The key to healthy plants is in the soil, plain and simple. You can buy the highest quality plants and place them in the perfect location and still, they will not thrive unless they have rich soil that is loaded with microbes. Soil quality is at the heart of organic gardening.
Unfortunately, most soil does not exist in a perfect organic state; it needs work. It may not have the best soil structure, or the pH might be too high or too low. If you are embarking on an organic garden project, you can be rest assured that it is going to take a little work to get your soil just right. In fact, getting the “perfect” soil is really a constant job of checks and balances that every organic gardener must be aware of at all times.
The problem with chemical fertilizers
The fundamental difference between organic materials and chemical materials is that organic materials feed both the soil and the plant. In other words, when you commit to organic gardening the material you use on your garden provides food for soil microorganisms and earthworms, both of which are essential to soil and plant health.
Chemical fertilizers provide a quick boost of food for plants in the form of mineral salts that plants can rapidly absorb – but they do nothing to improve the health of the soil. Some chemical fertilizers actually acidify the soil, chasing away earthworms. Once soil structure begins to go downhill, its ability to hold water diminishes and any additional chemical fertilizer actually leaches through the soil. Over time it will take more and more fertilizer to encourage plant growth.
Keep in mind that the creation of a majority of chemical fertilizers use both coal and natural gas — two nonrenewable resources. Some have also been made by treating rock mineral with acid to make them more soluble.
The rise of organic products
Fortunately, organic gardening is making a comeback as more people become aware of the dangers of synthetic fertilizers and as there is a push toward sustainable living. Organic fertilizers are made from animal or plant materials or from mined rock. It is important, however, to be careful when selecting a commercial organic product as the national standards that define organic and chemical fertilizers are a little fuzzy.
Is organic fertilizing complicated?
If you are new to organic gardening and just making the switch from chemical products to organic products, you may think that organic gardening is too much work or that you will have to know the specific needs of each of your plants to be successful.
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With so many new products coming on the market, keeping your soil and your plants healthy and happy organically is quite easy. There is no real need to custom feed your plants (unless you really want to), and most are happy with a couple of applications of general-purpose organic fertilizer.
Organic fertilizer options
Gardeners have been using animal manure, one of the most useful organic materials you can find, to feed soil and plants since time immemorial. This old-fashioned way of fertilizing helps to improve soil nutrients and soil texture. The most commonly used manure comes from cows, horses, sheep, pigs, goats and poultry. For flower gardens, apply cow or horse manure in early spring. For vegetable gardens use chicken, cow or horse manure in both fall and spring, and for acid-loving plants use cow or horse manure in early fall only.
If you are purchasing bagged manure, the nutrient ratio is generally listed on the bag. If you are buying or using bulk manure, the nutrient value will not be clear. Nitrogen is the nutrient that is lost most quickly in animal manures.
It is important to understand that not all animal manures are created equal. Some manure, such as chicken and bat guano, are considered “hot” and are very high in urea nitrogen. Be very careful when applying these types of fertilizers, even after they have been decomposed; the high nitrogen content can burn plant roots.
Sheep, cow and horse manure are not as hot but can also be mixed with bedding such as hay or sawdust, which is high in carbon and is also best left to break down before using.
Avoid other manure such as cat, dog or pig because it may contain bacteria that can threaten humans, even after it has decomposed.
Which to use
Cow manure: Known as a good all-purpose manure, cow manure has a great balance of nutrients but it tends to be low in quantity. It is best to use cow manure as a soil conditioner to improve soil structure or if you are just starting out with organic gardens.
Chicken/bird manure: This manure has the highest nitrogen and phosphorus content and nutrients are easily absorbed by plants. However, as previously mentioned it can also burn the plant roots. Use this manure carefully around plants. Leafy greens love chicken and bird manure.
Sheep and goat manure: Both goat and sheep manure have a low odor and are a richer source of nitrogen and potassium than cow and horse manure. It generally contains a few weed seeds but is easy to use and will not burn plants.
