It’s a Miracle!

Reader Contribution by Lee Reich
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Gardeners seeking miraculous growth from their plants, especially from potted plants whose root can’t forage a far as plants in the ground, often turn to ‘Miracle-Gro’. In fact, gardeners often turn to ‘Miracle-Gro’ as elixir for any plant that might need some more oomph. ‘Miracle-Gro’, in case you are unfamiliar with manufactured miracles, is a plant food. Not just any old plant food, though, but a plant food by which legions of gardeners — and such notables as actors and athletes, in magazine ads — swear.

To discover what magic tonic might lie within that unassuming cardboard box, I delved deeper than the plant label. There, the active ingredients are explicitly spelled out, as they must be, by law.  ‘Miracle-Gro’ is a 15-30-15 fertilizer, meaning that that the powder within contains 15 percent nitrogen, 30 percent phosphorous, and 15 percent potassium. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three main nutrients needed by plants, the ones plants gobble up in greatest quantity.

Now take a look at the label of some other plant food: ‘Schultz Instant’, for example. ‘Schultz Instant’ is 20-30-20, another concentrate of the three most-needed nutrients. Although a bi
t richer than ‘Miracle-Gro’, ‘Schultz Instant’ won’t make plants grow any faster than ‘Miracle-Gro’, because you are supposed to use less of it. (Too rich a diet is as harmful to plants as it is to humans.) There’s no magic in that 1:2:1 ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous to potassium in ‘Miracle-Gro’ and ‘Schultz Instant’, and other fertilizers that might have other ratios. The Miracle-Gro company, in fact, makes ‘Miracle-Gro for Roses’, containing 18-24-16, as well as one for tomato, having a ratio of 18-18-21.

But plants are not really all that finicky, within reason, about how they are fed. A good share — even all — of their nourishment should from the soil itself, rather than from a liquid concentrate. And the difference between a plant “eating” ‘Miracle-Gro’ or ‘Schultz Instant’ or some other plant food is about as great as the difference between you or me eating green beans or lima beans or or peas. ‘Miracle-Gro’ and many other plant foods are chemical fertilizers. I prefer organic fertilizers. They offer a spectrum of nutrients, including micronutrients, not just the “big three.” Nutrients in organic fertilizers are made available to plants through microbial decomposition. And the same heat and moisture that spurs microbial growth also spurs plant growth so that nutrients are made available in synch with plant growth.

When possible, I feed my plants – or, rather, the soil – the Cadillac of plant foods, which is compost. Besides offering a broad spectrum of nutrients, compost adds organic bulk to the soil, helping it retain water and air, necessitating less exactitude in acidity, and rendering nutrients already in the soil more available to plants. Every autumn, I swathe my vegetable beds with an inch depth of compost, which supplies everything the plants need for the year. Other parts of my farmden might get blanketed with wood chips or hay. Though less rich in nutrients than compost, wood chips and hay do feed my plants as they decompose.

Sometimes more concentrated fertilizers are needed. In that case, I scoop out my universal pabulum, soybean meal. It supplies mostly nitrogen, but that’s all that’s needed when bulky organic materials have been used. Just a sprinkling, one to two pounds per hundred square feet, is all that’s needed. In spite of its mundane composition, ‘Miracle-Gro’ does often produce miraculous results, for a couple of reasons. One reason is because the stuff is so convenient to use. The powder is soluble, so you can just dissolve it in water in your watering can, and the directions are explicit and easy to follow.

Many other fertilizers are also convenient and easy to use, so perhaps the greatest miracle of ‘Miracle-Gro’ is the miraculous effectiveness of the company’s advertising. Partly, it’s the name; humans, after all, have for millennia been seeking miracles. Throughout the country, the words ‘Miracle-Gro’ come into many gardeners’ minds whenever they think of feeding their plants; for many, ‘Miracle-Gro’ is synonymous with fertilizer. I’ve even used it on rare occasions. Some potted plants needed some quick oomph. Compost was out of the question because there was no additional room in the pot for compost (besides what was in my potting mix). Soybean meal takes a few weeks before nutrient begin to be released. But why ‘Miracl-Gro’ and not some other such fertilizer? Because ‘Miracl-Gro’ was on sale at the time, offering the best price per amount of nitrogen.

Lee Reich describes the weekly goings-on at his farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm) at