Sow There! Don’t buy the hype on specialty fertilizers 5-12-2016

Cacti may be remarkably different plants than others, but the still need the same type of food. Local nurseryman Jerry Mendon says you don't need to get fussy with fertilizer. Just give plants some basic food.
Cacti may be remarkably different plants than others, but the still need the same type of food. Local nurseryman Jerry Mendon says you don’t need to get fussy with fertilizer. Just give plants some basic food.Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

Folks who have known Jerry Mendon since before pluots were invented, know that he’s a straight-forward type of guy. When I chatted with the long-term Paradise nurseryman a few weeks ago he was mirthfully annoyed by fertilizer hype.

What sparked the conversation was Jerry’s recent encounter with specialized palm tree food.


Jerry didn’t actually say “phooey,” but that’s what he meant.

“This got me to thinking,” Jerry actually did say. “To a plant, fertilizer is food. It doesn’t matter what kind it is.”

As a practical man, the idea of having 15 kinds of specialized plant food on a store shelf is irksome.

The Patriarch of Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise said it’s not just palm food. Gardeners can find azalea food, vegetable food, rose food …

“When a person says what kind of food do I need, I ask them what do they already have.”

The whole trend of specialty foods started in the 1950s, he recalled. Before that, there were just a handful of fertilizer brands, made by four main companies.

“About the mid ’50s, someone on Madison Avenue got the brainy idea that if we came up with foods for everything,” customers would buy more than one bag of plant food.

Now we have bulb food, citrus food, snapdragon food, Jerry said.

“They’re all in the same range” in terms of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.

When you look at the numbers on the side of a fertilizer bag, you’ll see something like 5x5x5. That means 5 percent nitrogen, 5 percent potash (potassium) and 5 percent phosphate (phosphorus). Other combinations like 6x10x4 are right in that same ballpark, Mendon said.


While I had Jerry on the phone, I picked his brain for what to do in my own vegetable garden this year.

We have a black plastic truck bed liner used as a raised bed. Last year we filled half the bed liner with brand new soil, mixed with sphagnum peat moss, seasoned steer manure, organic (bagged) compost and a bunch of cheap topsoil (less then $2 a bag at a big-box store).

The bed liner is on a slope, and nutrients drip out the bottom.

My plan had been to add more steer manure this season.

Jerry, who was already on a roll from the fertilizer conversations, said the steer manure really wouldn’t do much and was “not worth the price.” Also, big animals are fed so many chemicals, I would be introducing all of that into my vegetable plot, he continued.

“The maim thing with soil is to get some sort of mulch in it,” Jerry urged. This loosens the soil. Next, add something that will provide “food” for plants.

He suggested a soil amendment called Paydirt , which contains a large percentage of aged chicken manure. Other ingredients are redwood sawdust and mushroom compost.

He also suggested mixing very good soil with an equal part of garden soil.

Mendon said he gives this same advice for people growing tomatoes in 10-gallon buckets.

Some plant advisers will say that adding soil from the yard is not the right choice. Yet, Mendon said he disagrees. Native soil helps with moisture retention.

Paradise is known for having heavy soil. Mendon said he sells a lot of Bumper Crop, a soil amendment that contains trace minerals and bark. The amendment is treated with nitrogen. Normally, as bark decomposes it grabs nitrogen from the soil. The extra nitrogen in this bagged product counteracts this issue.

For my half of a truck bed liner, Jerry recommended I add about six bags, which sell for about $8 each.


He said to also be wary of products that contain ammonia sulfate. This is a quick release fertilizer that can do more harm than good.

An article from the Almaden Valley Nursery,, notes that the product can make dull grass look green in two days. Yet, only the foliage was fed, not the roots. Over time, salts in ammonia sulfate can build up and change the pH of the soil, this article states.

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