Side dressing gives plants an extra boost of growth

July 11, 2012
For leafy green crops, such as swiss chard, lettuce or Asian greens, try liquid fish emulsion, which provides a quick-acting source of nitrogen.

The circus has entertained us for years and added much to our language.  For instance, to get people into a sideshow, the circus barkers would ballyhoo, or advertise loudly.  Now, any raucous promotion is a ballyhoo.  

While everyone likes the main attraction, sometimes it’s the sideshow that really intrigues us. In the garden, the main fertilizer is added to the soil before planting, but some plants, like circus goers, need a little boost to get them involved. So we give some crops an extra boost of fertilizer, called side dressing. Side dressing makes sure that there isn’t a lull in growth, and it will help plants grow continuously and produce bigger flowers and better vegetable harvests.

Even if you have rich soil, some crops known as heavy feeders, such as corn, onions and roses, do better with a July boost from side dressing.

If your garden has sandy soil with little organic matter, fertilizer leaches out quickly, and you will do well to side dress everything. Use a good granular organic fertilizer or even compost to side dress. For leafy green crops, such as swiss chard, lettuce or Asian greens, try liquid fish emulsion, which provides a quick-acting source of nitrogen.  You will notice an immediate improvement in color.  Just add the  liquid fish emulsion to your watering can and water around the base of the plants and even on the leaves.

Too much of a good thing can do more harm than good, so go easy.  Too much fertilizer will build up in the soil in the form of salts.  These salts damage roots. Not every plant needs side dressing. Peas, beans, carrots, beets and turnips usually do fine without it.  Side dress individual plants by digging a shallow ditch around each plant, about 6 inches from the stem.  Lightly add the fertilizer and cover the trench.  This works well for most transplants, such as tomatoes, broccoli, okra and peppers. For entire rows, use a hoe to dig a shallow trench about 6 inches from the row, and put the granular fertilizer in the trench.  Cover with dirt and water well.

For large plants and shrubs, dig a trench  around the perimeter of the outer leaves and side dress with fertilizer. This is the drip line of the plant, where rain drips off of the leaves and hits the ground.  Most trees and shrubs have most of their feeder roots along the drip line, so fertilizer applied here will actually do more good than fertilizer nearer to the main stems of the plants. It’s important to cover the fertilizer with soil to keep rain from splashing it up onto the plant, where it could burn or kill the leaves. Side dress broccoli or cabbage when the heads have just begin to form.  Side dress corn when it is knee high.  Vine crops such as melons, squash and cucumbers are best side dressed  before the vines begin to run. Add side dressing to tomatoes, peppers and okra when they bloom and again about a month later.

Side dress in July, and your garden will have enough of a boost to keep producing right into the fall.  Your flowers and vegetables will be ready for the main event or big top, and you will be the ringleader of your own circus.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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