Unlike conventional agriculture, organic farming prides itself on creating exceptional conditions by providing the soil with rich, nourishing humus, by rotating crops, using green manure and avoiding synthetic substances of any kind. However, even in the best of conditions, farmers may find themselves needing to use organic fertilizers to enrich the quality and fertility of the soil they’re working with.
Soil structure, soil pH levels and overall nutrient levels may be insufficient for crop growth and in such cases, resorting to organic fertilizers is a farmer’s sole solution. Here are some tips on ensuring the safe use of organic fertilizers in your garden.
Using Organic Fertilizer for the First Time
Many farmers decide to switch from conventional agriculture to organic methods and in so doing, they often fear that organic fertilizers will be more tedious and difficult to apply. The reality of organic fertilization, however, is different. Nowadays, organic fertilizer blends are both convenient and effective.
Moreover, using organic garden or organic lawn fertilizer will significantly decrease your overall costs (especially since you always have the option of making your own fertilizer).
Unlike conventional fertilizers (which have to be labeled accordingly and display the content of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), organic fertilizers are biologically active and therefore, these numbers constantly change. Similarly, organic fertilizers such as compost, can’t even be labeled as a “fertilizers”.
But as opposed to conventional fertilizers (which provide the soil with the three essential nutrients we discussed earlier), organic fertilizers provide the soil with a plethora of important nutrients, not just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Compost, grass clippings and other organic garden and lawn fertilizers will provide farmers with a rich, nutrient-dense soil.
Whether you choose to use organic fertilizer blends, compost, green clippings or other forms of green manure is up to you. Some organic farmers prefer bone meal or compost, but that doesn’t mean that general purpose organic fertilizer isn’t enough to give your garden the boost that it needs.
The Basics of Applying Organic Fertilizer
Because of their complex nature, organic fertilizers require more time to break down and release their nutrients into the soil. This gives beneficial microbes enough time to break down the organic fertilizer and digest the organic matter.
That’s precisely why farmers need to apply such fertilizers at least several months before starting the planting process. Ideally, organic fertilization should be performed in the fall if you plan on spring planting. More importantly, organic fertilizers only release half of their nutrient content within the first season after being applied. In the following years, the soil is continuously fed with the remaining nutrients.
Liquid organic fertilizers break down faster and are comprised of readily-available nutrients that can be applied throughout the growing season or at planting. Fish emulsion is such a fertilizer.
With regards to application and quantity, everything depends on the soil’s health and the total acreage. Most organic fertilizers are spread across the soil’s surface or alongside the planting beds. The consensus regarding quantity is to apply a total quantity of 2 pounds of nitrogen for every 1,000 square feet of soil. Of course, these estimates will vary and you can decide differently based on what soil tests indicate.
Choosing the Right Organic Fertilizer
There are three main categories of organic fertilizer: plant based fertilizer, animal based fertilizer and mineral-based fertilizer. They differ in terms of N-P-K values and are better at feeding particular soils or preparing them for specific crops. Choosing the correct organic fertilizer for vegetables or organic lawn fertilizer is a matter of knowing the properties of these three types.
- Plant-based fertilizers
These fertilizers generally have low to moderate quantities of N-P-K, however, the nutrients they contain are quickly available to the soil. They may also contain trace minerals and other micronutrients which further feed your crops.
Among plant-based fertilizers, alfalfa meal is a great source of nitrogen and potassium. It’s provided in pellet form and while it can be used ubiquitously, roses seem to benefit greatly from this fertilizer. Kelp and seaweed are two additional plant-based fertilizers that add valuable micronutrients to your soil, despite its relatively low N-P-K contents. Soybean meal also comes in pellet form and represents the nitrogen-high option (over 7 percent) of plant-based fertilizer, alongside corn gluten meal (with a whopping 10 percent nitrogen contents). One word of caution, though, when applying corn gluten meal: it inhibits seed growth and as such, should only be applied several months before planting seeds. Cottonseed meal is a granular fertilizer that is also rich in nitrogen and potassium (6 percent, respectively 1.5 percent). Be mindful, though, that conventionally grown cotton is sprayed with pesticides, so choose organically grown!
Last but not least, humus is one of the most common plant-based organic fertilizers, boasting soil microbial activity increasing capabilities, soil structure improvement as well as root development support. While humus is not a fertilizer per se, its effects are beneficial to the soil and the crops you are growing.
- Animal-based fertilizers
Maximizing resource usage is an important aspect of sustainable farming, and the by-products of the dairy and meat industry can be efficiently used as organic fertilizers. Most of these animal-based fertilizers provide large quantities of nitrogen essential for the growth of leafy plants. Animal manures, for instance, are large providers of organic matter despite of their relatively low nutrient value. Be careful, though, that certain manures be composted before application (fresh manure can have the undesirable effect of burning the roots of seedlings).
Blood meal and bone meal are two other byproducts of the slaughtering industry. The former is rich in nitrogen (over 14 percent) while the latter is an excellent source of calcium (22 percent) and phosphorus (11 percent). Another nitrogen-dense animal-based organic fertilizer is bat or seabird guano. Lastly, fish products are also worth considering for your vegetable garden. Unlike other organic fertilizers, fish emulsions contain readily available nutrients while hydrolyzed fish powder boasts a high nitrogen content (12 percent).
- Mineral-based fertilizers
While mineral-based fertilizers can take years to fully break down, they supply the soil with much-needed minerals. Commonly used mineral-based fertilizers include Chilean nitrate of soda, limestone (used primarily to increase pH levels and to add magnesium to the soil), hard- and soft-rock phosphate, greensand, gypsum and Epsom salt.
Compost reigns supreme among organic fertilizers, and can be made from either one of the three aforementioned categories. But curiously, even when starting out with different ingredients (plant-based, animal- or mineral-based), the end result is similar in terms of nutrient balance and organic matter content.
Regardless of your choice in fertilizer, remember that choosing organic will significantly improve not only the patch of earth that you’re caring for, but will also positively influence the environment. Tiny steps is all it takes!