Friday, September 28, 2012

Organic Fertilizer – Part 2 - Sources

Natural Sources Renew the Soil

Organic fertilizers are acquired, gathered, and minimally processed from  - you guessed it – natural elements. 


I’ve used this picture in my talks to illustrate the many types of organic fertilizer sources.  The plants, the livestock, and even the hills, are sources of rich organic materials. 

All fertilizers, whether chemical or organic, are labeled with the familiar N-P-K or three numbers, as labeled here with 5-3-3.  I want to explain the symbols. Nitrogen is the N.  Phosphorous is the P, and Potassium, or sometimes called potash, is the K.


I never could remember what each element provided in the growing cycle of plants. So when I heard this little saying I at least had a reference point.

“Up, Down, All Around.”  Simple, and in my mind, simple is good.  The N is the UP.  Nitrogen feeds the parts of the plant we can see – on top of the soil.  The P is the Down – phosphorus feed the roots – and K is the All Around - the health of the plant to withstand adverse growing conditions, and for the plant to grow.

npknpk amts explained

The numbers stated on the fertilizer indicate the percentage of that element in 100 pounds.  So in 100 pounds of this product, 12 pounds of it is nitrogen.  As this diagram shows, the numbers are percentages of 100 pounds of product.  In a fifty pound bag, 12% would be 6 pounds of nitrogen.
Now the basics of N-P-K are stated here very broadly.  The idea is that the plant can get its basic nutrition from either chemical and organic fertilizers.  The plant does not know the difference between the two sources of nitrogen. It just grows.

The label gives us other information on the source of the fertilizer.  Is it 100% Organic, (just) Organic, or Natural?  100% Organic products require the product to have ONLY organically produced ingredients.  This was determined by the three year stipulation of restricting pesticides, herbicides,  chemical fertilizers, or any other chemical for the prior three years.This insures that no chemicals are affecting the growth process.  Farmers and breeders have to certify their process before the 100% USDA Organic can be displayed on the label. 
seal - organic
If the product displays an Organic on the label, that product must be at least 95% organic, and the other 5% ingredients must be on an approved list of ingredients.  Certain processing methods are not permitted – such as using sewage sludge or ionization radiation. These products may use the USDA Organic label.

The third labeling that gives us indications of the source of the product is Natural. In this instance, the product must be 70% organic and must list three organic ingredients.  This label may not use the USDA Organic label.


The OMRI ™ is a symbol that products have met certain standards.  The producer of a products submits the product for review and for a fee, the product is analyzed.  This symbol is similar to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval seen on products. The stipulation I’d like to made here is that knowing the OMRI™ seal is absent from a label does not mean the products is not organic.  It just means the manufacturer didn’t not pay to have the product reviewed.

The nature of the label can give is the source of the organic fertilizer.  And, in turn, the lack of listed ingredients on a label should be a indication that what we don’t know CAN hurt us.  Take time to read label is the difference in organics or chemicals. 

mcgeary org fert label


Organic fertilizers have three origins – animals, plants, and minerals. Here you may questions me – minerals were never alive.  True, but the inclusion of minerals as natural (and not man-made) has a place in the soil life cycle. Microbes ingest minerals, and then excrete enzymes at the roots of plants that make nutrients available. Many soil deficiencies are due to a lack of some mineral and replacing that mineral is going to be key in the plant health. 
In the next article, I’ll discuss Plants Used for Organic Fertilizers.  What  plants, and what nutrients do they provide?
I no longer have an affiliation with McGeary Organics.  I just really like the products.
Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment - I love hearing from my readers.   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Answers to Recently Asked Plant Questions

Questions From My Readers

I've set aside this post to answer several questions that were asked regarding remarks I made in a previous article.  Clematis, Asters, and Native plants were leaving some with questions.  As I write, I make some statements and I forget that not all gardeners have the same experiences and I make some assumptions.  So please allow me to go back and clarify some items regarding clematis, asters, and native plants.
Q1) You said that your clematis have never bloomed so late.  When do they bloom?  And what happens when they are out of sync with their normal cycle? 

A1)   My  comment indicated that I had never had a clematis bloom in September, as several of my clematis were doing this year.  I can only attribute this late bloom to the fact that these plants were moved in late spring.  At the time of the transplanting, each plant got a feeding of organic fertilizer, and the new location was in full sun – more that six hours a day.  Their previous location was mostly shade – less than four hours of sun a day.  Clematis bloom times vary with the type of clematis. Some bloom in early summer,  some bloom in late Summer.  Some varieties are re- bloomers, which means they can and will have a secondary bloom after the first flush. This secondary flush usually does not produce as many blooms as the first. Two re-bloomer are Niobe, and Moonfleet. 
Moonfleet rebloomerimages (1)
Moonfleet                                                   Niobe

The Autumn Clematis is a prolific blooms, bordering on invasive. It can grow 15 feet and easily cover a fence or structure in a season. It blooms – in Autumn – in my Zone 6 garden – in late August into September.

