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A Kinder, Gentler Fertilizer

Master gardener Paul James explains what to do when too much of a good thing goes bad in the garden.

It's a common story in gardening circles. A gardener notices that her plants haven't been growing well over the past few years and gets a soil test done. The results reveal that her soil has a high level of salts. She's asked how much fertilizer she has used and for how long. The gardener admits that she has applied synthetic fertilizers for nearly 10 years on a regular basis. Most of the time her plants appeared healthy, but whenever her plants appeared a bit distressed, she applied more synthetic fertilizer.

"I could rant all day about how and why I think synthetic fertilizers are bad for plants," says master gardener Paul James, "but I'll simply say that one of the unforeseen hazards of using synthetic fertilizers is the accumulation of salts in the soil." Salts are not only harmful to the beneficial organisms in the soil, but they are harmful to plants, as well.

Paul recommends a simple solution: compost tea. This wonder solution is nothing more than compost mixed with water and allowed to steep for a few hours or overnight. Compost tea is excellent for returning over-fertilized soil to its more natural and productive state. While compost tea won't relieve the soil of salts, the salts will gradually diminish over time — as long as the application of synthetic fertilizer is stopped, that is.

Compost tea reintroduces beneficial microorganisms into soil and makes plants much healthier. Just apply the compost tea once or twice a month during the growing season, drenching the soil well each time, switch to organic fertilizers, and within a couple of months or even less, you should notice a substantial improvement in the overall health of your plants.

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