Down in the Garden: How to Feed Your Plants in the Garden

Plants don’t just need water; you must also feed them!

Out there in the wild, in their places of origin, they will settle themselves into positions that naturally have the nutrients within the soil that will feed them.

You, however, are probably growing a lot of your plants in environments that are not exactly perfect for them.

Think of it this way, you are already watering your plants in addition to the water available to them via rain and what is retained in the soil.

To feed your plants, you will also need to top up your soil with nutrients, so your garden won’t go hungry.

This additional food for plants is known as fertiliser. It is added to your soil so that the roots can absorb it.

Along with these are calcium, magnesium, and sulphur as secondary elements and then iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, and molybdenum.

These are all available in commercial preparations in liquid, granule and powder form and are tailored to suit different types of plants as each will require varying amounts of these elements for optimal growth.

While these are fast short-term fixes, they do nothing to improve the structure and micro-balance of your soil.

The use of manures, mulches and composts, topped up with fish emulsion, seaweed extract, worm castings and targeted elements such as lime or sulphur will ensure a healthy soil with loads of micronutrients and will present less danger of soil problems that inorganic fertilisers can present.

All I will say about these commercial inorganics is that they will have directions on the label to follow.

How do I Know What to Feed my Plants

Just ask!

Any good gardening book will list the ways to feed each plant.

When purchasing plants ask the grower or garden centre and go for an internet exploration as well because people will share a wealth of tips in feeding that have resulted in great plant growth for them.

You may find a gem there like this one.

I learned to plant a fish under a frangipani tree to help it establish and I can tell you, this works.

Having soil that suits your plants is the way to begin and ensuring it is rich in compost and well-rotted manures will also set you on your way.

Continued feeding equals continued success.

So, let’s break down, in words, the different good foods for plants and what they do.

A very important note: a few of these are manures and I state ‘well-rotted’ as this will lower the nitrogen levels so they do not cause burning of your plants and most importantly, certain pathogens that could cause danger to humans.

Commercially obtained manures are already in this state but if you are collecting these manures yourself, you will need to ‘rot’ them via composting for at least three months.

Leave in a heap or vented bin, turning occasionally.

They are ready when smell reduces, and texture becomes crumbly.

Cow Manure

It is rich in nitrogen and plants just love it.

There are also good microbes in it that will support your soil and I find that using it a few weeks prior to planting out a bed gives particularly vegetable seedlings a really good start in life.

Horse Manure

I’m not a fan unless you have a horse and then it’s a good way to dispose of it.

The problem is you may find high levels of worming medicine still within the manure and this will then kill worms in your soil.

It also is not as high in nitrogen as some other manures and needs to be well dug into the soil to at least 50cm to avoid burning of plants.

Fresh Chicken Manure

If you need a big boost of nitrogen for your plants, then fresh chook poo is for you!

It also has phosphorus and potassium and will increase he acidity in your soil.

Needs to be well dug into your garden soil at least two weeks before planting and the addition of a mulch dug in the mixture such as lucerne will help break it down and reduce the risk of burning your plants.

Chicken Manure Pellets

All the goodness of fresh chicken manure without the risk of burning your plants … and it is has slow-release properties as the pellets dissolve.

Dig in at planting and top up by sprinkling on the surface and watering in.

Fish Emulsion

A fortnightly booster when diluted in water for your plants that contains high levels nitrogen and is a bacteria booster for your soil.

It is created from fish and is probably as easier way for you to add this form of fertiliser than burying a dead fish under a frangipani.

Vegetables love this stuff.

Seaweed Extract

People often get the brand names of this, and fish emulsion mixed up.

Read the contents label to be sure you are getting what you intend.

Use fortnightly, diluted in water as a booster for your plants as per the directions.

The great thing about seaweed extract is that it also protects plants from diseases in the soil.

Blood and Bone

This needs to go into the soil a few weeks before planting.

High in nitrogen and phosphorous, dig well in to a depth of between 20 and 30cm.

Your neighbours won’t like you for a few days, but your plants will!

Worm Castings and Worm Tea

Got a worm farm?

You have got a great way to condition your soil and this in turns helps plants absorb the nutrients. Sprinkle either or both over the soil at any time.

Other Soil Additions

Dig wood ash through your garden bed prior to planting to lower the acidy in soil and add potassium.

Liquid potash added before plants flower will give them a brilliant boost.

Dug through the garden in it’s original form will add potassium to you garden beds.

Lime (garden or dolomite) raises the pH level along with the addition of calcium and magnesium.

Best introduced in autumn and dug through to a depth of 30 to 60com.

Sulphate (aluminium sulphate/sulphur) is dug through the soil in Autumn, as well in the same manner as lime and it is used to reduce the pH level of soil.


Fertiliser teas can be used more regularly in your garden for a diluted yet nutrient dense boost regularly, once a month or more during growth seasons.

Options are compost, well-rotted manure or seaweed and even beneficial herbs can be used.

Grab a big bucket and to 4 parts water add one part of the above.

Place on a lid (loosely) and stir well every few days and then strain.

To use, dilute 250ml of this full-strength tea to 4 litres of water.

For those not wishing to swish manure around, you can place it in a hessian or cloth bag and place it in the water and dunk like a teabag every few days.

This method will take a few weeks.


Lots of rain the past week so be on the lookout for fungal disease and treat early.

Hands up if you love roast pumpkin with your Christmas feast.

Well now is the time to plant them!

This week, you could also plant artichokes, asparagus crowns, cape gooseberry, capsicum, beetroot, climbing and dwarf beans, cabbage, carrot, celery, chicory, choko, cress, cucumbers, eggplants, endive, melons, squashes, pumpkin, lettuce, spring onions, parsnip, peas, potatoes, radish, rhubarb crowns, salsify, silverbeet, sweet corn, zucchinis, alyssum, calendula, California poppy, carnation, celosia, chrysanthemum, cosmos, dahlia, dianthus, everlasting daisies, gazania, gerbera, marigold, petunia, salvia, zinnia, kangaroo paw, nasturtium, snapdragon, salvia, sunflower, aster.


On Friday the waxing moon enters Aquarius, and this will mean a day of rest and perhaps your flowering plant plans.

Saturday is action day for flowering plants so planting and general care could be undertaken.

The moon enters Pisces on Sunday morning and stays there until Monday night, and you will find this is an advantageous time for your flowering plant work as well as the planting of all above ground crops.

Tuesday the full moon warns that no planting should occur, but pest control will be more effective.

With the waning moon in Aries until Thursday night, seed and nut producing crops are best worked on.

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with  Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 – 10am every Saturday on CoastFM963. She is also co-host of @MostlyAboutPlants a weekly
gardening podcast with Gardening Reporter Vicki White.

Cheralyn Darcey