Keep Your Garden Green and Growing with Organic Fertilizers
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
There is a wise old saying that has long been a favorite of mine: “The best fertilizer for the garden is the gardener’s shadow.” This implies that the presence of an attentive gardener ensures a garden’s success. I have always tried to be attentive to my garden’s needs but I know that there are times when a gardener needs to venture outdoors armed with more than good attentions. Sometimes you really do need fertilizers to keep things green and growing. Over time I have narrowed my list of fertilizers down to a chosen few that have proved just as valuable as my shadow.
In modern day mega-mart America, we have a tendency to think of fertilizers as heavily processed products that come in a bag, box, or bottle. However, this is a relatively new phenomenon. My father grew up on a wildly productive farm in the Midwest during the Great Depression. In his day, fertilizer was something you raked up in the barnyard. Even though my dad went on to become a chemist and spent his entire career working for one of the nation’s biggest petrochemical corporations, he has told me that nothing makes a better fertilizer than manure compost.
Compost is fertilizer. In addition to improving the structure and life of your soil, compost provides slow-release nitrogen and a host of other nutrients beneficial for your plants. Thousands of Central Texas gardeners make their own compost in backyard bins and swear to its effectiveness. You don’t even have to make a compost pile to benefit from composting. Most years I simply rake up the fall bounty of leaves and use them as mulch in the garden, skipping the compost pile altogether. Some folks refer to this as “sheet composting.” Mother Nature takes care of the composting process, breaking the leaves down in a matter of a few weeks.
For those short on time and leaves, compost is readily available commercially both in bulk and bagged form. Buying compost locally is like ordering at a restaurant with too many choices; it can be hard to decide which will work best for you. I have had great luck when I request single-source manure composts. Turkey or dairy cattle manures are both excellent. In addition, many area providers can mix supplemental materials into your compost, like screened granite, greensand, or agricultural molasses. Every year I top-dress my beds and lawn with fresh compost and I have been rewarded with spectacular results. This year, I intend to add compost tea to my fertilizer arsenal. Many local nurseries are now brewing aerobic compost teas that researchers are trumpeting as the true miracle-grow you have been looking for. Compost teas spayed onto the soil enrich and enliven it. Using compost teas once or twice a year may be all that many gardeners ever really need in the way of fertilizers once they have established their planting beds.
Aside from compost, what else is on my short list of my fertilizer favorites? Well, I have to admit to a bit of laziness. In years past, I used to mix my own special blend of liquid fertilizers to spray on my plants, a process called “foliar feeding.” Nowadays, I simply buy John’s Recipe Liquid Fertilizer, one of John Dromgoole’s Lady Bug Natural Brand fertilizers. John’s Recipe Liquid Fertilizer contains many of the items I used to buy individually and blend, including fish emulsion; liquid seaweed, and Medina Soil Activator. I find that this gentle organic blend helps promote the healthy growth of my trees, shrubs, and vegetables.
Liquid seaweed is still something that I buy separately because it supplies trace minerals and beneficial hormones that help plants recover from transplant shock and adapt to our tough Texas climate. I use a solution of liquid seaweed every time I water in a new plant.
The Lady Bug Lawn & Garden 8-2-4 blend is a granular fertilizer that is perfectly balanced for Texas turf grass. (The 8-2-4 formula refers to the product’s holy trinity of fertilizers: nitrogen, phosphorous and potash.) In trials and competitions, this organic contender has proved to be the most effective lawn grass food on the local market. I use this product on my lawn and around my younger trees and shrubs to encourage faster growth.
Finally, we come to the question of blooms. Years ago, when I wanted to encourage my roses or flowering annuals and perennials, I turned to a product that promised super blooms by including an insanely high proportion of phosphorous in its formula. (Phosphorous promotes healthy root growth and bloom production.) In recent years, however, we have learned that most Central Texas soils already have too much phosphorous. In fact, some area soils are said to be phosphorous poisoned. Reacting to this, I stopped using high-phosphorous fertilizers, including old organic favorites like bone meal. I am pleased to report that I have actually seen an increase in the amount of bloom production. I still use Medina Hasta-Gro fertilizer, an organic 6-12-6 blend, on my potted bloomers and occasionally on my veggies, but my theory now is that a gentle balanced organic fertilizer is all that is needed.
Gardeners are always looking for the latest and greatest treats for their plants and there are plenty more to list, from rock minerals to agricultural molasses. But if you want to keep things simple, ask your shadow to bring a one of my favorite fertilizers along the next time the two of you step out into the garden.
Return to Soul of the Garden Library