So it follows that Weak Soil = Weak Plants = Poor Production = More time and money spent on low quality, low quantity vegetables. This means you need to enrich your soil and since most people are not making their own compost, they need to buy fertilizer. Plant fertilizer purchased from the local garden center or nursery often contains chemicals that not only may harm your plants, but are not environmentally friendly either. In addition, they can be a bit pricey, this is most likely why the myth that home gardens are expensive continues. This is not necessarily true, you needn’t spend a bundle of money because believe it or not, you probably have everything you need at home right now!
Making your own organic plant food is easy and fun. It should be noted that most people understand the best way to get good garden soil is to use compost to amend the soil. Of course, this is true. Compost can be made at home out of leftover food items and lawn clippings and such, and is virtually cost free. Composting may be, and most likely is, all one needs for a successful and bountiful crop. If, however, the soil is still lacking nutrients or if you are planting a more demanding vegetable garden, augmenting with another type of fertilizer may be advisable. But still, why spend good money on store bought fertilizer when with just a small amount of information you can make it yourself?
While not the most exciting of garden topics nothing is more important than having a basic understanding of fertilizer. Just like you and I need nourishment so do plants. Understanding just a small bit of information about fertilizer can go a long way toward helping your garden grow big, strong, healthy plants. Before we look at some homemade fertilizers let’s look briefly at the subject in general. All fertilizer fall into one of two basic categories: chemical/inorganic or natural/organic.
Chemical/inorganic fertilizers are manufactured using synthetic substances that usually contain highly concentrated forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (these are the N-P-K values listed on the packaging). These fertilizers work quickly because they feed the plants directly but they do come with a downside – they add no nutrients to the soil itself and can, over time, even destroy the beneficial organisms needed for healthy soil. When you use large quantities of this inorganic stuff over and over again its by-products will actually build up in the soil and in time, hinder plant growth.
Organic/natural fertilizers on the other hand, don’t feed the plants directly but rather add essential nutrients to the soil where they become available to the plants, more slowly, over time. Organic/natural fertilizers usually use alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal or fish emulsion to provide nitrogen, bone meal or rock phosphate to provide phosphorus and kelp meal or granite meal to provide potassium. The downside here is that they work much more slowly, first breaking down in the soil into forms that the plant roots can more easily absorb, then making their way up the plant roots to your hungry plants.
While there are also many important micronutrients in good fertilizer it is understanding the ‘big 3’, the N-P-K, which is the key to making your own effective fertilizer at home. The N is for nitrogen, the P for phosphorus and the K for Potassium, each has an important role to play in the health of your garden.
Nitrogen is the nutrient plants most use to grow large and lush – tall stems with lots of good green leafy growth. If one examines the N-P-K of commercial products that advertise “Miracle Growth” you will find there is no real miracle at all – the “amazing growth” is due to a balanced N-P-K with extra amounts of nitrogen in the mix.
Phosphorus is needed to grow strong healthy root systems and to promote vigorous flowering. Commercial “Blooming” mixes are usually high in phosphorus.
Potassium helps with plant growth, protein production, plant hardiness, disease resistance, insect resistance and efficient water use. Plants without enough potassium grow slowly and can have yellow leaves.
Always remember the one basic rule that applies to the use of all fertilizers – Less Is Better. If you use too much fertilizer or too strong a concentration you could do much more harm than good. Plant roots can be destroyed and you will soon see the tell-tale symptoms of fertilizer burn – brown curled edge leaves that wither and fall from the stem. Always err on the side of caution!
Using What You Have Around the House
There are quite a few items found commonly in your kitchen, or elsewhere around the house, that can be used as plant fertilizer.
- Aquarium Water – Water your plants with the aquarium water taken right out of the tank when cleaning it. FRESH Water only please, do not use water from a salt water tank. The fish waste makes a great plant fertilizer.
- Banana - Bananas are not only tasty and healthy for humans but also benefit many different plants. When planting roses, always bury a banana or just the peel in the hole alongside the rose. As the rose grows, bury bananas or just the peel into the top layer of soil. Both these approaches will provide the much-needed potassium that plants need for proper growth.
- Blackstrap Molasses - Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of many different types of nutrients that plants use. This includes carbon, iron, sulfur, potash, calcium, manganese, potassium, copper and magnesium. What makes this an excellent type of fertilizer is that it feeds beneficial bacteria, which keeps the garden and plants healthy. To use blackstrap molasses as a fertilizer requires the gardener to mix it with another all-purpose fertilizer. A good combination to use is one cup each of Epson salt and alfalfa meal. Dissolve this combination in four gallons of water and top off with one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. Or simply mix blackstrap molasses in with compost tea. Do this only after the compost tea has steeped.
- Coffee Grounds - Used coffee grounds contain about two percent nitrogen, about a third of a percent of phosphoric acid, and varying amounts of potash (generally less than one percent). Coffee grounds are particularly useful on those plants that like things a bit more acidic such as blueberries, evergreens, azaleas, roses, camellias, avocados, and many fruit trees. I recommend that you allow the coffee grounds to dry and then scatter them lightly, as a mulch, around your plants. Avoid scattering them thickly when they are wet, because the coffee grounds have a tendency to get moldy.
- Cooking Water - Many different nutrients are released into the water that food is cooked in. Water that is used to boil potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and even pasta can be used as a fertilizer. Just remember to let the water cool before applying.
- Corn Gluten Meal - Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the corn wet-milling process. It is used not only as an organic pre-emergent herbicide but also as a fertilizer that is 10 percent nitrogen. To use as a fertilizer, simply create a band of corn gluten meal and mix into the top one-inch of soil. Plant inside the band for optimum nitrogen benefit and do not worry about killing your plants. Corn gluten meal only works, as an herbicide before the seeds germinate not after and in doing so is useless as a post-emergent herbicide.
