Fertility is a word that brings to mind the lushness of crops in the sunlight, an abundance of food, and the loveliness of growth. True crop fertility is a wonderful thing. However, since the green revolution we’ve associated fertility with fertilizer. What is a fertilizer, and where does it fit into the idea of growth and fertility?
What is a fertilizer?
A fertilizer is an addition to the soil. It’s something that adds nutrients to the garden soil, either through organic or synthetic means. Plants need nutrients to grow, and fertilizers are generally made up of the three key soil nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen leads to the lush growth of plants. Phosphorus helps cells transfer energy as they grow, and this makes plants grow more quickly. Plants need potassium to make carbohydrates and protein. These three nutrients are essential to the growth of your garden, along with their associates, the micronutrients. Your garden plants require a slow, steady release of nutrients to survive.
Organic Versus Synthetic Fertilizers
Fast-release synthetic fertilizers are like a caffeine boost for your plants. They go, they grow, but they’re not being bolstered by anything that is particularly nutritious in the long term. If you live off coffee alone, your body is not healthy. If your plants live off the avails of fast-release synthetic fertilizers, they will grow, grow, grow, but it won’t be due to your excellent soil and your hardy plants. Your plants will come to depend on regular infusions of fertilize to survive.
Quick-release fertilizers speed out of your garden and into local water bodies when it rains. When lakes are polluted with fertilizer, the result is often vigorous growth. Unfortunately, this vigorous growth is from the aquatic plants like algae, and these plants then die and rot in the water, reducing the amount of oxygen in lakes and rivers. This leads to the death of fish and other aquatic life. Slow-release organic fertilizers can help reduce the runoff that occurs when plants are fertilized.
Synthetic fertilizers have large amounts of the more common soil nutrients. What they tend to lack is the micronutrients, those tiny amounts of boron, copper, and other nutrients that plants need in minute amounts. Natural fertilizers often have these nutrients, and this provides an extra boost to your plants.
There are slower-release synthetic alternatives to these fertilizers, but the best solution is healthy soil and the slow, steady release of nutrients from an organic, soil-building fertilizer.
The Benefits of Organic Fertilizers
In nature, some things move quickly but many more move slowly and steadily. This is true for natural and organic fertilizers. Natural soil-building processes take a long time. They’re not an overnight process. Leaves decompose. Slugs and snails eat the leaves, fungi grow in them, and microorganisms break them down into their component parts.
Organic fertilizers may be a little faster than this, but they’re certainly not an overnight solution. They’re slow release, and this is a good thing. A fast release of nutrients from synthetic fertilizers can actually damage plants, because these chemicals move water away from plant tissues. This leads to brown, unhealthy plants.
Organic fertilizers slowly release nutrients, maintaining a steady flow of nutrients into the soil and surrounding plants. They do not disturb the water balance of the soil and simply enhance the soil as soil life releases their nutrients.
Types of Organic Fertilizers
Who are these organic fertilizers, these stars of the soil-building scene? The list of organic fertilizers is long and includes products that build mineral content, products that add microbes and micronutrients, products that add nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and products that do all three.
First up is compost, the most famous and most abundant of fertilizers. Compost is full of nutrients, both the main players and the micronutrients. It is made of your food and garden waste, broken down into its component parts by invertebrates and microorganisms. Compost is also chock-full of these microorganisms, and it acts like an inoculant for your garden. Compost is a versatile fertilizer. Use it as a soil amendment to aerate the garden soil, or use it as a fertilizer to prepare the beds in the spring. Top dress or side dress existing garden beds with a sprinkling of compost, or add compost tea to boost the growth of plants or control pests. Here’s more information about using compost in your garden.
Manure as an Organic Fertilizer
Manure is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Yes, it is animal waste, and it’s also so full of nutrients that it is best to age the manure so that it does not burn your plants like a synthetic fertilizer might. Buy aged manure, and it will act as an abundant source of plant growth for your garden. Use it to prepare beds in the spring. While you can apply manure around existing garden plants, make sure that the manure is well-aged.
Fish Meal as an Organic Fertilizer
Photo courtesy of Clean Air Gardening.
Fish meal is a good choice for soil that requires phosphorus and nitrogen. Work about seven ounces in every yard, and repeat the process in eight month if it is required.
Alfalfa as an Organic Fertilzer
Alfalfa is an excellent all-around fertilizer. It has a good carbon to nitrogen ratio, which means that its nutrients become available more quickly. Yet it is still a slow-release fertilizer. The protein and carbohydrates in this fertilizer mean that it encourages microbial life to multiply in the soil. Alfalfa is a good choice for vegan or vegetarian gardeners as well. Apply alfalfa around new plantings, and apply it sparingly so that releasing the nutrients in the alfalfa does not distract all of your soil microbes. Add half to one cup of alfalfa around each plant.
Building garden soil is a long-term job, and it’s also a constant process of thought and improvement. Yet it’s satisfying too. Feeding your plants means that you are growing the nutrient levels in your soil, and that means that the food that you grow is rich in major and micronutrients. Think of yourself as a caretaker of the garden soil, and you have the secret to creating a thriving garden over time.