Side-Dressing: A Feeding Strategy For Plants and Kids

For a year-and-a-half I felt terrible guilt that I was ignoring my daughter. Reasonable observers would assure me that I was not neglecting her, but in my heart I knew that the attention lavished on her had diminished markedly since the birth of our son.

You see, our daughter was a home-schooled only-child for six-and-a-half years. She got all we had: all our attention, all our patience, all our consistency. She also got all our unreasonable expectations, all our parental inexperience and all the inner-child neuroses we were working through.

On the whole, I think she did pretty well. We had a good thing going, she and I, with lots of head space for everyone. We were tight. If anything, we were too tight: a little too sensitive to each others moods and feelings.

And then we all had to skooch over and make room for the new little boy, who took up room far in excess of his physical stature.

In the span of twelve hours Bella got a little brother and started at a new school filled with new rules, new expectations, a new teacher, new schoolwork, homework, a shockingly different social environment with far less down-time and 600 other kids.

Meanwhile, I became a mom to two, didn’t sleep for about 8 months, temporarily lost my mind due to chronic sleep deprivation, and attempted like a perfectionistic dumbshit to maintain everything I had been doing in the garden and around the home while also starting this simple, little (20+ hours per week) blog.

Last year was quite a transition for all of us.

Because my daughter is a shockingly mature child with a tendency towards independent introversion, and because I was more or less totally burned out, it was a bit too easy for those first many months to encourage Bella to “go read” or “go listen to an audiobook” while I spun around in circles, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing, and how to do it without crying every other day.

For her sake, I don’t think Bella would say she felt ignored, at least, not chronically, and we still have what I hope she would agree is an excellent relationship. Plus, she did get a really cool little brother.

But still, as I’ve begun to find my new balance, and now that I can reliably count on six hours or so of nightly sleep, my mom guilt has been nagging me for all those hours I had so, so little to give my darling oldest.

Which is why I’ve been making an extra effort lately to side-dress my child.

Side-Dressing Plants

When you side-dress a plant, you give it a little boost of nutrients to keep it growing strong and healthy. An easy way to side dress is to lightly sprinkle a little organic fertilizer at the soil surface, around the root system of the growing plant. Scratch the fertilizer in a bit and let irrigation and rain and soil microbes pull the extra food down to a depth the plant can use.

Any heavy feeder – squash, corn, tomato, melon, cabbage – is likely to need a little side-dressing at some point in the growing season to perform its best and to produce the best harvest. This is especially true if your garden is newer, and the soil is still relatively immature, or if you keep your beds in more-or-less constant production without extensive cover cropping to rebuild fertility.

Leafy greens like spinach, lettuce and chard can benefit from a high-nitrogen side-dressing, and for this I like a liquid feed of fish emulsion, particularly in spring when the soil is still cool and granular nutrients break down slowly. The boost to plants from fish emulsion is not to be underestimated. I’m pretty sure it’s like Red Bull for vegetables.

Side-Dressing Children

Children are the ultimate heavy feeders. Kids need a rich, fertile, supportive environment to sink their proverbial roots into, but they also need frequent (constant?) side-dressing in the form of acknowledgment and kindness and consistency to really thrive.

I see this in my daughter. She’s just happier, more accommodating and more flexible when Homebrew Husband and I make the conscious effort to pay attention to her. She’s an easy child to parent at the worst of times, but the worst of times are far less frequent when she gets the side-dressing she needs from us, her parents.

Sometimes focusing on her eight-year-old, imagination-rich world can exhaust my practical-concerns mind. There are only so many discussions one can have about imaginary fairy worlds before one’s eyeballs roll back in one’s head.

And I’ve never been good at playing kid games. I’d much rather show the kid how to make an omelette than make-believe with the fake food in the fake kitchen.

But I try to suck it up and hide my impatience and go with it. I find this is always much easier when we are on a walk or out of the house, away from the million constant reminders of what I “should” be doing with my time.

