Fertilizing your garden is one of those things you might think about in a general sense, but not really know what it entails. I used to just think all fertilizer was the same and it didn’t matter which one I used. Heck, before that I thought you didn’t even need to fertilize! My plants soon showed me that was the equivalent of starving them.. Not great.
The Organic Gardening Myth
Maybe this was just me, but when I started gardening I wanted to grow my vegetables organically. I still do! But I thought that meant not doing anything to help them. Like, literally just planting them in the ground, giving them water, and then letting them fend for themselves. While I still got some production, things were much slower to grow, and much more prone to disease and pests.
The next year I focused on keeping pests and disease away, but still thought feeding the plants was not necessary. In my mind, “organic” growing was really all about being natural and as hands-off as possible. In a sense I was right, but I was also wrong. Here’s why.
If I was gardening in the ground in already fertile soil, with lots of compost available, then I could potentially plant my plants and water them and watch the magic happen. However, I was (and still am) growing in raised beds. A space with limited amounts of soil, and therefore limited amounts of nutrients. No matter how organic your practices might be, you need to fertilize your garden.
What is Fertilizer?
In short, fertilizer is anything natural or chemical that is added to soil and/or plants to add nutrients. It’s full of macro and micronutrients which improve the soil health, therefore improving the health of the plant. The three main macronutrients in almost all fertilizers are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium.
When you look at which fertilizer to buy, you’ll see a three digit number (something like this: 4-3-5). That three digit number is called the NPK number, and represents the percentage of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) present in the fertilizer. There are almost always other micronutrients like Calcium and Iron present as well, but those big three are the most important for plant growth.
I’m not going to go super deep into each macro in this post, but just as a quick note, Nitrogen helps promote leaf growth, Phosphorus helps promote root growth and fruit production, and Potassium helps overall plant health and heartiness.
Why You Need to Fertilize
Fertilizing is really nothing more than giving your plants a little extra food. And instead of making them search for the food themselves, you’re bringing it to them. You’re just making it easier for the plant to find nutrients and grow without using so much energy.
Regardless of where you’re planting, and how hearty your seedlings are when you transplant them (or when they first sprout if you’re direct sowing), your plants are going to need some help along the way. There are three main factors that help tell you if you need to fertilize.
- If the plant is going through stress (i.e. transplanting)
- If the plant is a heavy feeder (some plants use a lot of nutrients as the grow. Some examples are tomatoes, cabbage, and onions).
- If your soil isn’t fertile.
If your garden and/or plants falls into any of these three categories, then I would highly recommend giving them a little boost.
When to Fertilize Your Garden
In addition to the three factors that tell you if you should fertilize, there are also three main times in the plant’s life cycle where fertilization can be beneficial.
- Four to Six Weeks After Planting – Whether you’re starting seeds indoors or planting directly into the ground, giving plants a little extra boost at the four to six week mark will make sure they mature and stay strong.
- When Transplanting – This will most likely be four to six weeks after your first feeding. As I said up above, transplanting always puts at least a little stress on the plants. So providing them with more nutrients during that time can help lessen the shock, as well as help them adjust quicker to their new environment.
- A Week or Two Before Harvest – Fertilizing during this time can help encourage fruit production and size, as well as keep the plant nourished during it’s maturity.
*As a general rule, you can fertilize your plants every four to six weeks just to make sure they have enough food. Depending on your soil conditions, however, you might not need it. Just make sure you hit those three big points in the life cycle, and you’ll be better off.
Chemical or Natural? Which Fertilizer is the Best?
While chemical fertilizers are used by commercial agriculture and get great yields quickly, they are arguably the worst thing you could be giving to your plants. Even though you might get strong growth and good production, chemical fertilizers don’t add anything back into the soil, which is why so many of our farms today are experiencing desertification. They are being stripped of their nutrients.
Additionally, if you use chemical fertilizers your plants can become dependent on that outside source of nutrition, and suffer if you don’t provide it regularly (this is because they aren’t getting anything from the soil). If you can’t get a hold of your fertilizer (say because of a supply shortage... ahem…) then you’re out of luck.
Therefore, I always recommend to find organic fertilizers that are natural and beneficial for soil health as well as plant health. Promoting biodiversity in your soil is going to up it’s fertility, increase production in your plants, and improve the longevity of your garden as a whole. Sounds good, right?
Organic Ways to Fertilize Your Garden
There are all kinds of organic fertilizers out there. Fox Farms, MIgardener, and Johnny’s Seeds all have great selections. And if you’re in need of some quick help you can definitely check them out. But what if you could fertilize your garden with your garden?
If you’re scratching your head and thinking, what??? That’s ok!
I’m talking about compost.
And manure (which can be considered another type of compost; chicken manure is one of the best fertilizers out there!). When cultivated properly, compost can provide everything your plants need and more! And it’s all made from natural organic materials found in your yard and kitchen.
If you don’t have the resources to make your own compost, you can source it locally or from stores (but make sure the ingredients are good).
What else can you use?
If you don’t have compost available to you, there are several alternatives that can do loads for your soil and plants.
- Grass clippings and/or leaves – mulching around your plants with a nice thick layer of dried out grass clippings or scrunched up leaves is great for multiple reasons! The mulch layer helps retain moisture, so you don’t need to water as often. On top of that, the nutrients from the grass and leaves will seep into the soil (and therefore the roots of your plant) as they break down. It’s a slower process, but one that provides longer lasting effects.
- Rabbit manure – unlike other manures which are “hot,” rabbit manure is “cold.” This means it doesn’t need to break down before it can be applied. You can sprinkle the pellets directly on your plants and they won’t get burnt. And in fact, rabbit manure is even more fertile than chicken manure! It might sound weird, but you can collect the droppings from around your yard and put them in the garden. It’s an absolutely free, absolutely natural source of nutrients that your garden will LOVE.
- Urine – Yup. Diluted urine (from someone healthy) can actually be used as fertilizer. I haven’t tried it yet, because just like you’re probably feeling right now, I still think it’s a little weird. But its very high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which are both great for plants. The article I’ve linked from Epic Gardening does a great job explaining the why and how of using urine as a fertilizer, so definitely check that out if you’re interested.
Now You Know, So Go and Grow!
I hope this article helped clear things up about whether or not you should fertilize your garden. I hope it taught you a little something, gave you some new ideas, and encouraged you to give your planties some fertilizer!
Take lots of pictures so you can document your plant’s life! This is great for the memories, but also for comparison over the years so you can see what works best for you!