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Once you have turned your apartment or condominium balcony into a unique living space alive with plants, and have developed a comfort zone with your ability to care for it, you are now ready to fine-tune your growing skills. Optimizing the fertilization program will reward you with stronger plants capable of more and/or larger flowers, larger, tastier fruit and vegetables, less disease susceptibility, and increase survivability throughout the seasons.
As a balcony gardener, you may have started using a relatively balanced fertilizer, which will be indicated on your fertilizer label with the three primary fertilizer components in more or less equal ratio. With a balanced fertilizer like 10-10-10 or 20-20-20, the ratio is 1:1:1. The first number stands for Nitrogen(N), the second for Phosphorus(P), and third for Potassium(K), and all are equally weighted in a balanced fertilizer mix. A fertilizer "ratio" is just a way to express basic fertilizer N-P-K variations. The math to determine the fertilizer ratios is really quite simple. Take the smallest of the three numbers and divide it into each of the three numbers to reduce to the lowest ratio. For example, 6-30-30 would reduce to 1-5-5 or 10-30-20 would reduce to 1-3-2 and 17-9-11 would reduce to 1.89-1-1.22. Most plants will grow with an evenly balanced fertilizer, but many plants will only thrive with a fertilizer blend that is tailored to their particular needs. The three primary fertilizer components (N-P-K) contribute to specific areas of plant development.
High Nitrogen(N) fertilizers will produce more foliage growth which would, for instance, be beneficial for lawns, leafy vegetables, and herbs. For those crops we might select an N-P-K ratio of 2-1-1 (10-5-5 or 20-10-10) for the fertilizer feeding program.
The second number on the label refers to Phosphorus(P), which contributes to stem strength, flower development, fruit and seed set, and roots.
The last number on the label refers to Potassium(K), which promotes internal cellular development and influences overall plant growth, strength of the weight-bearing stem structure, resistance to diseases, summer heat and winter cold hardiness.
For flowering and fruiting crops, the gardener might choose a 1-2-1 or 1-2-2 ratio to increase the number of flowers and the plant support system to hold those flowers and any subsequent fruit. In the fall, going into winter, the gardener might choose a 1-2-3 or 1-4-4 ratio to limit frost-susceptible tender new growth and fortify and promote resistance to diseases and winter cold hardiness.
Often neglected in consideration of fertilizer variation is the composition of the soil medium of the plants in question. If the gardener is using a planting mix that is primarily inorganic, consisting of sand, diatomaceous earth, charcoal, perlite, or vermiculite, then a slightly lower ratio of nitrogen(N) may be required. If, on the other hand, the soil contains a lot of non-nitrolized organic matter (especially incompletely composted fir bark), at least initially, the gardener may need a slightly higher ratio of Nitrogen(N). This is because fir bark can rob nitrogen from the soil and plant as part of its decomposition and aging process.
While the three chemical nutrients listed prominently on the fertilizer label(N-P-K) are the "meat and potatoes" of plant growth and winter hardiness, there are trace elements that also impact the optimal development of plants. The seven "basic trace elements" are Iron(Fe), Zinc(Zn), Copper(Cu), Sulphur(S), Manganese(Mn), Boron(Bo), and Molybdenum(Mo). The fertilizer industry knows that most hobbyists will not and cannot be expected to keep and blend these trace elements in the kitchen sink. Therefore most top-of-the-line home gardener fertilizers have a small percentage of these in the mix. In reading the entire label, the gardener will find some or all of the trace element percentages listed in the small print. They are important, and for some plants optimum plant growth cannot be achieved without them. If the hobbyist is unsatisfied with the development of the plants using a packaged fertilizer, it may be that the particular species being grown requires a trace element and that is lacking from the fertilizer in use. Often perfect amounts of N-P-K will not optimize plant growth because the plant lacks a trace element which is limiting improved plant development.
Manipulation of the three main chemical nutrients and supply of the necessary trace elements in your living balcony fertilization program can increase your cultivation satisfaction. Over the course of the year, a fine-tuned fertilization program can reward you with stronger plants capable of more and/or larger flowers, larger and tastier fruit and vegetables, less disease susceptibility, and increase survivability throughout the seasons.
Copyright: Gilbert Foerster/2009
Source by Gilbert Foerster