…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “…and Fertilizer for Free

  1. Ha! Thank you for writing this. I do not write about it because my gardening column has such limited space. I suppose I could write one of my ‘elaborations’ articles about it, but I lack the patience. I get frustrated about it. I get offended when people in the Santa Clara Valley tell me how bad their soil is. (They should go back to where they came from.) I NEVER use fertilizer in my home garden. It is not because I dislike it. I do use it at work with horticultural commodities that are grown in containers. However, in my home garden, I find that the soil needs only good management. I suppose a little fertilizer might help, but I never found it to be necessary. I use no pesticides either, just because I grow what does well here, and I prune my fruit trees and roses and other plants that need it to invigorate them and help them resist disease and pests. Wow, I don’t mean to rant.

    • Tony you have made me smile this morning with your response. You truly understand the ecosystem where you live and work, and have the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ for making all of it fruitful and lush. What you understand, and so many people don’t- is that you can apply fertilizer up the yazoo but it won’t help the plants if the soil doesn’t support absorption. Dry fertilizers added to the soil depend entirely on a favorable pH to be accessible to roots. Too many casual gardeners don’t understand that getting the pH balanced for what they want to grow will magically unlock the nutrition in the soil. And of course, compost and more compost helps achieve that better than however much lime or sulfur folks want to apply. We had a pH of 4.something in a common area in our community where we wanted to grow grass. We needed over 200 lbs of lime to begin to correct the pH. In the Santa Clara valley, I’m sure you have a cadre of ‘come heres’ who have never tried to garden on such sweet soil, and don’t have the patience for the amount of compost needed to grow their plants from back home. But as you say, growing native plants adapted to the soil at hand makes all the difference!
      I still broadcast some fertilizer to boost heavy feeders like roses, Iris and Hydrangeas, and will sometimes amend the soil when I plant. I guess that is ingrained in my habits now. But I mostly use fertilizers on potted plants to boost that poor potting mix. And the liquid applications, like the Neptune’s Harvest are immediately available to them and can even benefit as a foliar feed. It is a great wake up call in early spring! It takes a certain level of dedication and commitment to horticulture to wade out into the weeds of soils and fertilizers, Tony. Most folks want a quick fix so they can get back to their golf game or other concerns. Hope you are well and luxuriating in all of that rain! It sounds like it may have come too fast to soak in properly, but I hope it was a welcome change. We were at nearly 100″ for 2018, and the ground around here is absolutely slippery where the top inch or so of soil is just slime in many places unless it is frozen. But I don’t complain because it is better than the alternative!!! Have a great weekend, Tony!

  2. Great, very informative post!

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