Vegetable gardeners with experience know that what you put in the soil is one of the deciding factors when it comes to the amount and quality of fruits and vegetables your plants produce. Without the right plant food, nothing else you do is going to matter, and your crops are doomed to fail. The soil must be rich or the garden will be poor.
One distinction that needs to be made when it comes to plant food is the difference between available and non-available plant foods- that is, between foods which it is possible for the plant to use, and those which must undergo a change of some sort before the plant can take them up, assimilate them, and turn them into a healthy growth of foliage, fruit or root. It is just as easily possible for a plant to starve in a soil abounding in plant food, if that food is not available, as it would be for you to go unnourished in the midst of soups and tender meats if they were frozen solid.
Plants take all their nourishment in the form of soups, and very weak ones at that. To be available plant food must be soluble to the action of the feeding root tubes; and unless it is available it might, as far as the present benefiting of your garden is concerned, just as well not be there at all. Plants take up their food through innumerable and microscopic feeding rootlets, which possess the power of absorbing moisture, and furnishing it, distributed by the plant juices, or sap, to stem, branch, leaf, flower and fruit. There is one startling fact which may help to fix these things in your memory: it takes from 300 to 500 pounds of water to furnish food for the building of one pound of dry plant matter. You can see why plant food is not of much use unless it is available; and it is not available unless it is soluble.
Plant foods consist of chemical elements, or rather, of numerous substances which contain these elements in greater or less degrees. There a very interesting science of this matter. It is evident, however, as we have already seen that the plants must get their food from the soil, and that there are but two sources for such food: it must either be in the soil already, or we must put it there. The only three of the chemical elements mentioned which we need consider are: nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. The average soil contains large amounts of all three, but they are for the most part in forms which are not available and, therefore, may be dismissed from our consideration. (The non-available plant foods already in the soil may be released or made available to some extent by cultivation.) In practically every soil that has been cultivated and cropped, in long-settled districts, the amounts of nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash which are immediately available will be too meager to produce a good crop of vegetables. It becomes absolutely necessary then, if you want to have a really successful garden, no matter how small it is, to add plant foods to the soil abundantly. When you realize, (1) that the number of plant foods containing the three essential elements is almost unlimited, (2) that each contains them in different proportions and in differing degrees of availability, (3) that the amount of the available elements already in the soil varies greatly, and (4) that different plants, and even different varieties of the same plant, use these elements in widely differing
proportions; then you begin to understand what a complex matter this question of which plant food to use is and why it is so much discussed and so little understood. What a labyrinth it offers for any writer- to say nothing of the reader- to go astray in! I have tried to present this matter clearly. If I have succeeded it may have been only to make you hopelessly discouraged of ever getting at anything definite in the question of enriching the soil. In that case my advice would be that, for the time being, you forget all about it. Fortunately, in the question of plant food, a little knowledge is not often a dangerous thing. Fortunately, too, your plants do not insist that you solve the food problem for them. Set a full table and they will help themselves and take the right dishes. The only thing to worry about is that of the three important foods mentioned (nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash) there will not be enough: for it has been proved that when any one of these is exhausted the plant practically stops growth; it will not continue to “fill up” on the other two. Of course there is such a thing as going to extremes and wasting plant foods, even if it does not, as a rule, hurt the plants.
So you know that your plants need available food. The question then becomes what to use. The terms “manure” and “fertilizer” are used somewhat ambiguously and interchangeably. I use manure in a broad sense meaning anything that will rot and enrich the soil, such as well rotted stable manure, or decayed vegetable matter. Organic fertilizers can be purchased pre mixed in any garden center, but for about three to four times as much money as to use natural things or mix the chemical elements into the soil yourself. It depends what you value more, your time or your money!
