What Should I Do?

Phil Williams

Using Garden Fertilizers

The basics for improved growing conditions
Monday, April 20, 2015, 7:53 AM

If you are growing an annual vegetable garden, having sufficient fertility is of paramount importance. Most people know that plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow. These elements are represented on fertilizer bags everywhere in percentage terms by the three numbers prominently displayed. For example a 24-18-12 fertilizer has 24% nitrogen, 18% phosphorus, and 12 percent potassium. This is also an example of a chemical fertilizer.

This I can tell simply because the percentages are too high for an organic fertilizer. An organic fertilizer rarely has more than a single digit percentage of any of the NPK ratio. There are also secondary elements and micronutrients that are often overlooked but still vital. For example, if you have a calcium deficiency you can apply all the NPK you want, but the plant will not be able to use it.

Keyhole Garden

What Plants Crave:

(These are the basics, but there are many more micronutrients needed)

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Sulfur (S)
  • Boron (B)
  • Chlorine (CI)
  • Copper (Cu)

The key to good fertility is diversity. There are many different techniques, manures, composts, and fertilizers to consider.

Crop Rotation:

If you rotate your crops, you will have less nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Also, using heavy amounts of nitrogen fixing crops will boost fertility in depleted soil. (Peas, beans)

Manures:

Composted manures are a fantastic way to build fertility in the garden. Cow, pig, rabbit, chicken, and horse manures are most common. It is important to compost the manures before adding to your garden, because of the possibility of pathogens, weed seeds, and burning plants. Having said that, rabbit pellets do not burn plants, and I have applied “hot” un-composted chicken manure in the late fall after the garden was finished without issue. I have also applied chicken manure during the season in fallow areas, with a layer of mulch to cover.

Manures can be very nutritious for your plants or they can be lacking vital nutrients. It really depends on the nutrition of the animal that the manure comes from. Ideally, your manures come from your own animals that have a nutritious varied diet free of chemicals. If you import manures, it is important to know what the animals were fed.

Composts:

I prefer composts to manures, because it is has more ingredients, and is safer to apply. Manures are often an important component of compost, but it is usually mixed with other materials such as straw, leaves, grass, vegetable scraps, and wood chips. The variety of sources helps to insure that you are less likely to be missing valuable elements.

Compost Teas:

Fertilizing your plants with compost teas directly on the leaves of the plant can yield tremendous quick results. This can be a great addition to traditional compost, manures, and fertilizers. Compost teas improve growth by providing beneficial organisms that repel pests and improve nutrient retention in the soil. Teas also help to build soil life and improve biodiversity.

Compost (Sheet Mulch)

Mulches:

Wood mulch, leaf, straw, & living mulches such as nitrogen fixing clover add fertility to the soil, and protect soil life. It is vital to protect soil with a mulch of some kind.

Organic Fertilizer to be mixed

Organic Fertilizers:

Steve Solomon in Gardening when it Counts makes an excellent case for using what he calls a complete organic fertilizer. He describes a situation where he and his family were getting most of their nutrition from their garden. They ended up with some health problems relating to missing nutrients in his soil that ended up being deficient in the food they were eating.

He also describes a neighbor’s family with health problems that uses only horse manure in his garden for fertility. This would probably never be noticed by most people, because most people don’t get the majority of their food out of their backyard. This struck a chord with me, because every year Denise and I get more and more calories out of our garden.

He swears by his complete organic fertilizer. He claims that your plants will grow like gangbusters, and the food will be highly nutritious and delicious. The recipe is as follows:

3 parts seed meal (flaxseed meal, alfalfa meal, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, rapeseed meal etc…) Please be aware that many seed meals do contain GMO’s. I would recommend an organic alfalfa meal.

  • 1 part blood and bone meal
  • 1 part lime
  • 1 part bone meal or kelpmeal

*** Out of fairness to the author, I won’t give out all the specifics, and the rates of application. I don’t agree with some of the author’s practices such as tilling and not using mulch, but it’s still a good book. So if you want all the specifics, buy the book.

