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What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

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What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  s1rGr1nG0 on 2/13/2014, 2:50 pm

This year, in addition to our 3 SFG's, we are going to to some container gardening as well. I have several heirloom varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers I want to try.
I've been doing a lot of reading and video watching of various methods of planting, trellis building, and growing tomatoes.

During my lunch break I went to a local big box home improvement store just to browse around and kill some time. While looking at the different types of fertilizers and plant foods I noticed a wide range of numbers referring to the  NPK, (I know what NPK is but not what the numbers refer to), on the packages. Things like 21-0-0 or 2-5-3, etc....
What exactly does that mean and how will it effect my garden?

I've read that tomatoes really love Nitrogen, (please correct me if I'm wrong), so in the numbers above it would seem smart to go with the 21-0-0 but somehow I get the feeling that is not correct. In the second one, 2-5-3, it was listed on a package for fertilizer directly aimed at vegetables, but why is the second number bigger instead of the first one if they love Nitrogen so much?

Another also... some of the soil I had looked at already has fertilizer in it, think it was like 0.5-0.5-0.5, (or something like that), would I harm the plants using a soil like that and then later on feeding plants with a different fertilizer?

These new container plants of ours will be in 5 gallon, food grade, buckets that I am getting from a local BBQ joint and put on livestock panels for a trellis.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  camprn on 2/13/2014, 3:18 pm

NPK found on the labels of fertilizer refers to the amounts of the elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium found in the fertilizer.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertilizer

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  H_TX_2 on 2/13/2014, 3:57 pm

I would try not to use anything that has two zeros in it unless you are trying to fix a specific problem. Having the other nutrients isn't going to hurt anything. My first year gardening I mainly used manure as my compost which can be high in nitrogen. Nitrogen help plants produce green leaves. My garden looked green and beautiful but the fruit never showed up. I think I was too rich in nitrogen and lacking in the other areas so I only had lots of green leaves.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  plantoid on 2/13/2014, 4:28 pm

s1rGr1nG0,
If you use MM made with a quality five element or more balanced compost you'll not need overly concern yourself with the NPK amounts. As it will have plenty of everything and as it rots decays  down even more it will continue to give it out . You replenish the consumed nutrients with new compost when you take the crop out of each square.

The odd few plants that need higher nutrients are perhaps better served by giving them liquid feeds of tomato food or seaweed  or a feed specific to the crop directly where it is needed.
 IE.
On the plant root area of ground or on the leaves if that is the recommended way of giving it.. 

Perhaps think of things this way ,if you use a general artificial fertilizer with high numbers of NP&K on the whole box you will over feed the whole box. many plants will suffer from the surfeit , some will flourish ,many will have as has been stated lots of greenery  rather than fruit. So you have wasted time effort and money by using it.
If you use it on a specific plant it will usually be far too strong as it's very difficult to get the exact dosage for each plant . It will usually have been partially used , dissolved and leeched out the bed  within six to ten weeks , so there is no long slow natural feed like there is when using the five element compost .

Only giving the extra feeds to  the squares that need it saves you time , money , saves weakening your crops & saves wasted effort on your part.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  sanderson on 2/13/2014, 5:03 pm

Sir Gringo, As Plantoid stated, if you use well made Mel's Mix, you will have the best overall results: healthy green leaves AND healthy fruit. 5 gallon buckets with a cattle panel as support sounds great. You don't need to fill the buckets ALL the way full. Make sure you drill holes in the bottom so they don't get soggy feet. When it gets hot, use mulch on top of the MM.

Question: How did you end up making your MM? What 5 composted ingredients did you use? I don't remember. If you used at least 5 different "sources," that is, 5 different preciously living products like composted woods, greens, veggies, herbivore manure, sea kelp, worm castings, mushroom compost, etc., etc., you will have provided enough variety or nutrients for the plant to use when it needs it. If you think you have a problem with one or more tomato plants, take photos and post so folks will be able to properly help you. Sometimes, and only sometimes, a certain type of veggie will need a teeny bit of one nutrient or the other. Example: Blossom end rot (BER) in oval paste tomatoes can be fixed by adding powdered non-fat milk and epson salts. Hope this helps.

