Perfect… Healthy… Well Balanced… Soil…
..the kind of soil that encourages disease-free vegetable plant growth and produces amazingly high harvest yields.
Every Gardener’s Dream! Well, this gardener’s dream anyway…
The reality is that most of us won’t find the perfect soil patiently waiting for them in the vegetable garden. I know it has never been out there waiting for me.
Soil health is an uphill battle for any homestead. However, the good news is there are ways for you to help improve your soil while providing your plants with all the nutrients they could possibly need.
Some TLC with good soil amendments and the best organic fertilizers is a great way to start building your perfect, well balanced vegetable garden soil.
What is an Organic Fertilizer?
What exactly is an organic fertilizer and how is it different from a chemical fertilizer?
Organic fertilizers are natural products that are used to feed your vegetable plants and contribute to your overall soil health. Synthetic or non-organic fertilizers are made from inorganic materials that usually provide a quick boost in plant nutrients then disappear.
The best organic fertilizers are good to use when your soil is missing nutrients your plants will need and when you need help building better soil for your future planting.
The Best Organic Fertilizers for Your Vegetable Garden
Decomposed organic material such as leaves, vegetable scrapes and other organic kitchen scrapes. It can be mixed with garden soil to add needed nutrients to promote healthy plant growth. Compost can be applied in solid form or in a liquid form known as compost tea.
Check out my article here to learn more about how to make compost. There’s an easy (lazy) method and a more exact method for making compost, and I cover both of those methods in my article.
NOTE: whether you make compost or purchase it, be careful about avoiding toxic-chemicals in the compost that can destroy your vegetable garden! Check out my youtube video to see what I learned recently about my compost.
Animal waste from herbivores that has been decomposed into a soil like substance. Manure works best when mixed well into the soil where you will be planting your garden.
Fresh manure can be too hot for plants and may burn them, so it’s best to use composted or aged manure. If you are using fresh manure, just be sure to add it in the fall and let it sit all winter. (Don’t apply most fresh manures to growing plants)
- Chicken Manure: Highest in nitrogen, but also one of the “hotter” options. Definitely let it compost and age well before applying.
- Horse Manure: Easy to find, but may contain the most weed seeds (although if the compost pile reaches a high enough temperature, this can reduce the weed seeds). We use a lot of composted horse manure in our garden, since we have two horses, and they poop. A LOT.
- Cow Manure: A great all-purpose manure that doesn’t burn plants as easily, due to a lower nitrogen content. Generally less weed seeds than horse manure.
- Goat/Sheep Manure: A drier manure that is less smelly and gentle to plants (won’t burn as easily). The little pellets make it easy to apply, too.
- Rabbit Manure: This is considered a “cold” manure, so you can add it directly to plants, with no worry of it burning plants. Just grab some of the “pellets” and sprinkle away! They will disintegrate slowly over time and release their nutrients into the soil as they break down.
**Important Note** If you are using horse, cattle, goat, or sheep manure, be sure to ONLY use manure from animals who have NOT been grazing or eating hay from fields sprayed with herbicides. There are several types of herbicides that can survive an animals gastrointestinal tract and come through the manure to wreak havoc on your gardens. Learn more about this situation in my youtube video.
3. Bone Meal
Bone meal is cooked or smoked bones that are ground into a granular or powder form. Bone meal is great source of phosphorus for the vegetable garden.
4. Blood Meal
Blood meal is a powder made from dried animal blood, that is used when high amounts of nitrogen are needed. It can be applied in powder form or dissolved in water and used as a spray. This form of fertilizer works well for green leafy plants.
5. Worm Castings
Worm Casting is just another word for worm manure. Worm castings that are sold as organic garden fertilizer is the worm manure that is created when and earthworm eats its way through compost. Worm castings are full of nutrients and should be added to soil or potting soil that is going to be used for gardening.
Guano or Bat Manure is a fertilizer that has been used to amend soil for centuries. Guano is collected from bats that feed on insects and fruits. It can be used to amend the soil or feed your plants directly.
Each of these fertilizers can be found at your garden centers or online. When you are searching for organic fertilizers, make sure you read the packages to be sure what you are buying is certified for organic gardening.
7. Fish Emulsion
This is a fertilizer that is used to give your garden an extra boost of nitrogen when needed. Fish Emulsion is a liquid concentrate fertilizer that is made from fish and fish parts. The liquid is diluted with water and then sprayed in the soil around your vegetable plants.
8. Seaweed Fertilizer
Seaweed is a term used for all different varieties of marine plants; these plants can be used as an organic fertilizer in your vegetable garden. Seaweed fertilizer can be used as mulch or sprayed in a liquid form. Seaweed fertilizer provides lower amounts of nutrients then other fertilizers but is less likely to leech into the soil as others.
9. Kelp Meal
Kelp is a specific kind of seaweed that can be used in your vegetable garden as an organic fertilizer. The kelp that is collected for fertilizer is dried and then ground down into granules called Kelp Meal.
