You Are Here: Home » Blog » General » Book Excerpt: Natural Fertilizer Sources

Book Excerpt: Natural Fertilizer Sources

Our free-market society conditions us to think we need to purchase products for everything — and this is especially true in gardening and lawn care. Having been raised by a family of dairy farmers, I fondly remember growing vegetable and flower gardens with nothing more for fertilizer than cow manure and manure “tea.”

Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, that reviews some of the best (sometimes free) sources of natural fertilization:

Animal By-Products
Call me old-fashioned, but I still take all the manure I can get from the local farmers in my town. I grew up on a dairy farm and helped my grandfather spread cow manure on everything from the cornfields and hay fields to my grandmother’s vegetable and even flower gardens. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s proper sister, Aunt Evelyn, who marveled about the size and quantity of the blossoms in Gram’s garden. She took off her white gloves, reached down to scoop up some soil, and marveled at the rich material in her fingers. “It’s so nice and dark and healthy looking,” she said.

“It’s cow manure,” said Gram.

Her sister turned white and instantly went inside to wash her hands.

On lawns, animal manures are used mainly as composted amendments. Some other animal by-products can be useful if you can find them at a reasonable price, though it is still a good idea to know the source of any animal byproducts.

Blood Meal
Dried slaughterhouse waste containing about 12 to 15 percent nitrogen and 3 percent phosphorous, blood meal should not be used as a top-dressing because it might burn the lawn. However, you can work it into the soil when establishing a new lawn or use it to help activate a compost pile. Blood meal is expensive, however, at the garden center.

Containing approximately 22 percent phosphorus and 22 percent calcium and used during seed, sod, sprig or plug establishment but not as a topdressing, bonemeal can help roots establish. Like blood meal, it is highly expensive in the store.

Feather Meal
A common by-product of the poultry slaughter industry, feather meal shows up fairly often in natural fertilizers because of its nitrogen content of 8 to 15 percent. Feather meal is slow to break down, so the nitrogen is released extremely slowly, which can be good, or bad depending on your soil’s needs.

Fish Products
Growing up on the Maine coast, I vividly recall a foul stench at certain times of year when visiting the shorefront of many communities. Low tide always has a distinctive odor, but this was something more: fish-processing factories. By-products would pile up outside, and depending on which way the wind was blowing, the smell could stick with you all day.

By the early 1990s, manufacturers of compost and fertilizer gobbled up the fish waste as fast as it was produced. Fish emulsion, as it is often called, may contain as much as 10 percent nitrogen and 6 percent phosphorus, with high levels of calcium and micronutrients. In New England alone, at least a dozen companies are now making fish-based fertilizers. Across North America, dozens more are including fish in the fertilizer mix, especially when the goal is a high nitrogen count.

A primary benefit of fish in fertilizer is that it is available to the grass plants more quickly than some other organic fertilizers that first need to be decomposed by microbes in the soil. The fish-based products, in other words, can provide a quick green-up because the nutrients are predissolved in the water and ready for the grass plants immediately.

Mentioned hundreds of times in this book, compost is the basis of all organic gardening. I submit that the conscious creation of compost and the subsequent addition of compost to the soil is humankind’s primary contribution to the health of the planet as a whole. Plants almost literally can’t get too much.

One quick aside . . . Years ago, when world-famous homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing were farming in Maine, they would faithfully send a sample of their soil to the Cooperative Extension Service at the state university. When the authors of The Good Life got their results back, they were always the same. “Too much organic matter!” they would exclaim together, and then laugh out loud like children.

An optimum goal for lawns, according to numerous agronomists, is 5 percent organic matter mixed in with the particles of clay, silt, and sand in the soil. Since most compost is about 25 to 40 percent organic matter by volume, you need to mix it in liberally to achieve 5 percent organic matter in the overall soil profile. And if you go above 5 percent, it won’t hurt the lawn one bit. Organic matter is constantly cycled by soil microbes, which will quickly devour any extra they get.

The challenge for the homeowner these days is to find good bulk sources of really fertile compost. The least expensive material may contain a high percentage of biosolids. Some of the poorer-quality composts may contain high levels of sawdust, which is good for growing trees and shrubs but should not be used in abundance on grass. Compost should also be “finished.” That means it should smell sweet and earthy, not pungent or like ammonia, and it shouldn’t be hot with steam rising from the pile as it pours off the truck.

Some companies do make decent bagged compost, but bagged products are expensive when used on areas as large as a lawn might be. Turn to page xx for a breakdown on how much compost is required for a {1/2}-inch topdressing for spring and fall. For example, you’d need 1{1/2} cubic yards of compost to top-dress a 1,000-square-foot area {1/2} inch deep. That amounts to 40.5 cubic feet, or almost 14 bags each containing 3 cubic feet.

Once you find good compost and can afford it, don’t skimp. Applying compost builds soil structure and adds soil life. In addition to the organic matter, most compost also has some nutrient value, usually about 1 percent each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Compost does it all in an organic lawn program.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
Scroll to top