In Southern California, February is the month to fertilize the garden. This is the month when we get most of our rain. Rain causes fertilizer to dissolve into the soil evenly and effortlessly. Our spring also begins earlier than in other places – in fact, just about now – and this is another reason fertilization in February, in anticipation of new spring growth, makes sense.
There is as much misunderstanding and controversy about fertilization as there is about any other horticultural subject. For years, the mantra heard again and again was, “It doesn’t really matter to the plant where its minerals are coming from as long as they are available to its roots in the soil.”
Yet gradually there has developed a general recognition that the organic content of the soil plays a crucial role in overall plant health. It may not make any difference from today to tomorrow if a plant gets its nitrogen from ammonium sulfate, calcium nitrate, bat guano or cottonseed meal. However, over a period of years, a soil that is regularly fertilized with organically derived nitrogen (such as bat guano or cottonseed meal) will support plant growth far more successfully than nitrogen that comes from manufactured, artificial sources (such as ammonium sulfate or calcium nitrate).
Humus also improves soil properties such as fertility, water-holding capacity, and drainage, as well as invigorating a plant’s immune system. Artificial fertilizers seldom contain the carbon that humus-forming soil bacteria need and may contain nitrogen in forms that are toxic to soil bacteria. On the other hand, organic fertilizers – by definition – are carbon rich and the nitrogen they contain is bacteria friendly.
For some plants, an annual February fertilization may be sufficient to satisfy their mineral needs for the entire year. This is certainly true of many trees, shrubs and ground covers. In general, the more heavily a plant is watered, the more fertilizer it will require throughout the year since minerals its roots would otherwise absorb drain deeper into the soil with each watering.
Ronald Robinson of Simi Valley, remembering a past gardening column of mine, wanted details about “a special fertilizer used by a lady in the Valley who planted her tomatoes in the same place every year.” The lady, Arlene Gantman of Valley Glen, recommended the following preparation for tomato planting: Into a hole that is 14 inches wide by 14 inches deep, mix three shovelfuls of compost, five tablespoons of Osmocote (18-6-12), three tablespoons of bone meal, three tablespoons of Epsom salts, two tablespoons of pre-plant fertilizer (5-3-2), and two tablespoons of brown sugar.
All of the above should be mixed with good topsoil, whether it was taken from the ground or purchased at a nursery, before backfilling the waiting tomato planting hole with the entire combination of ingredients.
GARDENER: Christine Dyer
Residence: Stevenson Ranch
Plant of interest: Morning glory
What makes this plant amazing: Gardeners who have grown morning glories to add some color to their garden usually realize their mistake too late: Once you plant one, it’s never going away.
You can hack at the roots with a hoe. You can burn the plant to the ground. You can jump on it until it’s crushed. But, inevitably, the plant will reseed itself and come up again in time for next year, making it more a weed than just a pretty flower.
And yet Christine Dyer is not only growing a morning glory, she’s letting it have the run of her patio.
Back in July 1999, she covered over a 8-by-5-foot opening to her patio with chicken wire so she could keep out cats. She bought a morning glory and let it wind around the wire to add some color, but the vines quickly overtook the small opening and started growing toward the ceiling.
Instead of pruning back the plant, she set up a makeshift net across her ceiling, so the vine could grow across the 13-by-7-foot area unimpeded. The vine has now doubled back on itself, heading back toward its original pot. Dyer estimates the plant is now 35 feet in length.
“I plan on keeping it as long as it’s happy,” she says. “No moving it. I’ve never tried pruning it either.”
Dyer says she’s just letting nature take its course. For a while, there was even an ant colony living on the plant, but the ants left when the patio got too hot.
Maintenance: Dyer fertilizes the plant and gives it water once a month, except during the summer when she waters it every day. She picks off the dead leaves, but otherwise leaves the plant alone.
What Joshua Siskin says: “It’s an annual, so it will die eventually. But it will reseed. It’s one of those buyer-beware type things. You’ll never get rid of it.”
– Mike Chmielecki
If you think you might have a “garden wonder,” send the information along with your name, address and daytime phone number to: Garden Wonders, L.A. Life, Daily News, P.O. Box 4200, Woodland Hills, CA 91365-4200; via e-mail to dnlalife(at)dailynews.com; or via fax to (818) 713-3545.

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