BY LORI MURRAY

This is the time of year gardeners get excited about not only putting new plants in the ground but also encouraging new growth in what’s already there. An aspiring gardener begins to think of his soil and what elements can be used to enrich it. So this is a good time to discuss what encourages plant growth.

First of all, three of the most important elements for plant growth cannot be added as fertilizers. They already exist in the environment in large quantities and are so common that we hardly think of them.

These elements are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and they are supplied by water and air. All the other elements for plant growth are found in the soil naturally in some quantity or another, and that’s where fertilizer comes in because most soils are well below the optimum in one or more of them. There are three main elements necessary to the plant’s success that we add routinely with commercial fertilizer: nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). For simplicity’s sake, they are usually added in a balanced formula and in a ratio of 1-1-1 or 1-2-1, nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium respectively.

Nitrogen is the raw material for proteins, genetic materials, and chlorophyll, the green substance that uses the energy of the sun to promote photosynthesis.

A lack of nitrogen results in pale foliage and spindly stems while an excess of nitrogen stimulates rank vegetative growth.

Phosphorous is also the raw material for genetics. It stimulates flower, fruit, and seed production. It also stimulates root growth and strong stems. A shortage causes weak root systems, poor growth, and decreased flowering.

Potassium promotes better water movement in the plant, stimulates flower production, and increases disease resistance. It also increases blossom size (and increases red pigment in red roses). A potassium shortage is characterized by small leaves and flowers and – in extreme cases – dried edges on leaves.

Follow the directions on the fertilizer you select and be sure to water thoroughly after the application to avoid fertilizer burn. If you’re fertilizing your grass, letting a little spray into your flower beds doesn’t hurt a thing, so be lavish in your application area. Your reward will be evident within a few weeks with a darker color, good roots, healthy grass, and abundant blooms on your flowering plants.