Originally Published: February 26, 2005 7:10 a.m.
I had better give you the top garden topics on the minds of the customers here at Watters Garden Center. I figure if that many of you have been coming into the garden center asking the same question over and over, there just has to be more of you out there with the same questions.
Customers asked: "How far do I cut back my butterfly bush (buddlia x davidii)?" I have several bushes in my yard that grow taller than I am. I like to shape and round my bushes to about waist to chest high depending on what looks right for the space. I have created a gorgeous colorfest when I used Fertilome "Start-N-Grow" on this particular plant. The increased soil sulfur in this product, combined with the three-month released feeding, is just what a butterfly bush needs for spectacular blooms. You just might see new leaves sprouting within a couple of weeks. Spring is very close now.
It must be the week gardeners are out in the yard pruning, because several gardeners asked the same question about Russian sage, or perovskia. Do not cut this woody perennial all the way to the ground. I find that a good set of hedge clippers works great. Take them down to about knee high. They wait and leaf out a little later than a butterfly bush but will soon be pushing new growth and setting those lush violet blue flowers that bloom all summer long.
March is the month to start feeding all your trees, especially your fruit trees and trees that leaf out early such as willow, cottonwood, purple leaf plum and pussy willow. There are three types of fertilizer on the market but only one that I think works well in the tri-city area.
Water soluble fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro are the first and most recognized. Scotts Company spends millions trying to convince us we really can grow tomatoes the size of my head. I haven't seen all that advertising hype to be true. Per pound it is the most expensive fertilizer on the market, and it doesn't stay around in the soil long enough for larger plants to pick up and use. I also find that most gardeners don't use it often enough. The directions tell you to apply every 10-14 days. I don't want to fertilize that often; I have better things to do with my time. My goal is to fertilize two or three times a year, not two or three times a month.
The second type of plant food is a fertilizer stake. The fertilizer is molded into a spike that is hammered into the ground. The real benefit is its longevity. These spikes are supposed to feed the plant for an entire year, and they will if you know where the main feeder roots are on the plant. On small plants this is pretty easy, but where do you start on a large tree?
I've found over the years that gardeners don't use enough stakes per plant, and frequently miss the correct placement for the feeder roots. Prescott has crummy clay soil, and it gets even worse as you go to Prescott Valley, Dewey, and the newer parts of Chino Valley. When you hammer these spikes into the ground, they tend to crumble or break before they get all the way into the ground. I'm not a proponent of fertilizer stakes.
OK … Now for my preferred method. I much prefer a granular fertilizer. It's easy to put into my hand-held spreader and use under trees, around shrubs or into flower and vegetable beds. You're guaranteed to feed the entire root zone anywhere from 30 days to three months, depending on the plant food formula.
The price per pound is far better than a water-soluble food and you feed the plants less often. Many gardeners think you have to work in this type of granular fertilizer by raking or turning the soil after you put it down, but that's simply not true. I have beautiful gardens and I just chuck and go. I don't have the time, and more importantly, I don't find raking fertilizer into the ground very fun. I'd rather fertilize, then do something better with my time, like watch the next game.
You can buy a granular fertilizer anywhere from drugstores to grocery stores, the big boxes to garden centers. Which one you buy can make a big difference in the results you see. The Southwest has unique garden soils, and most of the big fertilizer companies design and market for the East Coast, which is where most garden products are sold. We have very alkaline soils – even our water is alkaline. If your new home is even a few months old you can see this with the ring that forms around the bathtub or sink. You need a fertilizer that will help to counteract this alkalinity.
National brand fertilizers are geared toward the East Coast, which has acid soils. Not the best fertilizer for the tri-cities area, or anywhere in Arizona, for that matter. With my own gardens, I've found the best performing plant foods have come from an agriculture fertilizer company out of Texas by the name of Fertilome. I'd like to fire the guy who thought up their name, but they make a great plant food.
This plant food line has consistently worked with homes I've gardened in from Prescott Valley, Skull Valley and Prescott. I'm sure Chino Valley is no different. There are too many choices when it comes to plant foods. Let me simplify the choice. Use "Fruit Tree Food" 19-10-5, on fruit trees. If you have some left over, it also works great on shrubs and non-fruiting trees such as lilac, forsythia, and rose of Sharon, or willows, maples and crab-apples.
If you don't have fruit trees, buy a Fertilome "Tree & Shrub Food" 19-8-10. Good general fertilizer for all your trees and shrubs, but it has plenty of soil sulfur in it to make your evergreens – like junipers, pines and spruce – happy.
For flower and vegetable gardens, use "Gardeners Special" 11-15-11. The increased phosphorus will promote better roots, fruits and blooms.
My all-time-favorite lawn food is "Southwest Greenmaker" 18-0-6. The best of gardeners have made a mistake with lawn food because they are so hot. This lawn food has far more room for mistakes. Reduced nitrogen, along with increased sulfur and iron, make this an awesome lawn food.
If in doubt on any of these, I'm ultimately sold on Fertilome "Start-N-Grow". Personally, I buy this one and put it on everything from trees, shrubs, lawn and flowers … even containers. This one releases food slowly over a three-month period, making any plant very happy. We use a lot of it here at the garden center to feed container trees all the way to the beautiful hanging baskets the ladies will create later in March. It's a little more expensive, but well worth the time-saving aspect, because you're using it less often.
I like to feed plants right now, again when the rains come in July and again in October with a winterizing plant food.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona certified nursery professional and Master Gardener.