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Puny pansies might benefit from fertilizer boost

Q. I’d planted several half-barrels of pansies earlier this fall and now they are looking a bit puny. What can I do for them this time of year? L.V., West Side, AlbuquerqueTracey Fitzgibbon

A. First, I’d make sure that you are watering the barrels. A dried-out pansy looks horrid when they’re cold. Next, you might consider tenting the half-barrels in the evening and then remember to uncover in the morning. Pansies can take quite a bit of cold weather but maybe they are a tad too cold or there is a stiff wind knocking them down so to speak.

Then it could very well be time for a fertilization. Now remember pansies are peculiar. Most flowering things prefer and require a fertilizer that contains a bit more phosphorus in it since it’s the phosphorus that “feeds” the bloom. Well, pansies will benefit from a fertilization that contains more nitrogen it the mix.

Most all of us know that nitrogen is meant for good green growth and by itself it’s considered quite “hot” in nature. That’s why a high nitrogen-based fertilization is preferred for growing spaces like lawns. It’s the nitrogen that feeds the grass blades so perfectly. Here’s the peculiar part. Offering your pansy plantings, a dose of fertilizer that is higher in nitrogen (like a lawn food) rather than a fertilizer that is meant to feed bloomers could be just what your plantings need.

I don’t have clinical proof, but I believe that it’s the “heat” in the nitrogen that keeps these wee charmers growing all winter long. Sort of like having antifreeze in their systems. I do have a caution for you – don’t apply a “WEED & FEED” style fertilizer because the “weed” part of the mix would spell certain death to the pansy planting.

Just straight lawn food, 2 to 3 tablespoons sprinkled over the soil and then watered in could be just the ticket. Even a dose of a water-soluble “Miracle-Gro” type food would be good. That’s all I can think of… don’t let the plantings dry out too much, consider tenting when it gets really cold and give them a kick in the pants with a nitrogen strong fertilizer. See if that helps.

Q. I’m a notorious over-waterer with houseplants. If the soil at the top of the pot feels dry, I water. Do you know of a way that I can check before I offer too much water to my plants? H.H., Albuquerque

A. First thing I will suggest is that you get used to the weight of an adequately watered container. If the pots are light in weight, then it’ll be time to water. Heavy? Then wait a bit longer to water. Certainly, this weighing of pots won’t work for large grand sized pots but for smaller ones it can.

Next be tactile. Get in the habit – pre-watering – of sticking a finger in the soil to feel how wet the soil is. I’m not talking fingertip I mean inserting your whole finger to feel for dampness.

If your sense of touch doesn’t answer the question for you, I have one more suggestion. Insert a dry dowel into the soil. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes then once you pull it out and wipe off the soil, the dowel should have absorbed water and in turn changed color showing you whether or not the soil is really damp, sort of damp, or not damp at all. Dowels are easily purchased in craft departments and another choice are inexpensive (sometimes free) unvarnished chopsticks! Just be sure the stick is well dry before you employ it for the next dampness check.

There are “moisture meters” available in gardening sections but unless the probe is wiped dry after each use there can be a lot of false positive results offered.

Your sense of touch is the best, then a color-changing dry dowel are the two most reliable ways to check before you water. Since you know you tend to over-water be strong and hold off a little while longer too. Your plants are dependent on you for their proper care.

Happy Diggin’ In!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send your garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to features@ abqjournal.com.

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