Preparing the Garden: Fertilizing 101


I have been planting my vegetable garden for 20 years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how each year I learn something new. My 8- by 16-foot plot gets rototilled twice a year, before planting and after, and because of the organic nutrients I add, my soil has become incredibly rich. It’s important to learn the proper way to prepare your soil before you plant to ensure a healthy, fruitful garden.

I caught up with Michael Makinajian, owner of Makinajian Poultry Farm in Huntington to get a crash course in fertilizing 101.

First, now is the time to fertilize. If you want to plant your vegetables in three to four weeks, it’s always a good idea to prepare the soil ahead of time and let it sit. If you fertilized and planted right away, not to worry. Many fertilizers today are aged or dehydrated so they won’t burn the plants. Makinajian recommends letting the soil sit a few weeks, but you don’t have to if you forget or are short on time.

It’s important to use all organic matter, which can be a combination of compost, fertilizer and trace minerals. If you are looking for a straight, water soluble fertilizer, Makinajian recommends using North Country Organic products such as Cheep-Cheep 4-3-3 or Pro-Grow 5-3-4. Cheep-Cheep is dehydrated chicken manure, and it works very well on almost anything. It is also a bit more affordable than the Pro-Grow. However, if you are planting heavy feeders, such as broccoli and corn, Pro-Grow is the way to go because it has higher levels of nitrogen and potassium which these plants like.

To begin, rototill your garden and then add fertilizer. Be sure to follow the instructions on the bag, so you know how much to put down depending on the size of your garden. At the same time, you can also add a trace mineral fertilizer. If your soil is already in good shape, trace minerals take it to another level.

About every other day, I walk out to my compost tumbler, open it and add the bucketful of kitchen waste. Give the compost tumbler a couple of turns and you’re good to go.

“We have kelp and rock dusts,” says Makinajian. “And what that does is add all the micro-nutrients to your soil; it will make your plants healthier and the food you grow healthier.”

Trace mineral fertilizer would be in addition to Cheep-Cheep or Pro-Grow which don’t have those micro-nutrients. You can put it down any time of the year, but spring or fall is best because this fertilizer is not water soluble. This fertilizer has to be taken in by micro-organisms or bacteria. Worms eat that and what they excrete, worm castings, is what gets taken up by the plant. Those stay in the soil for a long time. Trace minerals can be added during the season too. If your plants need a little more help, let’s say around July when the nutrients are all gone, give the plants a boost.

Most fertilizers can be bought by the pound. Gardeners with limited space, who may be using raised beds or boxes, should put down a thin layer of compost, mix it into the soil and then sprinkle in Cheep-Cheep and trace minerals.

Only add lime to your soil if you have problem with pH levels. Unsure as to your soil’s quality? You have samples tested at some nurseries or at cooperative extensions, like Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. They will test your pH levels for free.

Since top soil does not contain a lot of nutrients, it’s important to add compost when starting a garden. You can buy compost or make your own, like I do. Once it starts getting warm, I collect kitchen scraps. I keep an air tight bucket under my kitchen sink and start filling it up. About every other day, I walk out to my compost tumbler, open it and add the bucketful of kitchen waste. Give the compost tumbler a couple of turns and you’re good to go. I do this throughout the entire summer, and you’d be surprised at how much I collect. I also add plant trimmings.

Sometimes the compost inside the tumbler gets too moist. To solve that, I keep a garbage pail filled with dried leaves nearby. Add leaves until the compost resembles dirt. If you don’t have a compost tumbler, you can make your own bins with wood. You will have to hand turn the compost with a pitch fork. Make sure it’s far enough away from your house and your neighbors, because sometimes these compost piles can have a bad odor, especially when it’s really hot outside.

It’s a good idea to add compost to your garden in the fall, once you’ve removed your vegetable plants. Empty the compost into the soil and rototill. It will sit in the garden all winter, and by the time the spring comes you’ll be ready for fertilizing and planting once again.

photo by Kerriann Flanagan Brosky