I remember the first time I discovered the power of chemical fertilizer. I had been feeding plants here and there with worm tea, compost, coffee grounds, etc… and they generally did well. (NOTE: I wasn’t nearly the amateur soil scientist back then that I am now.)
There was this squash plant I’d put in a pot on my front porch, hoping it would climb up the wrought iron railings. It was looking sickly… and I found an old bag of 10-10-10 in the carport of the house I was renting… so I put a tablespoon or so in the pot and watered it.
A few days later, it turned deep green and starting growing like Jack’s beanstalk.
Whoa. Instant vines!
Chemical fertilizers definitely work wonders… but are they better than their organic counterparts?
Let’s put them in the ring and make them fight!
Round 1: In the Beginning Was Organic… and Then Came Science!
A long time ago, there were no “chemical” fertilizers as such. There was manure… animal carcasses… cover crops… ashes… nitrogen-fixing legumes… and that was about it. Before the tractor won the battle of Machine vs. Mule, most farms had lots of animals and lots of manure. This heady plant food was gathered and spread across fields, giving them plenty of long-term fuel for the growing season. Different crops were grown in different seasons and were turned into the soil after harvest. Sometimes various mined amendments were applied when farmers had access to them. Life was good, yields were decent and the soil did well at supporting crops year after year. “Organic” amendments were the reigning champion… because they had no competition.
In the 1800s, the brilliant chemist Justus von Leibig discovered that the main nutrient plants needed to grow was nitrogen. It was only a few short steps from there to realizing that a mix of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) provided the main building blocks for plant growth – and only a few steps further to creating those nutrients synthetically. Chemical fertilization was born. It didn’t take long to make inroads, especially since it meant you could grow crops in sub-par soil – and with much faster results and less work than using manure.
But… that’s enough background. Let’s talk about the differences between chemical and organic and why they matter in your garden.
Round 2: Organic Hits Back Hard!
When you go shopping for something to feed your plants, you quickly realize there are a lot of choices. Most of these revolve around various combinations of NPK. 6-6-6, 10-10-10 and 13-13-13 are considered “balanced” because they contain equal ratios of these macronutrients. The numbers are percentages and the rest of the bag is usually comprised of filler material, unless it specifically states that it contains magnesium, copper or other micronutrients. Scatter 10-10-10 around your garden and the results are rapid and hard to argue with… until you start looking into the details.
Over time, the application of just chemical fertilizers has some negative results. Soil life is damaged by its salt content… fillers may contain heavy metals and other toxins… and plants get used to the quick rush of fertilizer-induced growth and may not be as strong as their organic kin.
Sure – you can grow stuff in lousy soil with enough fertilizer – but the wide range of nutrients won’t be present… meaning the produce you put on your table will be less healthy than produce grown in rich soil with organic amendments.
In recent years, occasional studies have appeared trying to convince us that factory-farmed pesticide-laden and chemically fertilized produce is just as good as its organic equivalent. The truth, however, is in the tasting. One bite out of a homegrown organic strawberry or a potato from the backyard will convince you there’s more to healthy produce than corporate-funded studies that ignore the bland results of modern agriculture. You can taste good food – and further studies show organic feeding still maintains an edge on healthy produce.
Though you don’t have to go all hippie-freak in favor of organic amendments, there is one area in which they particularly shine: they feed the soil as much as they feed the plant. What the heck does that mean? It means that the roots, worms, fungi and millions of microorganisms that inhabit that dirt are more than the sum of their chemical parts. Compost is particularly useful in this regard.
If you analyze compost like we analyze fertilizers – based on an NPK ratio – it looks pretty sad. Depending on original ingredients and where you look for data, the stuff doesn’t usually crack 1-1-1. That’s pathetic, right? Why would you want that crummy stuff on your gardens? The reason: living organisms are a lot more complicated than three simple numbers. Compost contains micronutrients from a wide variety of sources (which might include banana peels, watermelon rinds, leaves, grass clippings, eggshells, ramen noodles, hair, potato chips, coffee grounds, toenail clippings, etc. etc. etc.), rather than just a mix of the top three plants need for life. Compost also conditions your soil, unlike chemical fertilizers, by giving it humus; that’s the persistent remains of organic matter that hold together and make the dirt fluffy and water-retentive. Though it doesn’t act like plant caffeine – like 10-10-10 would do – it feeds slowly and well while inoculating your soil with a wide variety of microorganisms that work together in an amazingly designed way to keep plants healthy. Compost also attracts earthworms to the garden. Chemical fertilizers burn and chase them away. Getting the picture? There’s more to plant life than NPK!
