One of the most frequent questions we get at NMSU Extension is, “Should I add fertilizer or amendments to the soil when planting?” The short answer is no. And the long-term answer is an even stronger no.
Soil amendments are materials that are worked into the soil with the intention of improving soil physical qualities. But it’s just not that simple. As City of Las Cruces Community Forester Jimmy Zabriskie said when I asked if he ever recommends using soil amendments when planting a tree, “Save your money for mulch.” Organic mulch is material that sits on top of the soil, providing an insulation layer that helps control soil temperature, retain moisture, and suppress weeds.
When planting ornamental plants, the recommended species are the ones with roots that are well adapted to our native soils. They’re more likely to live long, sustainable lives in our native soils without amendments. The bottom line: Always put the same soil you dug up right back into the hole with the new plant, and top dress with a thick layer of mulch.
As for fertilizers, slow and steady wins this race. As Albuquerque City Forester Joran Viers said recently at a tree planting demo put on by Tree New Mexico and The Nature Conservancy, it helps to think of our trees (and other plants) as marathoners, not sprinters. When fertilizer is applied to trees, they can grow too fast for their own good and are more likely to develop structural problems and other issues. Fertilizers are not recommended at the time of planting perennial plants, either, because we want the plant’s energy to go into root establishment at a healthy rate to support the aboveground growth. The growth hormones necessary for healthy root development are found in the root tips and are made by the plant itself, so adding root stimulator to living roots is not necessary or even helpful. (Side note: Rooting hormone is potentially useful when you’re trying to get roots to grow quickly from cuttings where the roots have been removed completely.) So hold off on fertilizing for at least a few years while your plants are setting down roots.
Research on all sorts of landscape plants has shown that by adding amendments (like organic matter or perlite) to your soil backfill, the initial, short-term results are good. But the interface between the amended soil and the native soil is bad news. Water doesn’t move well across the interface, and neither do roots. With time, the roots may be inclined to stay in the original planting hole and spiral around, so you end up with essentially a potted tree or plant with reduced growth rate, constant water and nutrient stress (because lateral roots never fully developed), heightened vulnerability to pests and diseases, and even an increased falling hazard (think root ball in socket).