You can't eat salty chips or popcorn without a drink. Salt pulls water out of our body's cells, signaling our brain's thirst center to dilute the salt with fluid.
The same can be said for non-organic fertilizers that can leach water from leaves and stems. Feed them to your plants and they get thirsty, too.
The problem is, there's no rain in the forecast. The Tampa Bay area is experiencing unprecedented drought with the most stringent water restrictions. Load your plants up now with a chemical, salt-laden concoction without adequate watering and you'll literally suck the life out of your yard.
Now more than ever, it's time to turn your focus to growing your soil, not your plants. It's a mind shift that makes sense not only in these dry days, but in the years ahead where population growth exceeds our natural resources.
Experts say that growing your soil is the best thing you can do for your garden and the environment — especially in Florida, where natural soils range from mostly sandy with crushed shell to poor-draining, dense muck. Because our soils don't hold water and nutrients, all that wonderful nitrogen, magnesium, potassium and iron just leach down into the water table and out of reach of plant roots. It's almost like pouring vitamins down the drain.
Adding organic matter such as manure and compost changes the structure of sandy soil to a more loose and crumbly one, ideal for helping water and air disperse throughout. Plus, it helps create an environment loaded with good organisms such as earthworms and good nematodes. Put your soil on an organic diet of compost made from non-meat scraps, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, shredded newspaper — even dryer lint.
You can purchase organic fertilizers and soil enhancers, including fish emulsion, bird guano and worm castings that can be worked into the soil. There are no burning salts in these products, but a good watering at application is helpful.
Don't forget mulch, which helps the soil retain moisture and also decomposes to enrich the soil. You can use up to 3 inches in garden beds, but not against the trunks of plants. Buy it in bulk or bags from garden centers, or get all you want for free from recycling centers. If you've still got oak leaves on the ground, rake them into flower beds.
Some communities are considering banning or have already banned the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers during summer months. If you insist on applying non-organic fertilizer, at least know what you're getting. Your safest product in these dry days is an extended-release granular fertilizer that breaks down over about three to four months. Choose a premium quality fertilizer, which will contain the best blend of ingredients and the least amount of chlorine.
Always read the product label. It's not rocket science, but fertilizer labels can be confusing. The product's three numbers refer to the primary plant nutrients: Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (always in that order). For example, a 12-4-8 fertilizer contains 12 percent nitrogen, 4 percent phosphorous and 8 percent potassium. Nitrogen promotes growth and greening, phosphorous feeds the plant's structure (roots and shoots) and potassium boosts the plant's overall health, like an immune system booster.
Avoid getting dry fertilizer on leaves and green stems; if you do, wash the dry fertilizer off. Never apply dry fertilizer to wet plants.
If your plants are showing signs of water stress such as wilting leaves and stems, yellowing and leaf drop, applying fertilizer will be the burning kiss of death. Instead, thoroughly douse the plant with water (following your area's watering schedule), and begin feeding the soil organically.
And pray for rain!
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a Pinellas County master gardener. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.