Beyond compost, there are other organic fertilizers that can kick your garden into high gear. Here are a few that work well:
1. Blood meal: This is dried blood from slaughterhouses. Friday the 13th stuff. It’s also nitrogen-rich and perfect for boosting needy plants like corn and leafy greens.
2. Bone meal: another meat industry by-product, bone meal is good for adding phosphorus. Phosphorus fosters healthy blooms and fruiting. It’s also got calcium, which is another much-needed nutrient, especially for tomatoes.
3. Fish emulsion: Put sardines in the blender and you’d get something that looks and smells like this stuff. It’s got an amazing aroma – but it’s also chock-full of nutrients that plants love. Are your plants lacking vigor? Mix some of this liquid into a watering can and dilute according to the manufacturer’s directions, then water away.
4. Kelp meal: Another product from the sea, kelp meal is packed with micronutrients, with some sources claiming it holds over sixty of the vitamins and micronutrients plants need. Throw this in your garden occasionally – or pick up seaweed at the shore, wash the salt off and add it to your compost – and you’ll reap the mineral-rich bounty of the ocean
5. Urine: Yep, you read that right. Did you realize urine has an NPK rating of roughly 15-1-2 which is comparable to commercial nitrogen fertilizers?(1) Unfortunately, depending on your diet, it can also be high in salt. Dilute at about a 6 to 1 ratio of water to urine, then apply to plants. Urine, except in rare cases of infection, is sterile upon exiting your body – unlike #2. Bonus: urine is FREE!
6. Cottonseed meal: This is a byproduct of the cotton industry. It’s another nitrogen-booster. I don’t use it because of the genetically modified nature of most cotton, but it does have a kick and is technically organic.
7. Manures: Manures are one of the best things to feed your garden; however, with the exception of goat and rabbit manure, they need some time to age before you can put them in the garden. Chicken manure, in particular, is really hot stuff. Mix it directly into the compost pile or only use it for light side-dressing on nitrogen-sucking crops like corn. I’d keep it away from salad greens, though, to avoid bacterial contamination of your food. Beyond the realm of poultry, cow manure is really great stuff for the garden, as is rabbit manure. Horse manure is also decent but can be filled with weeds since horses don’t have nearly the super-efficient digestive system of a cow. That might be another case where you’ll want to compost first.
Round 3: Chemical Ain’t Lookin’ Bad… and Organic Ain’t Lookin’ Perfect!
I mentioned manure above. However, many sources have now been contaminated with Aminopyralids and other long-term toxic herbicides. These poisons are sprayed on fields to control weeds, then ingested by animals, then excreted in manure… and even a few years later, that manure can destroy your garden. Trust me – I’ve been there. Unless you know that the farmer you’re getting manure from does not spray his fields or buy in hay from people that might, watch out! This stuff is nasty. If you have a choice between 10-10-10 and manure that might contain herbicides, go with the 10-10-10. Better to provide less nutrients than to poison your garden beds for years to come.
Organic fertilizers are the healthiest choice for your soil long-term, but they can also be labor intensive, expensive, and a pain to deal with in larger farm situations. Ever try to make enough compost for a large garden? Ouch. There’s never enough, unless you devote a lot of your garden to crops that make lots of biomass for the pile. In the case of growing things when the manure hits the fan, it’s better to have lower-quality fertilizer and something to eat… than to stick to your organic roots and starve. I know – I’ll get hate mail – but it’s true.
Another benefit of chemical fertilizer: large amounts can be stored in small spaces. Fill a shed with bags of high-grade fertilizer and you’ve got the equivalent of a barn filled with compost. Sure, it’s not that great for your land long term – but that Big Shed O’ Fertilizer might get you through to the other side of a collapse situation (or it might get you raided by the Feds. “It’s for corn, officer, I SWEAR!”)
On the other hand – organic doesn’t have to be expensive, as we’ve seen with the case of urine. If I was in a survival situation, I’d have everyone pee into jugs for the duration and we’d feed the ground that way. No waste – no cost. It’s not ideal, and it’s rather horrifying to the faint of heart, but it’s tried and true.
A Little Post-Fight Commentary
You have to fertilize your plants with something, whichever route you choose. Now is the time to learn what works and what doesn’t in your soil. Experiment. Stockpile when you can. I keep both chemical and organic fertilizers around, just in case, even though I grow almost all my produce organically. There may be a point where I have to farm a multiple-acre sub-par field to keep my family and friends fed – and I’ll be darned if there’s enough beer in the world to make the amount of fertilizer needed for a plot that size.
There’s plenty to think about when it comes to feeding your plants, so plan ahead now. There will be a time you need to feed yourself – and whether you go organic or chemical, you’ll need to feed your plants (and the soil) first, if you ever hope to create a sustainable food production plan.