We all want our lawns to look lush and green. What price are we willing to pay? What do we really know about the dangers of fertilizers? Can we use natural fertilizers?
What are natural fertilizers? Are they the same as organic?
The two terms get mixed up as if they are the same. They are not. Natural and organic fertilizer differs from chemicals in that they feed your plants while building the soil. Soils with lots of organic material remain loose and airy, hold more moisture and nutrients, foster growth of soil organisms, and promote healthier plant root development. This helps prevent soil erosion. Natural fertilizer (a.k.an organic fertilizer) includes biodegradable compounds such as green manure, animal waste and compost. Natural fertilizers release chemicals slowly to the soil. That makes them very good for crops or plants like perennials that come back year after year. Natural fertilizers include more nutrients together. They minimize the negative environmental impacts. Natural fertilizers are cheaper than artificial fertilizer and have minimum health hazards.
Why do we need fertilizers?
As plants grow, their roots absorb nutrients from the soil and use them to produce leaves, flowers and fruit. Over time, a plant can exhaust the nutrients in its growing environment. Traditionally, the answer to that problem has been to provide fertilizers, which return essential nutrients to the soil. With growing concerns about the negative effects of fertilizer runoff, however, organic alternatives to fertilizers provide inexpensive, easy and sustainable options.
Composting can be done in big or small ways. Simply putting a small container on your counter can be the start of a new passion to go green. You can throw all of your fruit and veggie peels and roots in there. In nature, composting breaks down dead plant material and returns available nutrients to the soil for use by living plants. Home composting replicates that process, creating humus-rich soil that can be returned to gardens to restore soil nutrients. Home made or natural ingredients include grass clippings, vegetable scraps, coffee grinds and pulled garden weeds. Other ingredients include dead leaves, paper and straw. Add compost on top or mix it into the first few inches of soil for a fertilizer-free way to restore soil nutrients.
BANANA PEELS – Go ahead and dig your plant hole and add one or two peels in the hole before planting. You can also bury peels under mulch so they can compost naturally.
COFFEE GROUNDS – Acid-loving plants such as tomatoes, blueberries, roses and azaleas do well with coffee grounds added to the soil. Sprinkle coffee grounds on top of the ground before watering or pour a liquid version on top of the soil. If using as a soil drench, soak 6 cups of coffee grounds in a 5 gallon bucket of water. Let it sit for 2-3 days and then saturate the soil around your plants.
EGG SHELLS – Wash them first, then crush. Work the shell pieces into the soil near tomatoes and peppers. The calcium helps fend off blossom end rot. Eggshells are 93% calcium carbonate, the same ingredient as lime, a tried and true soil amendment!
SEAWEED – Both fresh and dried versions are considered excellent soil amendments. Seaweed contains trace elements and actually serves as a food source for soil microbes. Chop up a small bucket of seaweed and add it to 5 gallons of water. Let it sit for 2-3 weeks loosely covered. Use it to drench the soil and foliage. 2 cups work well for a small plant, 4 cups for a medium plants and 6 cups for a large plant.
WEEDS – You’ve got your own fertilizer growing under your feet! Nettles, comfrey, yellow dock, burdock, horsetail and chickweed make wonderful homemade fertilizer. There are several ways you can use them to make your own brew or to speed up your compost pile. If your weeds have not gone to flower you can dry them in the sun and chop them up to use as a mulch. They are high in nitrogen and won’t rob your plants of nutrients. Borage (star flower) is a herb. It has many of the same nutritional properties as comfrey.
MOLASSES – Using molasses in compost increases microbes and the beneficial bacteria that microbes feed on. If you want to start out with a simple recipe for molasses fertilizer, mix 1-3 tablespoons of molasses into a gallon of water. Water your plants with this concoction and watch them grow bigger and healthier.
