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Marie Iannotti

Are Your Seedlings Starving?

By March 2, 2014

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I am often asked if seedlings need fertilizer and if so, when? Good question.

See those long skinny leaves on the seedling in the photo? Those aren't really leaves. They are called cotyledons and they help provide nutrients to the seedling until the true leaves form and the plant can start to photosynthesize. Cotyledons look pretty much the same on most plants.

The two tiny leaves at the top of the seedling are the first true leaves of this tomato plant. When true leaves appear on your seedling, it's time to start feeding them. Here are some tips, along with comments that have come up around this topic before.

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March 15, 2009 at 9:42 am
(1) linda says:

I* am wondering when I can add bulb fertilizer to already planted bulbs that are now peeking up from the soil.

March 16, 2009 at 11:38 am
(2) Marie Iannotti says:

Good timing. Now is a good time to give your flowering bulbs a dose of slow release fertilizer. They’re expending all their stored energy and this will keep them going throughout the spring, so they can start to store more for next year. Some experts suggest waiting until after the plants have bloomed, but in my area the growing window is so short after blooming and it takes some time for the fertilizer to work its way in, that I start now. Any balanced fertilizer will do.

March 24, 2010 at 5:05 pm
(3) lisahutchurson says:

This write-up was SOOO helpful! Even though I’ve started veggies from seed before, I’m ashamed to admit that I never gave them fertilizer before moving them outdoors and always wondered why they were so wimpy! I just happened to pick up a bottle of all-purpose liquid fertilizer the other day, but planned to give it to my seedlings after I transferred them in the ground. Will go feed the plant babies right now!

March 26, 2010 at 10:08 am
(4) gardening says:

I think a lot of us assumed our seedlings could fend for themselves indoors. Seed starting may be an inexpensive way to get a lot of plants, but it does take a good amount of work. I can’t wait for the temperatures to heat up.

January 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm
(5) container vegetable gardening says:

Hi Marie,

What’s the rule to know whether or not a plant needs to be re-potted in order to acclimatise before going outside?

Thanks for your useful tips.

January 7, 2011 at 9:34 am
(6) gardening says:

Hmm, I don’t think I know of a rule for that. I re-pot when the plant’s root have filled up the pot, but I move them out as soon as it’s warm enough.

March 3, 2012 at 9:17 am
(7) Lauren says:

Even though it’s off topic for today, thanks for the tip on feeding the bulbs. It would never occur to me to feed them in early March, but they are poking through during this very strange winter. We’re expecting more snow and freezing temperatures, but it makes sense that some food will give the bulbs sustenance to get through to blooming.

March 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm
(8) gardening says:

Lauren, it takes awhile for plants to take up organic food, but if it’s still snowy by you, you can hold off awhile. They haven’t used up all their stored energy until after flowering.

March 7, 2012 at 10:34 pm
(9) sally14 says:

About feeding bulbs, a local horticulturist told me to feed daylilies on Valentine’s Day.

March 8, 2012 at 6:41 am
(10) Marie Iannotti says:

Sally14, I like tying garden tasks to holidays – it really helps me remember them. But you must be in a warm zone, right? Valentine’s Day seems a little early for snowbound gardens.

March 9, 2012 at 2:45 am
(11) B says:

I was told not to fertilize until july as the soil has to be warm for it to be absorbed and work, and any sooner it would just go thru to the water table cause of the constant rain. O.k. that is for Rhodies and asalia and camelia. I have some crocus under a cedar tree, bulbs use one type of fertilizer and cedar an evergreen fertilizer, so would a 20-20-20
(Miracle grow) Work as a liquid feeding for the bulbs? I don’t like any fertilizer that lands on top of the soil for we have very many birds because we do not fertilize the lawn or spray chemicals on our trees. I think Ed Hume says you can feed your bulbs before they come up, during and
after with a liquid food that has at least a 5-10-10 in it.

March 9, 2012 at 8:21 am
(12) gardening says:

We’ve talked about feeding all kinds of plants in different climates in this thread, so it’s getting a little confusing. But that’s a good point about feeding when the soil is cold. I tend to amend my soil throughout the growing season, so I don’t use fertilizer very often, but I’ll definitely look into it further. In the meantime:

I believe the biggest problem with using synthetic fertilizer in cold soils is the source of nitrogen. Some sources, like urea, are not absorbable in cold soils. Nitrate is, to a degree. However if your plants are dormant or heading into dormancy, which they usually are in cold soil, you don’t want them getting a lot of nitrogen anyway.

Miracle Grow uses urea, but bulbs are a little different than most plants. Bulbs break dormancy in cold soils and need their food (mostly phosphorus and potassium) before they head back into dormancy as the soil warms. I’m not overly familiar with Miracle Grow, but any balanced fertilizer should work fine. It’s a temporary fix, so you may need to apply it more than once. It should not affect the soil pH, so the cedar should be fine. But a better choice might be to spread some bone meal or organic bulb food and scratch it into the soil. It won’t harm wildlife and will slowly feed the bulbs and enrich the soil.

Back to cold soils, slow release fertilizers are triggered by temperature and water and are not meant for cold soil because plants don’t need fertilizer then.

To the original conversation, seedlings grown indoors are actively growing and are going to need some food, unless it’s already in the potting mix.

February 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm
(13) Kathleen Norris says:

Hi All! I never imagined new seedlings would require fertilizing! Am going to try this out for sure! Thought I would share a tip of mine for starting seeds that I think worked so well. I placed seeds in small pyrex bowl with a little water, then placed bowl on candle warmer over night.
Whalla-next morning open and ready for soil. Seems to work well.

February 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm
(14) jj says:

It hurts to even read these pages. I can’t wait for spring (I live in zone 4)

February 27, 2013 at 2:10 pm
(15) gardening says:

jj, I know what you mean. We had sunshine yesterday morning and I couldn’t believe how much better I felt about life. Of course, it’s snowing and raining again today. February is not my favorite month.

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