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Give your soil a treat; Hannah Stephenson points out the best way to feed our soil.

Byline: Hannah Stephenson

T a time when we all should be feeding,fertilising, mulching and adding organic matter to our soil and plants,it can be baffling when faced at the garden centre with row upon row of plant pep-me-ups,all promising the best results.

Generally,plants are fed in spring and in summer while they are growing. So it's a good idea to find out exactly what is likely to work best for your needs.

If you want to change your soil structure and water content then some bulky organic matter such as well- rotted manure or compost should be added,but if the soil seems okay and you just think your plants need a boost, then a scattering and raking- in of blood, fish and bone will do the trick and is ideal for most purposes.

Plants need three main nutrients to do well - nitrogen (N), phosphates (P)and potassium (K). Phosphates promote root growth, nitrogen helps the leaves and shoots develop while potassium (or potash)aids fruit and flower development.

If you are going for bulky organic matter,mushroom compost is a good soil conditioner on acid soils, but don't place it with lime-haters such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Mushroom compost also generally contains lumps of chalk so it is wise not to use it on chalky soils as it will just make them more alkaline.

Farmyard manure is one of the best additives to improve the structure of the soil but you must make sure it is well-rotted,because fresh manure will simply drain the soil of nitrogen and so starve the plants.

General or compound fertilisers always have a good balance of nitrogen,phosphates and potassium in them. You will usually find the ratio listed on the packet, so 15:30:15 indicates there is more phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium and is a good general purpose food.

Tomato- type fertilisers are balanced to encourage flowering and fruiting and are high in potash. Fruiting crops such as tomatoes and peppers need regular feeding with phosphate and potash fertilisers when their plants start to flower.

Fertilisers more suitable for leafy plants are those which are higher in nitrogen.

Vegetable crops growing through the winter should get most of their nitrogen in spring rather thanautumn,because it encourages soft growth. If you add nitrogen in autumn it may lead to the soft growth being killed by frost.

Overwintering crops should be given a balanced fertiliser to tough en leaves and stems.

General purpose liquid feeds also have roughly equal proportions of nitrogen,phosphate and potash and are sold either in concentrated liquid or soluble powder and are usually applied to the garden once or twice a week.

Concentrated organic fertilisers such as pelleted chicken manure are easy to handle and contain plenty of nutrients. Their effectiveness depends on breakdown by soil organisms, which may not be active in cold weather.

Bonemeal,an organic form of phosphate, releases its nutrients slowly,but once applied it will remain in the soil for three to four years. Its steady release makes it perfect food for slow-growing plants such as shrubs and herbaceous perennials,by putting a handful in the planting hole. It can also be used as a base dressing for vegetables.

Those who are keen on container gardening but have busy lives may be best off with a slow-release fertiliser,available in granules which discharge nutrients from an internal store over a period of time and eliminate the need for regular liquid feeds.

Always remember that fertilisers need to be applied carefully, following the directions on the package,as many contain huge amounts of nutrients which can scorch seedlings and plants, especially if they are not watered in well.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 19, 2003
Words:663
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