HUMAN URINE – Sounds disgusting, but urine is considered sterile if the body it’s coming from is healthy and free of viruses and infection. High in nitrogen, urea contains more phosphorous and potassium than many of the fertilizers we buy at the store! If serving tomatoes that have been fertilized with pee gives you the “willies”, try it in the compost pile. A good ratio of urine to water would be 1:8. You can collect a cup of urine and pour it into 8 cups of water in a plastic bucket used outside for fertilizing plants. Pour 2 cups around the perimeter of each SMALL plant. For MEDIUM plants add 4 cups and LARGE plants deserve a good 6 cups of your personal home brew. Maybe we can put our animals to use by letting them relieve themselves by plants and then watering the yard!!
GRASS CLIPPINGS – Rich in nitrogen, grass breaks down over time and enhances the soil. Fill a 5 gallon bucket full of grass clippings. You can even add weeds! Weeds soak up nutrients from the soil just as much as grass. Add water to the top of the bucket and let sit for a day or two.
MANURE – With a little effort, you’ll find folks that are giving away composted chicken, horse or cow manure for free. Composted and aged manure is best. Add the composted manure to a small permeable bag made from recycled cloth, e.g., a t-shirt or old towel. Let it steep in the shade for a few days and apply it to your soil to condition it before planting. Bury or discard the used bag. Some people use manure tea to soak bare root roses!
CAT AND DOG FOOD – Depending on the dog food you recycle, this soil amendment may not be organic. However, even the cheap stuff contains protein and micro-nutrients that benefit the soil. To prepare a garden plot for planting, sprinkle dry pet food on the bed, turn the soil and water. Let it decay naturally. To discourage wildlife from visiting for a snack, cover with cardboard until the food decomposes. The cardboard will also trap moisture and discourage weeds. Make sure the cardboard gets wet all the way through and cover with mulch. Water thoroughly every week for four weeks. Soybean meal and alfalfa pellets from the grain store work great too. Sometimes grain stores will sell for cheap or give away spoiled grains. Check the feed for salt content and try not to add pet or animal food considered high in sodium. The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) recommends dry dog food contain a minimum of 3% sodium to support normal growth and development.
WORM CASTINGS or Vermicomposting – As an earthworm feeds on organic matter, it creates castings–small granular droppings–that are rich with nutrients plants need to thrive. A single earthworm produces its weight in castings each day. Kept indoors in a cool, dark place, a worm bin turns discarded kitchen scraps into castings that return essential nutrients to the soil.
Neem-The tropical tree called neem is an effective natural fertilizer. Boil a few leaves of neem in a water pot. Let the boiled water cool down, and then pour it into a spray bottle. Spray evenly on your garden once a week. It will nourish the soil and fight harmful insects, too.
Crop rotation is an ancient practice in which a specific plot is planted with successive different crops in order to replenish the nutrients of the soil. Some plants require more of a particular nutrient than others, while other plants return certain nutrients to the soil. Planting many successive crops of a single plant in a single location tends to result in depletion of specific nutrients in that plot of soil. By introducing plants with different needs into the area, depletion are not as severe, giving soil time to recover nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. In a simple crop rotation plan, nitrogen-loving plants, such as tomatoes, should be planted the year after legumes that return nitrogen to the soil. Plants that don’t consume many nutrients, like herbs and root vegetables, grow well when planted after “heavy feeders” like lettuces, according to “Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.”
Similar to crop rotation, planting cover crops–also called green manures–involves planting crops that will restore nutrients to the soil. Cover crops are planted during off-seasons, such as the winter or early spring, to return nutrients needed for spring and summer food crops and prevent nutrients from leaching from the soil. Legumes, like clover, are popular choices for winter cover crops up north, as they restore nutrients while also preventing soil erosion. Peas and beans may also be suitable winter cover crops in warmer places. Green mulches are another type of cover crop that are planted in the summer among the vegetable crop. In addition to keeping soil nutrients in balance, green mulches also suppress the growth of weeds.
I think it comes down to what are your concerns and how much time do you have? We use chemical fertilizers because we don’t have the time needed to put into making a homemade compost. Even though it’s rather easy to make a homemade compost, it still takes more time that going to the store to buy chemical fertilizer. Do you have animals and children on your grass or feeding off of your garden? Then the natural fertilizers are your way to go. To read more about he dangers of fertilizers and your family, especially children, go to www.allrescuedogs.com.