Row by Row Episode 149: Organic Fertilizer: Making it Simple

Making sure that the plants in your garden are getting enough food is probably the most important thing to do, aside from watering, when you are growing your own fruits and veggies. Just as important is the type of fertilizer you plan on using; whether it be organic or synthetic. To get a better understanding on the different types of organic fertilizers out there we spoke with Andrew Samples who is the regional sales rep for Nature Safe.

Nature Safe is one of the largest organic fertilizer manufacturers out there as well as the largest recycling companies. Andrew explains that the company takes various inedible animal materials from the harvesting process of those animals and recycles that material into organic fertilizers for farmers and gardeners. This is a way to help ensure there is no waste so that all of an animal will be used.

Organics

Organics is a topic that many people are passionate about. Sometimes the passion can overshadow the facts causing confusion and leading to misinformation. One of the first things to come to mind when organics is mentioned is cost. When you are shopping in the grocery store you will notice that items labeled as ‘organic’ tend to be more expensive. Even though these items are at a higher price, we feel better about buying them because we feel as though we are doing the right thing for ourselves and how the item was produced.

As per the USDA website, “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment”. Organic gardening is the way most people want to grow their own food.

Ground Fertility

There are some differences, some similarities too, between growing your food organically or using conventional methods. You will find there are tradeoffs between the two as well.

When growing organically you need to think ahead and plan for the time it takes for the fertilizers to break down and become available to your plants. There are several types of fertilizers and each can take a different amount of time to break down.

Manures

Chicken manure, the “original fertilizer”, has been used for hundreds of years to feed crops the nutrients that they need. Our 5-4-3 Organic Fertilizer is a pelletized chicken manure that should be incorporated into the soil a few weeks before you plant your crops. This will allow the nutrients in the fertilizer to break down and become incorporated into the soil for your plants to use.

One of the highest nitrogen-containing manures is bat guano. We carry a 5-6-2 Fish and Guano liquid fertilizer that is rich in nitrogen but breaks down slowly, also giving you time to prepare your plots for planting.

Other common manure fertilizers are those from horses, cows, and pigs. These, however, have a lower nitrogen quantity than the chicken, fish, and bat varieties.

As mentioned above there are some misconceptions about the term ‘organic’ and that applies to manures. One organic manure you never want to use in your vegetable garden is Milorganite. This fertilizer is made from processing sewer sludge to extract nitrogen and phosphorus. While it is wonderful for landscaping and lawns, the metals and other contaminants it can contain can be absorbed by the plants in your garden.

Mined Minerals

Andrew also has experience with Chilean nitrate. This nitrate-rich, organic fertilizer is mined in Chile by blasting the crust of the earth, scoop the materials up, and leech out the salts. This process is carried out in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts in the world.

This purely nitrate fertilizer is perfect for colder weather as the other fertilizers can have trouble breaking down in cooler conditions. Because it is completely made up of nitrate it is immediately available for the plant to use, however it is salt-based so you will need to limit the use on your plants. We recommend limiting it to no more than ⅓ of the fertilizer requirements for a plant or no more than 20% over the growing season per crop.

Another thing to consider when using mineral-based fertilizer is to make sure the soil is rebalanced after the growing season so that the next crop you plant won’t struggle to survive.

Another mined product is greensand. This product is not truly a fertilizer but it is a natural soil amendment. It is, however, comprised primarily of potassium and contains about 30 trace minerals that plants need to grow. As an amending agent it improves the structure of the soil which increases the soil’s ability to hold water and the nutrients plants need.

If you decide to use an item like greensand or a rock phosphate, it is a good idea to test your soil ph first and balance it accordingly.

Animal Byproduct

As mentioned earlier, companies such as Nature Safe, use meat and bone-mills and feather-mills to produce organic, protein-based fertilizer from the cast-offs of animal processing. These products help to jumpstart microbial activity to revitalize the soil and provide nutrients crops need. Anything not taken in by the plant will be taken in by the soil.

Nature Safe Products

Currently, we are testing out a few Nature Safe products to see how well they perform in the garden so that we can offer them to you with better knowledge of how well they work. These natural fertilizers are protein-based as opposed to being salt-based. Many of these products are essentially animal feeds but instead of feeding livestock it feeds the microbes in the soil.

The first Nature Safe product we spoke about with Andrew was the Nature Safe 8-5-5 which is their signature product. The 8-5-5 comes in a pellet form which contains meat-mill, bone-mill, feather-mill, and SoP (sulphate of potash). This product is designed to have a balanced release of nitrogens as well as having a predictable release curve. If it is applied in the early spring it will release in 8 to 12 weeks. It does have its limits in cold climates but will not leetch out of the soil so it can be used in later months. For example, you can apply the 8-5-5 in the fall and your soil will be ready for your springtime planting.

The next product was the Nature Safe 7-7-7 which is in a fine particulate form. This product is based on corn steep liquor which is a byproduct of the wet milling process when corn is milled. Primarily used for animal feed due to its high plant protein content, it does not have the slow release that comes with the animal byproduct fertilizers. This means that the nutrients are available for the plants upon use. The 7-7-7 is mostly water soluble and can be used in injectors or simply in a watering can.

Compost and Worm Castings

Composting is an easy way to get more from the foods we eat and so long as you don’t incorporate citrus or animal products, worms will break your kitchen scraps into a usable medium for the garden. On paper, compost and worm castings do not show large amounts of nutrients but any gardener that uses these in their garden will tell you that plants love them. The only drawback is the amount of compost or castings you need for your soil.

Other Plant-Based Fertilizers

While Nature Safe has their 7-7-7 that we are testing out for you, there are others out there. These others, such as cottonseed mill and alfalfa mill,  are more along with a 3-2-3 in makeup. Soybean mill is up around 13%, however, it is around $280 for a 50lb bag. This is why we are excited to test the 7-7-7 from Nature Safe and bring higher quality and higher content at an affordable price.

Example Fertilizer Program

One way to utilize the products mentioned here to obtain a healthy, organic corn crop would be to use the Nature Safe 8-5-5 at 20lb per thousand at pre-plant, side-dress or inject the Chilean nitrate at sprouting, come back with the Nature Safe 7-7-7, and then alternate between the Chilean nitrate and 7-7-7.

Product of the Week

Fish & Guano

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