10 Tips for Using Vegetable Garden Fertilizer Effectively

Knowing when and how to apply fertilizer can make all the difference in vegetable gardens.

Gabriela Herman
Gabriela Herman

Fertilizers can boost plant health and help you grow a larger harvest of leafy greens, juicy tomatoes, and other vegetables. But with all the choices on the market today, it can be difficult to choose the right fertilizers for vegetable gardens. And when you finally decide on a product, figuring out how to apply fertilizer can be even more confusing. Whether you keep a conventional or organic garden, the tips in this simple guide will help you choose and use the best vegetable garden fertilizer.

Related: Why Are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium in Plant Fertilizer?

1. Do a soil test.

Before you apply any fertilizer to your garden, it’s always a good idea to test your soil. Soil testing can be done at home with a test kit or you can send a soil sample away to your local Cooperative Extension office for even more accurate results. These tests will tell you what nutrients are lacking in your soil so you can choose the best fertilizer for your vegetable garden.

2. Develop a schedule.

Different plants have different fertilizer needs, but it can be tricky to keep track of when to apply fertilizers to specific plants. For example, pumpkins are very heavy feeders and often need to be fertilized every 2 to 3 weeks, while tomatoes only need fertilizer about once every 4 to 6 weeks. Keeping track of these dates on a calendar or in your gardening journal can ensure you always apply fertilizers at the right time.

3. Pick the right fertilizer.

If you go to a plant nursery to shop for fertilizers, you can easily get overwhelmed by all the options. Some fertilizers are made from all-natural materials and are appropriate for organic gardens, while you can also find granular and liquid fertilizers that offer different benefits for plants.

Fertilizers with high levels of nitrogen can be particularly useful for leafy greens, while fruiting plants, like tomatoes, often grow better with fertilizers that are rich in phosphorous and potassium.

One option is to use high nitrogen fertilizers at the beginning of the season to support leaf development and then transition to fertilizers with high levels of phosphorous and potassium when plants begin to flower and set fruit. Alternatively, you can also use a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer throughout the year, which should work well on most vegetables.

Some quality fertilizers for organic vegetable gardens include:

  • alfalfa meal

  • kelp meal

  • soybean meal

  • fish emulsion

Related: The 11 Best Fertilizers for Indoor Plants of 2023 to Help Your Greenery Thrive

When to Use Granular vs. Liquid Fertilizers

Granular fertilizers are often the best choice for heavy feeding plants since these types of fertilizers release nutrients over a longer period of time. These fertilizers are little harder to apply though and they will need to be worked or watered into the soil after application. Don’t place granular fertilizers against plant stems because this can cause plant tissue burn.

Liquid fertilizers, on the other hand, are easier to apply and they are more readily absorbed by plants. This means that they act quicker in the garden, but they will need to be applied more often.

4. Remember safety.

Depending on the type of fertilizer you use, you may need to wear protective equipment during application. This can include gloves, eyewear, and a mask. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions on your fertilizer label to decide what sort of equipment you will need.

5. Make application easier.

While you can spread granular fertilizers by hand, using a handheld spreader can make fertilizer application even faster and it can ensure that you get even coverage across your veggie beds.

Liquid fertilizers usually need to be applied either with a watering can or a garden sprayer. Some fertilizers can also be added to handy hose attachments, which will make fertilizing your garden a breeze.

Related: The 7 Best Watering Cans for All Types of Gardeners in 2023, According to Testing

6. Keep an eye on your plants.

Plants can tell you a lot just by the way they grow and you can often determine if your plants need fertilizer by their appearance. Plants with streaky leaves or pale leaves with visible veining may have a nutrient deficiency of some sort, which can be corrected with fertilizer. However, if plants begin to develop leaves that turn yellow or brown or look deformed, it can signal that they have been overfertilized.

7. Apply fertilizer at the right time.

The best time to apply granular fertilizers is usually right before a heavy rain is expected. Rain will wash the fertilizer into the soil and make it more readily accessible to plants. Or apply granular fertilizer to the soil right before you're planning to water your vegetable garden.

Conversely, liquid fertilizers should be applied either early in the morning or in the evening when the temperatures are cooler and the weather is dry. This will give your plants more time to absorb the fertilizer and it will reduce the chance that leaves may suffer sun damage.

8. Know when you shouldn’t fertilize.

During the summer, you may want to dial back the amount of fertilizer you use. This is because plants that are suffering from heat or drought stress won’t absorb fertilizer correctly and the salts in fertilizers can build up around plant roots, making them less able to absorb water. You may also want to avoid fertilizing some perennial vegetables in autumn because this can affect their dormancy period.

9. Use fertilizer with compost.

Many gardeners think they need to choose between fertilizer and compost, but these two garden products actually work even better when they are combined. Compost is rich in nutrients and it can also improve soil texture and drainage, while fertilizer often contains micronutrients that compost lacks. Using these two products together can improve your soil even more and produce healthier plants too.

One of the best ways to use these products together is to amend garden soil in either spring or fall with a quality compost or aged manure. Then when the growing season starts, begin applying fertilizer and a dose of compost tea.

10. Combine fertilizer with companion planting.

Certain plants can improve soil and enhance the growth of nearby plants. When used in conjunction with fertilizers, these companion plants can promote the overall health of your garden and help you produce an even larger harvest of fresh veggies.

Some of the best companion plants to improve soil naturally are legumes, such as beans and peas. Growing these plants in a mixed vegetable garden can reduce how much fertilizer you need to apply throughout the season.

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