- Egg Shells - Eggshells contain about 1% nitrogen, about a half-percent phosphoric acid, and other trace elements that make them a practical fertilizer. Calcium is an essential plant nutrient which plays a fundamental part in cell manufacture and growth. Most roots must have some calcium at the growing tips to function effectively. Plant growth removes large quantities of calcium from the soil, and calcium must be replenished, so this is an ideal way to recycle your eggshells. Simply crush them, powder them in an old coffee grinder and sprinkle them in your garden.
- Epsom Salt - 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts can be combined with 1 gallon of water and put into a sprayer. Apply once a month directly to the foliage.
- Fireplace or Fire Pit Ash – Ashes can be sprinkled onto your soil to supply potassium and calcium carbonate. Hard wood is best and no charcoal or lighter fluid please as this can harm you plants.
- Gelatin – Gelatin can be a great nitrogen. Dissolve one package of gelatin in 1 cup of hot water and then add 3 cups of cold water. Pour directly on your plants once a month. (This is great for houseplants!)
- Green tea – A weak solution of green tea can be used to water plants every four weeks (one teabag to 2 gallons of water).
- Hair - Hair is a good source of nitrogen and does double duty as a deer repellant. A good source for this hair is not only your hairbrush but also the local barbershop or beauty salon. Many of these establishments will save hair for your garden. But do not limit yourself to only human hair. Dog, horse, and cat hair work just as well.
- Horse Feed - What makes horse feed irresistible to horses is also what makes it an excellent fertilizer. This magic ingredient is molasses. To use horse feed as a fertilizer is simple and easy. First, it can just be sprinkled on top of the soil. Second, it can be dissolved in water alone or combined with another organic fertilizer.
- Matches - The old fashion easy strike matches are a great source of magnesium. To use this as a fertilizer, simply place the whole match in the hole with the plant or soak the matches in water. The magnesium will dissolve into the water and make application easier.
- Powdered Milk - Powdered milk is not only good for human consumption but also for plants. This source of calcium needs to be mixed in the soil prior to planting. Since the milk is in powder form it is already for the plant’s use.
Simple Tea – This has been us for 1000s of years –In a five gallon bucket mix ¼ cup of Epsom salt, 2 cups Urine (yes good old pee-pee) with 2 cups of wood ash (again no lighter fluid please) fill the rest of the bucket about half way with grass clippings, garden pruning or even green weeds pulled right out of the ground. Next fill the bucket the top with water and allow the mix to steep for three days. Strain the tea or decant into empty milk jugs or old 2 liter bottles. Next mix half water and half tea into your favorite water can and give this wonderful mix to your plants. If your results are anything like mine you will see the difference in just a few days.
(Note: Steep only for three days. By the third day, most of the soluble nutrients will have oozed out into the water solution. Stopping now also prevents fermentation, which you want to avoid. Fermented materials will smell bad, and their pH can change rapidly, so it’s important to stick with a three-day mixture and then use it within a day or two.)
Fish Emulsion - Fish emulsion is a homemade fertilizer using fish waste -- such as fish parts and guts -- and water. This organic all-purpose fertilizer has also been around for 1000s of years and works great but it takes weeks to make, and the mixture must have time to rot before you can use it. (Yes there is some bad smell here, it is made from rotting fish after all!) To begin the process, fill one-third of a 55-gallon drum with a ratio of 2 parts water and 1 part fish waste. Allow it to steep for 24 hours. Next, add more water to the drum until it is completely full, cover loosely and let it ferment for several weeks. The fish emulsion fertilizer can be applied to the plants at a rate of 3 gallons of liquid for every 100 square feet of yard or garden.
Seaweed, by the way, contains mannitol. Mannitol is a compound that increases a plant's ability to absorb nutrients in the soil. Either fresh or dried seaweed can be used to create the all-purpose fertilizer. However, if you use fresh seaweed or dry salted seaweed, ensure it is thoroughly washed before using. Add 8 cups of chopped seaweed to a five gallon bucket and fill half way with water (rain water is always best if available). Loosely cover the container, and let the seaweed soak for about three weeks. Once the allotted time has passed, strain the seaweed and transfer the liquid to a container to store it for up to 3 weeks. Next mix half water and half tea into your favorite water can and give it to your plants, they’ll thank you for it in just a few days.
The Quick-Fix Fertilizer - If you haven’t got time to wait even 3 days to make Simple Tea you might want to try this idea, most of the ingredients can be found around your home:
In an empty 1 gallon milk jug mix 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of ammonia (a very strong source of quick nitrogen), 3 teaspoons of instant iced tea (the tannic acid in this helps the plants to more quickly and easily use their food), 3 teaspoons molasses (this helps feed soil bacteria), 3 Tablespoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide (it is a powerful oxidizer, as it combines with the air and water it decomposes, freeing its oxygen elements.
Thus it provides a supplement of oxygen to the plants and aerates the soil), ¼ cup crushed bone scraps this adds phosphorus (any bones will do but I like to use fish bones myself as it also provides potassium), 1 crushed egg shell or ½ a dried banana peel for potassium (you can omit if using fish bones but I would still add the egg shell for the calcium – especially for my tomatoes as it helps prevent blossom end rot).
Finally fill the jug the rest of the way with water (again rain water is best). Replace cap and allow the jug to sit in the sun for about 1 hour to warm, then water your plant with this mixture at full strength.
There are many, many ways you can fertilize your plants without having to spend a tone of money, next Tuesday we will talk about using "what your animals are giving you!"