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How to Fertilize Houseplants - A Complete Guide

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How to fertilize houseplants

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Houseplants are wonderful additions to any indoor space, bringing beauty, a touch of nature, and positive energy to our homes and workplaces. To keep them healthy and thriving, proper care is essential, and one key aspect of plant care is fertilization. Fertilizing your houseplants is like giving them a power boost. Fertilizer provides plants with the essential nutrients they need to grow and flourish and can help prevent issues like stunted growth or yellowing leaves. For potted plants, fertilization is especially important. Unlike outdoor plants that have access to natural soil nutrients, potted plants rely solely on the nutrients present in their soil. With limited access to the natural elements required for growth, fertilization becomes even more critical for the health and vitality of indoor plants.

However, not all houseplants are the same when it comes to feeding. Desert plants like succulents are an exception. They grow in sandy soil and do not need regular fertilization, if at all. To ensure that you're providing the right care for your houseplants, it's important to understand their specific needs before you start fertilizing. By taking the time to research and tailor your approach accordingly, you can help your plants stay healthy and vibrant for years to come. 

What is Fertilizer?

Fertilizer is a substance or a mixture of substances that is added to the soil to supply essential nutrients that are necessary for plant growth and development. The nutrients in the fertilizer are absorbed by the plant through the root system and transported to the various parts of the plant, where they are used for growth and development.

The primary purpose of fertilizers is to supplement the soil with the necessary nutrients, including macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and iron, which are essential for plant growth.

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Fertilizers are good for houseplants
Photo by whiteorchid

Fertilizers are used to improve soil fertility and increase crop yields in agriculture, as well as to support the growth of plants in home gardens and indoor spaces. They help to ensure that plants have access to the nutrients they need to grow and remain healthy, particularly in situations where the soil may be lacking in essential nutrients.

While fertilizers are essential for supporting plant growth and development, using them in the correct amounts and ratios is essential. Overuse of fertilizers can lead to root rot and soil pollution and can have negative impacts on plants as well as the environment. 

Benefits of Fertilizer

While some nutrients are naturally present in the soil, they quickly become depleted as the plant consumes them. This is especially true in indoor environments, where the amount of soil available to a plant is limited. In these situations, it becomes necessary to supplement the soil with additional nutrients through fertilization. Fertilization can provide plants with the essential macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and micronutrients (calcium, magnesium, iron, and others) they need to grow and maintain their health.

Nitrogen is one of the most important macronutrients for plant growth, helping with the production of chlorophyll and the formation of healthy foliage. Phosphorus helps with root development, the transfer of energy within the plant, and with blooming, while potassium is essential for overall plant health and reproduction.

In addition to macronutrients, micronutrients are also essential for healthy plant growth. Calcium, for instance, helps with cell wall development, while magnesium is important for the production of chlorophyll. Iron is needed for photosynthesis, and zinc contributes to plant growth and disease resistance.

Fertilizers are formulated to supplement the soil with these essential nutrients, ensuring that they are available to the plant in the correct amounts and ratios. The composition of a fertilizer can vary, depending on the type of plant being grown and the specific nutrient requirements of that plant.

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Fertilizing houseplants improves their growth

Without proper fertilization, plants may experience stunted growth, yellowing leaves, and weakened immunity to pests and diseases. Over time, the soil can become depleted of essential nutrients, making it difficult for the plant to thrive. Regular fertilization is, therefore, essential to ensure that plants have access to the nutrients they need to maintain their health.

How Often Should We Fertilize?

Fertilization is not a one-time process, as the nutrients in the soil can become depleted over time. Regular fertilization is often necessary to ensure that plants have access to the nutrients they need to thrive. The frequency and amount of fertilizer applied will depend on the specific needs of the plant, the type of fertilizer being used, and the growing conditions of the plant. Some houseplants like succulents and cacti do not need regular fertilization, if at all. Tropical plants like Ficus, Pothos, and Calatheas, on the other hand, can benefit from frequent feeding during their growing season. 

 As a general guideline, you should fertilize every 1-2 months during the growing season (spring and summer). and less frequently during the fall and winter months when they are not actively growing.

However, it's important to note that every plant is different and has unique nutrient requirements. Some plants may require more frequent fertilization, while others may require less. Additionally, some fertilizers are designed for longer-lasting nutrient release, so they may only need to be applied every few months.