Q2)  You said that asters were more reliable than mums.  Why? 

A2)  Asters have been reliable in my Zone 6 garden for many years.  Mums, on the other hand, do not overwinter well.  Of the dozens of mums I have planted, only one survived.  Asters, a native to the United States, are a wildflower. Asters are more drought tolerant than mums, and are a great nectar source for butterflies and bees. Hybridizers have created beautiful colors in mauve, pinks, and purples. 
When I worked at a nursery where mums were grown, we told customers to treat mums as a ‘tender perennial’.  Fall planting of mums does not give the roots a chance to get established before the ground freezes.  Many folks were disappointed when the mums did not return in the spring.  Gardeners determined to have mums need to plant them in the spring and keep them  watered during the summer so roots have a better chance of survival.


Q3)  There’s such thing as Native Plants? Which ones? And how do I take care of them?

A3)  This topic would take several books to fully explain.  So the (sorry) quick answer is:  Natives are plants that are original to an area,  before transplants came from foreign countries.  The recent interest in Natives is the resurgence of heritage, history, and the eco-friendly nature of these plants. 
Native plants can be herbaceous perennials, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that have acclimated themselves to the 1) soils, 2) the moisture, 3) the insects, 4) and diseases common to the area and have survived.

Native trees, shrubs, and perennials are not too picky on soil. They can survive, and actually thrive, in poor soils.  They do not want heavy fertilization, and once established, they are drought tolerant.

I hope these answers clarify some of the items in question. If I can explain anything else, please feel free to add a comment.  Gardeners love to share, so join in the discussion. 

Our Lawn Renovation

Another Phase in the Backyard Renovation

Another section of our backyard is getting a face lift   The timing for the lawn renovation is getting critical since the fall planting time is quickly coming to a close.
In our Zone 6 garden, grass seed needs to be planted before September 15.  The seed needs to have time to germinate and the roots need to be well established before a killing freeze.  Normally, here we have a first frost in early October, and the soil temps really drop at that time.   
100_1157 As the lawn renovation started, we needed to remove a large area of nimblewill.  That process took a couple of weeks.  The grassy weed really had spread, and we used a non-selective herbicide. 


Here the pathway got a top dressing of topsoil.  This is the base for the seed.  Loose soil is vital for the seed to take root.  Hard compacted areas will not give the seed roots any foundation.  100_1159

The seed went down, and we even over seeded the previously seeded areas that were a little thin. 


The next step in the lawn renovation today was to apply an organic fertilizer.  The N-P-K was 5-3-4, and was a combination of bone meal and soybean meal, and compost. 


This organic fertilizer is OMRI listed©. The Organic Materials Review Institute analyzes products that manufacturers submit.  The national organic standards must be met in the creation of the products, and if they meet these standards, the OMRI© label is applied.
Generally a three year history of the ingredients is inspected.  For those three years, the fields must not have any chemical herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizers.

The same goes for meat products.  Livestock must not have been fed anything but organic feeds, to qualify as organic. 


The safety of this organic fertilizer is evident in the safe handling of the grain.  There is no strong chemical odor, and the family pets are not going to be harmed if they wander around in the planting area.
The final step in today’s lawn renovation, was to water the seed.  This moisture will be maintained 2 – 3 times a day until the grass has been mowed at least twice.

These areas were the first seeded in the lawn renovation.  As shown, the grass seed here is starting to fill in.

The garden has made a major transformation in our efforts to scale down the work the garden was requiring.  Thanks for stopping by today. 
What projects are you doing in your yard? 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Organic Fertilizer–A Good Choice–Part 1

Good Choice for Our Lives 

This post on Organic Fertilizers is the first in a new series. Each of these seven posts will discuss 1) The Benefits of Organic Fertilizers, 2) The Sources of Organic Fertilizers, 3) Plants Used for Organic Fertilizers, 4) Animals Used Organic Fertilizers, 5) Ocean and Sea Products Used for Organic Fertilizers, 6) Other Sources for Organic Fertilizers, and 7) Minerals Used in Organic Growing,

I have been in the garden my whole life.  My grandparents had an extensive garden and I got to set out bedding plants, water them, and even climb the apple tree to pick as much as I could reach. 

In the early 1950’s, the garden and gardening practices were organic. Grandfather used mulch and decayed leaves (compost) for nutrients.

