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A beautiful and bountiful garden requires healthy plants. While sunlight and water are essential, so are nutrients. Just as we use vitamin supplements to help keep us healthy when we don’t eat right, plants need fertilizers to provide the nutrients they aren’t getting from unhealthy soil.
Every container of fertilizer includes a list of ingredients and most brands focus on three nutrients that are essential for plant growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The minerals are always listed in the same order on the label and this is referred to as the NPK ratio. For example, a 24-8-16 fertilizer contains 24 percent nitrogen, eight percent phosphorus, and 16 percent potassium.
“I grew up on a farm and apple orchard and can remember huge deliveries of 10-10-10 fertilizer that made our acre-sized vegetable garden and orchards thrive," said Mary Marlowe Leverette, Master Gardener, Clemson University Extension Services.
For the best results in the garden, you need to know the condition of your soil before you add any supplements. Every state has a cooperative extension service associated with a land-grant university that can provide soil testing and recommendations to help you choose the best fertilizer for your needs.
To help you get started, we have tested and chosen the best basic fertilizers for lawns, vegetables, trees, and more.
Best Overall : Jobe’s Organics All Purpose Fertilizer
NPK Ratio: 4-4-4 | Type: Continous duration | Feed Duration: Up to two months | Application Type: Granules
Contains organic matter to enrich the soil
Balanced blend of nutrients
Gentle, non-burning formula
Must be reapplied during the growing season
While safe to use around pets, the feather meal ingredient can attract some pets to the garden
With such variety in the plant world, it isn't easy to choose one fertilizer that meets the needs of every type of plant for every kind of soil and every type of growing condition. However, the basic blend of nutrients in Jobe's Organics All Purpose Fertilizer comes close.
Your plants can have a productive growing season with a 4-4-4 mix of nitrogen for stem and leaf growth, phosphorus for seed or fruit growth, and potassium for drought resistance. The addition of organic matter enriches the soil to promote healthy microbes and improve water use. Safe to use around pets and children, the six-pound bag of granular fertilizer will cover 1,200 cubic feet in the garden and should be reapplied every six to eight weeks during the growing season.
Best for Grass/Lawns: Scotts Turf Builder UltraFeed
NPK Ratio: 40-0-5 | Type: Continous duration | Feed Duration: Up to six months | Application Type: Granules
Easy to distribute
Feeds for up to six months
Large nitrogen content helps grass turn green quickly
Must be watered in after spreading
Does not contain weed killer
If you want a lush, green lawn, then you need to feed it. Healthy grass will better survive the harsh heat of summer, help crowd out early emergent weeds, and overwinter in better shape. The high amount of nitrogen in Scotts Turf Builder UltraFeed inorganic fertilizer, 40-0-5, makes every grass variety from centipede to Bermuda to St. Augustine green up quickly to get a jump start on your neighbors.
A granular formula, the fertilizer is easy to distribute with a spreader. The 20.2-pound bag covers 4,000 square feet of lawn. Use it while the grass is in a growing season; water it in. While Scotts is a leading name in lawn products, what sets this formula apart is that it feeds for up to six months and does not need reapplication in most parts of the U.S. during the growing season.
Best for Container Plants: Miracle-Gro Water-Soluble All Purpose Plant Food
NPK Ratio: 24-8-16 | Type: Fast release | Feed Duration: Reapply every two weeks | Application Type; Water-soluble granules
Easy to mix and use
Does not burn plant roots
Powdered formula must be kept dry or clumping can occur
Must be reapplied frequently
Regular feeding of a container plant can be tricky because you must apply the fertilizer in a way that reaches the root system. Miracle-Gro, made by Scott, solves that problem by offering a water-soluble fertilizer that goes directly into your watering can.
Cost-effective because you can mix just what you need and safe to use for flowers, foliage plants, and vegetables, the 24-8-16 mineral-based formula guarantees not to burn plant roots. Since the frequent watering required for containers leaches nutrients from the soil, most plants need feeding about every two weeks. The 5.5-pound container will mix gallons of fertilizer and last throughout the growing season.
“I use Miracle-Gro for all of my indoor plants and the cherry tomatoes in containers on my patio.” —Mary Marlowe Leverette, Master Gardener
Best for Trees and Shrubs: BioAdvanced Tree and Shrub Feed and Protect
NPK Ratio: 2-1-1 | Type: Slow release | Feed Duration: 12 month feed and insect protection | Application Type; Concentrated
Contains nutrients and pesticides
Easy to mix and apply
Safe to use around pets
Should not be used on fruit-bearing trees and shrubs
We tend to forget that mature, established trees and shrubs require nutrients to remain healthy. And, of course, newly planted specimens need food to grow. BioAdvanced Tree and Shrub not only feeds with a mix of inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash, it also protects against pests like aphids, leafminers, and borers that can kill trees and shrubs.