Chemical Fertilizers:

Chemical fertilizers give the highest amount of NPK for the price, but that fertility is typically available very quickly and adds salts to the soil negatively affecting soil life. There are coatings now that fertilizer manufacturers add to slow the release down, but they still can’t fool the soil life. I would highly recommend avoiding these fertilizers, especially since there are so many other good options.

The Bottom Line

In the past my plan has been to make extensive use of chicken manure, living clover mulches, some straw and wood mulch, and compost to take care of my fertility. The only problem has been the cost and labor to apply said compost and mulch. Now that my clover living mulch is taking over, I am going to try the complete organic fertilizer. I would also like to start making a compost tea with a worm bin. I will still use chicken manure as well. In the future, I will continue to try other methods to further explore what works best for my site. I think the key to having good fertility is a diversity of materials and methods.

Reference: Steve Solomon, Gardening when it Counts

~ Phil Williams

Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com.  His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.

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10 Comments

laceration's picture
laceration
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 20 2015
Posts: 2
This article neglected to

This article neglected to mention the easiest, best and cheapest way to fertilize your garden. And you have plenty of it! I have verified that it contains just about all the nutrients in the article and in the proper ratios.  I suspect that it includes all of them, but I couldn't verify that from internet searches.

This is your own urine!  Dilute at around 8:1.  It is hardly even noxious when diluted too.  If you are on Pharmaceuticals, you may have to figure this out.  I am not, so I haven't.  When you see how good it works you will be wondering why you just flush this golden liquid.  The solution to that is to pee into straw bales.  Do it for several months, until it is saturated.  Then compost along with your other compost materials.  Surprisingly odor emanating from this is not a problem.

Jbarney's picture
Jbarney
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 25 2010
Posts: 233
Urine in Compost

If the idea sounds strange to anyone, just remember that many people use cow manure as part of their efforts to fertilize the soil.  Urine in compost does work.

Quercus bicolor's picture
Quercus bicolor
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 19 2008
Posts: 470
more on urine

Yes, pee in your compost pile!

Urine with wood ash soaked in it and then diluted about 10-1 makes a great fertilizer with quickly available soluble nutrients.   Nitrogen and phosphorus from the urine.  Phosphorus, potassium, calcium and other minerals in the ash.  I strain out the ash and use it on transplants and seedlings.  I learned the technique on this site about a year ago.  I'm sure someone could find it with a search.

David Huang's picture
David Huang
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Joined: Jan 20 2010
Posts: 77
Another book by Steve Solomon

I recently got what I believe is Steve Solomon's latest book, "The Intelligent Gardener" (copyright 2013).  In it he takes his complete organic fertilizer a step further by covering how to develop a fertilizer tailored to your specific soil needs.  The overall goal being to get the various nutrients in balance with each other, reducing excesses and eliminating deficiencies.  He covers how to interpret a Mehlich III soil analysis to figure this all out.

I just got my analysis back from the lab this week and worked it out for my soil yesterday.  I'm hopeful this will greatly help out my gardening efforts, which to put is nicely have met with substandard results so far.  Hopefully I can fix my soil and not just start growing reasonable amounts of food, but start growing high quality nutrient dense food!

Christopher H's picture
Christopher H
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 29 2009
Posts: 148
Yellow Gold

I'd never thought of or heard of soaking wood ash in urine before.  It also makes sense from a pH standpoint, as the acidity of the urine would probably help to counteract the base pH of the wood ash.

I sifted out and crushed most of the charcoal that I got from my woodstove this winter, and mixed that in with my compost as biochar.  But one thing I didn't take into account (and hope doesn't come back to bite me this year) is that the biochar needs to be charged with nutrient, and if it isn't it might pull it from other places (like soil).  I read of Albert Bates -- one of the foremost authorities on biochar out there -- keeping his in a vessel that he peed into, charging the biochar with all the nutrients from his urine.  I think I'm going to try that this coming year and see what results I get.

Phil Williams's picture
Phil Williams
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 14 2009
Posts: 345
Urine as Fertilizer

I agree with using diluted urine as fertilizer. I keep a watering can in my greenhouse specifically for urine. I get free fertilizer and also save the time of going inside to use the bathroom. I don't think it is a panacea though.

