To address the issues of fertilizers, first we must understand the relationship between soil and plants. There are thousands of microscopic organisms in the soil that break down and convert minerals and nutrients into a form that plants can absorb. Plants can only absorb so much of these nutrients and they can do it only so fast. By feeding the soil, the microorganisms get happy and multiply making your soils better. This makes your plants better. Think of it like digestion, you eat, you digest and you grow. The same thing applies with plants.
Fertilizers, in their most basic form, are designed to make plants grow. Great idea, right? Sprinkle some magic powder and the next day you have a full grown plant. The problem is that most synthetic fertilizers supply a dosage of nutrients higher than what plants can actually absorb. The excess often leaches into the ground water or runs off into streams. Another byproduct of a lot of these fertilizers is salt, which can have a negative effect on other nutrients and organisms in the soil actually making the plants dependent on the fertilizers. The synthetics are like steroids for plants. They are high dose with quick results and bad long term effects. I argue the actual need for fertilizers. Think of all the forests, meadows and prairies that are full of plants and none of these places have ever seen a single spec of artificial fertilizer.
If you want to eliminate synthetic fertilizers in your landscape, make a few changes to replace them with natural alternatives.
- Stop bagging your grass clippings. This is a great source of nitrogen and organic matter and it’s completely free. Use a mulching blade to chop the pieces smaller and leave them on your lawn. If you cut your grass at the appropriate height, the clippings will decay quickly.
- Mulch your fallen leaves. Why spend the time raking and bagging them, simply chop them up with the lawn mower or string trimmer and let them decompose. This is another way to add nutrients and organic matter to your soil.
- Add compost. Compost is incredibly beneficial, adds organic matter back to the soil and you can make it yourself... for free!
- Alfalfa pellets. This is commonly sold as horse feed; it’s very cheap and provides a balanced dose of nutrients that breakdown slowly.
- Fish emulsion. My personal favorite! If you can get past the smell, it is like a magic elixir for anything you put it on.
- Compost/Alfalfa Tea. This is another little homemade gem that is really great for a low dose of nutrients and microorganisms. Add a little compost or alfalfa to some water, throw in a little molasses, keep it stirred and in a couple of days you have all the benefits and goodness of the compost or alfalfa in a liquid form.