With the current explosion in popularity of home vegetable gardening, there is often a misconception that fertilizers are “bad.” True, when misused they can contribute to pollution, and even harm the plants they are supposed to help. When properly applied, however, fertilizer can be one key to a strong and healthy plant that is able to withstand drought, disease and pests far better than one that is not fertilized.
Feed The Soil, Not The Plant
This mantra of organic gardeners has led to a fantastic reversion to old ways of gardening that make use of compost, manure, mulch, cover crops and more. These strategies have helped to streamline gardening processes by turning garden waste into useful material which conserves soil nutrients. But there is no getting around the fact that when you harvest veggies, those nutrients have been removed and to that extent the soil is depleted. Unless you add nutrients back, your garden gradually becomes less productive.
Look on the label of a container of fertilizer, and you will notice three numbers (ie. 10-10-10) which stand for the percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) contained in the bag. These three major nutrients bear the heaviest burdens in plant growth, and are the soil elements most in need of replenishment on a regular basis for continued production. There are lots of other nutrients that plants need as well, and looking on the back you can generally see if there are others in your particular container.
Some of the benefits of using fertilizers include:
- Guaranteed analysis of nutrients contained in the fertilizer, this knowledge lets you use a proper proportion of the product for the particular plant you are growing.
- Fertilizer is “condensed” nutrients. Like your daily multivitamin, it provides essential elements that otherwise may be missing in the plant’s “diet”.
- After soil test results have arrived from your state’s Cooperative Extension Service, fertilizers give you the ability to apply exactly what your soil is lacking without adding anything unnecessary.
All Fertilizers Are Not The Same
Fertilizers work in different ways. Some release their nutrients as water dissolves them, such as many of the “super results” liquid fertilizers and “fast acting” granular types. Other fertilizers are regulated, to a degree, by temperature and only release their nutrients within a specific temperature range. There are also an increasing number of natural and organic fertilizers whose nutrients are released by biological action in the soil, similarly to the process of composting.
Which Type Is Best
I have a fondness for the last group, because it most closely fits the “feed the soil” strategy. These natural fertilizers have easily recognizable ingredients and actually do feed soil microbes which in turn feed the plants. Just as gardening is humanity’s way of condensing the plant world for our benefit, using these fertilizers condenses the soil building processes for our garden’s benefit.
Two of my go-to brands, E.B. Stone and Espoma, offer starter fertilizers that are intended for use in new plantings and garden preparation. They both contain a wide array of nutrients from natural and organic sources. Additionally, they both have incorporated beneficial microbes that assist with root establishment. This spring I will put them to the test in a head to head matchup in my vegetable garden for a variety of crops. In each instance, half of the crop will be planted using E.B. Stone’s Sure Start, the other half using Espoma’s BioTone. Comparisons will be posted throughout spring and summer, on the blog and on my Instagram account (mark_the_prudent_garden). Best of luck to both of my old friends!