Even if I used every bit of my urine in the garden, it still would not be enough for my garden, and certainly not enough to include my food forests. There is also the practicality of it. I would be willing to bet there are VERY few gardeners that put ALL their urine in the garden. Are you going to pee in a bucket in your house and haul it out to the garden everyday? For those of you that do, I really do commend you.

 

laceration's picture
laceration
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Joined: Apr 20 2015
Posts: 2
Phil, my garden is not a

Phil, my garden is not a little modest little backyard garden.  It is enough to supply all of my vegetables + give away and trade plenty.  I am also getting there with fruit.  My only fertilizer is as I described and it easily is enough.  Every full grown person can produce 5 to 10 gallons a day and nothing needs to be fertilized more than every few weeks. A garden or other food growing operation can be fertilized by less people than it can feed.  It is a beautiful sustainable thing.  I also compost and judiciously grow nitrogen fixers.  This method is not practical for larger, commercial operations.  Because of that and other reasons, I think the economies of scale for food growing is an inverse equation!  I pee in the beautiful outdoors into straw bales that I compost, 100% of the time, when I am not saving it for fertilizer.  Peeing in bathrooms is like being in prison.

green_achers's picture
green_achers
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 3 2009
Posts: 205
Volume

Every full grown person can produce 5 to 10 gallons a day

As a kidney stone survivor, I was told to drink lots of water.  How much?  Well, it's not a matter of how much goes in, it's a matter of how much comes out.  I was told to make sure I produce 2 liters a day.  I think the most I ever produced was about three.  So I highly doubt those numbers.

That being said, 2 liters a day is enough to do a lot of fertilizing.  When I started monitoring my "volume" every day, no one told me how to do that.  Well, let's see, I could whiz into a graduated cylinder every time, record the volume, clean the cylinder, and add up the total at the end of the day, but that would be silly.  Or I could whiz into a 2-liter container (I actually use 2-quart juice bottles, but close enough) and see if I fill it.

But then I'm left with a couple of quarts of strong fertilizer every day.  What, oh what, to do?

Well, I grow vegetables for the market, and I definitely DO NOT use it on my produce.  Not that it would really be dangerous, but I would never let there be a ANY HINT of such use due to the ick factor in the general public.  So I toss the stuff on any of the grassy areas on the farm.  I grow very lush grass.  Then, when I cut the grass, it gets raked up and put in any of many compost heaps.  My heaps get very hot, and I make very good compost.

In the winter, when no grass is growing, and I am working with a lot of high-carbon material, I will add it directly to the heap.  I have been known to have a 140 F heap made of nothing but tree leaves with the air temp in the teens.

Edited to add:  So, in conclusion, I think there is utterly no need for, and I can't think of a less sustainable way to garden than, to use any of the store-bought, industrial fertilizers in the original article above, whether fancy "organic" mixes or toxic chemicals.  Just don't waste your money.

epicbud's picture
epicbud
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: May 21 2015
Posts: 1
green_achers wrote:Every
green_achers wrote:

Every full grown person can produce 5 to 10 gallons a day

As a kidney stone survivor, I was told to drink lots of water.  How much?  Well, it's not a matter of how much goes in, it's a matter of how much comes out.  I was told to make sure I produce 2 liters a day.  I think the most I ever produced was about three.  So I highly doubt those numbers.

 

 

 

He/she meant 5 to 10 gallons of fertilizer, not pure urine. As urine is being diluted with water at about 1 : 10 ratio (urine to water). 

Phil Williams's picture
Phil Williams
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 14 2009
Posts: 345
I stand corrected

I always figured that unless we were also composting our own manure we couldn't get close to supplying enough fertilizer to be self-sufficient, but I was wrong. I found an article that said the following:  

The scientists concluded not only that urine could replace quick-acting mineral fertilizers, but also calculated that one Northern European adult pees enough plant nutrients to grow 50 to 100 percent of the food requirement for another person. Other successful trials have taken place in China and Mexico, though none as detailed as the Swedish one.

The big issue remains how to harvest the urine and apply it efficiently. It would be nice for it to go directly from a urinal to a tank or to a drip irrigation system for fertigation. I will have to think about this some more. 

 

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