Plant Insurance - Who Needs It?

Steve Smith reviews some basic planting procedures that will help insure success for all of us. He wants to drive home the importance of compost, fertilizer and to a lesser extent transplant shock reducing products.
Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener. Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery, Marysville.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Now that we are in the thick of the planting season I think it is prudent to review some basic planting procedures that will help insure success for all of us. Mostly, I want to drive home the importance of compost, fertilizer and to a lesser extent transplant shock reducing products. So, here we go..................


Why is it that whenever we sell a plant to a gardener we recommend adding somecompost to the soil? The reason is two fold. First and foremost, compost adds microbial activity to the soil. By far the most important role of organic matter (what most of us refer to as compost or manure or mulch) is to add to our soils millions upon millions of soil microbes in the form of fungal and bacterial organisms. These creatures work all sorts of miracles in our soils (just as they do in our intestines) and play a vital role in helping plant roots absorb nutrients from the soil complex we typically refer to as DIRT. Dirt that is devoid of microbes due to excessive use of pesticides or other chemical products cannot help support growth like a soil that is teaming with these microscopic creatures. Because organic material is consumed by these microbes throughout the season it is imperative that we replenish it on an annual basis whether or not we are introducing new plants or just maintaining existing

The second purpose of adding compost is to improve the physical properties of our soils. Whether or not we have a very fast draining sandy soil or a slow draining heavy clay soil, the panacea for either of these extremes is of course compost (organic matter to be more precise). The coarse nature of compost lends itself to improving drainage in a fine clay soil and creating pore spaces that also allow air to flow in between the soil particles. This same material also increases the moisture retentive qualities of a sandy soil. In short, compost seems to do it all, it is truly the solution to almost all of our soil problems. And to a lesser extent, it has some nutritive value BUT it is not to be considered a fertilizer.


Compost is what we call a soil amendment. As I said above, it primarily adds microbes and can alter the physical properties of our soils. Fertilizers on the other hand are a source of plant food that is intended to feed our established and newly planted treasures. We need both compost and fertilizer to insure that we are providing everything our plants require to thrive. By far the best sources of fertilizer are natural and organic in origin. Agricultural byproducts like blood meal, alfalfa meal, bone meal, feather meal, sunflower hull ash, cotton seed meal and natural products like bat guano and worm castings are excellent for their slow release, non-burning and long lasting qualities and let's not forget the recycling and re-purposing values of these products. They are also rich in trace elements often not found in commercial fertilizers. As an added bonus to these products many manufacturers now add microorganisms called mycorrhizae that will affix themselves to the roots of plants and assist in utilizing the fertilizers contained in the boxes. Look for products that contain mycorrhizae and you will see huge benefits.


Well, I wish I could say empirically that vitamin B-1 helps plant growth but I think it falls into the category of fuzzy math and snake oil. That being said, I have been a life-long devotee of two products that if nothing else make me feel really good about taking care of my plants. Liquinox Start and Super-Thrive are two products that have been on the market for probably over 60 years and I can remember using them when I was only 14 years old (that would be 51 years ago but who is counting). They contain vitamins and minerals and using them if nothing else forces a gardener to at least thoroughly water-in a newly transplanted plant and that alone will surely help with a successful job.

So all of the above talk is what I refer to as "plant insurance" but really it is simply good gardening advice and should be followed by every gardener when planting new goodies or tending to established ones. Ignore this advice at your own peril!

Come by this Saturday at 10am for my class on Organic Landscaping! It will be a great opportunity to ask me questions!

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached on line at


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