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Feeding a vegetable garden
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Garden soil can be considered a storehouse of plant food. However, soils do not store equal amounts and some soils are better at holding on to nutrients than others.


Soil containing clay or organic matter, tend to retain nutrients, whereas nutrients tend to leach from sandy soils. Leaching, in gardener’s terminology, is the washing or downward movement of nutrients through the soil past the root zone.


It is caused by the movement of free water downward through the soil profile.


Leached nutrients are no longer available to support growth and development of your garden vegetables.


Most garden soils do not provide or store the amount of essential nutrients required for satisfactory vegetable production.


Subsequently, we rely on fertilizing the garden. The total amount of fertilizer that needs to be applied should be determined by a soil test. There are several ways that fertilizer may be applied:


1. All of it broadcast and worked into the soil prior to planting. For most gardens this does not result in efficient fertilizer use. 


2. One-half of the fertilizer may be broadcast prior to planting and the remainder applied in bands three inches to either side of the row and slightly below the seed level. 


3. One-third to one-half of the fertilizer may be banded at planting, and the  remainder applied in two to three side dressings at two-to-three week intervals after the plants are well established.


Banding a portion of the fertilizer helps insure there are sufficient nutrients near developing plant roots. This usually helps get the plants off to a good start. 


However, be careful and don’t over do it. Applying too much fertilizer in the band or placing it too near the seed or roots of young plants will severely damage the root systems. 


Because of the small amount of fertilizer required for short rows and small gardens, it is easy to apply too much if you do not weigh or measure the amount specified per row. A pint of commercial fertilizer weighs about one pound.


Side-dressing refers to the practice of placing additional fertilizer in or on the soil beside your plants later during the growing season.


This side-dressed fertilizer provides additional plant food, which keeps the plants growing throughout the season.


To side dress vegetables planted in rows, make a shallow furrow (1 to 2 inches deep and 2 to 3 inches wide) down both sides of the row about four to five inches away from the plants. Sprinkle fertilizer uniformly into this furrow usually one to three pints per one hundred feet of row are required and then cover the fertilizer by pulling an inch or two of soil into the furrow.


For plants such as watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and pumpkins, which are planted in widely-spaced hills, form a circular furrow 4 to 5 inches from the plants and follow the same general directions.


Proper side-dressing allows plant food to gradually move into the area around the roots and prevents “burning” of roots or other plant parts that could come into direct contact with the fertilizer.


Most vegetable gardens must be fed periodically if they are to produce good yields of excellent quality vegetables. But don’t over do it.


The rule of thumb for fertilizing plants is moderation.


Clark Beusse is the Dawson County extension agent. For more information, call (706) 265-2442.