Little And Often For Plants

An important rule when side-dressing plants is that little and often is far better and more effective than lots infrequently. A big dose of high-potency fertilizer is more likely to harm your plants than help them. About the best “bad” you can hope for is that too much fertility will grow soft, wimpy, hothouse plants unable to handle the regular stressors of wind and rain that nature doles out (compare this to “helicopter parenting” if you care to push the analogy further).

More fertility than a plant can use results in leaching and the loss of nutrients into the groundwater. Go too crazy you can kill your plants outright by chemically burning them. This can happen with strong “natural” fertilizer, like fresh chicken manure or undiluted urine, just as easily as with synthetic chemical fertilizer, so be careful and thoughtful about why and how you are fertilizing.

Little And Often For Children

The little and often technique holds true for kids, too, I think. During the worst of my sleep-deprived disfunction I would attempt to make amends for the background lack of attention going to Bella by doing periodic big things: going to the aquarium, or on a shopping trip for school clothes, or on a big mommy-daughter lunch and bookstore date.

Those things didn’t work so well. In my own burned-out state, I frequently lost my patience half-way through the big thing and by the end could feel the tingle of resentment over constantly, perpetually giving to the needs of the people around me. (This is a sign of something called caregiver burnout, and if this post rings some personal bells for you you might look into it. While frequently associated with nurses and those who care for the elderly, I think caregiver burnout is probably more common in new moms than any of us are willing to talk about.)

With my daughter, I make the smaller, more manageable effort to do the smaller side-dressing things, like:

  • After the boy is finally in bed, reading or talking to just her for 20 minutes or half-an-hour, even when piles of chores call my name from the kitchen.
  • Looking at her when she is telling me something.
  • A walk to the library and back.
  • A surprise detour to the ice cream store on the way home from the school bus.
  • A little note and cartoon dropped in her lunchbox with her sandwich.
  • Letting her off the hook for a chore for no reason.
  • Asking her specific questions about her day at school.
  • Playing a quick card or word game at dinner.

This kind of nurturing shows her I’m paying attention consistently, which is more important, I think, than infrequent big splashy displays of care.


  1. says

    “And I’ve never been good at playing kid games. I’d much rather show the kid how to make an omelette than make-believe with the fake food in the fake kitchen.”

    Yes, that’s me all over. One of the best days I had with my son last year was when I made up brochures for a day at “Chore Camp”, with an award ceremony at the end of the day. What a productive day; we got to spend lots of time together, and he still has his medal! But watching him play basketball? I just about die — I want to get up and do stuff myself.

  2. says

    I think your daughter benefited greatly from the early years of being your only child. You gave her a great foundation to build on now that she has to share your attention. I bet she has suffered less than you think. She sounds like a great kid! She looks so proud of her little brother in the pictures you posted. I hope you do teach her real cooking, rather than just imaginary, she’s definitely old enough for that. It’s been a while since I had caregiver burnout, I only had one son but husbands can be pretty demanding too. I remember how it felt. Hugs to you, Erica!

  3. says

    Your daughter GLOWS! She looks stunningly healthy and beautiful. The timing is interesting: people often go through a big change of life, becoming more serious and undergoing some kind of hardship around age 7. It’s a Saturn cycle thing. Your description of your daughter sounds like she has a good dose of Saturn in her personality.
    My daughter was almost 5 when her brother was born. We had an evening ritual: the baby was put to bed, and left to cry if he felt like he needed to do that. He usually fell asleep pretty fast.
    This was her time, the one hour in the day she had 100% priority. We read stories and cuddled. Smiling and sniffling at the memories. They grow up and leave you.

  4. Kate says

    My mom always put notes in my lunchbox (I am the oldest of 2). I liked them, of course, but it really struck me when (in my late twenties) she told me that she had only put them in MY lunch box.

  5. Tanya says

    Fabulous analogy, and great post! Thanks for the reminder, on both accounts.

    Separately, that reminds me, I’ve been meaning to sit down and pay some attention to fertilizer needs for my plants – could you offer some more advice on what types of fertilizers are best for what categories of plants, at this time of year? (I’m in Seattle too.)

