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NATURAL GARDENING WITH
ORGANIC FERTILIZERS

Compost--The Incredible, Edible Fertilizer

When it comes to creating your own supply of organic fertilizer, every household should have a compost pile. Collecting decomposing plant-based kitchen waste and garden refuse makes a perfect, easy-to-use soil builder. Whether your compost pile consists of a small metal garbage pail with holes nailed in the sides for circulation, or a full-fledged chicken-wired pile or two, what you throw away can help you fuel your garden throughout the season and recycle at the same time.

The goal of designing your compost pile is to provide an ideal environment for decay-causing bacteria to do what they do best-turn plant material into food. There are a few rules of thumb to fertilizing with compost. Add large, bulky plant material to your compost pile in the fall so it can break down over the winter. In Spring, filter larger chunks of compost through a mesh screen to break it down even more into smaller, readily-accessible bits for growing-season use. Layer 1-1/4 inches of finished compost on the plot and dig it in.

Too much or too bulky compost can be a bad thing. It's vital to let the compost break down completely before adding it to your garden soil. This is especially important for clay soils, since wet clay and straw make great adobe bricks. Moisture and heat speed up compost decomposition; therefore sunny dry garden areas will need more compost added more often than shaded, moist sites.

Let Them Eat Veggies

The main course in the compost bin is large quantities of fibrous vegetable matter. Proportion is important. Tough plant products like corn cobs take longer to break down and keep soil bacteria too busy to make nitrogen for our food. But fibrous and fresh by-products, like grass clippings or fruit pulp, can either be added to soil in the fall, or composted. Basically, any plant material is welcome in the compost pile, just try to keep the proportion of ingredients equal between the dry materials (leaves, straw), green materials (grass clippings, kitchen waste), and bulk fiber (such as cottonseed meal, corncob meal, bean shells, and fruit skins or pressings). Only a fellow gardener will share the glee I felt when a coffee shop went up nearby. I pictured luscious buckets of used coffee grounds, complete with paper filters, filling out the soil banquet.

Some organic gardeners will tell you to avoid cottonseed meal because cotton, a non-food crop, is sprayed with particularly potent pesticides and herbicides in the fields. With the evolution of organically grown cotton, however, organic cottonseed meal can be found with some effort.

Alfalfa pellets are another good vegetable fertilizer (conveniently disguised as packaged animal feed) and can be used in your plot. Purported to contain a growth hormone, it digs into soil quite nicely. Soak pelleted alfalfa before adding it to the soil, and if you have extra, you can always give it to your goats.

Dress up Your Soil with a Cover Crop

In addition to growing vegetables in unnatural places and spaces, we also stress the soil by leaving it barren during parts of the year. It's not a comfortable place for animal organisms like worms and other beneficial insects to live, so they move on to greener fields. The most nutrient-rich way to cover the soil in off seasons is to plant cover crops. A cover crop is a living hat for the soil. Vegetation grown specifically to be dug right back into the soil provides a good place for continued chemical activity while it's growing, and almost instant food after it has been dug in.

In small garden areas, a mixed cover crop suited to your growing zone is the best choice. A variety of peas, beans, vetches, and grasses planted together ensures that if one type fails, another steps forward to fill the gap.

A cover crop needs to be started early enough in the fall so the roots bind the soil in place and the crop has time to develop before cold or drier weather. Let it grow until early spring, dig it into the soil, and wait before planting vegetables. The younger and less fibrous the plants, the less time is required before digging-in and planting, but two weeks is about right. If planting follows the digging-in of cover crops too quickly, soil bacteria hold back the nitrogen and oxygen which vegetables need to grow.

With a Little Bit of Rock

Compost and alfalfa help add nitrogen, the most essential plant nutrient, to your soil. There are two other main sources of nutrition though: phosphate and potassium. These minerals are added to the soil in the form of finely ground rock.

The role of phosphorus isn't fully understood, but a lack of it may cause stunted growth and infertile seeds. Rock phosphate occurs naturally in the ground, or it can be added as a ground phosphate rock supplement, or plant derivatives that contain phosphorus in a readily available form. Cocoa waste, cottonseed meal, and wood ashes (not coal ashes) contain some phosphorus, but when high levels of organic matter are present in the soil, phosphorus deficiency is unlikely. But if your soil test clearly calls for it, add finely ground hard phosphate rock or colloidal (soft) phosphate rock, which is a by-product of hard rock phosphate.

The mineral potassium is called "potash" when it's used as a soil fertilizer. It assures strong stems and helps form plant proteins. Finding an organic alternative presents a challenge. Some organic gardeners accept muriate of potash as natural, while others feel strongly that the chlorine in it is harmful. But most agree that potash should be added only if the soil test clearly calls for it as organic matter provides the soil with this mineral, too.

Mineral potash fertilizers, such as granite dust, greensand and small amounts of sulfate of potash are absorbed slower and are preferable to potassium nitrate (a naturally occurring element otherwise known as saltpeter). If you really do need to supplement, add wood ashes, seaweed meal, cottonseed meal, hay, and leaves for short-term use, and then add rock minerals for the long run.

Topping Off the Crop

The vegetables are up, they're growing fine, bright and shiny, and filled with gusto. There's every evidence the great soil feast has paid off. It would seem all you need is a basket and a sun hat as you harvest the abundant crops. This isn't so. Additional fertilizer snacks are called for as the growing plants deplete the soil around them. Here's where mid-season fertilizers, composed of finely processed plant materials and minerals, come in. Sprinkle mid-season fertilizers beside the growing plant, or scratch them into the soil surface. The formulas are often engineered specifically for certain crops, such as tomatoes, corn, or vine crops, with additional nutrients to address distinct nutritional needs. Again, balance is important; follow the directions and make sure mid-season applications are water-soluble and quickly available to the plant.

Unfortunately, most mid-season fertilizers are sold as non-organic chemical salts, but several mail-order suppliers do sell corresponding organic versions. Since organic fertilizers won't burn the plant, locating them is worth the extra effort. Organic foliar fertilizers, sprayed directly onto the leaves, give another important helping hand. They can be used along with powdered fertilizers, or as the sole supplemental fertilizer during the growing season. Sprayed directly on the vegetables, they are immediately available for use. A prime ingredient of organic liquid feeders is kelp or seaweed. High in trace minerals, they share micronutrients and growth hormones when plants need them most. Apply when plants are particularly stressed by pests or drought, and at the onset of natural growing cycles of setting and ripening fruit. A well-fed plant fights off environmental stress and resists pests. Don your best hospitality garb and get ready for plenty of entertaining. You've got a garden to take care of, after all.

Written by: Catherine Fenner

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