By Jimmy Deaton
All plants need oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, which they get from the air, sunlight and water. And they need these in great quantities but they also need nutrients. Most folks go to the neighborhood garden center to pick up what they need but do you really know and understand what it is you’re buying? Well let’s talk about what we use here – that is organic fertilizers. We never use chemicals in any way on our plants or lawn. Well…..what lawn we have left since the back and side yards are veggie and fruit beds now.
First thing is make sure the fertilizer is 100% organic. There are several compound ferts that are described as “semi-organic” or “organically based”. These may be more powerful than the completely inorganic equivalent but they are NOT the real thing. The main difference is generally the potash content which is sometimes supplemented with potassium sulphate. Check to see if the label has the OMRI listing on it which means the products are approved for organic gardening. Natures Source is a fertilizer that is being described by some garden center personal has being a natural fertilizer. While it does contain oilseed extract the majority of the makeup is chemical based. If I have to recommend prepared organic fertilizers I would go with the following:
Espoma company based out of New Jersey. They produce plant foods that are specifically tailored to what you are growing. Garden Tone and Tomato Tone for your vegetable gardens. Citrus tone for your citrus, Avocado and Nut trees. Palm Tone for your Palm, Hibiscus and Tropical plants. They have a wide assortment but you get the idea. The nutrient levels are in sync for the plants they are made for, leaving out a lot of headaches. They have also released 3 new liquid ferts that look very promising.
Neptunes Harvest based out of Massachusetts. This company’s products are based on fish and seaweed and I love their liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer. I use it as a foliar feed to supplement my vegetables when they are in high gear. I also love to feed my houseplants with it. Think this year we’ll do a test run using the Neptunes liquid against the Espoma liquid and see what the results are.
One of the most important things you need to do is to get compost in to the ground. The main reason is soil improvement especially in our area well known for its Virginia clay content. The first 2 years I used leaf compost which you can get free in the City of Alexandria as long as you’re a city resident. It usually becomes available around the beginning to mid-April at the Eisenhower Avenue location next to the animal shelter. Take some screens to sift it, along with shovels and whatever you’ll be carrying it in and I recommend a dust mask as well. I have found it to be perfect for breaking up the clay. You can also buy leaf compost from most garden centers if that is easier for you. Other things to use to improve the soils structure is aged manures. Do not use fresh manure unless it can sit for a few months otherwise it will be to ‘hot’ for the garden. If you live near the coast and can get seaweed you’ll have an excellent conditioner because it’s particularly rich in trace elements as well as growth hormones, carbohydrates, amino acids, etc. that plants use. Just make sure to let it sit through a couple of rain storms to leech out the salt if it’s salt water based before using it. Or you can order kelp meal from Neptunes Harvest but I would use it as part of a fertilization program and not a soil conditioner unless you have very deep pockets.
When I prepare my vegetable beds each spring I add compost from our two rotating compost bins and Espoma Tomato-tone and let the beds rest for about 2 weeks before I plant anything into it. The reason is I want the micro-herd to get up and running and sometimes while that’s happening your soil becomes to ‘hot’ for small seedlings. I use the Tomato tone on all the veggies that produce fruits….tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc. because it has extra calcium. For my leafy veggies I just use a compost tea made from the homemade compost we make or use worm castings. When I do plant I always mulch with leaf compost at least 2 inches thick. This does a lot of things. 1. It suppresses weeds 2. Helps retain moisture 3. Slowly feeds the plants as it breaks down and 4. Attracts worms which will feed and nest under it. Those worms by tunneling through the soil help to not only open up the soil’s structure but also deposit their poop as they travel throughout the beds adding even more food for the plants to eventually take up. Eventually the leaf compost gets worked into the soil and helps improve the soils drainage or water holding ability depending on the type of soil you started out with. It will also, over a period of time increase the depth of usable topsoil.
We also use other items to help improve the soil. For instance, we work used coffee grounds into the bed that has our blueberry bushes. Blueberries are notorious for wanting the soil to be very acidic and that is where the coffee grounds help out. About a pound of grounds worked into the soil around each plant in the spring helps to lower the soil’s PH some as well as improving texture. Coffee grounds are a good source of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and copper, as well as slow-release nitrogen.
I think over the years I have perfected the perfect example of what the value of adding organic matter means. My soil is fibrous, very dark and has a boatload of worms in it. My plants thrive in all the goodness that is available to them, although sometimes they thrive too much and turn into monsters. But when I see folks coming over to my fence and marvel and sometimes take pictures of those monsters, well………does my ego good.
If you have questions or would like to comment, send an email to email@example.com and put Urban Garden in the subject line.