  6. Anna C. Waddell says

    It is hard being a parent and we guilt ourselves all the time, even when we become adults and they are adults! Parenting is something you grow up in to. Know one but you, the parents knows best how to love your children. Take care of yourself. Give yourself the love also, let hubby play the fairy games… It works. lol oxoxox Take care of your self. Take care of yourself. Spa day?

  7. dixiebelle says

    This post was very touching. Thank you. We learnt a lot from our experiences of being burnt out, and how my unrealistic expectations & never slow down attitude were at the root of it. I am also making sure in the craziness going on at our place at the moment, that I still remain ‘present’ for my kids. My brain is tired and swirling & my body is trying to keep up, but I am finding by playing Lego with them, or listening to stories they’ve made up, or stopping what I am doing to go see something they’ve done… it actually helps me too.

  8. says

    This post really touched my heart. I remember all those feelings like it was yesterday. I also remember never feeling guilt free. If I was spending time with my daughter, I had a voice nagging me about the 101 things to be done. If I was doing all the other things, I felt guilty that I wasn’t spending time with my daughter. I don’t think I ever found a point of balance, or accepted the fact that I couldn’t do it all.
    I was a middle child in a family of seven kids with a mother who preferred boys and whose personality clashed with mine. As a result, my biggest fear was that I would not be a good mother to my daughter and that we would end up like my mom and me, distant and resentful.
    So I asked every woman I met who had a close relationship to their daughter for pointers, and that really helped me.
    One of the best ideas was playing hooky. Once a year my daughter Isabella and I would sneak out of a day of school. It was usually to the Flower and Garden Show and we would make a day of it, with breakfast or lunch in town, and visits to all her favorite toy stores. She has fond memories of those times.
    I just asked her what I did that made her feel appreciated and cared for. She is 21 now, and is home from college for a visit.
    She said that it was the little things, the daily things. When I showed her that I cared about the things that she liked. When I included her in the things that I liked to do. When I talked to her about what I loved and why I loved it (Autumn, Nature, Music, etc.). She said when I made each holiday special, she knew that I was doing it for her. She had the same kind of relationship with her dad, only it was a whole other list of things that they shared (and share) together. She says that we always supported her interests, even when they were fleeting.
    I never perfected motherhood, I’m still working at it, but I also let her know that I wasn’t perfect, that I made mistakes, but that I was trying, just like she was.
    So from, what my daughter just told me, Little and Often is what made her feel loved. Just like what you are doing with your daughter.
    It worked for us, we are are best friends.
    Thanks for a beautiful post.

  9. Miina says

    Beautiful. It is hard taking care of two little children, doing all the things you expect of yourself, and taking care of you. Your advice is perfect. Be fully in the moment, pay attention to the children. It all helps in the end. I tend to notice the same thing with my 4.5 year old. When I spend a little extra time listening to her, reading, showing her something, having her help me in the garden, etc, she is such a delightful child. When I push her aside all day long, every day, we have a lot of tough moments.

    Thank you for the beautiful post!

  10. says

    Thank you for this timely post. I’ve been worrying about this with our second child imminent…our first has been the recipient of our full attention and all our new parent overwhelm and mistakes. I like the analogy of side-dressing. That’s exactly what I think each of us needs, really. I’d rather have a little care and attention from my husband on a regular basis than something “big” once in awhile.
    Your daughter is lovely.

  11. says

    You knew I would love this one. And I do. Beautiful and increibly true. “Looking them in the eye” is so under-rated! Imagine if people listened to us with the disrespect we so often show kids! Jesus, I’d give up altogether. And this from someone who finds it painfully difficult to slow down enough for even just FIVE minutes of truly open listening to my kids.
    It’s a hard job, but it’s making me a better person.
    Thanks for your wise words.

  12. says

    Thanks especially for this:

    “While frequently associated with nurses and those who care for the elderly, I think caregiver burnout is probably more common in new moms than any of us are willing to talk about.”

    It’s so good to know that it’s not just me (although I might take the “new” out… Make it just moms of kids of any at-home age).

  13. says

    I love it! I feel the same way about Cooper adjusting to Zoe. It’s easy to take your “easy” kid for granted, hence he’s not so easy these days.


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