Horse manure: Horse manure is one of the easiest manures to find and is a very good all-around product. It is not super high in nutrients and generally contains quite a few weed seeds, as a horse only digests about one-quarter of what it eats.
Worm castings: Worm castings will provide both macro and micronutrients, will not burn plants (even if applied fresh), and will encourage microbial growth in the soil. You can either purchase worm castings or raise your own.
If you choose to raise your own, making a casting tea is a great way to feed plants. If you are new to raising worms you can purchase kits online or speak to someone at your local cooperative extension office.
As a general rule of thumb, apply about 40 pounds of composted manure per every 100 square feet of garden. If your garden beds are already fertile, you will only need about a 2-inch layer of compost each season.
Fish emulsion is favored for its quick high organic nitrogen content and soluble potassium and phosphorus benefits. It works very well for a foliar feed to give plants a mid-season boost. Fish meal is a good soil conditioner and microbial feed. Most commercial products contain trash products of menhaden fish, a relative of the sardine, herring and anchovy.
Although it is low in NPK, seaweed/kelp is very high in other trace elements In fact, it can contain up to 60 trace elements, many growth hormones and disease prevention properties.
When seaweed products are mixed with fertilizers high in nitrogen, you have a complete organic fertilizer and soil conditioner that will provide all the trace elements and NPK that soil and plants need. Keep in mind that seaweed and algae plants are very powerful and are an excellent food source for fungi in the soil.
Note: You can purchase both fish/seaweed emulsion commercially or make your own. There are many valuable resources for how to do so available online and in organic gardening books.
Kitchen and yard compost
Not only is kitchen and yard composting a great way to cut down on trash, it also makes a wonderful addition to any organic garden. There are a number of different ways to compost. Some people prefer the old-fashioned way — in large pits — but you can also make or purchase compost bins. The most important rule with composting is to remember that there has to be the right ratio between browns and greens.
Besides air and water, carbon and potassium are necessary for making compost. Materials that are carbon-rich are brown; potassium-rich ones are green. Examples of brown include dry leaves, wood chips, paper, cardboard and sawdust. Greens include fruit and veggie peels, coffee ground, egg shells, tea leaves and green grass clippings.
A ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part potassium is best and can be achieved by alternating layers of brown and green in equal volume. Be sure to apprise yourself on the ins and outs of how to compost before starting your project.
Composted kitchen and yard scraps function several different ways to enhance soil and fertility including:
- Soil conditioner
- Soil aerating
- Water retention
- Nutrients for plants
Homemade Organic Fertilizer Recipes
If you want to save some money, try these easy and effective homemade organic fertilizer recipes.
Fill a 5-gallon bucket one-third of the way with finished compost. Fill the bucket almost to the top with water. Allow the mixture to set for 4 days, stirring as needed. Use a cheesecloth to strain the mixture into a bucket. Put the leftover compost into your garden or back into the compost pile. Dilute the compost tea with 10 parts water to 1 part tea. Use as a foliar spray or pour around plants in the soil.
Fish Tank Fertilizer
If you have a fish tank, the water in it contains nitrogen and other nutrients that plants require. Use the water to feed both your indoor and outdoor plants.
Wood Ash Fertilizer
If you have a wood stove or fireplace, the ash is a great source of potassium and calcium carbonate. Just be sure not to use the ash on acid-loving plants or if your soil is alkaline. Work the ash well into your soil for best results.
The acetic acid in vinegar works well for plants that love acid and can be used to replace houseplant fertilizers or rose plant food. Combine one tablespoon white vinegar and 1 gallon of water; use this to water your plants once every three months.
Keep in mind that while synthetic fertilizers may do a great job boosting your plant’s performance, they do little for the long-term health of your soil or plants. If you wish to have consistent high yield, healthy plants and fertile soil, organic is the way to go.
What is your favorite type of organic fertilizer? Share your thoughts in the section below: