Given the particularly harsh abuse our landscape plants endured this winter, there is a greater emphasis on the spring fertilization of lawns, trees, shrubs, perennials, roses and groundcover plants. One of the most common questions I hear regarding plant foods revolves around the differences between organic and other traditional fertilizers. Following are some of the characteristics of organic fertilizers that make them different:
First, organic plant foods are naturally slow to release which offers a multi-faceted advantage. They are much less likely to burn/damage plants even if applied too heavily. (If a little is good a lot must be better… not!) A slow release of nutrients means the feeding action will take place over a longer period of time and require less frequent applications. The plant growth will also reflect this slow and steady fertilizer charge avoiding rampant growth that may be more susceptible to disease and stress.
When comparing organic and synthetic fertilizers closely you may be surprised to find a disparity between the numbers on the bags that measure their percentage of active ingredients. All fertilizers will have 3 numbers and they are always listed in the same order of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Nitrogen makes plants turn green so lawn food generally has a high percentage of nitrogen. Phosphorus helps build flowers so bloom-builder fertilizers will have a higher phosphorus number. Potash helps roots to grow so that is the number to look at when transplanting or for potatoes and carrots.
The 3 numbers listed on the package represent the percentage nutrients that are immediately available to plants. Organic fertilizers, by nature, require time in the soil for microbes to activate the nutrients available so the numbers on these products will be lower than on synthetic fertilizers, however most organic foods eventually are eventually 100% utilized making them a much better value than a 10-10-10 that may have 70% inert matter.
Of course, a natural fertilizer product will be much less toxic to wildlife, pets, children and… you! However, do not take anything that is natural or organic as being non-toxic. Many organic compounds are very toxic and all garden products, synthetic and organic alike, should be treated with precaution and care during application.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ongoing use of organic fertilizers helps build your soil structure. Yes, as crazy as it may sound, organic plant food can dramatically improve your garden soil by feeding microbes that live within healthy soil. Soil is a living thing with up to 50 billion (that’s billion with a B) microbes in a single teaspoon of soil! As these microbes grow and multiply they not only build the soil structure but also produce natural food your plants are hungry for. Healthy soil can also fight against harmful diseases that may be looking to prey on your plants root system.
Personally, I find organic fertilizers ideal for use on everything except my container gardening efforts when a water soluble fertilizer solution is beneficial providing the wide range of elements absent in most potting soils.
I hope your spring is off to a great start and these helpful fertilizer hints will help make your yard and garden more beautiful, healthy and environmentally friendly this season.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!