Is Organic Fertilizer Really “All That?”

If you haven’t heard about the organic revolution you must have been living in a cave.  BTW, if you happen to be living in a BAT cave, you are living right on top of a GREAT organic fertilizer, which would be bat guano.  But then you knew you were living in a bat cave because all you could smell would be bat s#*t.  This is not to be confused with “going bat s#8t” which is an entirely different situation.

Okay, back to organic fertilizer.  A brief (for me) definition would be in order at this point, so we all know what we are talking about.  Well, I know what I’m talking about.  You are just waiting to see if I know what I’m talking about.  But, answer me this.  How would you know if I knew what I was talking about unless you too knew what I was talking about?  At which point this whole exercise would be kind of pointless wouldn’t it?  Let’s just say I DO know what I’m talking about and, while you don’t, you are going to give me the benefit of the doubt.  So that at the end of this blog you will know MORE than you started out knowing while at the same time being able to argue with anyone (using my logic) about organic fertilizers.  Deal?

An organic fertilizer is any material whose origin is either plant or animal.  So, the aforementioned bat s#*t WOULD be organic and, say, rock dust would not.  Rock Dust?  What do you use rock dust for?  Don’t get me sidetracked.  You KNOW what happens when you get me sidetracked.  We go off on a tangent into who knows where with who knows whom, which come to think of it is quite fun, but that is for another day.  Back to organic fertilizer.  A partial list of organic fertilizers would be compost, with or without manure, rotted mulch, grass or any plant material, pond muck, liquefied animal parts, such as hydrolyzed fish protein and ground and dried animal parts, such as bone meal, blood meal, hatchery waste, etc…  Anything that was once living can be used as a soil amendment, which is what we in the biz called “fertilizer.”

Now here are some inorganic “soil amendments” that can still be used in “organic crop production.”  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you will be.  The aforementioned rock dust, (I really had to work hard to use aforementioned in a sentence) such as granite dust, or ground limestone (commonly called “lime”), or gypsum (you know this as sheetrock—I told you I could confuse you), or almost any other ground rock, such as basalt.  You can also add to this list things that look like rock powder but are actually of organic origin, such as ground egg shell, oyster shell, shrimp/crab shell, feather meal and yes, even hair meal.  So, there you have it, a partial, but pretty damn exhaustive, list of “organic fertilizers.”

So, what are synthetic or commercial fertilizers?  These are typically manufactured chemical compounds that are used as concentrated plant food.  They are normally not considered “soil amendments” because if they are used as directed, they cause great harm to the soil and its inhabitants.   Examples of these synthetic fertilizers would be ammonia nitrate (34-0-0) MAP/DAP – mono & di-ammonium phosphate, and Triple 13 (13-13-13), my grandfather’s favorite, with 13% nitrogen (N), 13% phosphorus (P) and 13% potassium (K).  Just an FYI, what makes Triple 13 such a poor fertilizer is first, plants don’t use N-P-K in equal amounts and second, the last 13 is potassium chloride (about 50/50 K and Cl).  The Cl (in this case chloride) is the dangerous component (from a soil’s standpoint) that will actually sterilize the soil and, over time, create a hard layer 12” +/- under the surface restricting the movement of roots and water.

Okay, enough with the chemistry lesson.  What happened to the funny repartee?  (That’s French for hilariously funny give and take, just so you know.)  😉  Anyway, why do I care about this whole organic/synthetic question anyway?  N-P-K is N-P-K, right?

Okay, let’s back up.  All plants need, at a minimum, three major nutrients (N-P-K) and 16 minor nutrients (you really don’t care what is on that list so I will fill in the space with this statement) to grow and reproduce as in make fruit, which is why we plant a garden in the first place.  The issue is not only what form do these nutrients take but how concentrated they are and what do they do to the soil and its inhabitants.

You could make a very good case that gardening is more about “soil farming” than it is about “plant gardening.”  The reason being that if you take care of the soil (and all its inhabitants) then the soil will take care of your plants.  That is not to say there is not a place for SOME of the synthetic fertilizers, organic gardeners notwithstanding.  While you cannot use synthetic fertilizers and call your crops 100% organic, you can use small amounts of synthetic fertilizers and achieve good results in the food department while actually benefiting the soil.  It really is all about moderation.  Side note:  best quote of all time.  WC Fields said, “I practice moderation in all things…especially moderation.”  But I digress.

Aside from cost and the damage they do to the environment and the fact that using synthetic fertilizers further enriches rich Arab oil men (virtually ALL synthetic nitrogen is manufactured using either petroleum or natural gas) they also don’t hang around and do their job, like you paid them to do.  What do I mean by this?  Most synthetic fertilizers are “water soluble” which simply means they will dissolve in water.  This is great if you are growing hydroponically (no more Mexican dirt weed) but NOT good if you are wanted to fertilize plants in the ground before a big rain.

Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, are typically “slow release” which means that SOME of the nutrients are immediately available, while the rest must be released by the actions of soil microbiology, root exudates (weak plant acids such as carbonic acid), earthworms, time and temperature.  What this means in a practical sense is you can put out an organic fertilizer before a rain and it will not all dissolve and run off or pollute the water table.  It will stay in the root zone so your plants—remember plants, that’s what this whole thing is all about, growing plants—can get to the fertilizer and grow like crazy.  The end result to you, the consumer, is that organic fertilizer, while initially more expensive, is much LESS expensive in the long run.  Over time, the continued use of organic fertilizer will build the soil structure and fertility to the point you will not have to continue to purchase more fertilizer.  This is good for your soil, but not so good for my company.  Alms, alms for the poor…

So don’t be fooled by the apparent low analysis of organic fertilizer compared to synthetic.  While MightyGrow Organic Fertilizer has a guaranteed analysis of 4-5-5, it will actually perform like 15-15-15 (or better!) at less than 1/3 the price per unit.

A well informed consumer is our best customer.  Really, who am I kidding?  My best customer is someone that sends me a blank check and say to make his garden grow; I don’t care what it costs.  But that doesn’t happen too often.  Okay, it has NEVER happened, but I do still have hope.

If you are confused about the whole “organic vs. synthetic” fertilizer question, don’t be too hard on yourself.  That is your mates job.  😉  Besides, you are in good company.  The agrochemical companies hope you STAY confused, so long as you keep buying the nice bags of easy to use granules they call “fertilizer”.  What I call it can be USED as fertilizer and is often seen coming out of the south end of a north bound male bovine!  Just remember my simple rule of gardening, and repeat after me.  “I promise NOT to put anything on my garden that will kill an earthworm, so help me Michael”.

That’s all for now from Michael, just a “man out standing in his field”.

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