At that time commercial fertilizers started to come onto the market.  Wow, they were a hit!.  Fast growing plants, dark green color, and the smell ( ! ) let all the neighbors know that we were up on the latest and greatest!
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The more I gardened I had the gradual awareness that something in the garden was different from when I was a child.  We were told to buy ‘veggie wash’ products for our food, water sources were having to be monitored for safety, and the cost of everything was going up, up, up. Feeling the need to be more environmentally responsible, I started to make changes in my own yard.  That’s when I discovered some very troubling things.


As Environmental Protection Agency standards came about, I found that many of the polluters were actually recycling. Wow! Could these rules really be helping?  Well, as it turns out many companies with toxic waste to dispose of were not properly handling this waste. Instead, they were using fertilizer production facilities to incorporate these toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, dioxin and mercury.
The way these heavy metals got by this process is that only the top three elements of the fertilizer must be named. Labeling laws made this easy. Therefore the remaining or ‘other’ ingredients could be anything.  Consequently, millions of acres of farmland were spread with these toxins. 

label Note : 85.05% of the ingredients in this bag are not specifically named and labeled ‘Other Ingredients.'
Many heavy metals stay in the ground and are taken up in crops used for animal and human consumption. Since chemical fertilizers are generally water soluble, they are taken up by plants rather quickly. And because they are water soluble, they leach out of the soil, into ground water or watersheds that feed our streams rivers, and lakes.

water soluableNitrates are particularly harmful to infants and other health risks are becoming more prevalent.  Since we have only been using these products for about 60 years, we may not have seen the worst yet.
Another environmental issue I have with chemical fertilizers is that in the process of creating synthetic nitrogen, natural gas is heated to combine atmospheric nitrogen with the hydrogen of ammonia. The amount of natural gas to make just 200 bags of fertilizer would heat a home for a year.  Fossil fuels in each 40 pound bag is the equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gasoline.
Organic fertilizers are made with minimal processing using natural sources.  Using plant parts that are left over from the food industry like the leaves and stems is a good use of all the plant.  Organic fertilizers use animal parts that are left over from processing food with little or no waste.
Using materials in this way is a good example of sustainability of this industry. Plants grow each year and animals breed each year so the supply continues.

Organic fertilizers work differently from chemical products

Micro-organisms in the soil feed on the organic material that organic fertilizers provide.  The micro-organisms create enzymes that allow the nutrients to be absorbed by the plant.  Chemical fertilizers, which are generally water soluble, are taken up directly by the plant and leave nothing in the soil for long-term feeding.  The chemicals can actually destroy colonies of micro-organisms and leave the soil dead.  Organic fertilizers feed the millions of microbes in the soil for a soil that is alive.

Since organic fertilizers feed the soil, the nutrients is more steadily taken up by the plants. Quick start and stop feeding of chemical fertilizers can actually weaken the plant’s health. (Some chemical fertilizers are being manufactured with a time-release formula for an extended feed. The feed is still a chemical one, however.)  Plants on an organic regime are healthier and healthy plants are more resistant to damage from insects and diseases.  This long-term feeding can save money by reducing the number of applications the garden needs each season.


These are 17 nutrients that organic fertilizers provide.  Trace elements are key to a healthy plant.  If even one element is missing, the plant can suffer.( This is evident in the case of blossom-end rot of tomatoes.  The nutritional deficiency of calcium is the cause of this disorder.)  The chemical fertilizers on the market have the N-P-K  in the amounts listed.  But a well balanced diet is not available in the chemical products and the other 14 nutrients are missing. 


One last problem with chemical fertilizers is that damage seen here.  The chemicals were put down too heavily, or were not watered in well and burned this yard. High salt levels are common in chemical fertilizers. The low salt levels of organic fertilizers compared to chemical products is safer, too. Organic fertilizers will not burn plants like this chemical fertilizer did.  Organic fertilizers can be applied at any time.  The microbe activity will be low in colder temperatures, but when the soil temperatures rise, and the spring rains come, the organic material will become food for the micro-organisms and make nutrients available to the plants as they begin to grow.  And again, the natural material decomposes – not like chemical products that dissolve.

Next post will discuss the sources of organic fertilizers.  If you have any questions regarding this article, please feel free to leave me a comment.  I will be happy to address any issues.  Thanks for your time today.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to Create Compost

Compost - A Beneficial Soil Additive

I have talked about the beneficial effects of compost many times, but I have recently been asked about the ‘ingredients’ that can be beneficial to the mix and to the soil.
brown, green air, water


These are microscopic images of nematodes, fungi, protozoa, and amoeba. In healthy soil, there are millions of these guys looking for something to eat.