Sold as a concentrate with detailed instructions on proper mixing with water for different trees and shrubs and application methods, the one-gallon container will treat multiple trees. There is no need for a sprayer, just a large bucket or watering can for mixing. Safe to use around pets, the insecticides in the formula are not recommended for edible plants.
Best for Flowers: Jobe’s Organics Annuals and Perennials Granular Fertilizer
NPK Ratio: 3-5-4 | Type: Slow release | Feed Duration: Up to three months | Application Type: Granules
Contains microorganisms to improve soil
Slow-release formula lasts up to three months
Can be used for fruit-bearing plants
Product must be kept dry to prevent clumping
The welcome burst of color from flowering annuals and perennials is often the magic in a garden. Every gardener wants the most extensive and longest show possible, and this fertilizer mixture from Jobe’s helps make that happen. This 3-5-4 NPK mix has the microorganisms necessary to promote healthy soil and is slow-released for up to three months.
The granules are safe for edibles and can be used for both tilled soil and container plants. The 4-pound package has excellent directions on how much fertilizer to use when planting seedlings or feeding established flowering plants to help you determine how much fertilizer you need.
Best for Vegetables: Hyponex All-Purpose 10-10-10 Garden Fertilizer
NPK Ratio: 10-10-10 | Type: Fast release | Feed Duration: Reapply every two weeks | Application Type: Granules
Easy to apply
Must be reapplied every two weeks during the growing season
Must be watered in
The soil in a vegetable garden usually needs amendments to provide the plants with enough nutrients to produce full-sized and healthy vegetables during a growing season. This is especially true if you plant the same crops every year and don’t have the time or space to rotate their location.
While it’s best to test the soil every year, a fast-release granular inorganic fertilizer like Hyponex with an NPK of 10-10-10 will give the seeds and seedlings a good boost toward maturity and vegetable production. Because it is fast-release, it will need to be reapplied every two weeks and watered in well. The usage rate is 2.5-pounds per 100-square-feet so the 40-pound bag may be all you need for the entire season.
“I still use Hyponex 10-10-10 today because it also works well to feed trees, shrubs, and so many plants.” —Mary Marlowe Leverette, Master Gardener
Best for Tomatoes: Dr. Earth Home Grown Organic Tomato, Vegetable, & Herb Fertilizer
NPK Ratio: 4-6-3 | Type: Quick release | Feed Duration: Reapply every two weeks | Application Type: Granules
Contains calcium to help prevent tomato blossom end rot
Safe to use on all types of edible plants
Must be reapplied every two weeks during the growing season
Can have a slightly fishy odor when first applied
Even if a gardener doesn’t have room for a full vegetable garden with corn and beans, they will find a spot for some tomato plants because there is nothing better than a homegrown tomato. Picked at the peak of ripeness and warmth from the sun, many a gardener has plucked one straight from the garden, resulting in juice dribbling down their chin.
Dr. Earth’s organic fertilizer can help you achieve the results you desire for tomatoes. The 4-6-3 NPK formula includes calcium for proper new growth development and fish-based organic matter. The four-pound bag will cover up to 60-square-feet (that’s lots of tomatoes) and is also excellent for berries, leafy greens, and root vegetables. Quick releasing, it does need to be reapplied every two weeks during the growing season.
Best Organic: Espoma Organic Plant Tone
NPK Ratio: 5-3-3 | Type: Continuous release | Feed Duration: Up to six months | Application Type: Granules
Contains organic matter to enrich the soil
Slow-release, non-burning formula
Can be used year-round for some plants
Can have a strong organic odor when first applied
Espoma Organic fertilizers contain the inorganic minerals nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in lower amounts (5-3-3) and organic materials derived from plants and animals. The organic matter helps improve water movement within the soil and feeds beneficial microbes. Since organic fertilizers are less potent, it reduces the risk of burning plants from over-fertilization.
Suitable for vegetables and flowers during the growing season, you can use Espoma on trees and shrubs in the spring and fall and indoor plants year-round. The eight-pound bag will cover 200-square-feet of garden soil, and the bag has excellent dosage instructions for other plantings.
