Organic Emily

Organic Fertilizers and the Health of Our Soil

Organic Fertilizers

The soil in our garden is an entirely different world then the one we live in.  Hopefully filled with micro-organisms actively moving and alive!  Recent work and research done by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a soil microbiologist, has found that the use of toxins, including chemical ferilizers actually harm the good microbes found with in the soil that help control the bad ones, including unwanted diseases.  We can liken it to the over use of antibiotics within our own bodies.  Many of these drugs as we know have been over prescribed and over used to the point now that we have to use stronger strains to kill off the “bad” bugs that live within our own systems when we get sick.  Unfortunately, we also kill the “good” bacteria too, leaving our system vulnerable to more problems if left unattended without a proper diet and efforts to put those “good” bugs back into the system.

Dr. Ingham’s work was recently discussed in one of my favorite books on soil called, “Teaming with Microbes”, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  What they found was that the chemical fertilizers actually killed off the microbes within the soil that protected the root systems of the plants and chased away the larger animals like lady beetles and praying mantis’ who keep the pests at bay.  It is possible to create an oasis so to speak for these beneficial microbes and insects to do all the fighting for us as mother nature intended, leaving us to simply enjoy gardening!  Let’s discuss some of those methods and a few organic fertilizers that help and not hinder the world of microbes.

Compost

One of the most important things we can do every year is to put down some type of good organic compost into the garden beds.  This serves a number of purposes.  Most compost is made up of small wood chips and animal manure.  There are also composts made strictly from plant sources as well like mushrooms, seaweed and alfalfa to name just  a few.  Worm castings (poop), chicken and horse manures are good options, all are high in nitrogen.  Cow manures can be used occasionally, but not often due to it’s higher levels of salts which can be toxic to the soil if over used.

  • First, the compost acts as a barrier keeping the weeds at bay.  Be sure to not plant directly in the compost because the plants need soil to grow.  The compost can be mixed in gently into the soil or moved to the side until the plant grows up enough to bring the compost back around it.  As a side not I highly recommend a fabulous documentary called “Back to Eden”, a film that can be viewed online for free at backtoedenfim.com.  It discusses the importance of using a no-till method and how this protects the micro-organisms in the soil.
  • Second, compost is full of large organic matter particles that allow for proper drainage and aeration, keeping the root system of our plants healthy.  This is particularly important here in Utah since we are very depleted in organic matter.  Most healthy soils should have about 5% organic matter, we typically have about 1% or less.
  • Third, compost is full of dense nutrients that are available to the good microbes who help to break them down turning them into food for plants!

Fish Emulsion 

Fish emulsion is an excellent non-burning plant food that comes from manufactured fish waste not used for processing.  If you don’t mind your yard smelling like the ocean for a day this can be a great option.  It is classified as an organic fertilizer because it is made from material naturally found in nature.  Long term use of fish emulsion can help improve the health and microbe complexity of soil.  It can be used for all garden beds including flower and vegetable.  It is higher in nitrogen than a lot of other organic fertilizers, up to five percent of its nitrogen is readily available, which gives plants a boost while soil microbes break down the rest.  Fish emulsion can be used every 3-4 weeks.

Blood and Bone Meal

Both blood and bone meal come from animals.  Blood meal is very high in nitrogen and should be used as directed.  Bone meal has been known to be a very good root stimulant.  It is very high in phosphorus and should also be used as directed.  I highly recommend getting your soil tested from your local extension office.  They can test your soil for nutrient count and tell you what you need and what you don’t.  This is important to know and understand because plants need different nutrients to do different things.  For example, nitrogen helps to increase leaf growth and phosphorus helps to increase flower/fruit production.  However a word of caution before just applying any fertilizer to your soil, our Utah soils are very high in phosphorus already, so not very much is needed.

Fertilizers with Beneficial Bacteria and Mycorrhizae 

There are some great organic fertilizers out there that contain beneficial soil microbes you can add to your soil for all garden beds.  For example, mycorrhizae is a beneficial form of fungi that can actually combat powdery mildew and other fungi problems.  Mycorrhizae will continue to grow year after year strengthening the soil.  They can come in powder, liquid and granulated forms.  I like a particular brand called “Garden Bloomers”  found at any local nursery.  What ever brand or source you choose be sure it’s something that won’t kill off the microbes in your soil.  A key concern with inorganic or synthetic fertilizers is that nutrients not immediately taken up by plants can cause pollution. Excess nitrogen fertilizer is a common cause for nitrate groundwater pollution. Phosphate fertilizer runoff can pollute streams, rivers and lakes by encouraging overgrowth and algae that deplete oxygen supplies and kill fish. While organic fertilizers can also cause pollution when used to excess, they are generally much safer to use because they release nutrients gradually, at a rate closer to plants’ need for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily Saddler

Emily is a Master Gardener, wife of a professional landscape contractor, Mom of 4 cute kids, Yoga instructor and very passionate advocate of organic home-grown food! Emily maintains a blog called “The Organic Suburban Farm Girl” where she shares gardening advice, delicious recipes made with fresh, organic ingredients and her escapades as the keeper of both backyard chickens and honeybees!

Comments

  1. Vatermann says:

    I’m going to have to watch that Back to Eden film, because I can’t see how a no-till method would work in high-clay soil like a lot of soil in Utah. It took me 8 years of yearly composting just to get the soil to the point where I can pull a week out of it without it breaking off.

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