Contributing Monkie Athena Dietrich
Published on February 20, 2009
You’ve selected your site and prepped your soil. A bag of all purpose organic vegetable fertilizer sits quietly in your garage. Don’t worry about the soil stains on those designer jeans you thought would make forking more fun — it’s nothing a little soap won’t take care of. Dirt under the fingernails? A quick manicure will fix that. (And if you haven’t checked out how stylish garden gloves have become recently, you should. Mine are hot pink and make me look like a race car driver.)
Revved up and raring to go?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of how to apply soil amendments, I want to take a moment to reflect on why it’s important to grow organically. Let’s move past the obvious and overstated issues of health, clean water, lowering fossil fuel dependency and cutting the pharmaceutical companies out of our food. I’d like to explore the more subtle, underlying aspects of this important consumer choice.
I got into organic farming and gardening to make a difference, knowing how miniscule and relatively insignificant my contributions were likely to be. While I may not be able to move the mountains I want to — not by myself, anyway — at the end of the day… of the decade… of my life, I want to know that I did my part to make this place more beautiful than it was. That I spread the spark of imagination and demonstrated the possibilities of how beautiful and abundantly we can live.
That I helped create a resurgence of hope in thriving, not just in surviving.
More damaging than a loss of top soil from conventional farming methods is the erosion that has infected our relationship with the earth. To choose to participate in the organic growth of your own food is to make a small but significant step towards the living philosophy of creating abundance without diminishing the source.
As for fertility, the first thing to understand is that those bags of granules are not to feed the plants. Surprised? Fertility in the more sustainable sense is created within the soil. While it is possible to use soil or hydroponic methods to hold your plants upright while you foliar feed their cells directly through the leaves, this is akin to a human body surviving with the help of an IV. You will create vegetables that look right, but they will lack an essence I know to be possible. The soil should be alive. And in places it isn’t, I can think of no greater environmental cause than to resuscitate it.
And don’t get discouraged: bringing soil back to life, or enhancing what is there, is a viable prospect in nearly every situation.
The bold numbers displayed on the front of the fertilizer bag is the NPK readout. Nitrogen (the “N”) is required for healthy leaf growth. Phosphorus (“P”) is necessary for ample flowers and strong root systems. Potassium (“K”) provides all-around plant cellular health. You may notice that the numbers don’t add up to 100%. That’s because there are a lot of other components needed to create soil amendments. In organic fertilizers, there are other trace minerals (calcium, magnesium, sulfur, etc.) required for balanced soil and vital plants. Part of the equation is also made up with fillers and stabilizers. For a more scientific understanding of this, click here.
A word of caution: it is possible to have too much of a good thing, especially in a small space. Be sure to follow the instructions on the back of the bag. I also recommend getting a soil analysis and following the recommendations from that. Here’s a helpful tip: those large cans of tomatoes from the store hold approximately two pounds of fertilizer. To measure out an application per square feet, simply multiply the width by the length of your garden beds. (And you thought algebra was a waste of time!)
Second in importance to NPK is calcium. Calcium is crucial for strong vegetative cell walls. Its ratio to other minerals in the soil has a profound effect on NPK uptake in the plants. And while there is a common urge upon starting a garden to run out and buy lime, this may not be the right choice for you, depending on your soil’s pH level.
The minerals in your soil that are available to the plants depend on the appropriate pH balance (that’s where your soil analysis will come in handy). If your plot is low in calcium, there are several options. Gypsum provides calcium without raising your pH. It also loosens soil compaction and provides a small amount of sulfur. Calcium carbonate will raise a low pH. Lonfosco provides calcium and phosphorus. This and the former are slow-release fertilizers that become more available over several years.
However, be careful not to overdo it with the calcium and mineral amendments. Too much can make your soil inhospitable to plant and microbial life for a long time. I don’t want to scare you, but a lot of backyard gardeners make this mistake.
On that note, here are my thoughts on some other fertilizers. Kelp meal is a great way to get the ocean’s natural array of trace minerals, while green sand provides a long term release of potassium. Glacial and other rock dusts are also important trace minerals. Cotton seed meal is high in nitrogen, but I, myself, have never liked the results. Guanos are effective, but often expensive (and very hot; the high nitrogen can easily burn your plants).
If using only plant-based products in your garden is important to you, I encourage you to utilize cover cropping and worm composting. This is a topic I’ll discuss in a future article.
After applying your fertilizer and compost on the surface of the soil as directed (preferably on a non-windy day, so it doesn’t blow around), you’ll want to gently turn it into the top 2-3 inches. I use a garden fork and mix the soil lightly without turning or displacing it with a side-to-side motion of the wrist. Once complete, wash your hands and then wet the soil a little so you don’t breathe in any more of the fertilizer dust than necessary.
Mulching is the next step. I like straw. Its light color reflects the sun helping to cut down on evaporation. It also saves on water, while protecting plant roots and shading the soil to encourage worm activity. Buying bales of alfalfa also works great. Like straw, you’ll want to apply a thin layer of it across the soil an inch or so deep. As it breaks down it, too, will feed the soil life.
And be sure to leave bare areas where you can directly seed vegetables like salad mix and carrots. Their tiny sprouts have a tendency to get lost in the mulch.
There you go. The hard part is behind you and you’re ready to plant!