I have already planted, or scattered the seeds, for what I plan to do this year. (Unless the other half has more ideas, that is.) The soil was turned, but not treated in any manner. One bed has impatiens, lots of seeds and about 2 dozen seedlings. The other bed has gladiolus bulbs and a pair of peony bulbs in the bed proper and shade area wild flower seed in the mounds boxing it from the rest of its area.

I have a 2 cubic foot bag of "all year long color" commercially produced brown mulch. The bag does not say it is, or is not, dyed, and does not specify what it's made from, though it looks to be "woody" material. The other half also wants to get Miracle Grow food to use on the beds.

My question is when/how to use the mulch. I don't know if it should be spread now, before the seed sprouts break through the soil or wait until they are established. I also don't know how thick to make the mulch when I do use it, and whether or not to use the plant food before or after mulching, if at all.

The larger, impatiens, bed also has an established holly tree in the middle, while the smaller bed has evergreen shrubs behind it and something that looks like a non-blooming rose relative on either end. The shrubs or bushes enter the ground somewhere between 2 and 3 feet from the mound I made as a border.

The location is Louisville, KY, USA, and the beds get a blend of dappled and direct morning sun because of two large shade trees in the yard southeast and south-southeast of the beds. After solar noon neither bed receives any direct sunlight since they are in the building's shadow. Watering is done by hand with a watering can.

With what's already done, and what's at hand, what order do I use for plant food and mulch, before or after the sprouts are visible?

Note: Any other pertinent information that I may have missed will be added as requested in comments.

1 Answer 1


Don't mulch until those plants are far larger. After their 2nd or third set of leaves sprinkle a balanced fertilizer that is equal in numbers or Nitrogen should be the smaller of the three numbers; 5-5-5 or 4-7-5. Make sure your mulch is decomposed. No raw manure or non decomposed mulch such as straw, chips.

Fertilizer is not plant food. I am on a little mission to get some of these confusing words changed; plants make their own food. Fertilizer is a balanced formula of NPK and some formulations add other micro nutrients, bacteria and mycorrhizae. I am using Dr. Earth's all purpose fertilizer this year, 5-5-5. My seeds are just now sprouting and I won't be adding any mulch or fertilizer until the plants are ohhhh...6" high?

Leafy greens like spinach and kale and salad will love the 5-5-5 formula. They might get a second application in a month or so after the first application that won't happen for another week or so... For tomatoes and flowering, fruiting plants that second application should have N lower in percentage than P and K...4-7-5? for example.

Your impatiens should do fine in the shade. Cut the fertilizer you buy in half. Plants in shade don't have enough sunlight to USE the fertilizer, and too much fertilizer for plants in the shade will make large thin leaves as well as cause plants to be more susceptible to disease and insects.

Gladiolus and Peony need sunlight, lots of air ventilation. What you have described sounds like almost total shade, not partial. If you want flowers, shade is not the place to make a flower garden. Impatiens are an anomaly. They flower well in the shade. Plants need sunlight so they can photosynthesize and make their own food. Without which they won't have enough energy for their own vegetative needs much less reproductive growth. There is no such thing as Plant Food. Fertilizer is a formulation of the macro chemistry plants need to do photosynthesis. Chemistry, not nutrients. Nutrients suggests food/vitamins. Not a good way to understand chemistry of the soil. Part of that chemistry includes CO2 and Sunlight and H20.

Send a picture and the names of your bulbs. Hold off on the mulch for the seeded beds. You can lightly mulch over the bulbs...is there a way to THIN your trees to allow more light to the beds?

  • I'm going to have to argue with your words 'fertililzers are not plant food'. If the fertilizer is man made, with an NPK, those nutrients are instantly available for uptake by the plants to process. Composts added to soil are also fertilizer - but not food because they improve the soil, creating higher nutrient levels over time. Of course there are other processes involved (photosynthesis for one) but in the UK, we talk about feeding our plants (which means a man made fertilizer) or feeding the soil, (& indirectly the plants) which means humus rich composted materials.
    – Bamboo
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 13:20
  • This is a tough subject, you ARE correct of course. The word 'food' has messed up the lives of so many plants who truly do make the carbohydrates they need for energy. Food stands by itself. A plant without light or CO2 could be 'fed' all the NPK in the world and it will surely die. The life in soil does not improve the 'fertility' of soil. It uses up chemistry to work symbiotically in the soil with the roots building more checks and balances and buffering of pH more air, better drainage...fertilizer gets a bad rap because people think it is food, more is better or none at all.
    – stormy
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 21:25
  • The mechanisms by which cells harness energy from their environment via chemical reactions are known as metabolism. The findings of biochemistry are applied primarily in medicine, nutrition, and agriculture. In medicine, biochemists investigate the causes and cures of diseases.[8] In nutrition, they study how to maintain health wellness and study the effects of nutritional deficiencies.[9] In agriculture, biochemists investigate soil and fertilizers, and try to discover ways to improve crop cultivation, crop storage and pest control. Excerpt from Wikipedia re: biochemistry. cont'...
    – stormy
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 22:30
  • If scientists are trying to more clearly define words used to discuss the processes used for metabolism, I think we gardeners ought to help them promote the usage of better words to educate gardeners in our world. A very big deal, I think, and I have found when I started pushing the 'Fert is not Food' gig, the 'lights' started coming on for the wannabee gardeners. It is a huge jump for people to learn plants aren't at all like animals. That thought makes a gardener that will be successful and far more curious as to how these amazing 'aliens' that have been here longer than us, thrive.
    – stormy
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 22:39
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    Fertilise or fertilize? Its optional, and its a lot easier to type it with an s than with a z! Clearly, in that extract, they're referring to natural fertilisers in regard to improving soil, though I agree, they could have made that clearer, because as you know, its only adding humus rich materials that improve the soil. I never refer to composts as fertiliser personally, but they likely mean things like fish, blood and bone and bonemeal, which I do not believe improve soil, or if they do by improving humus content, its absolutely minimal.
    – Bamboo
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 10:41

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