Going Green: Organic Fertilizer

Keep your crops and land healthy the clean, green way.
Organic Fertilizer From Compost

Organic Fertilizer From Compost

Organic matter from compost, manure and other sources can help boost the fertility of any soil before planting a garden.

Photo by: Marina Lohrbach / Shutterstock.com

Marina Lohrbach / Shutterstock.com

Organic matter from compost, manure and other sources can help boost the fertility of any soil before planting a garden.

“Two thoroughbred horses.”

That is how Jack Gurley quickly answers the question of what he uses to fertilize Calvert’s Gift, his organic farm in Sparks, Maryland. Livestock of all kinds comes in handy for their useful waste, but organic growers can also choose among several other options for fertilization, notably compost and “green manure.” A multifaceted approach that combines several amendments usually proves most effective.

“The best soil management practices are to add compost regularly, grow cover crops and green manures, and apply organic granular fertilizer at every crop cycle,” say Daron Joffe, or “Farmer D,” an Atlanta-based developer of compost, raised beds and other products for national retailers, including Williams-Sonoma. “Also, use mulch to help seal in the fertilizer, moisture and organic matter to keep soil hydrated.”

Compost is a combination of wetted matter such as leaves and food that, over time and with help from worms, fungi and bacteria, gets broken down into humus: “earth” or “ground” in Latin. The more microbial action fluffing up the soil, the better. In keeping with the full-circle spirit of organics, plants help other plants in various ways.  “Green manure” crops, nutrient-rich plants that are grown just for the purpose of getting ploughed under and churned into the soil, usually include legumes for their nitrogen-fixing properties, as well as sorghum, millet and buckwheat.

“Nothing gets wasted on an organic farm because we compost and use everything at hand,” says Sharon Rose Mauney, as she shoos some speckled guinea fowl out of her way at LoganBerry Heritage Farm, a Georgia enterprise known for 14 varieties of garlic. “Our sorghum squeezings go into the garlic, and we collect rainwater off the barn for this 450-gallon drum container to mix our own ‘teas,’ like tinctures for the earth. I look for materials heavy in silica, a building block for all tissues – many people don’t realize stinging nettles are a great source, even though they’re hard to collect -- and I mix in kelp and hydrolyzed fish protein for amino acids.”

Notes Joffe, “Liquid fertilizers and compost teas should be applied both to the root zone and the underside of leaves for best results.”

The “big three” minerals in most fertilizers are nitrogen (promotes leaves and vegetation), phosphorus (boosts roots and shoots), and potassium (helps with fruits, berries, and flowers). These “NPK” bags are commonly designated as “10-10-10” to denote the balance of each mineral, and you can supplement one of them for the desired effect.  

“We use wood ash on our tomatoes because it’s high in potassium to build bigger tomatoes – if we used more nitrogen, we’d get more bushiness on them,” says Janisse Ray, a proprietor of Red Earth Farm in Georgia and the author of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.

Just as plants collaborate, growers often help each other, too, in the sort of symbiotic exchange that characterizes organic gardening.

“If you don’t have animals, scout your area for nearby chicken or turkey farms, where farmers are looking to get rid of their manures, and many will give it away and even truck it to you,” Gurley says. “Mushrooms make some of the best fertilizer. They have the most nutrients you need, they’re potent, and they last a long time – many organic fertilizers aren’t effective after 20 days or so, but spent mushroom compost sticks around.” 

Next Up

The Different Ways to Make Compost

Composting can be more than just throwing food scraps on a pile. Learn a few new methods for making natural fertilizers.

How to Fertilize Your Lawn in Fall

Should you add lawn fertilizing to your fall to-do list? It depends. Learn what you need to know about fall lawn feeding.

13 Tips for Fertilizing Your Lawn

Keep your grass healthy and beautiful. Find tips from the experts on everything from when to fertilize and how to choose the right spreader.

25 Things You Can Compost (Some May Surprise You!)

Did you know you can compost hair, dryer lint and nail clippings along with your kitchen scraps? It’s not gross; rather, it helps amp up the quality of your garden soil.

Lawn Fertilizing: Learn the Basics

Not all lawns are the same. Find out what fertilizing program is best for your grass so you can get on the fast track to a lush lawn.

Tips for Edible Gardening in Small Spaces

Make the most of a small garden space by mixing flowers and vegetables in an ornamental edible garden.

10 Ways to Green Your Garden for Earth Day

Creating a more eco-friendly garden is easy. Try these simple ideas for celebrating Earth Day by creating a more sustainable yard.

How to Build a DIY Compost Tumbler

Make a fast-burning home compost bin for under $50. One 50-gallon drum will turn your family’s food scraps into rich, usable soil before the growing season is over. Best of all, the wood base with attached caster wheels makes turning your compost in this DIY compost tumbler a cinch — no shoveling required.

Stop Buying Cleaning Sprays With These All-Natural Swaps You Can DIY

Ditch the chemicals with these easy-to-make, all-natural versions of cleaners you use on the reg.

How to Grow and Care for Air Plants

These quirky plants don’t need soil, but they can’t live on air alone. Here’s what you need to know to keep them healthy.

Go Shopping

Spruce up your outdoor space with products handpicked by HGTV editors.

On TV

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.