Gardening is a fun and practical pastime. You can work out your stress by working the soil, teach your kids valuable skills and lessons, and, best of all, grow much or even all of your own produce. With a successful garden, you can become independent from the world of big agriculture and chain grocery stores. Even if you can’t grow all the food you need, you should be able to produce a large portion of your family’s nutritional intake.
Growing vegetables seems simple enough: put seeds in soil, water, and watch them grow. Unfortunately, gardening well and producing healthy and tasty produce requires more care and effort. You may have to cope with diseases and pests, which can be a real pain. Another issue might be the quality of your soil. Some areas have excellent soil that is very conducive to growing a variety of plants. In other areas, however, you may have thin soil, sandy soil, or soil that is depleted in nutrients. Even if you start out with rich soil, using it over and over again leads to depletion.
One of the most important aspects of growing vegetables year after year is fertilizing. Fertilizer is any material that is added to soil to provide nutrients to plants to enhance their growth. The fertilizer industry is a massive one. It accounts for billions of dollars in the world of big agriculture. According to some estimates, commercial fertilizer accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of crop yields. All of this fertilizer use has provided us with plenty of food, but it has also caused a lot of environmental problems. By taking yourself and your family out of the big agriculture cycle, you are already doing your part. In your own garden, you may choose to use a more environmentally responsible organic fertilizer as opposed to a synthetic product.
What is Organic Fertilizer?
Any fertilizer, organic or not, is a material that provides certain nutrients for plants to grow. Different fertilizers contain these nutrients in varying proportions depending upon need. Six nutrients in fertilizers are present in large concentrations. These are called macronutrients and include:
Micronutrients, those needed in smaller amounts, include: chlorine, boron, iron, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. The proportion of each nutrient depends on what exactly you need for your soil.
The difference between an organic and a synthetic or inorganic fertilizer is the origin of the nutrients. Inorganic fertilizers are usually made by a chemical reaction that produces ammonia. Ammonia is then used in other chemical reactions to produce ammonium nitrate, urea, and other compounds used as fertilizer. These are called synthetic fertilizers because they are made by man. Inorganic fertilizers may also be made from natural materials. This involves using different types of rocks and minerals to get the desired nutrients.
Organic fertilizers are made from natural materials other than rocks and minerals. These materials may come from animals or plants and can include manure, fish, worm castings, compost, kelp, guano, or bone meal. You can purchase organic fertilizer, or you can make it yourself.
Many gardeners tout the benefits of using organic over inorganic fertilizers. There are both advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the reasons to choose organic:
- They release nitrogen slowly. Synthetic fertilizer releases nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil very quickly, which can give you a boom-and-bust type of growth. Organic fertilizer releases nitrogen slowly, giving you a more stable and steady growth period.
- Organic fertilizers promote natural nutrient storage mechanisms in the soil. It helps microorganisms to grow in the soil. These little critters break down organic materials to keep nutrients in the soil. Because of this effect, you will need to fertilize less often.
- Using organic fertilizer helps the soil to retain more moisture, reducing the need to water and the possibility of stress to the plant from lack of water.
- Organic materials help to maintain the structure of the soil and prevent erosion.
- Because less organic fertilizer needs to be used, environmental problems are minimized with its use. For instance, commercial fertilizers need to be used in large quantities to be effective. Excess nutrients run off into waterways and cause a detrimental process called eutrophication—the growth of algae, which suffocates fish and other life in the water.
- Depending on where and how you get the organic fertilizer, it may be less expensive than synthetic fertilizer.
Fertilizing organically is not, of course, perfect. It does represent many advantages over synthetic fertilizers, but there are a few downsides too:
- The composition of organic fertilizer is often more complex than a synthetic product. It may require more consideration and testing of soil to determine what types of fertilizer and how much is needed for your garden.
- An organic fertilizer that is improperly produced may contain harmful pathogens. If you plan to make your own, be sure that you know how to do so correctly to avoid this danger. These pathogens could be harmful to people, animals, and plants.
- Using organic fertilizer is much more labor intensive. It requires more care and effort to use.
Types of Organic Fertilizers
There are two main types of organic fertilizer: animal and plant. Some would also call rock and mineral fertilizers a third type of organic product, but technically, it is not organic. Plant-based fertilizers include compost, alfalfa, cottonseed meal, soybean meal, wood ash, and kelp or seaweed. Compost is something you can easily make yourself to use in the garden and is a great way to recycle waste. However, compost that is made only from plant material often does not have enough nutrients. It may need to be supplemented with other fertilizers. The plant meals provide the important macronutrients, while kelp has many trace nutrients. Wood ash provides a lot of potassium, but also alters the pH of the soil.
Animal-based fertilizers include livestock manure, bat guano, fish meal, blood meal, and bone meal. Blood and fish meal provide plenty of nitrogen, and fish also provides a lot of trace nutrients. Bone meal contains a significant amount of phosphorus, and manure offers all of the macronutrients. Manure that is fresh can harm plants, so be sure to compost it properly before using as a fertilizer.
Buy It or Make It?
Some of the organic fertilizers you may wish to try can be easy to make yourself. For instance, as a gardener, you probably already have a compost pile. To enhance your use of compost as a fertilizer, you may want to think about composting your livestock manure. Learn how to do it correctly to avoid damaging your plants, though. Other types may be more difficult to make yourself, unless you have a nearby cave from which you can collect bat guano.
If you are going to give organic fertilizing a try beyond simply composting, you will probably need to make purchases. You can buy fertilizers already made with the nutrient concentrations listed. You can also buy some of the individual ingredients, like bone meal or soybean meal, to mix your own blend.
Unlike big agriculture, you are not planning to simply dump a ton of generic fertilizer in your garden and hope for the best. Your needs are more complex and need to be more planned out. The best way to plan for your fertilizing needs is to start with an evaluation of your soil. You can take a sample of your soil and send it to a lab for analysis. This will tell you what nutrients you have and what you are lacking and will inform your fertilizer needs. If you have a university nearby with an agricultural program, they can probably perform the analysis for you. If not, search for a private testing lab to which you can send a sample.
Once you know your soil type and needs you can customize your fertilization plan. With the right mix of organic materials, you will have a garden that produces healthy, nutritious, and delicious vegetables for many years. It may require more effort, but in the long run, you will be glad you went organic.
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