediately.

No complex chemistry needed.

Plants growing in traditional mixes (bark, moss, coir, etc.) will benefit from Dyna-Gro products too.

In my next post I’ll show you how I use nutrients to make thing like this happen!

Grammatophyllum multiflorum




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