can I fertilize evergreen shrubs now?

tracey_bOctober 3, 2011

I spent all summer planting the landscape at our new house. Everything has done quite well, but I never did "feed" anything because I'd heard not to after planting so as not to stress them. However, it's been over a month since I last planted anything, and I'm wondering if they might need some "nourishment" heading into winter? A few of my boxwoods are looking a bit pale (they were in containers from last winter---they were free, but we didn't have time to plant them then, so I took care of them all winter/spring until I could).

Anyway, can I fertilize anything this late in the year? If so, what do they need this time of year? Is it like "winterizer" for the lawn?

Thank you!


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I feed my acid-loving everygreens HollyTone at half strength (as recommended) in the autumn. Roots still grow in the fall and winter in Zone 7. I feed evergreen azaleas, camellias, holly, magnolias, rhodies, Andromeda, Skimmia, and Acuba. This year, with all torrential rains, it might be even more useful as the soil has probably been leached of nutrients.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2011 at 10:31PM
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Dear Tracey b 7,
In the Southeast, I don't think it would be wise to fertilize plants in October. Doing so may stimulate them into succulent growth just at the time that they need to be entering dormancy for the winter. Fresh, new growth is going to be killed when struck with freezing temperatures.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 10:13AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

start with a soil test.. call your extension office ... if anything is grossly out of whack ... then you will fix your soil ...

if you have a good soil.. THEY WILL NEVER NEED TO BE 'FED'... EVER !!!!!

they are shrubs.. they are not children.. they do not need to be fed.. nor clothed.. nor edumacted ... nor anything else ...

all they need is proper watering for the first two years.. and probably not even that but for drought in the second year ...

its way to late to be fertilizing anything .... think this way.. 90 days for the fert to flush thru the soil ... and 89 days from now.. is way too late ...

the only exception is the acid plants that nj speaks of.. if the soil test indicates you need said adjustment ...

good luck .. just try not to kill things with too much love ... [trust me.. been there.. done that .. doing nothing removes all risk of doing it wrong]

good luck


    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 10:36AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I really disagree with Ken on this. In the typical urban landscape, the trees and shrubs DO need to be fertilized. Unless, of course, all planting areas get some benefit from the lawn fertilization.

Urban homes are often built on constructed soils, the entire organic layer (the '0' layer in soil science terms) is long gone. The nutrient cycle is utterly broken as over story trees and other plants are removed and replaced with grass and tidy landscapes.

Our plants require a pretty specific list of elements that they must gain from the soil and only from the soil. As those elements are depleted, they need to be replaced. If we are good caregivers of the soil, we can use generous amounts of compost and/or organic mulch to help replace these elements. But, make no mistake, our growing plants DO NEED a supply of dissolved nutrients in order to sustain their varied and complex physiology and to build and support a strong storage system. In a woodland, the existing natural cycles are the landscape they are not.

Plants that are nutrient deficient are fragile in many ways. The only good way to avoid under OR over fertilization is to have the soil tested occasionally.

But, Tracy, to answer your question directly about fall fertilization. I NEVER recommend it, root growth or not. As mentioned by Jay, fertilization may stimulate top growth, which is the last thing you wish to happen in the fall. If the top continues to push out new growth, two main things happen: The plant doesn't get a chance to harden off before freezing temperatures AND the roots don't get an opportunity to store energy. It is those stored carbon resources that enable all of our woody plants to burst with new growth, buds, and flowers in the spring.

The reason that fertilization is not recommended for
new plantings is because we want the roots to get a chance to develop, to establish into the new environment BEFORE new growth commences. If we artificially stimulate new growth, it will be at the sacrifice of root development. Plants can't do everything at once.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 2:13PM
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Thank you, everyone, for your replies. I understand better now the reason not to fertilize at this late season even if they might otherwise have benefited from it done earlier. I'll just keep my fingers crossed that their long lives in containers since last year won't adversely affect them. As for the area---it's "virgin" territory. Nothing has ever been built here or grown here other than the native stuff we had to clear out for the house. I hope that means the soil is as Nature intended (and not depleted by humans).

Thanks again (and yes, we're waiting for the results of soil testing).


    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 2:48PM
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I am with Ken on this. Most trees and shrubs in the landscape do not need fertilizer ever. In parking lots and such they may, but most landscapes have plenty of elements plants need. Fertilizer makes plants grow but not healthy unless something is missing. Yes there are times when soil is lacking in an element and this needs to be added, but more times than not the soil has plenty of elements for trees and shrubs. Sometimes they are in the soil but not in available forms due to PH or other factors. A soil test is a must before fertilizing. And never ever fertilize for at leas two full growing seasons, two years is better.

    Bookmark   October 6, 2011 at 5:20PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I'm with IpmMan. Unless there are signs that there's something missing (from a soil test or from signs from the shrub/tree), fertilizing is probably not necessary at all, and may actually be harmful. Fertilizing is about supplying what is missing. If nothing is missing, it doesn't need to be supplied. Assuming something is missing without just cause doesn't make a lot of sense. I very rarely find fertilizing shrubs and trees necessary.

    Bookmark   October 6, 2011 at 9:56PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Well, again...common sense should prevail on the subject of woody plant fertilization. The words "never, ever" just don't belong. Because SOMETIMES, fertilization is required. Not often, certainly, but sometimes. Soil type, climate, and a host of other factors go hand in hand in determining if healthy amounts of needed elements are present in the native soil.

Many residential neighborhoods are developed by removing every last existing particle of vegetation, compacting or removing the upper layer of soil, and bringing in icky borrow pit soil to finish out the grading. Sod or seed is applied and the landscape is planted into this oftentimes challenging soil. The typical homeowner will collect all of the fall leaves and put them on the curb in plastic bags. The grass clippings will be removed, as well. Mulch, if used at all, is likely to be in the form of pine bark chips, which don't return much to the soil.

As I said, the only good way to determine if the soil is deficient is to have it professionally tested upon occasion. Preliminary observations of shoot growth, canopy color and fullness, plant response to insect pressure, and other physical symptoms can be signals of deficiency, too, but soil testing is essential. Even those signs can be caused by factors other than lack of essential elements in the soil.

Tracey's pale boxwood may have something to do with the fact they they remained in containers for so long, or a long list of other factors that we have no way of knowing. Fertilization, especially at this time of year and before any soil testings is done, is not the answer.

We're all in agreement here....though Ken's "NEVER" doesn't apply to highly constructed soils, compacted soils, sugar-sand, gray clay, and such sites.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2011 at 4:51PM
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