Organic vs. Conventional
Why should you care if your applying fertilizer that’s organic or conventional? Nitrogen is nitrogen, after all, right? The short answer is yes, however in life, things are rarely ever that cut and dry. Plants all look and use ammonium NH4+ the same way, no matter what. The only real question is your feeling on social responsibility towards the environment!
Plant-available forms of nitrogen of any form have advantages and disadvantages. The conventional method of creating these fertilizers tends to use large amounts of fossil fuels, which is unhealthy for our climate due to CO2 emissions. Organic fertilizer takes longer to produce but also requires far fewer fossil fuels to produce.
Large amounts of nitrogen in any form can be harmful to the environment, but conventional fertilizers do more damage to our natural systems than organic forms. The reason conventional fertilizers do more damage is the method of distribution. The ready-to-use nitrogen is placed into the field when the plants are only capable of using a fraction. The excess evaporates or runs off into the surface waters disrupting the natural stability of nature. Organic fertilizers come in larger particles that break down and slowly release the nitrogen into the soil, making more of it usable by the plant and leaving less to run into the surface water.
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on organic fertilizers, as this is what I use. The methods for buying fertilizers are the same for both organic and conventional fertilizers. As explained before, there are micro and macro fertilizers that focus primarily on certain nutrients.
Macronutrient fertilizers contain a label with three numbers that represent the N-P-K makeup of the product. On a label for fertilizer showing a 5-2-4 on the front, the 5 designates nitrogen, 2 represents phosphorous and the 4 for potassium. Meaning that in 100 lbs of the product, 5% is nitrogen, 2% is phosphorous, and 4% is potassium. The last 89% will consist of mainly carbon and various small amounts of micronutrients.
You’ve likely also noticed that your plants also require large amounts of calcium, magnesium, and sulphur. You’ll see that few if any of the fertilizers will list them as main ingredients. Unlike nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, these nutrients are much more common in your soil. You can find C-M-S fertilizers as they’re vital for things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons. However, most fertilizers rely on the N-P-K system for leaf and root growth.
Beginner gardeners would do well to start by picking up a 20kg bag of all-purpose fertilizer with a balanced N-P-K rating around 4-6-4. If you’re trying to stick to organic gardening, try to avoid any fertilizer where the numbers add up to more than 15 or any single number higher than 8. These usually indicate a conventional fertilizer with very few exceptions. I also suggest some C-M-S fertilizer if you intend to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, or melons. Speak to an associate at your local garden center for advice.
There are three main ways of applying fertilizer to your crops, and I will touch on each of them briefly. Always wear the proper PPE and read all safety data before using your products.
When prepping your soil, scatter your fertilizer over the bed before digging into the garden. Doing this mixes the fertilizer into the dirt for the roots of your plants to use. The amount of fertilizer you spread will depend on the strength. Read your package for the recommended application rates. If not mentioned, use the 20:1 method, meaning every 20 sqft, use 1 lb of fertilizer. If you only intend to fertilize one way, this is the way to do it.
Plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and melons will do better with more fertilizer than they will receive from the scattering method alone. When transplanting these items, dig your hole, add some fertilizer to the bottom and mix it into the soil and transplant like normal. The extra nutrients at the base of the roots will promote rapid growth and a more hearty overall plant.
Broccoli, cauliflower, and onions benefit from the scatter method but are often too young to use the fertilizer right away. Wait until these types of plants are half-grown and use the scatter method on them again for a boost.
Hopefully, this guide on picking, buying & applying fertilizer will give your garden the boost it needs to be an excellent producer for you this year. If anything in this article was confusing, you may benefit from reading our introduction to fertilizers found HERE. Happy Gardening!
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