When putting out a garden or starting an orchard, fertilizer always comes up. Since I have gardened organically for the last five decades, I feel the heat when someone pins me down and demands proof my methods work. That always leaves me feeling compelled to explain why I’ve chosen to use organic methods.

When putting out a garden or starting an orchard, fertilizer always comes up. Since I have gardened organically for the last five decades, I feel the heat when someone pins me down and demands proof my methods work. That always leaves me feeling compelled to explain why I’ve chosen to use organic methods.
All soil starts somewhere. One of the most often asked questions is, ‘How long does it take to form one inch of soil?’ Although there are many factors involved, most scientist agree that it takes about a century; depending on the climate, amount of vegetation present, and many other factors. Remember, this soil is the topsoil that all vegetation grows in.
Probably, the most common question falls into the ‘how can you grow anything without fertilizer?’ category.
Well, I do use fertilizers. I have rocks for garden soil so I must use something for nutrients for the plants. I would love to reach the point where I could grow all my food and do it sustainably. But I must grow soil to grow that much food. Until I have fertile soil, I’ll need to bring in nutrients for the garden and orchard.
These nutrients come in many forms; store purchased fertilizer, mulch, kitchen scraps, garden waste, leaves, animal manures, etc. I have found organic fertilizers cost significantly more than conventional fertilizers. Organic fertilizer continues growing soil thus outweighing the extra cost with the benefits it provides. In time, better soil texture and composition negates the cost.
Quality soil texture and composition holds water better reducing cost of irrigation and rain runoff. Bacteria colonies increase dramatically. Soil microbes enriches plant nutrients through decomposition. Stronger soil reduces the effects of pest since pests attack weaker plants. As the soil grows, the plants increase in size and weight. The excess plant material becomes deeper soil as it decomposes from season to season equaling sustainably.
Chemical fertilizers use greatly increased after WWII. These fertilizers usually have only three nutrients; nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (NPK). It has long been believed dousing the soil in nitrogen grew lager plants faster. The harvesting of the larger plants would leave large amount plant residue to suck up excess nitrogen and storing it for the next crop.
University of Illinois professors Tim Ellsworth, Saeed Khan, and Richard Mulvaney researched data on “’the world’s oldest experimental site under continuous corn’” cultivation. Known as the Morrow plots, they were first planted in 1876. Graphs kept on three crop rotations; corn-oats-hay, continuous corn, and corn-soybean, revealed some startling results.
From 1876 to 1967, livestock manures were used for soil fertility. Chemical nitrogen fertilizer was used in exclusion from 1967 to 2005. Soil organic carbon (SOC) was graphed from 1904 to 2005. The graph showed the steady rise of SOC until chemical fertilizers were fully adopted. After switching to chemical fertilizer, SOC has steadily droped. Not only did soil carbon drop, but they found chemical nitrogen dissipated into the air more easily and the runoff in heavy rain was greater.
This seems to have occurred because the chemical nitrogen caused the nitrogen fixing bacteria to break down plant residue at an accelerated rate. In fact, it made the soil unproductive unless more nitrogen was added every year-in even greater amounts.
What about phosphate and potassium, the other two chemical nutrients? Unlike nitrogen, phosphate remains in the soil with very little migration. Excess phosphate causes leaf chlorosis when it stops the uptake of iron, manganese, and zine. Leaves will start turning yellow with green veins. It inhibits the growth of mycorrhizae, the fungi growth that keeps soil healthy.
Potassium, the least understood of the NKP trio, is usually already abundant in our Missouri clay. It’s not part of the plant, but exist in the soil. Without it, necessary enzyme reactions can’t take place. Yet, too much disrupts the uptake of calcium, nitrogen, and magnesium. Signs of excess potassium are blossom end rot, older leaves turning yellow, or twisted arrowhead-shaped leaf centers.
Both chemical and organic fertilizer can result in excess phosphate and potassium and doing a soil test is still the best way to determine what is needed in the soil to optimize plant growth.
Organic growing of my plants requires me to find the best ways to keep the soil healthy while using as much on the farm materials as possible.
This year I will try to improve my fermented fertilizer. Last year I used a large container, added garden weeds, stinging nettles, comfrey leaves, kitchen waste, trapped insects, and dirt. I filled the container half full of the above and the rest of the way with well water. I covered the top to exclude mosquitoes and let it cook for a month. It was okay, but this year I’m adding molasses to let it ferment better. I’ll let you know how my experiment goes.

Linda Simmons writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.