Fertilizer. This is one component of gardening, whether it be fruits and vegetables or flowers, where giving your plants the right boost can make the difference between a bountiful crop or not. Many folks are choosing to go the natural route when it comes to fertilizers and skip the synthetics for good reason. Getting back to basics with organic fertilizers is good for the soil, the plants, the environment and for us.
Plants need an extra boost when first planted, during the growing season and when they are producing. The job of all fertilizers, whether organic or synthetic, is to accomplish this task by applying added nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and other trace minerals. Every fertilizer has these three main minerals in some combination. Some specialty fertilizers combine these minerals in different proportions, depending on what the specific use is to be.
Nitrogen is so vital because it is a major component of chlorophyll, the compound by which plants use sunlight and energy to produce sugar from water and carbon dioxide (photosynthesis). It is also a major component of amino acids, the building blocks of plants. Phosphorous promotes new roots, makes seeds and fruits and flowers as well as helping to fight disease. Potassium helps make big stems and helps the plants to keep growing.
Organic fertilizers release these nutrients slowly. Rather than dissolving in water, they are broken down by bacteria in the soil, providing nutrients as they decompose. Because they act slowly, it is nearly impossible to kill plants by applying too much, which can happen with synthetic fertilizers.
There are many other sources of natural fertilizer, much of which we normally think of as garbage. The list includes egg shells, banana peels, coffee grounds and even weeds that are allowed to decompose. Many of these are used to add specialty nutrients to certain types of plants. The type you choose depends on what you are growing and what nutrients your plants need. Some good sources are:
- Bone Meal. This is exactly what the name suggests and is a by-product of slaughtering facilities. It is rendered through the steam processing and pulverization of animal bones. It is high in phosphorous and will promote healthy root development and flower growth. It is especially beneficial for bulbs and roses. Although it takes a while to become available to the plants, a little goes a long way.
- Blood Meal. Also a product of slaughtering houses, it is a good source of nitrogen.
- Cottonseed Meal. This plant-based fertilizer is a by-product of cotton manufacturing and is also an excellent source of nitrogen. Slightly acidic, it is perfect for acid-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons. The nutrients are released over time so it is a perfect way to get lush green lawns.
- Compost. Whether you use a homemade or commercially-produce blend, compost is excellent for adding organic matter to the soil, providing food for beneficial microbial life, increasing soil water holding capacity and gradually releasing plant nutrients. The only thing to remember about homemade is to make sure it is completely cured.
- Manure. This is the animal version of compost and is the best known organic plant food. It is an excellent source of nutrients. The exact nutrient content depends on its age, source (from pigs, chickens, etc.) and presence of bedding materials. Because of pathogens, new manure should be avoided, make sure it is at least 180 days old. It is also sold commercially where it has been pasteurized in a unique process that kills harmful bacteria as well as weed seeds.
- Fish Emulsion and Hydrolyzed Liquid Fish. The fish emulsion is made by processing fish or fish by-products with heat or acid. This fertilizer can be pretty stinky but is a good source of the macronutrients. Hydrolyzed liquid fish is produced by using enzymes rather than heat. It is not so smelly and it retains more trace nutrients and vitamins. I remember burying the fish bones and heads in the garden after we had gone fishing as a kid. I guess we were ahead of our time!
- Alfafa Meal. This type is good for replenishing worn-out soil and is also excellent to accelerate compost piles. It is made from fermented alfalfa.
- Liquid Kelp. This is made from cold processing of the seaweed plant that can grow up to 3 feet per day. For this reason, it is often used to fertilize golf courses and football fields
There are so many reasons to choose natural fertilizer. The reason I do is that it is better for us and the environment. Some other reasons include:
- They decompose plant residue.
- They retain nutrients as a form of stable hummus.
- They combine nitrogen and carbon to prevent nutrient loss.
- They suppress fungus and bacterial diseases.
- They develop soil structure, tilth, water penetration and retention.
- Clean up past chemical residues.
- Shift the soil pH to neutral and keep it that way.
- They search out and retrieve nutrients in different parts of the soil.
- They decompose thatch and stop it from returning.
You don't always have to choose mystery ingredients to make plants grow just because they have been the norm for so long. Safe, non-toxic fertilizers get the job done.
Photo by Getty Images/terra24.