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The Nitrogen Bomb

Thankfully, our street was spared the brunt of the recent storm damage that roared through other sections of the South. Cleanup in our neck of the woods mostly involved picking up scattered small branches and the occasional shingle.

Our thoughts and prayers remain with those who lost homes, family members, and friends during that spell of dangerous weather.

With the return of sunny and mild weather, spring is in full bloom here in North Carolina. Taking a walk around the neighborhood the other day, I noticed that a lot of folks were busy working in their yards. Some were working on their vegetable gardens while others planted flowers. One particular fellow was hard at work on his lawn.

Personally, I have mixed feelings when it comes to lawns. Unless you’re raising livestock for food, devoting a large chunk of space to growing grass doesn’t seem to have much survival value. Then again, some people get a great deal of pleasure from having their own patch of manicured green space and this fellow seemed to push the pleasure meter all the way up to joy.

His lawn looked like something you’d see on a fancy country club golf course. It looked like he had measured and clipped each blade of grass individually. As I stopped by his fence to marvel at the sight, we got to talking about this and that. I asked what he was using as fertilizer and he mentioned a commercial product that was destined to wreck his soil in a few short seasons.

Over the long years that we’ve been together, the missus has worked real hard at training me to play nice with the neighbors. To get a glimpse at the lecture I was tempted to launch, you might want to backtrack a bit and check my column from last December 29 titled “Why Garden Organically?” In deference to my training and my wife, I swallowed my lecture, my pride, and a big gulp of air before muttering, “That stuff is kind of hard on your soil, ain’t it?”

He just grinned and pointed at his emerald colored creation. “Looks good now, though, don’t it?”

Well, if that’s all there was to the story, it just might be a tale about two guys who don’t speak quite as well as English professors and feel differently about lawn care. Since this column is about survival gardening, we have to return to my garden for the rest of the story.

My lawn obsessed neighbor dropped by a few days later while I was working on my patch of greens. I’ve got some kale, chard, and a few other leafy delicacies growing in there and I was doing some plucking and spacing. I happened to have a bottle of my favorite organic fertilizer sitting in my cart and as we talked he picked up the bottle and looked it over.

“Kind of short on nitrogen,” he remarked.

“Vegetables don’t like too much nitrogen,” I answered politely. “It makes the plants leafy and stifles production.”

He just shook his head and remarked, “Nitrogen makes everything grow better.”

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Double times wrong! Wrong to an infinite power! If there had been medical personnel on hand to measure my blood pressure at that moment, I might have set a new record. Instead of exploding on the spot, I growled something like “not in my garden” and waved at the results. He quickly looked at his watch and claimed to be late for something. Okay, I might have added a glare or two to my growl; I’ve always been difficult to train.

To make a long story just a tad shorter, the hazardous mix my neighbor is using on his eventually-doomed lawn has fertilizer analysis numbers that read 30-0-04. For those of you who aren’t familiar with fertilizer analysis numbers, this stuff contains 30% nitrogen, 0% phosphorous, and 4% potassium.

If you put that stuff in your vegetable garden, you’ll end up with a quick burst of green leafy plants that soon become sickly. Vegetables will be slow to develop and many that do will rot on the vine.

High nitrogen soils, particularly those lacking enough calcium and phosphate, make your produce very watery and lacking in sugar. A proper concentration of sugar protects your vegetables from the organisms that are part of the spoilage process.

You can easily see the results for yourself if you can get your hands on an ear of corn grown in a nitrogen-overloaded, low-calcium garden and another one that was grown in a garden with a proper balance of nutrients. Put the ears of corn in separate jars, seal them, and wait a few weeks. During that time, you might want to keep a close eye on your jars. While the high nitrogen ear is turning to liquid, it may release enough gas to burst the jar. Your nutritionally balanced ear, on the other hand, will just shrivel a bit. That’s the way vegetables are supposed to act. The other way is just unnatural.

For the record, my favorite organic fertilizer, Protogrow, contains 3% nitrogen. With proper soil preparation, it provides a stable and balanced environment to grow healthy, natural vegetables that will provide the nutrition your family needs. Survival gardening isn’t rocket science and you should never use rocket fuel to grow your food.

Until next time, I wish you a pleasant time in the garden. As for me, I’m going to spend some time praying for a little extra strength and patience. It’s going to be a long growing season in my neighborhood.

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