Spreading it around

The scoop on fertilizer of all kinds

A friend had a great idea for this month’s column: “Watering!” she said. “You could write about how much and how often to water.”

“I wrote about that not too long ago,” I said.

“Crap,” she sighed.

“That’s it!”

“That’s what?”

“I’ll write about fertilizer.”

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is where writers find our inspiration.

Since money is like fertilizer – it doesn’t work until you spread it around –  we have several types of currency available.

All fertilizers, whether organic or inorganic, have three basic compounds: nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. Nitrogen helps the foliage grow strong, phosphorous helps roots and flowers develop and potash (potassium) is important for general plant health. The three numbers you might see on a package of fertilizer tell you what percentage of each the product contains. A “balanced fertilizer” contains equal or near-equal percentages of each.

Soil testing, available through the Allen County Extension office on the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne campus, can help determine which of these you need most (or least) for your flowers or vegetables. Visit extension/purdue.edu/allen for information on collecting samples for a soil test and interpreting the results.

The options for getting the nutrients your garden needs are many and varied, as walking through a garden center (or, especially, perusing a garden catalog) will reveal. There is the kind of fertilizer you buy and mix with water; you can use it in a watering can or sprayer, but you can also get it in a container you attach to a garden hose for hand watering. You can buy fertilizer in granules, often billed as time-released, that you work into the soil. Some of these are organic, some not.

Mulched leaves. As our own extension educator, Ricky Kemery, is fond of saying, what’s not to love about free fertilizer? You can use shredded leaves as mulch around trees and shrubs, add them to your compost pile and work them into your garden beds. If you are starting from scratch and creating new garden beds, Kemery suggests combining a foot or two of leaves, newspaper, peat moss and manure. It will all break down into great soil, he said.

The city offers compost biosolids soil for free (if you load it onto your vehicle yourself; a small fee applies otherwise: $12.20/ton) from the Biosolids, Lime and Yard Waste facility at Lake Avenue and Maplecrest Road. According to the city, the solid residue from the treatment of domestic sewage is processed to lessen odor and reduce or eliminate pathogens, and it’s very nutrient-rich.

However – because the biosolids may contain trace amounts of heavy metals, I would not recommend using it on food crops. Some will say it’s perfectly safe to use on consumables, and some will say it’s OK for some edible crops but not for root or leafy vegetables. I say find something else to use on anything you’re going to eat.

Bring old-fashioned fertilization to 21st-century gardens with manure. A Fine Gardening magazine article at www.finegardening.com says the nutrient content of manure may be lower than that of commercial fertilizers. What manure has that the commercial fertilizers do not is the carbon compounds, or organic materials, that build soil structure. The article includes a chart that breaks down the nutrient content of manure by the species producing it.

All that said, Fine Gardening suggests using composted manure. Fresh or raw manure is so nutrient-rich it may actually burn plants. It also smells bad, attracts flies and may contain pathogens and weed seeds. So use manure that’s had time to compost and de-yuckify.

You can buy bagged manure at garden centers; as always, read the label. Another option may be to procure it directly from a farm; eat locally, fertilize locally. That is to say, make a deal with the farmer. If you sneak onto the premises with a shovel and bag under cover of night, the horses may keep mum, but the cows will certainly tell on you. Then you have whatever garden karma comes from stolen fertilizer.

Farmers and gardeners have used bat guano for centuries, and it’s available in a variety of formulations – dry, liquid, mixed with worm castings or poultry manure or just by itself. Organic gardening suppliers are probably your best source; one even lets you choose among Jamaican, Mexican, Indonesian and Sumatran bat guano. If you’re tempted to forgo shopping and just check the nearest belfry, again – odors, toxins and stuff.

There are lots of other organic options out there. Explore and ask questions at farm markets.

The key to all of the above: If something’s in ample supply – and it just keeps on coming – let’s make good use of it.

First appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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