How do I Choose the Best Tree Fertilizer?

Ken Black

Choosing the best tree fertilizer is not as easy as it may seem. While most fertilizers will offer some benefit to trees, the best product for your particular situation may not only involve soil testing, but also a consideration of the types of trees being fertilized. Any tree fertilizer may be able to provide at least some nutritional value, but you should be able to get better value for your money with a little research.

Tree fertilizer should be chosen to meet the needs of the specific tree.
Tree fertilizer should be chosen to meet the needs of the specific tree.

One of the first things to consider is the amount of available nutrients in the soil. Typically, fertilizers provide three main nutrients that all, or nearly all, land plants need: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. On fertilizer packaging, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are listed in that order and may appear on the packaging at N-P-K. These nutrients are likely already available in the soil and a general purpose fertilizer typically provides them in equal, or nearly equal amounts. This should suffice in most cases, but may not always the best choice.

Most trees need three major nutrients.
Most trees need three major nutrients.

Using a home soil kit, or possibly taking a sample of your soil into a local extension office are good ways to find out exactly what your soil both contains and lacks. For example, if you soil already has adequate nitrogen, adding more through the use of a general purpose fertilizer could be counterproductive because the tree fertilizer can cause too much growth and actually weaken the plant. While growth is sometimes indicative of good health, that is not always the case.

Fertilizers typically contain nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous to feed plants and foster growth.
Fertilizers typically contain nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous to feed plants and foster growth.

You may even be able to customize your tree fertilizer applications with fertilizers that contain only one or two of the major three nutrients. This may help provide only the nutrients you need, but you may also wish to have the soil tested periodically to make sure there are no major changes over a period of time. Further, using a supplement may help the soil recharge, especially if other organic material is added from time to time.

In general, a tree does not need as high a nitrogen level as smaller leafy plants, which have shallower root systems and must take all of their nitrogen from the topsoil. Therefore, if you are looking at a tree fertilizer, the best ones may have a N-P-K ratio of something like 1-2-1. It is important remember this is somewhat dependent on the soil conditions.

Another thing to consider when using a tree fertilizer is a time-released product. Otherwise, the tree may absorb too many nutrients too quickly, or cause you to have to reapply it many times during a growing season. Trees are prime candidates for time-released fertilizers because there is no need to speed up growth during a growing season as may be necessary for annuals such as vegetables and some flowers.

Trees are prime candidates for time-released fertilizers.
Trees are prime candidates for time-released fertilizers.

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Discussion Comments


A professional gardener told me that when and how I fertilize my trees is as important as the fertilizer I choose. I was in the habit of fertilizing my trees once a year, either in late winter or early spring.

The gardener recommended that I use a fertilizer with more nitrogen in spring or summer and then fertilize the trees with small amounts of fertilizer several other times during the year. This method is for younger growing trees. For older trees, one good feeding a year will most likely work best for the tree.

You should also be certain not to allow the fertilizer to come in direct contact with roots and leaves from the tree. This can burn and damage the tree. And always read the directions on any fertilizer you purchase. This should tell you how much you need to use and how to apply it.


In general, you want to choose a tree fertilizer with a higher concentration of nitrogen. As the article says, you will need to do a soil teat to be certain exactly what you need, but trees need more nitrogen unless the soil where they are growing is lacking in potassium or phosphorous.


I have been told that I should do a soil analysis on the soil in my yard before fertilizing the trees, but I have always avoided doing this. For one reason I thought it was unnecessary and for another I did not want to take the time to do a test or pay for a soil test to be done.

I always use a 10-10-10 fertilizer because that's what I have always been told to use and it seems to work well in most instances. I have found that using the 10-10-10 gives most of my plants, trees and grass what they need to grow and remain healthy.

After reading the article, I realize that I might could be doing a better job of choosing fertilizer for some of my plants and trees, but I think the 10-10-10 is the safe way to go when you do not want to put in a lot of extra effort and planning.

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