Organic Fertilizer Options for the Garden

No matter what you like to grow in your garden, whether it is vegetables, shrubs, ornamental trees or perennial plants, there will come a time when your plants will need an extra boost to perform their best. If you don’t like using chemical fertilizers in your garden, you will want to look for some sort of organic fertilizer.

Any time you feel your garden isn’t performing up to par, it is a good idea to test the soil to find out exactly which nutrients are lacking. A soil test takes the guesswork out of applying fertilizer, whether it is a commercial chemical fertilizer or an organic fertilizer.

Many garden centers and gardening catalogs offer soil test kits for sale at fairly low prices. A one-time test kit can be purchased for under five dollars, or a multiple-use kit for under $25. Most state universities also offer a soil-testing service. Contact your County Ag Extension Agent to get a soil test kit and complete instructions on how to correctly gather the soil for an accurate test.

Compost makes a wonderful organic fertilizer for any garden soil, but compost may also be lacking in certain nutrients, or the nutrients it contains may not be well balanced. Compost may also be tested, just like garden soil.

The results of a soil test will tell you which of the main three major nutrients are lacking in your soil, which will be shown as an N-P-K ratio. The “N” is nitrogen, “P” is phosphorus and “K” is potassium. A good soil test will also tell you how much of each nutrient must be added to the soil for healthy plant growth.

If the soil is lacking in nitrogen, or if you are planting a crop that tends to use nitrogen heavily, such as corn, you may wish to add blood meal or feather meal to the soil.

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Blood meal is made from dried animal blood that is collected as part of the rendering process, and it is then made into a powder. Blood meal releases fairly quickly into the soil and can readily be used by plants. But because blood meal is so high in nitrogen, it should be used sparingly as an organic fertilizer as too much can prevent plants from flowering or even burn and kill plants if the concentration is too high.

The scent of blood meal may also attract dogs, opossums or raccoons to the garden. The best way to add bloodmeal is to mix it into the soil well, preferably before a rainfall, or water it in well to help hide the scent. Or add the bloodmeal to a compost pile and mix it well. Not only will the blood meal add nitrogen to the compost, but it will also speed up the composting process. On the plus side, blood meal also tends to repel rabbits and other vegetarian critters who may want to raid the garden for a free meal. Even if the blood meal isn’t used to add nitrogen to the soil, it can be sprinkled around the perimeter of the garden where it will provide a barrier against marauding bunnies.

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Those who don’t wish to use blood meal as an organic fertilizer have other options for adding nitrogen to the soil. Alfalfa meal works well, and as the name suggests it is made entirely from plant sources. Another organic fertilizer option would be feather meal.

Feather meal is a by-product of the poultry industry and consists of chicken feathers that have been cleaned, steamed and ground up. Feather meal has an N-P-K rating of 13-0-0, making feathers one of the highest natural sources of nitrogen for the garden. Feather meal provides both an easily absorbed, fairly quick boost of nitrogen as an organic fertilizer, but also continues to feed the plants as it breaks down in the soil. Just like blood meal or any other fertilizer, feather meal can be over-applied and burn the plants due to the high nitrogen content. It is best to apply it in small increments to allow the plants time to use the nitrogen at their own pace.

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Bone meal is another organic fertilizer that is commonly used for a wide variety of plants. Bone meal is high in phosphorus, the “P” in the N-P-K ratio. Phosphorus allows plants to produce flowers and fruit and also promotes root growth. The N-P-K of bone meal averages anywhere from 0-14-0 to 4-15-0. Because bone meal breaks down slowly, it is not likely to burn plants and can be used as needed.

These days bone meal is made primarily from beef bones, although during the early history of the U.S. it was produced from buffalo bones that were harvested by the trainload from the Great Plains. As part of the beef slaughtering process, bones are steamed and ground up to produce bone meal. Because of this high-temperature processing, any potentially dangerous pathogens are killed and it is not possible to get Mad Cow Disease from handling bone meal.

However, when handling bone meal, blood meal, feather meal or any other powders, it is always advisable to wear a face mask to avoid breathing in the dust.

Bone meal is an excellent organic fertilizer for roses, shrubs, trees, new lawns and perennial plants. Mix a handful of bone meal into the soil when planting new trees and shrubs or bulbs, and use it as a side dressing for roses. Soils with a high pH cannot utilize bone meal well, however, so be sure to test the pH of your soil and correct the pH if necessary before applying bone meal. The bone meal will then help keep the soil sweet and will release its phosphorus for up to four months.

Bone meal and blood meal have been used as fertilizers for many years and are readily available in garden centers, farm supply stores and gardening catalogs. Feather meal is a more recent addition to the organic fertilizer array, but a good garden center should be able to order it for you if they don’t already have it on hand.

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