04 April 2011

Sciency Answers: Fertilizers: Organic, natural, conventional or... what?

Dave sent me a question -- asking about my thoughts on some specific natural fertilizers that had been recommended to him. So, today's sciency answer is a quick run down on different types of fertilizers.

There are tons of differents kinds of fertilizers -- conventional liquids and powders, and a seemingly endless array of different organic options.

The first thing to say is:
Your plants don't care.
A plant's roots absorb certain specific compounds from the soil. And the phosphorus they get from an organic fertilizer is identical in every respect to the phosphorus they get from a synthetic fertilizer.

Which isn't to say what you choose doesn't matter. How a fertilizer is produced has an environmental impact. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is produced by the Haver process, an effective but energy intensive method to convert the nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into forms of nitrogen plants can use. Phosphorus for conventional fertilizers are actually mined -- and minable phosphorous in the earth is a non-renewable resource, and at our current usage rates, we're predicted to run out in about 30 years (A nice article on the topic from Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2258112/entry/2258053/). In contrast, organic fertilizers like compost or manure let us recycle the nutrients we have. Though it is worth mentioning that shipping some sort of special organic fertilizers from across the country isn't going to be exactly carbon neutral either. Like very thing else, local is the best here.

The other big difference between different sorts of fertilizer is how concentrated and how "fast acting" they are. Highly concentrated fertilizers, like the genetic bag of 20-20-20 synthetic fertilizer OR the highly purified equivalent organic fertilizer bags, usually break down quickly in the soil releasing lots of nutrients in a rapid burst. This gives a satisfyingly rapid response from your plants, but also makes it much more likely you'll over fertilizer, potentially harming beneficial soil biology, and much increasing the risk of polluting fertilizer run off into ground water and wet lands. Most less concentrated fertilizers, like compost, don't release nutrients right away. Rather, soil microbes have to further decompose the compost to actually break down the nutrients in it to the forms plants can uptake. The result is a much slower response from the plant, with fertility that stays more constant, and much less chances for overfertilizing and polluting run-off.

The final benefit of using things like compost as a source of fertility is that they provides food for a whole host of soil organisms, creating a healthier, richer soil that retains water better, promotes healthy root growth, and allows plants to better utilize the nutrients that are already there.

So, in short: Highly concentrated, fast-acting fertilizers (organic OR synthetic) can give you impressive, quick results, but don't do anything for your soil, and can easily lead to polluting run-off. Less concentrated, slow-release fertilizers, like compost, take time to show results, but produce healthier soils that can grow great plants consistently over time. So in general, I am skeptical of any special fertilizer. Organic or not, the basic chemicals of fertilizers are all the same, and anything that will show results over night is probably not great for your garden in the long term. In the end, the basic standards, just local compost and mulch, are the simpliest, easiest, and best.

5 comments:

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Great blog post!
It's been said before but never so clearly.
Thanks

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

Great summary and guidance, Joseph.

Tom said...

I just thought I'd say that I love these. I feel like I always end up learning more than I did in class. I guess it helps when you say in one short entry what my professors would take 1 semester to say.

Greensparrow said...

Thanks for the kind words, Allan Xris and Tom! I'm glad you liked it.

Leslie said...

Another consideration: I recently learned how much many gardeners OVER-fertilize, resulting in toxic levels of salt (especially in low-rainfall areas), as well as 200% or more of the P and K needed by our veggies. A soil test can determine just what amendments and fertilizers are needed for your garden, and how much to apply. It's well worth the investment.