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Should I fertilize? I think that’s a question all gardeners ask at some point. We all want the biggest, best producing plants, and it seems like everyone says to get those plants, you have to fertilize. When you go to the store to buy the fertilizer, you find a wall full of fertilizers for all different purposes. It can be confusing to know what is in each fertilizer, let alone figure out which one is best for your garden. Here’s some information you may find helpful in determining if you should fertilize, and if so, what your best options are.
Question: Should I fertilize my garden?
Answer: Maybe. Maybe not. The first thing to do is to get a soil test. You can go to your local extension office or buy a simple test online. If your soil isn’t lacking nutrients, then there would be no reason to fertilize to try to replace those nutrients. Adding nutrients your soil doesn’t need is not beneficial to plants or to the environment.
If you want to make your soil nutrient rich and have some time to do it, add organic material. This can be compost, earthworm castings, or manure. The more of these things you add to your soil, the less you will have to worry about amending your soil with added fertilizers.
Question: What nutrients are in fertilizer?
Answer: There are usually three nutrients that you will add to your soil through fertilizers: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). When you see a fertilizer bag (synthetic or organic), you will see three numbers which correspond to the percentage of N, P, and K in the fertilizer. If you have a fertilizer that says 10-10-10, it means that it has 10% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorous, and 10% Potassium. If you have a 50 pound bag of fertilizer, in this example of 10-10-10, five pounds would be Nitrogen, five pounds Phosphorous, and five pounds Potassium. The rest of the bag of fertilizer would be made up of materials to help distribute the fertilizer evenly.
Synthetic fertilizers are made of chemicals and other inorganic compounds. Organic, or natural fertilizers are made of organic materials.
Question: What does each nutrient do for the plants?
Answer: Nitrogen helps plants grow green and leafy. Phosphorous helps plants build strong roots and flowers. Potassium is important for strong root development.
Question: Should I use a chemical or organic fertilizers?
Answer: It depends on what you are trying to accomplish in your garden. Generally, chemical fertilizers will have a higher percentage of each nutrient that is immediately available to the plants. Chemical fertilizers may work faster than organic amendments, but chemical fertilizers will not change or improve your soil as organic amendments will. Chemical fertilizers can end up burning your plants if you use too much, so you have to be careful. Chemicals can stay in the soil, get into the plants and run off into streams and lakes. This may not be what is best for the environment overall. There is also some research linking chemical fertilizers to health concerns.
Organic fertilizers are those such as bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, and the list goes on. These are naturally derived products that generally have a lower percentage of each nutrient readily available. These fertilizers break down more slowly than chemicals, so you have to have some patience while you wait for them to do their work. Once you add these amendments to the soil, they will improve your soil over time. You can add too much of a good thing, as with anything, but organic fertilizers are not going to burn your plants and won’t be as harmful to the environment as chemical fertilizers.
I personally only use organic fertilizers in my garden and try to add as few amendments as possible. For example, I took a simple soil test this spring and found that my soil was lacking Nitrogen. I added blood meal and manure to the garden, and my plants have been doing fantastic with that added Nitrogen, manure, and plenty of water. My personal philosophy is to keep it as natural as possible and only amend when needed. Adding anything unnecessary isn’t healthy for your soil or your plants, plus, it’s less work for you!
Let me know what amendments you add to your garden! For more tips on gardening, check out this post: 10 Tips for Beginning Gardeners.