Dear Problem Lady

When should I start “feeding” my garden flowers?

If you mean, when should you apply fertilizers to encourage flowering – maybe never. “Feed the soil, not the plant” is the mantra of experienced gardeners. While nutrients in one’s soil do get depleted, soil itself can be “fed” with regular additions of compost, manure, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, bloodmeal, bonemeal, and liquid seaweed. Clay soil can be top-dressed with such materials, even some sand, since soil must be airy and light. Sandy soils need a constant “feeding” of compost and humus. If your soil is airy and full of worms, your plants need no extra “food” except sunshine and water. However, please read on.


“Big feeders.” I hear my gardening friends use this phrase, and I’ve never known what they mean.

Your friends mean that a “big feeder” plant or shrub will flower a lot more if it receives fertilizer during the growing season. Although adding fertilizer to flowers planted in poor soil will not help, depleted soils themselves can be rebuilt by the addition of organic fertilizers. These solid or “dry” fertilizers can be worked lightly into the soil around each plant. Acid-soil-loving plants need a different fertilizer from that needed by plants that require a neutral pH soil. Fertilize perennials less often; their established roots give them a head start. Annuals, because they must do all their growing in one season, can use more frequent booster shots of high phosphorus liquid fertilizers.


The three tall allium bulbs I planted last fall have bloomed since the beginning of May. Their huge purple globes are starting to go to seed. I’m wondering whether these alliums will spread by seed.

Yes, they will. But it won’t happen in a year, or even two. Do you see how each globe flower is actually composed of many little flowers? Each has a green center, which swells and becomes a seed pod. The green pod turns brown and ultimately splits open to release two or three seeds. You can leave them on their big flower stalks for birds to share, or you can cut the stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag. As the seed pods dry, black seeds will collect. Plant them now in about one inch of soil, well misted so that the earth around them is moist. The little seedlings will take a couple of years to grow bulbs large enough to flower. Or you can simply buy and plant more bulbs this autumn.


The next public meeting of the Capitol Hill Garden Club is on Sept. 13. Find membership details at We meet at the Northeast Public Library, corner of Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue NE. Meetings are free and open to all.

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