It’s nice to have a bit of help in the garden. If your plants seem unenergetic or if their color is just this side of yellow, a good dose of plant food can be a plant life saver. If you chose the organic path, it doesn’t mean giving up on assistance in the form of fertilizer. The feeding processes aren’t the same. The outcome isn’t exact. But there are excellent, natural, plant food options.
When considering organic fertilizers there are several interesting things to think about. Organic results are longer lasting and, certainly, more natural. Because natural fertilizers are essentially organic matter, they work differently than inorganic fertilizers. Simply stated, organic fertilizers work with the soil to feed your plants. Synthetic fertilizers instantly feed your plants.
“Inorganic fertilizer is soluble in water and immediately available,” said George Silva, an educator with Michigan State University Extension, “Organic fertilizer has to decompose before the nutrients are available to plants.”
The speed of synthetic fertilizer can be a benefit at certain times, including seed starting and transplanting, but the quick action also has drawbacks. Because inorganic fertilizer is water soluble, it washes out of growing medium. Soluble fertilizers leach out and can contaminate ground water if used incorrectly. Organics aren’t soluble and stay in the ground. The quick availability of synthetics also increases the chance of burning your plants. Inorganic fertilizers don’t do anything to build natural soil fertility.
“Organic fertilizers make nutrients available all season long,” said Silva, “When you use organics you can expect to see long term benefits with a slow and controlled release.”
Organics are slower because they have to be broken down by soil microorganisms in order to feed plants. Organic fertilizer has to essentially decompose before the nutrients are available to plants. This process can take 2 to 6 weeks depending on many factors including soil temperature and moisture levels.
“As soil temperatures rise, microbial activity increases,” he said, “Microbes divide more quickly and can break down the organic matter more quickly.”
While organic fertilizers release nitrogen, potassium, potash and a slew of micronutrients to your plants, the most significant action is the activation of soil life.
“The biggest advantage is to stimulate the microbial activity in the soil,” said Silva, “Sources of organic nutrients are vital to building the microbial activity. As the microbial activity increases, the microbes are able to break down larger quantities of organic matter and make increasing amounts of nutrients available for your plants. “
It’s a circular and ongoing process. Organic matter feeds the soil then the soil feeds your plants. Organic fertilizers help grow the number of food producing critters in the soil which then increases the natural plant food present over time in your soil.
Organic fertilizers all work in similar ways with the soil. But you can tailor your choice of fertilizer to specific plants, soil type, or personal convictions.
From plant-based fertilizers to nitrogen rich fertilizers made of a variety of material from chicken feathers to fish by-products, there are multiple organic options. Cottonseed meal, seaweed and kelp emulsion, and alfalfa meal are plant based. Bone meal, blood meal, manures and fish emulsion are derived from animal products.
Cottonseed meal is a balanced fertilizer that’s excellent for plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders. It’s made from what is left of cotton seed after the oil has been pressed out. It may not be the purest organic option since many of our cotton crops and sprayed with pesticides. It tends to acidify the soil, so it’s perfect for use for acid loving plants like blueberries.
“Blood meal is high in nitrogen,” said Silva, “Place it under the soil near your plants since it can attract rodents. It’s good for crops with high nitrogen needs like tomatoes and corn. “
Silva said applying the right fertilizer to the right plant improves the outcome. Bone meal is excellent for flower beds, he said, especially used in fall. Bone meal has a huge effect on the blooms of clematis and roses.
“Kelp and seaweed are excellent sources rich in nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants. High in potassium,” he said. Micronutrients supplied by organic fertilizers are essential to growth and development of plants. They play a real part in photosynthesis, he said. Potassium is beneficial to the overall health of the plant and beneficial to root crops.
Silva suggests considering a combination of synthetic and organic fertilizers, relying heavily on organic matter for soil fertility improvement. He would use light synthetic fertilizers when starting seed and give a dose of synthetic fertilizer when transplanting plants into the garden. Give organic fertilizer at the same time so it has time to become available by the time your plants will need their next feeding.
Which ever method you choose, remember that more is not better. It is possible to harm your plants with too much organic additive. Be sure to follow label instructions.
“Organic fertilizers increase the biological productiveness of the soil,” said Silva, “Which increases the sustainability of the soil.”