What is fertilizer and how is it used in the vegetable garden? Find out all the fertilizer basics you need to know for your vegetable garden.
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Should you fertilize your vegetable garden? I think that’s a question all gardeners ask at some point. We all want the biggest, best producing plants, and it seems like everyone says to get those plants, you have to fertilize. When you go to the store to buy the fertilizer, you find a wall full of fertilizers for all different purposes. It can be confusing to know what is in each fertilizer, let alone figure out which one is best for your garden. Here’s some helpful information to determine if you should fertilize, and if so, what your best options are.
Should you use fertilizer in your vegetable garden?
Maybe. Maybe not. The first thing to do is to get a soil test. You can go to your local extension office or buy a simple test online. If your soil isn’t lacking nutrients, then there is no reason to fertilize to try to replace those nutrients. Adding nutrients your soil doesn’t need is not beneficial to plants or to the environment.
If you want to make your soil nutrient rich, add organic material. This can be compost, earthworm castings, or manure. The more of these things you add to your soil, the less you will have to worry about amending your soil with synthetic or organic fertilizers. Organic material, like compost or manure is the best thing for your soil long-term.
What nutrients are in fertilizer?
There are usually three nutrients that you will add to your soil through fertilizer in your vegetable garden: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). When you see a fertilizer bag (synthetic or organic), you will see three numbers which correspond to the percentage of N, P, and K in the fertilizer. If you have a fertilizer that says 10-10-10, it means that it has 10% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorous, and 10% Potassium. If you have a 50 pound bag of fertilizer, in this example of 10-10-10, five pounds would be Nitrogen, five pounds Phosphorous, and five pounds Potassium. The rest of the bag of fertilizer would be made up of materials to help distribute the fertilizer evenly.
Synthetic fertilizers are made of chemicals and other inorganic compounds. Organic, or natural fertilizers are made of organic material.
What does each nutrient do for the plants?
Nitrogen helps plants grow green and leafy.
Phosphorous helps plants build strong roots and flowers.
Potassium is important for strong root development.
Should you use chemical or organic fertilizer in your vegetable garden?
I would normally say organic, but for this post, I will say it depends on what you are trying to accomplish in your garden.
Generally, chemical fertilizer will have a higher percentage of each nutrient that is immediately available to the plants. Chemical fertilizer may work faster in the vegetable garden than organic amendments, but chemical fertilizer will not change or improve your soil as organic amendments will.
Chemical fertilizer can end up burning your plants if you use too much, so you have to be careful. Chemicals can stay in the soil, get into the plants and run off into streams and lakes. This isn't good for the environment overall. There is also some research linking chemical fertilizers to health concerns.
Organic fertilizers are those such as bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, and the list goes on. These are naturally derived products that generally have a lower percentage of each nutrient readily available.
These fertilizers for the vegetable garden break down more slowly than chemicals, so you have to have some patience while you wait for them to do their work. Once you add these amendments to the soil, they will improve your soil over time. You can add too much of a good thing, as with anything, but organic fertilizers are not going to burn your plants and won’t be as harmful to the environment as chemical fertilizers.
I personally only use organic fertilizer in my vegetable garden and try to add as few amendments as possible. For example, I took a simple soil test this spring and found that my soil was lacking Nitrogen. I added blood meal and manure to the garden, and my plants have been doing fantastic with that added Nitrogen, manure, and plenty of water. For me, it's important to avoid adding a lot of fertilizer and focus on adding organic materials as much as possible.
I encourage you to think about your soil's health over the long term and try to avoid any synthetic fertilizers in your vegetable garden.
Other Natural Gardening Methods to Make Good Soil
If you have the patience, there are great ways of amending your soil completely naturally.
Composting is a great way to use up your yard waste and kitchen scraps. It's easy to do. I know it can seem like you have to get the right mix of "greens and browns," but really, it doesn't have to be an exact science to make good compost. To learn more about making your own compost, no matter what size yard or garden you have, take a look at this post.
No Till Gardening
No-till gardening is a game changer. Get rid of that loud tiller and opt for a quieter, simpler approach to making healthy soil. There are lots of methods for having a no-till garden. Check out the different kinds of no-till gardening available in this post. And learn about my personal experiences with no-till gardening in these posts:
And don't forget the mulch. This is a critical step whether you use no-till methods or not. Mulching has so many benefits, including moisture control, weed control, and feeding your soil naturally. Learn more about garden mulch in this post.
As you can see, there is a lot to think about when deciding if you want to use fertilizer in your vegetable garden. Let me know what methods or fertilizers you have used in your vegetable garden and what your results were.
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