Should I use fertilizer in my garden?

Yes and no… Read on for my take on fertilizer vs. compost.

Fertilizer is a nutrition supplement, but is not always a natural and healthy way to introduce the necessary nutrients into your garden. One way to reduce the need to use fertilizers, which can often have chemicals not safe for our local drinking supply, is to regularly use mulch and compost. Fertilizer can be used according to the plant’s particular needs and the bag’s instructions. It is important to follow the instructions carefully and maybe even air on the side of underuse, because fertilizer can burn plants and become too prevalent in your area’s watershed. If you are growing a particularly challenging plant, such as a lawn grass or a woody plant cutting, it may be helpful to introduce the appropriate fertilizer.

Often the fertilizers you buy at the store will have synthetic chemicals or even organic ingredients, such as blood, bone meal, chicken feces, or fish extract. I know some of you just went, “EW,” at the thought of using animal parts and feces in your garden. So what about compost? Store-bought compost also frequently has manure in it along with the necessary nutrients, but don’t worry…. It smells and looks like regular dirt. The nice thing about compost is that you can pile it on and not worry that you are going to burn your plants. Whether you chose fertilizer for its quick application or compost for its organic ingredients, it is always a good idea to wash your hands after gardening to reduce the chance of pathogens and insects being introduced into your home and body.

If you do wish to use fertilizer, I recommend talking to a locally owned garden store for advice or try reading Lowe’s Fertilizer Buying Guide. For in-person advice, the bigger corporate store employees usually do not know anything beyond what the packaging says, but a local gardener will be able to give you insight into how they have used fertilizer and what might be appropriate for your needs. You may even be able to find locally manufactured fertilizer that has organic ingredients and less synthetic chemicals. Let me reiterate that fertilizer labels should be read carefully, because the chemical composition will be made specific for certain uses and may contain warnings that should be followed. Not all fertilizers are for the same plant, location, or season.

My personal gardening preference is to use compost and mulch to amend soil naturally over time. Think rich, dark soil! I have often tilled compost into harsh soil or clay. Compost itself is usually just like regular dirt, but darker and richer in nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium). Many urban and farm gardeners opt to create their own compost piles to reuse their plant and food wastes in next year’s garden. Compost mimics how nature innately uses fallen leaves, limbs, animals, and other natural materials to amend the soil.

If you’re thinking that compost sounds like hard work, it can be, but it is also a very beneficial option. One shortcut for getting it down on a flowerbed is to dump a pile near where you want it applied and then use a rake to move it into place. For covering larger areas, I recommend ordering a truck-delivered pile of compost and/or mulch and then using a wheelbarrow or bucket to move each load of compost to the garden. Make sure to calculate the cubic footage you need so that you order the right amount for your project. For smaller areas, buying by-the-bag may be the better option. When using compost and mulch, make sure to lay down a couple inches of compost and/or a few inches of mulch. Do not mulch up to the trunks of woody plants (such as trees and shrubs) and any plant that requires good air circulating around their roots and trunk. Instead, leave a 4-8 inch mulch-less ring around them. Trees and shrubs prefer to be mulched out to or beyond their drip line.

So should you use fertilizer or compost in your garden? In conclusion, fertilizer is great for encouraging challenging plants, but a more natural approach to encouraging a beautiful garden is to start with great soil and compost. Remember to use fertilizer in moderation and according to its label to reduce pollution and plant damage. If you are willing to go the extra mile to foster an organic soil composition, then I hope you will look into using compost in your garden this year. Buying a soil analysis kit or having a local garden store test your soil will give you more insight into what your soil might need if you are having trouble growing plants this season.

Want to reuse and recycle things around the house and use them into your garden as compost? Try: eggshells, used coffee grounds, tea leaves, grass clippings, wood shavings, pine needles, cold wood ashes, flower bouquet scraps, hay, and banana peels. To speed up decomposition, shred larger items into smaller pieces before adding them into your garden.


For more information regarding Charlottesville-area compost, mulch, and fertilizer needs, try contacting one of the stores listed below:

The Garden Spot – 434.973.4402

Fifth Season Gardening – 434.293.2332

Ivy Nursery – 434.295.11.83

Snow’s Garden Center – 434.295.2159

Elzroth & Thompson Greenhouses – 434.295.2488

And two of my other favorites are Milmont Greenhouses near Waynesboro (540.943.8408) and Hess Greenhouses near Harrisonburg (540.433.1147).


Thank you for stopping by today and reading my first garden Q&A post! I frequently share about my photography and gardening here on my blog. To subscribe by email and catch future Q&A posts, enter your email into the sidebar “Follow Blog via Email” option. Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend and an enjoyable time preparing their plants for spring!


Leave a Comment

  1. Thanks, Sarah. I actually always use compost and mulch for my garden, but with the blue flowers (I think that they are called Hydrangeas) that won’t bloom some told me that maybe they need a more acidic soil and I am not sure what to do. Maybe I should fertilize them? What do yo recommend?

  2. I usually do not fertilize my rose bushes and they do fine with mulch, but I have two new ones from last year. My neighbor’s new rosebushes grew beautifully last summer and she told me that she used a fertilizer. Should I use it one mine? Which fertilizer do no recommend for roses?

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