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THE MYSTERIES OF FERTILIZATION

Gardeners complete a good number of tasks like robots -- not because they need to, but because they think they are supposed to.

The best example is the number of gardeners who lime soils in the northern half of Western New York, including Buffalo. In most cases these soils don't need lime, but gardeners do it anyway.

The second example of robot-like garden work is the fertilization of landscape shrubs. Here there are two extremes -- those who fertilize even when they don't need to and others who haven't fertilized in 20 years.

Neither of these two scenarios is necessarily wrong, but gardeners can better use their fertilizer.

Some landscapes simply don't need much fertilizer. When plants grow adequately, bloom and have the correct color for the species and variety, a great deal of fertilizer is not necessary.

We've all seen that house where the shrubs are up to the eaves, and the windows are covered over. Shrubs grow larger as they age, and the more they are fertilized, the more they grow and the sooner they become too big.

Granted, these large, overgrown plants could have been reduced in size by more thorough maintenance (pruning) and better plant selection (smaller varieties), yet fertilizer still speeds the growth process.

It is easier to describe the situations where fertilizer is useful than when it is not.

Off color plants -- Plants come in all foliage colors these days, from yellow to light green to dark green. They are variegated, red and even bluish. If the colors are bleached out, dull or lacking the tint they are supposed to have, some fertilizer is bound to help.

Sometimes other conditions, such as wet soils or soil pH, may be responsible for off color. Fertilizer alone will not correct these conditions, although it may help. If a season of fertilization does not turn color around, be sure to check these other possibilities.

Slow growth -- With most landscape plants close to the house, slow or short growth is not important as long as the plants look good. Remember the overgrown house. Yet in situations where gardeners want to push plants, some fertilizer is definitely called for.

Poor flower production -- A lack of flowers on ornamental shrubs can be caused by too much shade, poor genetics, winter injury and other reasons. Fertilizer is not the answer to all these problems, but it can help turn moderate bloomers into better bloomers.

On some of these plants it is best to fertilize in early spring to avoid the possibility of prolonged growth and winter injury. Examples include roses, rhododendron and azalea. Keep in mind that fertilizer applied this season will help bloom production next year, not this year, for spring bloomers.

Sparse foliage -- Fertilizer can help fill in sparse plants by increasing growth and bud production.

A knowledge of plants and how they grow is important in determining if a plant will fill out with fertilizer. Tall arborvitae thinned at the bottom by deer will not fill in, even with fertilizer. Neither will over-grown, scruffy rhododendrons. Some plants need to be replaced, drastically pruned or lived with as is, not fertilized.

All in all, it is the shrubs that look poorly that need fertilizer. If they look good, don't push them too much because they will get too big to fast.

What to use -- A standard 10-10-10 or 10-6-4 fertilizer is fine in most cases. Gardeners may find differing numbers than these on garden center shelves, but as long as they are close, they are fine.

For example, 8-10-8, 17-15-6, 12-12-12, 20-10-10, are all close enough to do the job nicely. Follow package instructions for rates of application, although most will fall in the range of one half to two pounds per 100 square feet.

This gardener prefers granular products applied in the spring for woody shrubs, as opposed to liquid formulations applied all season, primarily because of the labor. Yet both work. A few products contain some slow release nutrients that are desirable but also more expensive.

Most plant growth is put on in the spring and that is the time to fertilize; mid-April to early May is perfect.

Fifty years of Peace

The Peace rose was named in 1945 at the close of World War II, and it was given the All-American Rose Selection Award of Honor that year.

This popular rose has an interesting history.

In 1939, distinguished French nurseryman Francis Meilland discovered a promising new rose he had nurtured from a single seed. Realizing that the beginning of World War II posed threats to the flower's fate, Meilland dispatched cuttings to growers in Italy, Germany and the United States.

The package addressed to Pennsylvania grower Robert Pyle almost didn't made it. As tanks plowed the earth around Lyons, the parcel was slipped aboard the last plane to leave the city before France was occupied by Nazi forces in 1940.

Four years later, Meilland learned the fate of his hybrid in a letter from Pyle:

"Whilst dictating this letter my eyes are fixed in fascinated admiration on a glorious rose," Pyle wrote, "its pale gold, cream and ivory petals blended to a lightly ruffled edge of delicate carmine . . . I am convinced it will be the greatest rose of the century."

Within a decade, more than 30 million Peace rose bushes bloomed worldwide. Today -- 50 years later -- Peace remains one of the most celebrated and popular roses in history.

For answers to your gardening questions, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Ken Brown, in care of the Features Department, Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Brown is a horticultural consultant specializing in integrated pest management.

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