Micro-organisms love to eat.  So organic materials are high on the ingredient list.  What is considered organic?  The simple answer is ‘anything that was once alive’.  This life could have existed as plants or animals. So let’s look at specific green and brown ingredients the gardener can easily use to make compost a beneficial product. 

Green Ingredients for the compost pile are high in Nitrogen, amino acids, and proteins, which are foods for the micro-organisms. 

grass clippingsgreen material

Grass clippings and vegetable peels are easily available for the home compost pile. Any salad fixing -  like the outer leaves of lettuce or onions, the tops of carrots, or the stems of peppers - can be added to the compost. Trimmings from green beans, or the core of a head of cabbage are eligible for the green category for the compost pile. Don’t throw away that banana peel, or the core of an apple, or potato peelings either.  Put them into the compost bin.
rabbit manure

Other green elements for compost are manures.  This can come from horses, cows, bunnies, goats, chickens, and bats. When bunny or chicken manure is used, don’t forget to add in the bedding materials, like straw or wood shavings. Those materials are a good source of ‘brown’ ingredients for the pile.  ( I should note here that neither cat nor dog manure nor human waste should ever be added to the compost pile because of the risk of parasites that may not break down in the compost.)

100_1244coffee filters and grounds

Coffee grounds and banana peels are almost daily ingredients to the compost bin at my house. Tea bags get in the mix too.  Let’s face it, coffee grounds are free, smell great, and they help retain moisture in the compost.  Seaweed or algae from the water feature in the yard can also be added.  Doing some dead-heading in the garden?  That plant material can go in too.  Cleaning up houseplants of yellowing or dropped leaves is another source for green ingredients for the compost pile.

kitchen waste with eggs

Egg shells are controversial as an ingredient for compost.  The salmonella risk of uncooked eggs is in question.  I don’t use my compost on food crops, so I have been known to throw in the eggs.  However, if even handling the compost might cause a risk concern,  the shells can be microwaved for three minutes (cooked) before adding them to the compost pile.

One other ingredient that I don’t think about adding to the pile is hair. Cutting the kids hair, or brushing a shedding dog are good sources for hair. 


The ‘brown’ ingredients added to the compost pile provide carbon.  Microbes really get into eating these.

brown materialpaper

The list of these ‘brown’ carbon sources are many:  dead leaves, straw, dried grass, paper towels and the tube they come on, old potting soil, dead plants, the coffee filters and tea bags, wood ashes from the fire pit, saw dust from untreated wood, and even dried, stale beans or grains from the pantry.


Dryer fabric softener sheets and dryer lint are good ‘brown’ ingredients.

Paper towels, toilet paper rolls, and tissues need not be thrown away to become landfill, but can be part of the beneficial elements of compost.

Several brown items that should not be added are animal fats from bones or meat. Neither should weed seeds nor diseased plants be added to the compost pile as the high temperatures needed to kill the seed or pathogens are not maintained in the home compost. Spreading weeds are a challenge anyway, we do not need to help them along. 

100_0419I use both of these for compost in my garden. (The wire one is a recycled dog kennel – win win) The air flow is good in both.  But the enclosed one in black has a handy lid to keep critters out.  This is the one I put food scraps into.  Dogs, raccoons and opossum find the compost materials yummy.  I have had the enclosed bin be too dry since rain doesn’t get in so I’ve bee know to add a bottle of beer to the container.  The hops and yeasts in the beverage just add to the natural elements in the mixture. Twigs and grass clipping, or other yard debris go into the wire bin.

Some are reluctant to have a compost pile because of the odor of decaying Compost%20Bin  materials. If the technology is too complicated, some will not attempt to compost anything. Both the odor and the technical aspects should not deter us from trying. The simplest ‘rule’  I’ve followed it to layer the green and brown layers in an approximate 50-50 ratio.  If the mix is higher in the brown, that will work too.

turning compost

Turning the compost in an open pile is not difficult.  By allowing air and moisture to get in and through the material, decomposition will naturally occur. The layers are not too critical once the pile gets turned. Left unturned, the materials will still decompose, just a little slower. I’ve had results in an unturned pile in a year.  If the pile get smelly, (sour), add more ‘brown’ ingredients like straw, leaves, or shredded paper.

A  healthy finished compost should be moist, not soggy, and have a rich, earthy smell.


This product called compost will have immeasurable benefits in the garden. The feeding of the soil is the key.  Feed the microbes, and they will digest the organic material, and create enzymes that will allow the nutrients to feed the plants. Feed the soil, not the plants is the mantra of organic gardening.  Compost is a great way to return beneficial nutrients to the soil.

I hope composting becomes a vital part of your gardening. Thanks for stopping by today.