Best Slow Release: Osmocote Flower and Vegetable Smart Release Fertilizer
NPK Ratio: 14-14-14 | Type: Slow release | Feed Duration: Up to four months | Application Type: Granules
Slow-release for long-lasting effects (up to four months)
Easy to apply
Can be used for garden or container plants
Must be kept dry or granules my clump or dissolve
Even in the garden, life can become hectic, and remembering when you last added fertilizer to a container plant or vegetable plot requires attention. One way to meet the challenge is to use a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote Smart Release.
Dry granules feed for up to four months. They are sprinkled on the soil, worked in, and then slowly dissolve when the plant gets water. The balanced mineral-based 14-14-14 NPK formula works well for vegetables, flowers, fruits, and shrubs, from apples to zinnias. Osmocote granules can be used year-round during a plant’s growing season. The one-pound container has a shaker top and a convenient measuring scoop. One scoop (about two tablespoons) will cover a 2-gallon container or 4-square-feet of garden soil.
While it is difficult to choose just one fertilizer that meets the needs of every gardening situation, the best overall fertilizer for growing vegetables and flowers is Jobe’s Organics All Purpose Fertilizer (available at Lowe’s). If the perfect green lawn is your goal, then Scotts Turf Builder Ultra Feed (available at Home Depot) will help make you the envy of the neighborhood.
What to Look for in a Fertilizer
When it is time to choose a fertilizer, it is crucial to read the label and look at the list of active ingredients—or those that provide nutrients to the soil. All commercially sold fertilizers follow the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) guideline when stating the numerical formula showing the proportion of each element in the fertilizer.
Almost every fertilizer also includes inactive ingredients or filler to help with the distribution of the product.
Organic or Synthetic Formula
Organic formulas are made from naturally occurring minerals and usually contain organic matter like bone meal or different types of composted manures. Most organic fertilizers are not water-soluble; they are slow-release and contain microorganisms that improve the structure of the soil.
Synthetic formulas are chemically processed raw materials, and they are water-soluble and work quickly to help plants or lawns jump on spring growth. Because they work quickly, it is essential to follow application guidelines to prevent burning plant roots and foliage.
Synthetic fertilizers are most often applied just before or during a plant’s active growing season. However, there are formulas specifically mixed for fall application, especially for lawns. It is essential to carefully read the product’s label and apply the fertilizer at the recommended time.
Since organic fertilizers are slow-acting, they should be applied and worked into garden soil in the fall, so the nutrients are available in the spring planting season. Drawing out the fertilization process gives the organic microorganisms time to break down the soil to improve water and airflow.
What is the difference between inorganic and organic fertilizers?
Inorganic fertilizers are often called synthetic or commercial fertilizers because they are produced through manufacturing; however, most contain nutrients from naturally occurring mineral deposits. Inorganic fertilizers usually focus only on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that leach quickly from the soil.
Organic fertilizers come from plant or animal sources, and they may contain compost, manures, or bone meal. The NPK levels are usually low, but the organic matter enriches the soil with microbes and improves water movement through the soil.
When is the best time to fertilize your lawn?
For a burst of green, lawns are usually fertilized in early to mid-spring. However, this is highly dependent on your location and the type of grass. Then, to help maintain that green carpet, there are fertilizers developed for summer and fall applications.
Always read the fertilizer label carefully and follow the guidelines. One way to ensure that you don’t overfertilize and damage or burn the grass is to reduce the amount of fertilizer recommended by the manufacturer for each application.
How should fertilizer be applied?
Fertilizer application depends on the type of fertilizer you are using. Lawns can be fertilized by using a spreader to broadcast dry granules or with a spray-on liquid fertilizer. Slow-release fertilizers can be dissolved in water or sprinkled on the soil.
Master Gardener Leverette adds that an all-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer is easy to mix and use, and it leaves her indoor and container plants looking lush and healthy.
Always read the product label and follow it carefully. Most dry fertilizers should not be placed too close to leaves or stems and watered in well to prevent burning tender plant growth.
Is fertilizer toxic to household pets?
Some fertilizers, especially those that contain weed killers or insecticides, are toxic to pets and children. However, once fertilizer gets well watered into the soil, the level of toxicity decreases dramatically. You should store all gardening chemicals safely out of reach of children, pets, and vulnerable adults.
Why Trust The Spruce?
Mary Marlowe Leverette researched and wrote this roundup. She is a Master Gardener and has extensive personal and professional experience testing, reviewing, and writing about home and garden products. You can find more of her work on The Spruce.