Fertilizer & NutritionOrganic Growing

All About Organic Fertilizer

In a perfect world, your garden’s soil would provide all the nutrients plants need. But in the real world, garden, and lawn soil — and thus the plants that live in them — often need a little boost. Improving the soil is the number one thing you can do to improve your garden, yard or landscape and organic fertilizers can help.

All plants need these items:

• Macronutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium
• Secondary nutrients – sulfur, calcium and magnesium
• Micronutrients – iron, manganese, zinc, chlorine, boron, copper and nickel (in very small quantities)

Organic fertilizing can be as easy or as technical as you want it to be. For gardeners or commercial growers who don’t wish to spend a lot of time figuring out what individual plants want, there are commercial blends that can be used on all plants.

For those who like to treat each plant as an individual there are singular fertilizers or mixes for every kind of plant. Often fertilizing protocol changes as the plant grows.

Why Organic?

Plants can’t tell if the nitrogen, or other nutrients, they are taking up came from an organic or chemical source but choosing an organic over chemical fertilizer does have an impact on the health of your soil and ground water. Organic fertilizers improve the soil, while chemical or synthetic fertilizers deplete the soil over the long run.

Organic FertilizersChemical Fertilizers
Release nutrients slowly, providing a steady flow of plant nutrientsRelease nutrients rapidly
Non-burning (won’t harm delicate seedling roots)May burn plants (and harm delicate seedling roots)
Improve soil structureLeaching can pollute groundwater
Increase water holding capacityLoss of fertilizer due to leaching means soil requires many applications
Increase nutrient holding capacityCan make soil toxic after continuous use
Promotes earthworms and soil micro-organismsMineral salts can build up over time and kill off soil microbes
Buffers soil from chemical imbalancesHigh nitrogen levels may repel earthworms
Improves soil over time 

Chemical fertilizers came about after WWII when the companies that made ammonia gas for explosives needed to find a way to stay in business. So, they figured out how to make ammonia gas (mostly nitrogen) into fertilizer.

Dry Organic Fertilizers

Dry fertilizers can be made from a single ingredient (such as greensand or steamed bone meal) or a blend of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous plus micronutrients. There are many commercial blends available, or you can make your own.

Applying Dry Organic Fertilizers

1.) Broadcast dry fertilizer across the soil before planting

2.) Rake or hoe the fertilizer into the top 4-6 inches
3.) Add small amounts to planting holes or rows
4.) Side dress plants during the growing season

Liquid Organic Fertilizers

Plants can absorb liquids through both their roots and their stomata (pores on the leaf’s surface). Liquid fertilizers can be applied to the soil or sprayed on to the leaves. Liquid fertilizers (whether a commercial blend, fish emulsion, compost tea or others) are especially beneficial during critical times in a plant’s life such as just after transplanting, during extreme temperatures or drought, or when the plant is blooming or setting fruit.

Applying Liquid Fertilizers

1.) Always follow label instructions
2.) Using a surfactant (coconut oil or mild soap — 1/4 tsp per gallon of spray) to help get the best coverage
3.) Check the spray’s pH — a slightly acidic fertilizer (6.0-6.5) is best (lower pH with vinegar)

4.) Use a spray mister with the finest mist possible.
5.) Spray until liquid drips off the leaves, being sure to spray the underside of leaves where pores are most likely to be open.
6.) Spray during the early morning or late evening for best absorption
7.) OR water liquid fertilizers around the roots of plants

Nutrient Supplements

Nutrient supplements have little or no N-P-K of their own and are designed to optimize fertilizers, not act as them. Containing vitamins, minerals, and hormones not found in most commercial plant foods, these give your plants “that little something extra.” The most well known is kelp which is sold both as a dry meal and as a liquid and also:

• contains at least 60 trace elements that plants need in very small quantities,
• contains growth promoting enzymes and hormones
• stimulates soil bacteria (which increases fertility through humus formation, aeration and moisture retention)

Applying Nutrient Supplements

1.) Liquid supplements can be applied following the same method as liquid fertilizers.
2.) Kelp meal should be applied at 1-2 lbs per 100 square feet each spring. Kelp extract can be applied weekly to outdoor plants at a rate of 3 tablespoons per gallon of water.
3.) If you can find fresh seaweed, rinse the salt off and use it in the garden as mulch or throw it in the compost pile.

Types of Organic Fertilizers

Bird and animal manuresGood nutrient source and chock-full of microorganisms. Should be well-aged or composted before applying directly to the garden.
Blood mealSlow-release source of nitrogen plus trace minerals. Apply just before planting and use sparingly.
Fish meal/ emulsionSource of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements. Releases quickly.
GreensandRich in potassium and numerous micronutrients. Can be used to loosen clay soils. Apply 5-10 lbs per 100 square feet.
Shellfish mealStrong source of calcium (23%), nitrogen, phosphorus, and micronutrients. May also be used to inhibit root-knot nematodes.
Rock phosphateGreat for flowering plants and provides a 10-year phosphate reserve.

Once you figure out what you want from your fertilizer, it is easy to pick the right one.

Desired EffectFertilizer
Promote large blooms and fruitsBat guano
Condition soilCompost
Animal manures
Promote sturdy above-ground plant growthBlood meal
Fish emulsion
Promote root growth in transplants and seedlingsPhosphate rock
Bone meal
Enhance composting processAlfalfa meal
Blood meal
Bind sandy soilColloidal rock phosphate
Loosen clay soilGreensand
Coconut coir

Which Vegetables Need the Most Fertilizer?

Light feeding vegetables are bean, beet, carrot, onion, pea, potato, radish, and turnip. Heavy feeding vegetables are broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumber, kale, leeks, lettuce, melon, peppers, pumpkin, spinach, squash and tomato.

Biological Approaches that Promote Plant Health

Mycorrhizal Fungi are probably already growing in your soil. They form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. These fungi benefit plants by:

• Colonizing plant roots and sending their fine hyphae throughout the soil, essentially extending the plant’s reach.
• Blocking disease organisms
• Absorbing phosphorous, water and trace minerals — and sharing them with the plant
• Excreting sticky compounds that bind the soil into aggregates, keeping the soil porous and airy

You can promote mycorrhizal growth by not tilling the soil (this tears them up) or by inoculating your garden with a purchased fungi inoculant.

Worms improve the soil in many ways:

• Enhancing the structure (aerating clay soils and binding sandy soils together)
• Burrowing opens channels for root growth
• They help regulate water (moving moisture to dry areas and draining water clogged areas)
• Chomping up leaves and other organic debris
• Worms leave behind castings full of nutrients

It’s not just the worms that are good for your garden, their nutrient-rich castings (basically worm poop) are an excellent soil additive. Castings can be produced commercially, or you can raise worms yourself.

There a lot of ways to reap the benefits of worm castings including:

• Top Dressing: Spread a layer (1/2 inch deep) of castings around plants the add mulch and water.
• Seed Starting Mix: 3 parts aged compost or coconut coir to 1 part castings.
• Potting Mix: 2 parts aged compost, 1 part castings, 1/2 part vermiculite.
• Trees and Fruit Trees: Apply around the base and water well. Reapply when necessary.

Eric Vinje is the owner of Planet Natural. You can visit his website at Planetnatural.com.

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