Growing Your Garden the Organic Way-Part II Organic Fertilizer

Fish emulsion is one method of making organic fertilizer.

As many university studies have shown, we as a society have over done it on synthetic fertilizer.  After World War II synthetic fertilizers were developed to aid the farmer in food production.  Some individuals viewed fertilizer application as a game of relationships.  They viewed that if a little did a great job then a lot would be even better.  But it was soon discovered; that what was not used by the plants was wasted and washed into our streams and rivers.  Also, the over application of synthetic fertilizer built in the soil and made many macro- and micronutrients unavailable to plant life. This type of fertilizer program allowed farmers to exist on a seesaw path where land was and is still consumed for urban sprawl while the demand for food increases.  And this demand on our food supply has not decreased.  The World Population Clock, as of June 6, 2011, estimates a world population of 6,921,198,245.

But today, many individuals are exploring other ways of fertilizing their crops and starting off with a fertilizer system taught to the pilgrims by the Native Americans.  As the story goes, the pilgrims did not know how to farm on this new land and due to their lack of experience were starving to death.  The Native Americans taught the pilgrims the basic principle of fish emulsion.   This process consisted of planting one fish in the ground along with the corn seed.  This provided calcium and carbon to the crop.  Today, we can make our own fish fertilizer by either watering with used aquarium water or grinding up dead fish in a blender and mixing with water.  The latter approach is a very smelly alternative and may be morally repulsive to some but it is great fertilizer.  If you do not want to make your own, fish emulsion can be found at some home improvement centers or order through garden catalogues.

For some, a more practical approach to organic fertilizer is the use of organic tea.  This tea can be either made from compost or manure.  To make compost tea, the first step is to harvest compost.  Compost is decomposed plant material and/or animal manure.  Outdora sells several styles of composters that can help any gardener produce rich and nutrient dense compost.

To make compost tea, requires compost, a burlap bag and a large container with a lid.  When making anything for the garden make sure that the container is food safe.  Plastic that is not food grade has been known to leach chemicals into the soil.

Once the supplies have been gathered, fill the burlap bag with compost and securely tie it off.  Make sure there is enough tie remaining to make bag removal easy.  After the bag is full, place it in the barrel.  Fill the barrel with water and securely place the top on the barrel.  Let the compost tea steep for at least one week before using it.  This tea is better the longer it steeps.

After a week has passed the water can be dipped out from the top of the barrel.  Another approach is to put a spout on the bottom of the barrel before filling with water.  If this is done, simply attach a watering hose to the spout and allow the fertilizer water to drain out with the aid of gravity.

When the barrel of compost tea is completely drained, remove the compost tea bag and empty the spent compost back into the composter.

Manure tea is made very similar to compost tea.  Any type of manure can be used for this process and can be hot or seasoned in nature.  Hot manure is manure that comes right out of the animal.  Normally this manure is too hot to be used directly in the garden and must season for at least one year.  Hot manure includes waste from horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and even elephants.

To make this type of fertilizer tea requires the same equipment.  Instead of filling the burlap bag with compost, you will fill it with your choice of manure.  Place the bag in the barrel and seal off with the lid.  Let this tea steep the same amount of time as the compost tea.   Keep in mind though; this type of fertilizer tea is not the most pleasant smelling substance so respect the neighbors when applying.

Using manure in this fashion, allows the gardener to benefit from the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the manure without the concern over plant burn.

Once the manure tea has been used up, do not waste the manure in the bag.  Empty the bag’s contents back into a compost bin or compost tumbler.

Creating your own fertilizer tea is a safe and economical way of feeding your plants without the fear of nutrient overload or build up.  But remember though, regardless of what type of fertilizer treatment or program you choose, only apply it during the growing season and do not apply when there is a chance of rain.  Both of these approaches will reduce the incidence of fertilizer runoff and keep our streams and rivers free of nutrient toxicity.


Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.

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