Between the organic manures, or “natural” manures as they are often called, and fertilizers there is a very important difference which should never be lost sight of. In theory, and as a chemical fact too, a bag of fertilizer may contain twice the available plant food of a ton of well rotted manure; but out of a hundred practical gardeners ninety-nine-and probably one more- would prefer the manure. There are two reasons why. First, natural manures have a decided physical effect upon most soils (altogether aside from the plant food they contain); and second, plants seem to have a preference as to the form in which their food elements are served to them. Fertilizers, on the other hand, are valuable only for the plant food they contain, and sometimes have a bad effect upon the physical condition of the soil. When it comes right down to the practical question of what to put on your garden patch to grow big crops, nothing has yet been discovered that is better than the old reliable stand-by- well rotted animal manure. Hold your objections! We have already seen that plant food which is not available might as well be, for our immediate purposes, at the North Pole. The plant food in “green” or fresh manure is not available, and does not become so until it is released by the decay of the organic matters inside. Now the time possible for growing a crop of garden vegetables is limited; in many instances it is only sixty to ninety days. The plants want their food ready at once; there is no time to be lost waiting for manure to rot in the soil. That is a slow process- especially so in clayey or heavy soils. So on your garden use only manure that is well rotted and broken up. On the other hand, make sure it has not “fire-fanged” or burned out, because manure, if piled by itself and left, is very sure to do. If you keep any animals of your
own, see that the various sorts of manure- except poultry manure, which is so rich that it
is a good plan to keep it for special purposes- are mixed together and kept in a compact, built-up square heap, not a loose pyramidal pile. Keep it under cover and where it cannot wash out. The pile should be turned from bottom to top and outside in and rebuilt, treading down firmly in the process, every month or two- applying water, but not soaking, if it has dried out in the meantime. Such manure will be worth two or three times as much, for garden purposes, as that left to burn or remain in frozen lumps. Of course you can purchase your manure in any garden center or buy fresh manure from a local farmer if you live in the country. When possible, it will pay you to start saving manure several months before you want to use it and work it over as suggested above. In buying manure keep in mind not what animals made it, but what food was fed- that is the important thing. Better manure is more expensive, but well worth it. For instance, the manure from highly-fed livery horses may be, weight for weight, worth three to five times that from cattle wintered over on poor hay, straw and a few roots.
There are other organic manures which it is sometimes possible to obtain, such as refuse brewery hops or fish scraps and sewage, but they are as a rule out of the reach of, or objectionable for, the purposes of the home gardener. There are, however, numerous things constantly going to waste around the house, which should be converted into manure. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit tops, roots & peels, green weeds, old pieces of fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds, anything that will rot away, should go into the compost heap. These should be saved, under cover if possible, in a compact heap and kept moist (never soaked) to help decomposition. To start the heap, gather up every available substance and make it into a pile with some fresh manure if you have it. Fermentation and decomposition will be quickly started. The heap should occasionally be forked over and restacked. Wood ashes form another valuable manure which should be carefully saved. Beside the plant food contained, they have an excellent effect upon the mechanical condition of almost every soil. Ashes should not be put in the compost heap, because there are special uses for them, such as dusting on squash or melon vines, or using on the onion bed, which makes it desirable to keep them separate. Wood ashes may be bought for this purpose at a very cheap price, or use your own if you make fires. Coal ashes contain practically no available plant food, but are well worth saving to use on stiff soils, for paths, etc. If you would rather not go through the trouble of stacking, turning, and restacking manure, there are compost containers you can buy to put these things in to rot. Do make sure you turn it with a pitchfork occasionally and mist it with water enough to keep it moist (not soaked) either way.
Another source of organic manure is called “green-manuring”- the plowing under of growing crops to enrich the land. Even in the home garden this system should be taken advantage of whenever possible. In farm practice, clover is the most valuable crop to use for this purpose, but on account of the length of time necessary to grow it, it is useful for the vegetable garden only when there is enough room to have clover growing on one plot, while the garden occupies, for two years, another plot and then changing them around.
This system will give an ideal garden soil, especially where it is necessary to rely for the most part upon fertilizers. There are, however, four crops valuable for green-manuring
the garden, even where the same spot must be occupied year after year: rye, field corn,
field peas (or cow peas in the south) and crimson clover. After the first of September, sow every foot of garden ground cleared of its last crop, with winter rye. Sow all ground cleared during August with crimson clover and buckwheat, and mulch the clover with rough manure after the buckwheat dies down. Sow field peas or corn on any spots that would otherwise remain unoccupied six weeks or more. All these should be sown on a freshly raked surface. Such a system will save a very large amount of plant food which otherwise would be lost, will convert unavailable plant food into available forms while you wait for the next crop, and add humus to the soil.
