About feeding — a really important thing to do

Clematis, Earnest Markham, one of the last bloomers of the season.

In my early years as a gardener, I avoided the whole idea of feeding and I know why. There were three aspects to the subject that really put me off. The first was the technical aspect of all the instructions including square footage. I didn’t know the square footage or the square root of the footage either and the idea of going outside and trying to figure all that out was simply not on the drawing board, at least not on mine.

The other off-putting instruction was “scratch it in.” Scratch it in? Who? Me? How do you “scratch something in?” On your hands and knees, that’s how, and the answer was no.

But I think what was even more important was the feeling that you really could make a mistake and that if you did, the consequences could be dire. In my imagination, there were huge stretches of dead plants and I was the one who had killed them. 

The transition from then to now — I feed compulsively and with pleasure — is lost in the mists of time but I do want to recommend to you what I call the Manhattan Method of Feeding, devised by yours truly. I think of it as the Manhattan method because in the city, “wait” is a four letter word; everything is quick, double-time, move it! And the Manhattan method is quick, and does not include “scratching anything in.”

You should have two large pails with covers. One should contain any all-purpose fertilizer of your choice; the other should contain fertilizer for evergreen material. Put one in the wheelbarrow, pick up a garden saucer and wheel the wheelbarrow around the yard. Toss, yes, toss, strew if you prefer, a saucer full of fertilizer around the roots of every shrub and bush. Then do the same thing for the evergreen material with the evergreen fertilizer. Now note the date. I did this yesterday, April 4, which means I should do it again on May 4, June 4 and July 4 or thereabouts. If you have mulched properly, it will not blow away; it will fall down between the nuggets and stay where you tossed it and when it rains, it will find its way down. No scratching. Feed your forsythia this way and you will be amazed at the difference it will make.

An additional method of fertilizing is foliar feeding, which only sounds complicated but isn’t. I use it for my vines and potted plants. If you have a sprayer (and you should) fill it with Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food in water and spray away. If you don’t have a sprayer, take a few minutes and get the lay of the land. Find out roughly the level that one or two gallons of water reaches in your pail. Then note the shade of blue when you add the fertilizer. At some point you’ll have it down pat — fill the pail that full, dump in the desired number of tablespoons to make it that color. Then pour it on, both over the leaves and on to the roots. If you do this once a week, you will have a clematis that will blow you away. If you do this with your annuals, they will never get “leggy” and will surprise you with their vitality. 

I actually discovered this by accident. When I lived in Westchester, my potting shed was within arm’s reach of my outside water source, which was 2 feet away from the roots of a Jackmanii clematis that grew, via lattice, up and over the deck rail. One day, not really thinking about it, I poured a pail of Miracle-Gro on the roots. The difference, before a few days had passed, was so striking that I did it again. And then again. That Jackmanii became a thing of wonder — and put an end to my worries about over-feeding. Maybe you can over-feed, but you’d have to go some.

So try it and enjoy.