‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2: Feed!

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Most plants grow larger and fuller, have better color, and produce more flowers when they are well fed.  Well-fed plants always reflect well on the gardener, because they look healthy and robust. 

Many sources of gardening advice admonish that one must ‘feed the soil, not the plant.’  And this is generally true for trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Anything planted directly into the ground performs better in fertile, well prepared soil.  Compost is the most important thing to dig into a bed or planting hole to enrich the soil.  Adding an organic mulch, which attracts earthworms, further enriches and improves the soil.  The more worms, the better the soil.  Additional fertilizer rarely is needed once one ‘gets the soil right.’  That said, heavy bloomers benefit from an annual application of an organic fertilizer such as Espoma’s Rose Tone.


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However, most potting soils are basically sterile mixes of coir or peat, perlite and/or vermiculite.  There isn’t enough nutrition to support healthy plant growth.  Some potting soils come fortified with worm castings or pelletized fertilizer and advertise that they will feed a plant for several months.  Some gardeners recommend mixing a little compost into the pot; but this is generally not enough to encourage lush growth.

To support vibrant growth coming from a relatively small pot, there needs to be a lot of minerals available for those crowded roots to absorb.  When preparing a pot for a fresh planting, I thoroughly mix some balanced organic fertilizer, like Espoma’s Plant Tone, into the potting soil before adding any plants.  This feeds the plants long-term, but is released very slowly.  It also includes helpful strains of microorganisms to help plants use the minerals.  After adding the plants, I sprinkle the smoothed soil with a timed-release pelletized fertilizer like Osmocote, which also includes important trace minerals.  Some soil mixes already have the Osmocote mixed in.  This is a timed release fertilizer which is activated whenever the pot is watered.


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Finally,  I’ll mix some very quick release Neptune’s Harvest in a watering can to water the plants into the soil.  This is a foliar feed, easily absorbed, and offers some protection while the plants establish.  It truly does ‘feed the soil,’ and improves soil texture and its ability to retain water.  It is also a good ‘pick me up’ if a plant ever starts to look a little dull.  Now, you might think that feeding a potted plant so much fertilizer might burn or kill it.  I’ve never had any problem, probably because these are organic products and have relatively low nitrogen.  The plants begin growing quickly, have good leaf color and produce sturdy new growth.

Why it works:  Although plants make their own ‘food/fuel’ from water, oxygen and sunlight, they need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous for healthy growth.  Lacking any of these, the plant will be stunted and sickly.  In addition, plants also benefit from a variety of trace minerals like copper, iron, magnesium and zinc.  These can be absorbed from many garden soils, but are lacking in potting soil.  Access to these important minerals is essential to productive plant growth.  Think of a plant as a living chemistry lab.  Many elements are needed to keep the bio-chemistry of life fueled.

Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  My guilty secret for abundant flowers, especially on indoor plants during winter, is water soluble Miracle Grow Orchid Food.  This is not an organic product, but a tiny bit mixed into the usual water, every month or so, produces fabulous results!  Our ‘Christmas’ Cactus, Schlumbergera, bloomed non-stop from November through May with monthly feeding.


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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams. 

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.


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Woodland Gnome 2016


‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot Bound Roots!  by J. Peggy Taylor

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3:  Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #10: Understand the Rhythm

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Potting Up

succulent gardenGrowing in a pot or hanging basket gives  a plant just the right soil for its needs. The pot or basket can be moved around to get just the right amount of sun or shade.  The plant doesn’t have to compete with the roots of other plants, unless you choose to plant a group who will grow well together.

Tips and Tricks for Potting Up

1.  Make sure the pot has one or more holes for drainage.  Without drainage, the plant will most likely drown when it rains, or if it is over watered.  Cover the bottom of the empty pot with a piece of landscaping fabric or a paper towel.  This holds the soil in the pot until the plants’ roots grow out to hold the soil.  Landscape fabric will present a barrier to pill bugs and other creatures who want to climb in through the drainage hole to make a new home for themselves.