To determine the best fertilization schedule for your houseplants, it's important to consider the specific needs of each plant and to monitor their growth and health over time. Signs of nutrient deficiency, such as yellowing leaves or stunted growth, may indicate that your plant needs more frequent fertilization or a different type of fertilizer.

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Fertilizing your houseplants every 1 - 2 months during the growing seasons

Photo by Jovanmandic

In general, it's better to under-fertilize than to over-fertilize your houseplants. Over-fertilization can lead to nutrient burn, which can damage the plant's roots and leaves. If you're not sure how often to fertilize your plants, start with a lower frequency and gradually increase as needed based on the plant's response.

Types of Fertilizers for Houseplants

  • Fertilizers can be organic or inorganic, depending on their source. Organic fertilizers are derived from natural sources such as animal manure, compost, and plant residues, while inorganic fertilizers are typically manufactured from chemical compounds.
  • Compost: Compost is a nutrient-rich organic material that is made by decomposing organic matter such as kitchen scraps, leaves, and grass clippings. To use compost as a fertilizer for your houseplants, you can mix it into the soil before planting or top-dress the soil with a layer of compost. It’s important to make sure that the compost is fully decomposed. Compost can also be used to make compost tea, which is a liquid fertilizer that is made by steeping compost in water.
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Compost fertilizer
Photo by FG Trade
  • Commercial fertilizer: These fertilizers are usually made from a combination of synthetic or organic materials and are formulated to provide specific nutrients to plants. Commercial fertilizers are typically labeled with the NPK ratio, which indicates the percentage of each nutrient in the fertilizer. For example, a fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 10-10-10 contains 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, and 10% potassium. Commercial fertilizers are available in a variety of forms, including liquid, granular, and slow-release
  • Liquid fertilizers are often the most popular choice for indoor plants because they are easy to use and are quickly absorbed by the plant roots. They usually come in concentrated form and need to be mixed with water before application. Liquid fertilizers should be applied more frequently than granular or slow-release fertilizers.

  • Granular fertilizers are dry and come in small pellets or crystals that are sprinkled on top of the soil. They release their nutrients slowly over time, usually with each watering. Granular fertilizers are convenient because they don't require frequent applications like liquid fertilizers.
  • Slow-release fertilizers are similar to granular fertilizers, but they release their nutrients over a longer period of time. They are typically mixed into the soil or added to the bottom of the planting hole before planting. Slow-release fertilizers can be a good choice if you don't want to fertilize your plants frequently or if you're worried about over-fertilizing.

Tips and Tricks to Fertilize Your Houseplants

  • Choose the right fertilizer: Different plants have different nutrient requirements, so it's important to choose a fertilizer that is appropriate for the type of plant you have. Look for a fertilizer that has the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) for your plant, and consider using a slow-release fertilizer if you don't want to fertilize frequently.
  • Follow the instructions: Always read and follow the instructions on the fertilizer package carefully. Applying too much fertilizer or applying it too often can harm your plants.
  • Fertilize during the growing season: Houseplants usually grow the most during the spring and summer months, so this is the best time to fertilize them. During the fall and winter, plants tend to slow down their growth and may not need fertilizer at all. Fertilizing during dormancy may lead to root burn and root rot. 
  • Water your plants before fertilizing: Water your plants thoroughly before fertilizing to help prevent fertilizer burn.

  • Don't fertilize newly potted plants: Newly potted plants may have enough nutrients in the soil to last for a few months,and they also need time to adjust to the new soil so it's best to wait a few months before fertilizing.
  • Don't fertilize stressed plants: If your plant is stressed due to factors such as disease, pests, or poor growing conditions, it's best to hold off on fertilizing until the plant has recovered.
  • Soil pH can have a significant effect on nutrient availability, with some nutrients becoming more or less available depending on the soil pH. For example, phosphorus is less available in alkaline soils, while iron and manganese are less available in highly acidic soils. Testing the soil pH can help gardeners and farmers determine which nutrients may be lacking and adjust their fertilizer application accordingly.
  • Remember, fertilizing is just one aspect of caring for your houseplants. Be sure to also provide your plants with the right amount of light, water, and humidity to help them thrive.

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