Kelp Meal can be added to the soil directly or mixed with water to create a liquid version. This specific type of seaweed is used to amend the soil and promote disease free plant growth.
Get Your Soil Tested
Each vegetable garden is different and fertilizing your garden will depend on your specific needs. To decide what the best organic fertilizer is for your vegetable garden you will need a soil test.
Starting with a soil test will tell you what nutrients you will need to provide to increase plant growth. Getting your soil tested has become an easy task that can be done at home with tests found online or at your local farm store. You can also contact your local extension office to provide you with a more in-depth soil test that is sent out to a lab.
Getting your soil tested is something I highly recommend that everyone does with their garden soil. I learned a lot of awesome information when we got our garden soil tested. I like to get the soil tested from our local extension office every two years.
Reading Your Soil Test Results
The results of your soil test will show you what type of soil texture you have, the Ph level of your soil and which nutrients are needed in your garden.
- Soil Texture
There are a few different textures that could show up on your results, you could have clay, sandy, silty, or loamy soil. The texture of your soil is good know so that you can understand your soil’s ability to retain water and how it impacts your plants root growth.
- Ph Level
The ph level on a soil test is the measure of acidity of your soil, the PH measure is represented by a number ranging anywhere from 0 to 14. 0 on this scale means that your soil is extremely acidic while a 14 means your soil is very alkaline. When amending your soil or adding fertilizer, most try and shoot for a 6.5 or 7, meaning the soil will have a neutral Ph level. Neutral or slightly acidic is good for most crops that are grown in home gardens, but there are always exceptions.
There are three main plant nutrients when you are reading your soil results and looking at fertilizers. These nutrients are represented by the letter N – P – K.
- Three Main Plant Nutrients
- Nitrogen (N)
- Phosphorus (P)
- Potassium (K)
- Three Main Plant Nutrients
You want your garden soil to be loamy and slightly acidic, and most soils do not have this perfect soil combination to start with. I know that our soil was far from perfect when we started our gardening adventure, and it took a lot of soil amendment and hard work to get it right.
Understanding your soil results is the first step to better garden soil, they will help you decide what is the best organic fertilizer for your garden and tell you how to amend your soil to promote future growth.
Buying The Best Organic Fertilizers for Your Garden
When you are looking at fertilizers in the store, you will notice 3 bold numbers on the package; this is called the fertilizer grade. The fertilizer grade is based on the amount of each specific nutrient (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) per the weight of the bag or container.
When you are compare the fertilizers on the store shelves you will notice that the NPK numbers are smaller than the ones found on the chemical fertilizers.
Don’t let the lower numbers scare you off!
Chemical fertilizers have nutrients that are ready to give your garden a quick fix, but they will disappear in a short time after you have applied them. Organic fertilizers stick around in the soil longer, adding nutrients over an extended period.
You decision to buy organic fertilizers, was you making the choice to invest in the long-term health of your garden soil and your future vegetable plant growth.
While a good-quality garden nursery near you should have many of these organic fertilizer options available for you, if you cannot find any, you can find a few of them from my favorite online gardening store True Leaf Market.
Dual-Purpose: Organic Fertilizer and Soil Amendment
Soil amendment is all about starting at ground level, you are adding materials to the soil to help improve the overall structure. The goal of soil amendment is to add organic material to help promote the root growth of your plants, while fertilizing is when you are adding nutrients to feed your plants.
Amending soil is not the same as fertilizing it, but one of the benefits of using organic fertilizers is that they can double as natural soil amendments. Compost is an example of one that is frequently used and talked about, but there are other fertilizer/soil amendments to help improve your garden soil.
When Should I Add Fertilizer to My Vegetable Garden?
When to add fertilizer to your garden depends on a few things, including: what types of vegetables you are growing; what stage your garden is at; and, of course, what your soil test results showed.
Organic fertilizers can be slower to release nutrients and can be applied to your garden soil before planting as an amendment using your soil test results as a guide.
If you already have plants growing and want to add fertilizer, there are usually directions on your seed packages that will tell how often to feed your plants until harvest. If you don’t happen to have instructions, adding fertilizer every 4 weeks won’t hurt. At this stage, you can also use your plants color and overall health to help you decide.
Some vegetable plants are “heavy feeders” and might need fertilizer added more often than other plants would require. Knowing which heavy feeders you have in your garden and watching for a change in their appearance will let you know when they need more.
Common Heavy Feeder Crops
Many common vegetable plants are known heavy feeders, these are just a few plants that you know will need addition nutrients. Planting instructions found on the seed packages can be helpful, to determine how much more they will needs and how often to apply fertilizers.
Choose the Best Organic Fertilizers for Your Garden
Your soil has been tested, you know what your garden needs; it is time to start the process of amending your soil and adding fertilizers. Remember the best organic fertilizers double as a soil amendment they will feed your plants and build up your soil.
Now is the time to invest in your vegetable garden’s long-term health and production by starting to use organic fertilizers in your garden. Your garden will love them, and you can rest assured that you are providing the best healthy options for your family and the garden.
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