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The paper towel will absorb water, and then release it back to the soil as needed to help the soil stay evenly moist between waterings.  Eventually, the paper will decompose.

2.  I spread a shallow layer of gravel over the paper or landscape fabric.  I believe this allows an extra margin for water to drain out of the soil, especially if the pot is outside during a rainy spell.

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3.  Partially fill the pot with fresh potting soil.  I like a peat based mix which advertises that it will also feed the plants for the first few months.   A  little sand or gravel mixed with the soil improves drainage for succulents.  A little compost can be mixed into the soil for vegetables.   The soil should be moist, but not too wet.  A plants’ roots need to breathe, especially in a pot.  Dirt dug up in the yard will be too heavy and the plant will have difficulty.

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4.  Mix some fertilizer into the soil.  I often use Espoma Plant Tone for flowering plants, or Tomato Tone for vegetable plants.  This enriches the soil and feeds plants over the long term.  Osmocote is a good short term fertilizer which will release nutrients at each watering for about four months.

5.  Make a well in the center of the soil for the root ball of the new plant.  Push the fresh potting mix against the sides of the pot, especially if the pot has concave areas like this one does.

6.  Remove the new plant from its nursery pot, loosen the roots slightly, and place into the new pot.  Fill in with additional potting soil around the roots, tamping the soil gently until it is firm and all spaces are filled.  Keep the plant at the same depth as it grew in the nursery pot, unless you know it will grow new roots along the stem like a tomato plant will.  Some plants, especially shrubs or trees, will actually suffocate if you put too much soil over the root ball.  Sprinkle some Osmocote onto the soil.

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7. Top dress the soil with fine gravel or small bits of shell.  The layer of gravel serves several purposes.  First, it looks nice.  It protects the plant from splashed soil during a rain, and protects the soil from erosion during a heavy rain or watering.  Finally, it offers the plant some protection from slugs and snail, who don’t like the gravel, and from digging squirrels, who will be deterred from digging in the pot.

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This Echeveria nodulosa is top dressed with pea gravel and stones picked up along a beach on the Puget Sound. This will protect the roots from digging squirrels, and will discourage slugs from eating the leaves.  Echeveria leaves will root, and so those broken off during potting are stuck about 1/4 into the soil around the parent plant.

8.  Water in the newly potted  plant.  I like to make a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest for the first watering to strengthen the plant and counteract any transplant shock.  This first watering settles the soil around the roots of the plant and helps prevent any air pockets which could allow the roots to dry out.  Place most plants in a shady area for a day or so to let their roots adjust before moving into a sunnier spot. 


This Echeveria nodulosa is a succulent, which enjoys the heat of full sun, and so it has gone to its new permanent spot in the garden.

These succulents live in a pot with no drainage.  There are two inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot, and it is watered sparingly.

These succulents live in a pot with no drainage. There are two inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot.  It is watered sparingly and kept sheltered from the rain.

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Plants growing in pots don’t have the same available nutrients as plants growing into deep Earth out in the garden.  They rely on the gardener for care and feeding.  I use a multi-layered approach to feeding by enriching the soil as a plant is potted, top-dressing with a slow release fertilizer, and also feeding with a diluted fish emulsion and seaweed fertilizer every few weeks when the plant is actively growing.  Each of these products approaches feeding in a slightly different way. 

Here are the products I’ve used successfully:

Espoma    http://www.espoma.com/    I use Rose Tone and Holly Tone out in the garden and Plant Tone and Tomato Tone both in the garden and when potting up.

Neptune’s Harvest  http://www.neptunesharvest.com/

Osmocote  http://www.scotts.com/smg/goprod/osmocote-outdoor-indoor-plant-food/prod70362/

The best source for all of these products, beautifully grown plants, and excellent gardening advice in the Williamsburg area is the Homestead Garden Center http://www.homesteadgardencenter.com/ on Rochambeau Drive/Rt. 30 west of Toano

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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