The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of Dracaenas is “low-maintenance.” Their reputation for being easy-going and adaptable is well-deserved, but that doesn’t mean that you can totally neglect their care. If you’ve had your Dracaena for more than a year, you may want to consider giving your Dracaena a boost of nutrients with fertilizer or compost.
Dracaenas can benefit from a balanced fertilizer or compost to give them supplemental nutrients to support growth. A Dracaena will likely need extra nutrients if it has been growing in the same soil for several years. Fertilizer can aid Dracaenas’ growth, but it’s not a substitute for a proper growing medium.
There are lots of options for fertilizing Dracaenas. This article will help you understand when, why, and how to properly provide your plant with the nutrients it needs. Read on to learn all the information you need to keep your Dracaena as healthy as possible.
Do Dracaenas Need Fertilizer?
Store-bought potting soil is fortified with the macro and micronutrients that houseplants need. Unfortunately, those nutrients are depleted over time as your Dracaena draws them from the soil. So if your plant has been in the same soil and container for longer than six months to a year, you will most likely need to supplement with fertilizer or compost.
In its natural habitat, new organic matter would be constantly renewed and available to a Dracaena from plant debris, insect activity, and rainwater. In your home, there is no way for those nutrients to be supplemented naturally. That’s why adding fertilizer or compost becomes necessary after your plant is in the same soil for a while.
When and How Often to Fertilize Dracaenas
Dracaenas can be fertilized during the active growing seasons of the spring and summer. Avoid adding fertilizer during the cooler months of the year since this can easily lead to overfertilization because plants don’t use many nutrients during this time.
A Dracaena that gets a lot of sunlight and is growing (relatively) quickly needs more fertilizer than one that is a shady spot and grows more slowly. That said, this plant is NOT a heavy feeder, even in ideal growing conditions. Dracaenas’ growth rate is notoriously slow, and they don’t use up a lot of energy producing new leaves and flowers.
There is a greater chance of over-fertilizing than under-fertilizing, so be conservative when choosing when and how often to fertilize. If your Dracaena gets a lot of sunlight, fertilize every two months during the growing season. If it is in a medium- or low-light location, fertilize just once a year in late spring or early summer.
Signs Your Dracaena Might Need a Fertilizer Boost
When your potting medium is not providing enough nutrients, your Dracaena will start to show signs of nutrient deficiency. The symptoms include yellowing or discolored leaves, slow growth, smaller-than-usual leaves, and leaf drop.
But remember that nutrient deficiency is rare in Dracaenas, so be sure you’ve ruled out other causes if you see something wrong with your plant. All plants naturally lose some leaves with time, and many times the cause of the problem is underwatering or over-watering. Do not treat fertilizer like medicine. Adding it to an already stressed plant can do more harm than good.
Before assuming your plant has a nutrient deficiency, be sure to rule out all other potential causes of issues. While nutrient deficiencies happen, other causes are more likely to cause the same symptoms in Dracaenas. For more information on the more common causes for discoloration in Dracaenas, read this article.
What Fertilizer is Best for Dracaenas
As with most other things, Dracaenas are not too particular about which type of fertilizer they need. An all-purpose balanced fertilizer works well for Dracaenas and most other houseplants, so I always keep it on hand.
A quick explanation on the 20-20-20 number in the name of that product: Fertilizers are labeled according to the ratio of their three main macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). The order will always be the same, so you can always determine the ratios when shopping for fertilizer.
Why would you choose a higher ratio of certain macronutrients? It all depends on what you’re growing and your end goal. Nitrogen supports healthy leaves, phosphorus is good for flowers and fruits, and potassium supports all parts of the plant. So, a plant high in phosphorus would be a good choice for maximizing the number and quality of flowers, for example. But for Dracaenas, a balanced fertilizer is generally the best choice.
A stronger fertilizer like this one obviously can be much stronger than (for example) 3-1-2 fertilizer since it is at a 20% concentration. That’s why it’s very important to dilute a commercial fertilizer when applying it to a Dracaena.
Dracaena are very sensitive to over-fertilization, so I recommend diluting your fertilizer to half-strength every time you apply it. Remember, you can always add more fertilizer in the future, but it is nearly impossible to remove it once applied.
What to Do If You’ve Over Fertilized
Fertilizing more (or more often) than the recommended amount can lead to over-fertilization. This condition comes from excess nutrients in the soil, which are absorbed by the roots despite not being necessary to the plant’s function. In an effort to remove the excess nutrients, the plant will try to push the extra nutrients out through the leaf tips.
Fertilizer burn on a Dracaena causes sudden yellowing leaves and/or crispy, dried leaf tips. The best way to help an over-fertilized plant is to flush the excess fertilizer from the soil as much as possible.
