Fertilizing soil vs amending it — Part 2

fertilizing soil, pile of cow dung

Yesterday, we discussed the basic differences between soil amendment and fertilization. If you missed Part 1 of this two-part series, you can find it here. In addition to explaining what fertilizing soil is as opposed to amending it, Part 1 also shared various options you can use to add organic matter to your soil to amend it. Today, we’ll continue the discussion beginning with ways to fertilize your garden. Keep in mind that amending soil has more to do with the foundation of your garden, the in-between-growing-seasons nurturing of your garden. Fertilizing soil has more to do with feeding your plants and helping them thrive. Gardening is all about balance, so to have a healthy garden, you need both amendment and fertilization.

Chicken litter is great for fertilizing soil

fertilizing soil, Barred Plymouth Rock chicken

I try to keep my vegetable garden as non-toxic as possible. While one can argue that this automatically makes gardening a bit more challenging (and you’d be correct) it’s worth it. At least, it is in my opinion. One of my goals in growing my own food is to provide a healthy diet for my family. The less chemicals we use indoors and out, the better! Therefore, the fertilizing soil options I’m sharing with you today are non-toxic.

I noticed a significant improvement in the health of my garden when I started using composted chicken litter for fertilizer. Chicken litter is in nitrogen, a much needed nutrient for plants to thrive. It is highly important that you age your chicken litter before fertilizing soil with it! If you don’t, you run the risk of burning your plants due to too much ammonia content. It’s easy to start a chicken litter compost. Set a large garbage bin on wheels outside your coop. (Don’t forget to drill holes in it for aeration.) Every so often, clean out the coop and dump the litter into the bin. Don’t forget to stir the compost once in a while. 

In order to optimize the efficacy of fertilizing soil with chicken litter, research ahead of time. You want to learn how long to let your compost steep before adding it to your garden. Also, find out what garden experts recommend as to the maximum amount of time prior to harvest that you should add your fertilizer to the garden. This amount of time varies depending on whether your crops are ground-contact crops or not. Chicken litter is a versatile garden tool. You can also use it as a soil amendment by adding it to the ground in the fall when there are no plants growing. If you do this, there is no need to age it first.

Worm castings are a super power for fertilizing soil

outstretched hands full of soil and worms

Organic worm castings are comprised of digested soil that worms leave behind. In short, they make a wonderfully healthy plant food! Not only are worm castings full of much needed nutrients for your garden, they also contain beneficial microbes. In Part 1 of this series, we talked about microbial activity in the garden. It helps your crops grow and also wards off plant disease.

One of my goals is to someday start a vermicompost bin at home. Until then, I look for good deals to purchase worm castings because they can be pricey. You don’t need large portions when fertilizing soil with worm castings. I typically use 1/8 to 1/4 cup around the base of my plants. If I have a row mound, such as a hill of potatoes or row of climbing peas etc., I use the same amount but space it out every three feet or so. Using worm castings helps improve the texture of your soil (as we discussed in the soil amendment part of the series). This keeps the ground from drying out and helps it retain moisture so that your crops have it readily available. If you live in an area that doesn’t get a lot of rain, this is a great benefit!

Worms are literally garden super heroes. In addition to being natural tillers, they also help remove toxins and heavy metals from the soil. If you find lots of worms in your garden, you know your soil is healthy! As far as vermicompost, composters typically use red wigglers to get the job done. Starting your own vermicompost bin is a wonderful family science project idea!

The smelliest fertilization option is fish emulsion

fertilizing soil, pile of fish

If you have someone in your household who likes to fish, you can make your own fish emulsion fertilizer at home, although you might want to invest in a hand grinder or stick blender. I don’t recommend using your kitchen blender! (bleecchh!) If you’d rather not spend money on a blender, you can simply “chunk” up your fish and bury the pieces near the roots of your plants. There’s something to keep in mind if you plan on using store-bought fish emulsion. Manufacturers of the product use a process that breaks down the scraps of fish to turn it into fertilizer. This process involves addition of chemicals.

Thus, if you want to keep your garden as non-toxic as possible, you might be better off using fish you’ve caught yourself. To legally label fertilizer “organic,” it only has to be 99% organic. I wanted to include fish emulsion as an option because it IS a mostly-organic, effective means of helping plants grow. However, I will admit that I don’t use it because it smells bad and is expensive.

Last but not least — use manure for fertilizing soil

two brown and white cows

Your vegetable garden plants need soil carbon, which is a source of energy that helps your plants get the nutrients they need. Manure produces soil carbon when you use it as a fertilizer. It also helps loosen compacted earth, which, we’ve already discussed, helps improve permeability and drainage issues.

Just as with chicken litter, never apply fresh manure to your garden! Once you have let it age, it won’t harm your plants and also won’t smell too bad. Manure takes a good while to properly compost, perhaps, six months to a year. You can basically tell when it’s ready if it’s dark and crumbly and doesn’t have a stench. As for what type of manure you can use for fertilizing soil, there are many options, including cow, horse, pig, rabbit, sheep or goat manure. CAUTION: NEVER use dog or cat manure in your garden! Both types of feces often contain toxoplasmosis and roundworms. If you use it as a garden fertilizer, the health of anyone who eats the food you harvest will be greatly at risk.

Balance is key. To have a healthy garden, you must nurture both the soil and your plants. There’s no need to stress over it, and you don’t need super expensive, top of the line gardening tools or products. You can have a healthy, abundant harvest without breaking the bank. Check out these tips on ways to save money while gardening!

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