Are you growing an organic garden? Have you ditched your synthetic fertilizer and now you’re wondering how in the world you’re going to keep the soil healthy for your plants? Soil and fertilizer are two major components in an organic garden. Growing an organic garden means taking back control over what goes into your plants and soil. The soil in your garden is going to determine how healthy your plants are. Organic garden soil is amended using natural fertilizers and materials that will add rich nutrients back into the soil. Synthetic and man-made fertilizers and amendments are not used in an organic garden. Let’s talk about how you can keep your garden soil full of nutrients and staying organic.
Soil is the base of your organic garden.
In a conventional garden, the focus usually ends up being the plants themselves. You won’t spend nearly as much time worrying about soil health and the health of the environment around the plant. Instead, you may notice that your plant seems low in a nutrient and then add fertilizer to the soil around the plant. This isn’t the most effective way to keep a healthy garden.
If you want to have a garden that is easy to care for and grows healthy, productive plants, then you’ll want to invest time in keeping the soil healthy. Healthy soil is the starting point with any garden, especially organic gardens. Plants get all their nutrients from the soil. If the nutrients aren’t there or aren’t in the right form, the plant will suffer.
There are also tons of microorganisms and underground interactions that help to keep the plant healthy. These organisms and interactions depend on healthy soil also. For example, did you know that some plants cannot absorb certain nutrients, like nitrogen, without the help of specialized molds that live around the roots? Keeping organisms like these molds healthy will help to keep your plants healthy.
Soil that is rich in nutrients, microorganisms and underground interactions will create the best growing environment for your vegetable plants.
Fertilizer in an Organic Garden
The term fertilizer refers to any material that is added to the soil with the intention of adding nutrients to the soil for plants to use. Fertilizers can be synthetic, or they can be natural. Fertilizers can contain one specific nutrient, or they can contain many nutrients. Organic fertilizers can last longer and have a broader nutrient profile than synthetic fertilizers.
If you’ve been using synthetic fertilizers and you’re not sure where to start, you can always simply switch to bagged organic fertilizers. Many companies that traditionally produced synthetic fertilizers now offer organic options also, making it simple to swap to organic.
One of the most common fertilizers used in organic gardens is compost. Compost can be bought or can be made at home. You can turn manure, leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, cardboard, and food scraps into a rich compost for your garden. Compost is often touted as ‘black gold’.
The benefits of using compost in your soil are also farther reaching than just improving the nutrient profile. Compost can fix clay soil, sandy soil, improve water retention, improve drainage and help prevent erosion. It’s literally a one-stop amendment for your soil.
You can also use animal manure, crop residues, earthworm castings, seaweed, bone meal or blood meal to fertilize your garden soil.
Animal manure is a wonderful amendment that you can add to your soil. It’s easy to find and is also relatively inexpensive. You may also luck out and find a free source of animal manure if you look around. Many horse barns, cattle or dairy farms, poultry farms or sheep and goat farms will sell manure very cheap or will even give it away if you come pick it up. If you can’t find a local source of manure around you, you can always buy bagged manure.
When using animal manure in the garden, it’s important to follow a couple of basic guidelines. First, animal manure can be ‘hot’. What is hot manure? Manure is a rich source of nutrients. In fact, it can be so rich that the manure can contain enough nutrients that may burn the roots of your plants. Because of this, it’s important that you used aged manure. Manure that has been decomposing for a few months is much safer and poses less of a burn risk to your plants.
Secondly, use the right form of animal manure. Use manure that is from herbivores only. This includes horses, cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas, rabbits and guinea pigs. Poultry manure is also safe to use. Never use manure from humans, dogs, cats or pigs. This manure contains bacteria that can get into the soil, onto plants and cause severe illness.
Organic fertilizer comes from natural sources. One of the best sources of nutrients for plants is other plants. The term ‘you are what you eat’ can be applied to your vegetable plants also. Many of the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive can be found in other plants. Adding crop residues to your garden will provide the nutrients that your plants need produce vegetables.
There are a few ways that you can add crop residues to your garden. You can always toss crop residues into your compost pile and allow them to break down. If you don’t compost or you want to skip that step, simply add crop residues to the soil. Straw is a popular crop residue that is used in the garden. Straw can be layered on the surface of the soil to act as a natural mulch. Over time, the straw will break down and turn into nutrients.
Many gardeners choose to plant cover crops in their garden beds in the fall. Cover crops can provide green manure, or residues that improve the soil. Legumes are a popular choice for this. Simply plant your garden with a cover crop like beans, peas, alfalfa, wheat or clover. Allow the crop to grow during the cooler months. Once the crop dies back or you’ve harvested what you want, simply till the crop remains into the soil. The crop remains will break down and release nutrients.
Worm castings are one of the richest fertilizers that you can buy. Worms live in the soil, consuming rotting materials. Their bodies break down the rotting matter and turn it into nutrient-rich waste. In fact, worm castings are so rich that just one tablespoon of worm castings has enough nutrients in it to feed a 6” potted plant for up to two months!
You can purchase worm castings to add to your soil. Worm castings are a natural way to add nutrients to your organic garden soil. You can also encourage earthworms to your garden to produce your own worm castings. Simply add compost to your soil or add compostable materials to your garden soil. Moist soil that is full of decomposing organic matter will attract earthworms to your soil.
Adding Meals to Your Garden
If you’ve scanned over organic fertilizers, you’ve probably noticed a few meals- bone meal, blood meal, seaweed meal, etc. These meals are often the by-products of processes used to make food or other products. These nutrient rich fertilizers can give your garden a boost of targeted nutrients.
Blood meal is made with the dried blood of animals that have been through packing plants. This dried blood usually comes from cattle, but it can come from pigs, poultry, sheep or goats also. Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen. It can also raise the pH of very acidic soils.
Bone meal, like blood meal, is made from animal bones that have been steamed or cooked and then processed into a fine powder. Bone meal contains a small amount of nitrogen and a larger amount of phosphorus. Bone meal is perfect fertilizer for plants that need to bloom, like tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers. Before using bone meal, make sure that the pH of the soil isn’t above 7, or else the bone meal won’t work.
If you’re not interested in using animal-based fertilizers like bone meal or blood meal, consider using seaweed or kelp meal. These meals are made from dehydrated and powdered seaweed or kelp. It’s an organic, plant-based meal that makes a wonderful soil amendment. Kelp meal is a very sustainable fertilizer since kelp can grow as much as three feet per day. These meals contain high levels of both micro and macro nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Keeping your organic garden’s soil healthy and full of nutrients doesn’t have to be complicated. Rest assured that there are plenty of options for keeping your soil full of nutrients for your plants. If you want to simply buy bagged organic fertilizer to add to your soil, check the shelves at your local garden supply center or here at Park Seed.
This post was written by Shelby DeVore, the founder of Farminence. Shelby is a passionate gardener with 20+ years of experience gardening and growing food at home. She currently lives in West Tennessee on a 14-acre homestead with her husband, three children and too many animals to list.