As the early growing season seems to be winding down and the mid-late season plants seem to be making their full debut into the garden as mature adults or prepubescent teens it may seem like time to start thinking about the fall. If you go to your local hardware or conventional plant nursery, they will recommend that after harvesting your early spring greens/plants that it may be beneficial to add some type of fertilizer or “plant food” to your garden for the mid-late season plants. I am here to tell you why you shouldn’t buy it from them.
Now hear me out, fertilizer does work and it comes in different varieties. There is even organic fertilizer. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that one must add fertilizer to have a good harvest. People have been growing many of the same crops that we grow today without the use of modern fertilizers so it is 100% possible to do and feed yourself and family. A lot of the practices currently used today in conventional gardening are just smaller scaled implementations of modern large scale conventional agriculture.
Modern conventional agriculture is overly reliant on inorganic fertilizer for good yields due to poor farming methods in regards to tilling and overall poor land management. The reason behind this codependency of fertilizer is due to a cyclical loop of removing the organic, rich, topsoil layer due to poor tilling and various types of erosion due to some farmers leaving the soil bare in the fall and winter months. They then rely on inorganic fertilizers to make up for the lack of natural soil fertility that the land once held. The nitrogen content in some of these fertilizers is too high and causes beneficial nitrogen fixing bacteria and fungi to die in the soil, as well as leaching into various watersheds leading to blue green algae blooms and “dead zones” within various parts of the Gulf of Mexico due to low oxygen content.
In order to share my hate for store bought fertilizers, I will give you the five things you can do to naturally replenish the soil and build up organic matter over time rather than till it year after year. The five methods I mention are things such as composting, using worm castings, cover crops/crop rotation, manure, and making use of food scraps from other living creatures. I hope to teach you different ways of “feeding” your plants in the garden and lawn.
Everyone was expecting this to be number one on my list, because it is a crucial asset to many gardeners. Compost is essentially a free way of gaining new nutrients from what would otherwise be thrown away in the dumpster (things like tree leaves in the fall and vegetable kitchen scraps). Some of the common yard waste items are very nutrient rich when broken down, allowing for a more natural way to “fertilize the garden”. Using compost also promotes more insect and annelid (worm) biodiversity in your garden as it creates loamy habitat and food resources available in a cool, wet environment. This also benefits the local bird population or your chicken flock if you let them roam around to peck and scratch at your compost piles for bugs and other food scraps.
Mulch is a good way to add fertilizer to your garden beds over time, though this isn’t as direct as finished compost. Mulch can be anything from wood chips, straw, pine needles, and shredded cardboard and even shredded paper. Mulch not only does a great job at retaining moisture in the dirt within your garden beds, but overtime will actually breakdown in to a nutrient rich product for your plants called humus. This adds even more available minerals and resource into your garden over time naturally.
2. Worm Castings
Frequent visitors of compost piles are worms if you keep them watered well. Worms are great at breaking down excess food scraps and carbon, while creating great, rich soil for us to use and appreciate. Every compost pile has some degree of worm casings (also known as black gold). Some people even create whole set ups and styles of composting with worms, just for the added benefit and reaction of growing your own worm casings from nothing more than a few kitchen scraps and shredded cardboard/paper.
Worms are an essential and underutilized creature in the garden. They are one of the main players in understanding why the soil is so rich and aerated. The more moist decaying organic matter that your garden has, the more worms and fertility that you will gain for next season; there is a direct correlation to the two. If you tend to find a lot of worms in your compost and soil you are probably doing a good job at building your soil health and fertility.
3. Cover Crops/Crop Rotation
One thing that many gardeners and farmers do to help regenerate the amount of organic matter and nitrogen lost from the previous season is use cover crops (typically a plant from a clover family, legume family, or are a grain like wheat or rye). The reason that cover crops are so useful is because they allow you to not have to import and move extra compost on the soil to create a new growing season worth of fertility.
Typically these are planted in the end of the season in late fall and early winter. Ideally, one uses a mix of these cover plants in their garden after the season as to create a good mix of diversity and diversify the amount of functionality and resource availability. A lot of these plants have long roots which hold onto the soil (preventing wind erosion) and are later reincorporated into the soil for added organic matter for the next season.
If you pair this with crop rotation, you will greatly increase the success of your garden and potentially reduce the amount of pests. Crop rotation is when you don’t plant the same type or family of plant in the same location(s) and instead decide to plant another type or family of plant that requires a different niche of minerals or produces their own fertilizer as seen with the legume family. I personally do this when planting plants that tend to require a lot of fertilizer such as potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes (anything in the nightshade family pretty much) and end up planting some type of bean in the spot where I planted them last year.
Manure is another common way that you can increase the organic matter and fertility in your garden. A lot of manure isn’t ready to be directly applied to the garden, despite what many think. This is due to the risk of contamination from the feces in regards to various types of bacteria, though this is typically only a concern when using manure from cows and poultry. This manure needs to sit out for a few months prior to placing the manure into the garden. Other animals like rabbits can have their manure directly placed into the garden as they lack the potentially harmful bacteria, making them ideal for quick implementation if directly sourcing it.
One word of caution when using manure as a means of fertilizer is to source the manure as local as possible and try to get manure from animals that were fed with a good diet of either grass or organic/chemical free food sources. This helps reduce the chance of herbicide contamination in your garden which can drastically impact the health of your garden.
5. Burying Animal Entrails
Lastly, one of my favorite ways to add a little bit of fertility to my garden is by using the fish scraps I have after a day out at the lake/river into my compost, or directly burying them in my garden. Typically you will hear people discourage you from doing this, but it is common practice in my garden and I assure you that if you follow these proper steps you will not have any issues with using fish or other game/animal organs. The same people discouraging this practice are most likely the ones buying organic fish fertilizer from the store.
Fish and many other decaying organisms are jam packed full of nitrogen meaning that the things that many people tend to waste and throw in the trash is now potentially free fertilizer for you and your garden. In order to use this method it is important to promptly bury the remains deeply and pack it down well. This will help hid the scent of meat and decay from any vermin or predators that may be in the area. Check back the next morning to see if there is any sign of animal interaction with your compost pile or garden the next few days to ensure you are in the clear. Fish and other soft animals break down relatively quickly, but you will need to give your garden or compost about a month or two to break down the garden in a significant manor depending on the amount of moisture and temperature.
There are many great options for the average gardener to properly feed his or her garden using very little outside intervention. I personally believe that the methods I mentioned above are the methods that are going to end up saving our agricultural system from over fertilization, runoff, and other issues that are in regards to current farming issues and insecurities. I showed you that compost and mulching your garden bed is definitely worth it, how to use worm castings, the use of cover crops, the perks of manure, and how to use animal guts as fertilizer.
I hope you all learned something new. And try out some of the methods I mentioned above in your new garden this fall and next spring.