The Great Fertilizer Controversy

Fertilizer is one of things that can divide a group of otherwise congenially gardeners into two distinct camps – for and against.  Knowing full well how crappy our Colorado soil really is, we all know we have to do something to support our soil.  That list of somethings could include:

  • Composting kitchen scraps and apply compost to garden
  • Applying aged chicken manure to garden soil
  • Mixing organic matter into soil
  • Sheet mulching with nitrogen rich leaves (think comfrey)
  • And last but not least, fertilizing

The controversy over fertilizer is contentious for a few reasons, and those reasons (though subtle) make or break the argument.  The big no-no in fertilizing in the organic gardening/backyard farming/permaculture world is chemical fertilizer.  Chemical fertilizer is fast, cheap, and effective.  So what’s the problem?  Chemical fertilizer does not help your soil in the long run, and may in fact damage your soil over time.  Additionally, chemical fertilizer is made from fossil fuels, so at their core they are unsustainable.

IMG_4408Organic fertilizer on the other hand can support the health of your soil, and can provide micro nutrients not otherwise attainable for your organic garden.  I have heard the argument that organic fertilizer is sustainable, but I don’t completely buy-in to that statement.  Bat guano, though renewable, may not be sustainable at the harvest rates currently being practiced.  Some of the other ingredients come from CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations), meaning there are deep ethical concerns there as well.  So while organic fertilizer can be a benefit to your garden, use commercial products sparingly.  You can make your own fertilizer from comfrey or chicken manure, though they tend to be not as well rounded as the product pictured above.  We’ll cover comfrey tea and composting chicken manure for homemade fertilizer in later posts.

IMG_4410I don’t use commercial fertilizer often (even organic), but once a year a shot of calcium and magnesium is a welcome addition to my garden – my tomatoes thank me for it.  The other nutrients (NPK) I can usually keep in the soil, but it is easier to drop all of the nutrients into the soil in a single shot.  The process of applying a powder based organic fertilizer is pretty straight forward – sprinkle the fertilizer around the plant, rake in with a hand rake, mulch, and water.

IMG_4412I tend to fertilize after hard or sustained rains, as the water can move nutrients away from the plants; a dose of organic fertilizer can help to replace the nutrients and keep them in the soil around the plants for the remainder of the summer.  Many fertilizer brands recommend using their product once a month, but I think that’s overkill.  If your soil is in good shape, monthly applications of fertilizer are probably a waste of time and money.  With the fertilizer down, I’ll water gently so I don’t inadvertently cause the nutrients to move significantly.  This application is the only one I’ll do this year; I handle my soil differently in the fall (more on that later).

I do recommend using fertilizer, but with several caveats.  Only use organic fertilizer, use the product sparingly, build your soil through compost, and supplement for nitrogen with cover crops, comfrey tea, and/or aged chicken manure.  Using a combination of methods will increase your soil’s tilth and nutrient profile, and ultimately is a more sustainable approach.

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6 Responses to The Great Fertilizer Controversy

  1. Barbie Heath-Kelley June 14, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    Great post! I just got 5 chickens and am looking forward to your future post on using aged chicken manure to boost my soil!
    Thanks, Barbie

    • Christine June 28, 2016 at 7:53 am #

      Chicken manure rocks our socks! It is the backbone of our organic gardens. More to come!

  2. Rob June 14, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    Thanks for everything that you do! You inspire me to try some new things every year. This year is adding an apiary, three hives later.. Your aquaculture has also inspired me to incorporate that into my homestead this year.

    • Christine June 28, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      That’s great to hear – change is not some big thing (usually), it’s a thousand small steps. 🙂

  3. Courtney June 15, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

    We use compost tea from our worms and llama poop from our neighbor. Best part about using llama poop is it can be used without aging and there is no smell.

    • Christine June 28, 2016 at 7:54 am #

      Ooh! Llama poop! You know you’re an organic gardener when you get excited about llama poop! It is such great stuff. When we raised meat rabbits we used all of our rabbit poop in our gardens – same thing, no smell and no need to age.

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