veggie box garden

Tips for Fertilizing Your Veggie Garden

Springtime usually finds us all a little antsy and excited to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. There is no better way to enjoy the great outdoors and create your own source of healthy fare than a vegetable garden. Simple to create and maintain, a vegetable garden can bring hours of enjoyment to each week. Veggies can be grown, nurtured, and enjoyed in any space with some sunlight and a little attention, whether you have a lawn, a porch, or even a balcony. If you know how to fertilize a garden, your space for veggies will bountifully produce and ensure satisfaction year after year.

What is in Fertilizer?

Woman using organic fertilizer to spray her plants

There are three main ingredients in most fertilizers for veggie gardens – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These elements are often represented as N-P-K on the packaging and are given as numbers (10-20-10). The numbers represent the percentage of nutrient that is contained in each pound of fertilizer. For example, in a 50-pound bag of 10-20-10 fertilizer, 10% of the 50 lb. total weight is nitrogen, 20% would be P, and 10% would be K, so there are 50 x 0.10 lbs. of N or 5 lbs. of N in the bag. The remaining weight is filler, which could include sand, perlite, rice hulls, or other material. For seasonal fertilizer for a veggie garden, a mix containing two times more phosphorus than potassium and nitrogen is most desirable.

Using Organic or Chemical Fertilizer for a Veggie Garden

When deciding how to fertilize your garden, organic and chemical fertilizers are widely available and can both positively and negatively impact your gardening. Organic fertilizers are made from animal and green manure, blood meal, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, granite dust, and rock phosphate. These nutrients contribute to the soil and offer a slow, steady nutrient supply to your vegetable plants. Many organic nutrients naturally occur in the soil, so organic fertilizers serve to replenish them. Though organic often seems the best way to go, it is essential to consider how to fertilize a garden to meet its immediate needs.

Organic fertilizer may have some drawbacks, including:

Woman using chemical fertilizer on her plants
  • organic fertilizers such as compost and manure may be bulky and difficult to store and transport
  • organic fertilizers have a slow release of nutrients, taking too long to remedy a situation where increased nutrients are needed quickly
  • organic fertilizers are lower in nutrient content than chemical options, often making guesswork of the actual nutrient ratio being applied

Chemical fertilizers are synthetically produced and include elements such as urea, potassium nitrate, potassium chloride, and superphosphate. They come in liquid, granular, powder, and pellet forms. 

Chemical fertilizers are widely available, fast-acting, and often less expensive than organic, but they may have some drawbacks, including:

  • Chemical fertilizers do not contribute to the long-term health of your soil
  • Chemical fertilizers do not improve soil structure, often breaking down and harming existing microorganisms

The manufacturing of chemical fertilizers also requires a great deal of energy which can have adverse effects on pollution and global warming, plus it grows our carbon footprint. Though some organic fertilizers are commercially manufactured, such as rock phosphate and green sand, home gardeners can choose locally produced compost and manure to get the nutrients needed and reduce nonrenewable resources’ larger impact.


How Much Fertilizer to Use on Your Veggie Garden

Knowing how to fertilize a garden can be broken down into one simple reminder – less is more! As with too much water, too much fertilizer can be detrimental to your vegetable garden and kill the plants. An easy rule of thumb when using 10-20-10 fertilizer for a veggie garden is to use two to three pounds per one hundred square feet for adequate nourishment. When starting your garden, you will want to mix the fertilizer into the existing soil, making sure to get a good mixture four to six inches deep. 

Applying the Fertilizer for a Veggie Garden

Man holding wood crate of full of vegetables in front of garden

The best rule of thumb for applying fertilizer to a veggie garden is to fertilize in the spring before planting the vegetables. While porous, well-drained soil may need it more frequently, fertilizing every three to four weeks through the growing season should be adequate. Continue to apply fertilizer when the fruit appears on your plants. Veggies need help most when they are growing, so keep providing the nutritious encouragement! 

Some veggies require more fertilization through the growing season, such as:

  • Early spring: lettuce, arugula, kale, and other leafy greens
  • Mid-summer: squash, corn
  • Mid-season: tomatoes, potatoes (switch to low-nitrogen fertilizer when tomato plants flower) 

For the first application of the season, or when first planting your vegetable garden, you can broadcast your dry fertilizer by hand or with a spreader and work the dry fertilizer into the soil, mixing down at least four to six inches. If your plants are already growing, cultivate the fertilizer carefully, not damaging the existing root systems. You can side-dress the fertilizer, which means applying the fertilizer alongside your rows of plants or seeds. Applying fertilizer before a good rain is best as the rain helps the fertilizer work down into the roots where it is needed most.


Liquid fertilizer, or fertilizer added to water or spread through a hose attachment, is a simple answer for how to fertilize a garden. While the liquid fertilizer is typically spread while watering your veggie garden, you do not want to use it immediately after planting. Even though you take great care to remove the plants from the container before placing them in the ground, small roots get broken. They are vulnerable and could be burned as the liquid fertilizer reaches them immediately. Give your plants two to three weeks to settle into their new digs before using liquid fertilizer to allow the new plants to recover from any root damage. 

All plants should be well-soaked with water, with special care given to the liquid fertilizer’s dilution instructions before applying to avoid root and leaf burn. On scorching days, apply liquid fertilizer in the early morning or late evening to avoid direct sunlight on the treated plants; the direct sun could cause burns on the leaves.

Your veggie garden will be a constant source of pleasant surprises as the tiny plants become big producers of healthy food that goes straight to your table. With several choices in fertilizer for a veggie garden, choose the one that works best for you. It often helps to consult with experts on how to fertilize a garden and learn more about the types of fertilizer for a veggie garden available in your area. Once you choose your method, all that is left is to reap the rewards of your labor!

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