There are two options for removing excess fertilizer from the potting soil. First, you could repot the plant, replacing the over-fertilized soil with new soil and then watering thoroughly. The other (and generally preferred) option is to flush out the existing potting soil with plenty of water until the excess fertilizer is washed out.
Flushing out an over-fertilized Dracaena is a simple process. You will need to do this in a location where plenty of water can run off and not cause any issues – either a sink or bathtub indoors or outside in the yard. Run water through the soil for several minutes, allowing it to wash through the soil and out of the drainage holes until about 4X the volume of the pot has run through. The goal is to remove excess salts and additives from the soil.
If you see any salts crusted on the top layer of soil, around the inside edge of the pot, or around the drainage holes, it is a good idea to remove those before you start flushing out the soil. Otherwise, you will be reintroducing them into the pot. If you have access to rainwater or distilled water, it’s best to flush the soil with one of these since they will not introduce additional additives to the pot. If not, filtered tap water is also fine.
What Compost Is Best for Dracaenas
Chemical fertilizer is a good option for fertilizing indoor Dracaenas, but personally, I prefer to use organic compost. I pick compost over regular fertilizer because it more closely mimics how Dracaenas get nutrients in the wild. Plus, it is very unlikely that you’ll be able to give a plant too much compost (unlike fertilizer).
What is compost? Simply put, it’s decomposed organic matter that can be used to fertilize plants. Compost can be made from food scraps, animal waste, yard debris, or a combination of these things.
When it comes to commercially available compost, there is an overwhelming variety of options. It’s important to check the ingredient list carefully and purchase from a trusted retailer. Popular types of store-bought compost are made from worm castings, kelp meal, fish manure, or other ingredients.
You may also find that some store-bought compost options have a particular smell, especially those made with fish emulsion. That may not be an issue if your Dracaena stays outside or in a dedicated sunroom, but if it’s inside near where you hang out, it’s probably a better idea to choose one that doesn’t have a strong odor.
My favorite store-bought compost is worm castings, like this one. It is safe to use indoors or outdoors, and it doesn’t have any noticeable smell. Best of all, my Dracaenas love it!
If you have the space and inclination to create your own compost, it can be a fun and rewarding practice to master. It takes a little time and effort, but in my opinion, it is worth the hassle. Not only does it give you fantastic compost to support your plants’ growth, but it also contributes to a more sustainable garden.
Composting is a complex topic that I can’t cover fully here, but basically, it involves mixing carbon-rich materials like lawn waste or wood chips together with nitrogen-waste materials such as kitchen scraps or grass clippings. Over time, microorganisms will work to break down these materials into a rich organic material that looks similar to potting soil. For more information on how to set up a compost system for your home, read this article from our sister site Rooting for Blooms.
Also, on the subject of food scraps, you may have heard that Dracaenas benefit from having used coffee grounds added to their soil. While it’s true that coffee grounds can make compost slightly acidic, which Dracaenas like, it is a bad idea to add coffee grounds as-is to a potted Dracaena.
Coffee grounds retain too much moisture, which could cause fungi to grow in your soil. They can also attract insects and develop a foul odor. There are just too many risks to make it worthwhile to put coffee grounds into your Dracaena’s pot.
However, it is a great idea to add coffee grounds to the compost mix that will eventually be used to fertilize a Dracaena. In their decomposed form, coffee grounds provide valuable nutrients to Dracaenas and other houseplants.
How to Use Compost on Dracaenas
There’s nothing too complicated about adding compost to your Dracaenas. Depending on the amount of light and growth specific to your own plant, you can do this on the same schedule you would apply a commercial fertilizer.
Simply add a layer of compost all around the top of your Dracaena’s soil and water thoroughly. Each time you water, the nutrients will soak down into the soil and be absorbed by the roots. And that’s all there is to it! Using compost to fertilize Dracaenas couldn’t be simpler.
Using fertilizer isn’t a way to avoid repotting your Dracaenas long-term. If your plant has been in the same potting medium for more than 3 years, it is time to think about repotting it. Dracaenas do not need repotting often, but they will start to suffer from nutrient deficiency and crowded roots if they stay in the same container too long.
For commercial fertilizers, the most important thing to remember is to use a light hand and don’t over-fertilize. Store-bought or homemade compost is a wonderful option for your Dracaenas and other houseplants since it is closer to your plants’ natural nutrient sources and unlikely to cause any damage.
Since Dracaenas grow slowly and don’t usually produce flowers or fruit, they do not generally need a lot of additional fertilizer. A Dracaena in fresh growing medium should need little or no extra nutrients for the first year. However, once the plant has been in the same potting soil for a while, it is a good idea to supplement with some fertilizer or compost to support your Dracaena in reaching its full potential.