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Choosing the right organic fertilizer.

Organic gardening involves using natural products and byproducts to grow plants and enrich soils. In its most basic form, organic gardening is helping Mother Nature's natural process of transferring energy from dying or dead organisms to new living organisms. Decomposing plant and animal life enriches the soil and allows plants to use the newly available nutrient to grow and thrive. This decomposition also increases what is known as the soil's microbial life, which works in a symbiotic relationship with the plant and its root structure to uptake and access nutrients more rapidly. There are two items every organic gardener must know about organic fertilizers. The first is the fertilizer's N-P-K (or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) rating, the three numbers listed most prominently on the bag or bottle. Nitrogen promotes leafy growth, phosphorus encourages fruiting and rooting, and potassium promotes fruiting and flowering. These are macronutrients essential to all plant life. The methods for applying these nutrients vary; there are two ways that most people use. Top dressing is adding the fertilizer to the top inch or two of soil around the root zone and scratching or mixing it in so that it does not run-off. Making a tea consists of mixing a few tablespoons of dry fertilizer into five gallons of water and oxygenating it for 24 hours using a small air pump or similar device. This method allows for substantial increases in microbial life and dilutes the fertilizer so that it can be used while watering or as a foliar spray.


Worm castings are Mother Nature's original fertilizer. Worm castings (worm excrement) are produced when worms eat compost and soil, and are five times as rich as the medium the worms ingest. Worms also oxygenate your garden by digging tunnels while they eat. A garden full of worms means the soil is rich and well aerated, and aeration provides crucial oxygen to roots. Chemical fertilizers and sprays repel earthworms, leaving the soil "dead." Through organic gardening, worms thrive and add microbial life and natural fertilizer to your garden. Worm castings (or vermicompost), found at local garden centers, are bagged at specialty worm farms. These castings will supply plants and seedlings with macro and micro nutrients, beneficial microbes, as well as trace elements. Castings offer an immediate fertilizer release, but also provide a natural time release. They supply plants with plenty of nutrients for growth, will not burn sensitive plants and seedlings, and will remain in the soil for weeks! Castings can be applied by top dressing individual plants and seedlings or by making a worm tea. In addition, recent research has shown that plants fed with a foliar worm spray are more resistant to pest and disease problems.


Bat Guano is one of the oldest fertilizers known to humans. Legends say that bat guano was so important to the Inca civilization in South America that the penalty for harming bats was death. Bat guano begins as plant life that is eaten by insects, which in turn are eaten by bats. Bat droppings fall to the floor of the cave where millions of guano beetles eat the droppings as their food. At the same time, beneficial decomposing microbes are also eating the droppings. This process composts the bat guano and increases the beneficial microorganisms in the guano. It also rids the guano of toxins and dangerous pathogens. Bat guano contains all of the macro nutrients as well as minor and trace elements essential for plant growth. Guano can be purchased with different NPK ratings for different stages of plant growth. Some examples are 10-2-0, used for vegetative growth; 0-13-0, used for rooting and fruiting/flowering; and 10-13-3, used for both vegetative and flower promotion. Guano can be applied in two different ways: top dressing or through a tea.


Kelp (or seaweed) has been used as a fertilizer for years. Kelp has a high occurrence of natural hormones and vitamins that plants use, and that many commercial fertilizers have tried to mimic. Natural cytokinins and auxins, along with hormones and vitamins, increase plant growth and yield, strengthen stems, and improve seed germination. Kelp is a great supplement to any feeding schedule in the garden. It usually has an NPK of 1-0-2, so it is not a strong fertilizer, but kelp adds stimulators that other fertilizers just don't have. Even though we know a lot of benefits derived from kelp, new research is constantly showing different and significant advantages to using this product. Kelp diluted with water can be applied as a foliar spray or added as a supplement to any feeding schedule.


Fish Emulsion is one of the most well known organic fertilizers. It is high in nitrogen and great for promoting vegetative growth. Old timers tell tales of the Native Americans burying a piece of fish under every corn stalk in their fields. These tales do carry over into today's organic gardening practices. Fish emulsion and fish meal are used with great success in organic corn gardens today, including my own. Most retail garden centers will have a fish fertilizer, even those that do not specialize in organics. Fish Emulsion is used by diluting it with water and watering the plant's root zone. FYI: If you have cats or other indoor animals, be careful using fish emulsion on indoor plants!!


We cannot have a good organic gardening discussion without mentioning pest control. Many of the gardening practices most despised by average consumers involve pesticide use on commercial farms. There are good organic alternatives you can use on your home garden that are all natural and nontoxic. Neem oil, an extract from the seed of the neem tree, is one of my favorites. Neem oil is a broad spectrum insecticide, miticide, and fungicide. It influences the feeding activity, reproduction, and flying capabilities of insects and has low side effects on non-target species or beneficial insects. First and foremost, neem oil is a natural deterrent to pests. In an outdoor application, the neem creates a "bubble" over your garden that pests would simply prefer not to enter. You can see its benefits last up to three weeks in your garden. Of all the pest control products available on the market, this one is my favorite to use for just about every plant and pest.

These are just a few of the organic products available to consumers today. Luckily, the organic gardening industry is expanding rapidly, and new products are being offered daily. Hopefully in time, every gardener will enjoy the benefits of homegrown organic produce and experience the simple pleasures of gardening organically.

David Hitch operates Asheville Agricultural Systems, an Organic and Indoor Gardening Center located in downtown Asheville. He can be contacted at 828-253-4112, by email at or through his website
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Title Annotation:DEPT.: digging in
Author:Hitch, David
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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