I am aware that some of you will not use manure because it grosses you out too much. That’s alright, organic fertilizer will do also. You can buy it or mix your own. I’m going to explain how it works. We have already seen that the soil contains within itself some available plant food. We can determine by chemical analysis the exact amounts of the various plant foods-nitrogen, phosphoric acid, potash, etc.- which a crop of any vegetable will remove from the soil. The idea in scientific chemical manuring is to add to the available plant foods already in the soil just enough more to make the resulting amounts equal to the quantities of the various elements used by the crop grown. In other words: available plant food elements in the soil + available chemical food elements supplied in fertilizer= amounts of food elements available to crop.
The raw materials from which organic fertilizers are made up are organic substances which contain nitrogen, phosphoric acid or potash in fairly definite amounts.
Some of these can be used to advantage by themselves. Those most practical for use by the home gardener, I mention.
Ground bone is rich in phosphate and lasts a long time; what is called “raw bone” is the best. “Bone dust” or “bone flour” is finely pulverized; it will produce quick results, but does not last as long as the coarser forms. Cottonseed meal is one of the best nitrogenous fertilizers for garden crops. It is safer than nitrate of soda and decays very quickly in the soil. Peruvian Guano, in the pure form, is now practically out of the market. Lower grades, less rich in nitrogen especially, are to be had; and also “fortified” guano, in which chemicals are added to increase the content of nitrogen. It is good for quick results. Palm bunch ash is one of the best raw forms of organic potash.
There are many brands of organic fertilizers available for sale in any garden center. You can make your own much cheaper, but some people prefer to buy it pre-made for the convenience. It is little use to pay attention to the claims made for them. Even where the analysis is guaranteed, the ordinary gardener has no way of knowing that the contents of his few bags are what they are labeled. The best you can do, however, is to buy on the basis of analysis, not of price per ton-usually the more you pay per bag, the cheaper you are really buying your actual plant food. Email the Experiment Station in your state and ask for the last bulletin on fertilizer values. It will give a list of the brands sold throughout the state, the retail price per ton, and the actual value of plant foods contained in a ton. Then buy the brand in which you will apparently get the greatest
value. For garden crops the mixed fertilizer you use should contain (about):
Nitrogen, 4 percent. Basic formula
Phosphoric acid, 8 percent. == for
Potash, 10 percent. Garden crops
If applied alone, use at the rate of 250 to 375 pounds per quarter acre. If with manure, less in proportion to the amount of manure used. Basic formula (see above) means one which contains the plant foods in the proportion which all garden crops must have. Particular crops may need additional amounts of one or more of the three elements, in order to attain their maximum growth. Such extra feeding is usually supplied by top dressings, during the season of growth.
If you look over the Experiment Station report mentioned above, you will notice that what are called “home mixtures” almost invariably show a higher value compared to the cost than any regular brand. In some cases the difference is fifty percent. This means that you can buy the raw materials and make up your own mixtures cheaper than you can buy organic fertilizers. You can also use things you would normally throw away for free!
More than that, it means you will have purer mixtures. More than that, it means you will have on hand the materials for giving your crops the special feedings that the individual types need. The idea widely prevails, thanks largely to the fertilizer companies, that home mixing cannot be practically done, especially upon a small scale. From both information and personal experience I know the contrary to be the case. With a tight floor or platform, a square-pointed shovel and a coarse wire screen, there is absolutely nothing impractical about it. The important thing is to see that all ingredients are evenly and thoroughly mixed. A scale for weighing will also be a convenience. Further information may be had from the firms which sell raw materials, or from your Experiment Station.
In conclusion, manure is preferred, but organic fertilizer can work well also. The most important distinction is that the plant food is available. You should also realize that different crops thrive off extra helpings of certain plant foods. I give detailed descriptions of how to grow many different fruit and vegetable crops including what plant foods to give each in my most recent work, “Organic Gardening Secrets”. Just click the link below to check it out.
Jamie Wheeler lives in Greenville, NC with husband Chris and 3 year old daughter Kylie. Her hobbies include outdoor activities and reading, her favorite hobby being organic gardening with her daughter. Her most recent work is “Organic Gardening Secrets”. For a limited time, a free chapter can be downloaded at http://www.on2url.com/app/adtrack.aspMerchantID=124681&AdID=380901