Making your own compost is the best in the long run. You only need a minimum of 3' x 3' x 3' cage with a removable front to make your own. Folks here will help you with advice if you want to compost.

Sanderson, who is off to mix more Mel's Mix!

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  s1rGr1nG0 on 2/13/2014, 5:48 pm

Well, it's been nearly a year since we made our MM. I know it had composted cow manure, some mushroom compost...and I'm not sure exactly about the others but we did use 4-5 different manufacturers of compost. Like, we got the manure compost from one vendor, mushroom compost from another, and the others from other vendors as well. We also put in the compost we had made ourselves, (probably about 3 bags worth).

Last year was our first time with any type of real garden and the plants seemed to grow somewhat but they never really looked "robust" and full like many I see on this site. And production was dismal at best. Most of the year I was working overseas and my poor wife was doing all of the work.

This time around I've been doing TONS of research and now that I'm home permanently we are going to increase our SFG from two 4x4's to a total of four 4x4 and also add about 15-20 5 gallon buckets for our containers.

So far I have seeds started for about 9 varieties of tomatoes, 7 or so different peppers, 3 watermelon, 1 cantaloupe, 4 or 5 varieties of cucumber, some squash, and onions. We will also be looking at some other things to plant in the non-trellised squares.

I noticed this morning that some of the tomatoes and cucumbers are already sprouting in the starter boxes! We're excited about Spring! Very Happy

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  sanderson on 2/13/2014, 6:52 pm

Just a little note. Different sources does not mean different vendors, necessarily. Here are 6 "sources:"

Horse source = horse poop (with a little bedding hay or shavings mixed in, usually)
Vegetables source = composted vegetables and trimmings
Worm source = worm poop or castings
Trees = browns, as in "Joe's Premium Coomposted Forest Products"
Sea source = kelp meal
Sea source = composted lobster, crab and shrimp shells

If Farmer Joe lived in a forested area near the sea coast, he could theoretically have all of these composted "sources" for sale.

Making a well rounded homemade compost pile, Any of the raw sources, plus used coffee grounds, sterilized egg shells, shredded clean paper or newspaper, etc. can be added.


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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  Goosegirl on 2/13/2014, 8:37 pm

+1 to what Sanderson said, and in addition, bagged compost can also contain extra peat which can throw off your ratio.  


Along with whatever composts you can find for the coming season, your homemade compost will be your best compost to add, since it usually is well-rounded with an incredible array of ingredients from your kitchen!

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  Marc Iverson on 2/13/2014, 11:40 pm

Tru dat. I just looked at the palettes of compost our Bi-Mart put out, and peat moss is the second ingredient in most of them.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  s1rGr1nG0 on 2/14/2014, 8:25 am

So with all that Peat the soil would be acidic, (or more acidic than normal anyway), correct?

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  camprn on 2/14/2014, 8:35 am

@s1rGr1nG0 wrote:So with all that Peat the soil would be acidic, (or more acidic than normal anyway), correct?
Maybe, maybe not. The only way to know for sure the pH of the mix is to do an analysis.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  sanderson on 2/14/2014, 2:46 pm

Sir Gringo, You are not alone. My first MM had way too much peat moss because I used commercial Kellogg compost, which had a lot of peat moss and wood.  My garden grew but didn't thrive.  I had to "fertilize" with top dressings of worm castings, sea kelp and composted cow manure.  (Don't tell anyone else, but I even used a little Miracle Grow!!   Embarassed )  Once I had my first half-baked batch of home made compost to add, things got better!  Then the second batch, better. And, the third batch, best!! I finally feel I have really good MM for 95% of the variety of plants I have without having to add anything for their growing season or specific need.

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Re: What do the numbers refer to in regards to NPK in fertilizer?

Post  Marc Iverson on 2/14/2014, 3:07 pm

sirgringo, it depends what else went into the compost mix with the peat, and how much peat there was versus other ingredients, which will have their own pH to worry about. But in general, yes, peat does raise acidity. In Mel's Mix, it's the other ingredients which balance the acidity of the peat out.

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