Gemologist and acclaimed author Richard K. Diran (The Vanishing Tribes of Burma) once poked fun at his horticultural skills, stating: "I have a rock garden. Last week three of them died."
Diran might have fared better if he understood what and how to fertilize.
For starters, switching from synthetic to organic fertilizer sources improves soil biology-the key to any successful floral or vegetable garden. You create a healthier environment by exposing soil to a wider assortment of microorganisms that promote plant growth. Prepare your soil properly, and Mother Nature usually takes it from there.
Composting is an extremely effective way to build nutrient-rich soil, with a robust balance of nitrogen (for foliage growth), potassium (for fruit formation) and phosphorus (for root development). It's also an inexpensive alternative to purchasing commercial fertilizer. By definition, compost is a mixture of decaying organic matter, such as leaves, manure, wood chips, grass clippings, weeds, dead flowers, coffee grounds and kitchen scraps-all of which enhance soil structure and nurture it with nutrients, minerals and trace elements.
Compost provides the correct balance of solid matter, moisture and air. When collecting your own compost, you'll need to build a "heap" where materials can naturally degrade. When the compost is ready for application (it will darken, smell earthy and bear no resemblance to its original form), it's advisable to buy an appropriate storage container (a "composter"), such as a large bin. Composters help keep your garden area neat; warm the compost, which encourages microorganism activity; and protect compost from the elements. Compost increases the action of soil microbes, insulates soil from temperature changes, and helps defend plants against insects and disease. If you add roughly one inch of compost to your soil each year, you may not require any additional fertilizer, as nitrogen supplies will be ample. Dealing with Difficult Soil
One critical floral and vegetable gardening challenge is less-than-perfect soil. In the Southwest United States, for example, excess salts can stunt plant growth, burn foliage or kill plants outright. "Hard pan," another common problem, occurs when a hard layer forms atop soil, preventing roots, nutrients and water from penetrating.
Liquid fertilizers are one solution to these problems. Because they are water soluble, they act rapidly-but they must also be applied often. You may dilute and spray them onto soil, around plants and even directly onto foliage if the ambient temperature is 90 F or lower.
Alternatively, you may wish to purchase organic fertilizer products specifically designed for vexing soil challenges.
From the Organic Authority Files
"We view difficult soil, or dead soil with no microbial activity except for pathogens, as our main target," explains Eric Hill, CEO of Organica Biotech Inc., a Norristown, Pennsylvania-based company that produces environmentally safe products for consumers, agriculture and industry. "One cannot have a healthy plant without healthy soil, so our products inoculate the soil, enabling heartier growth in plants and vegetables."
Two of Organica Biotech's products are specifically designed for difficult soil: Plant Booster and Lawn Booster.
"They simultaneously feed the soil and plants with groups of beneficial microorganisms, improving the vital soil biology that is needed for healthy plant life," Hill tells OrganicAuthority.com. "These microscopic wonders are 'nature's life support system.' They improve nutrient availability, enhance nutrient absorption, reduce the incidence of nutrient leaching, stimulate healthy plant growth, improve soil structure, and provide plants with increased resistance to environmental stress, such as drought, heat, cold and foot traffic. Attempting to implement an organic program without addressing soil biology is a recipe for disaster."
Apartment dwellers, the disabled, the elderly and families with limited space can enjoy gardening by maintaining organic container gardens, following the same fertilization philosophies used for regular gardens. Virtually anyone can create a small container garden on a deck, patio or city balcony.
Liquid fertilizers, such as fish emulsion, liquid manure and seaweed extract, are one of a container gardener's greatest allies for soil conditioning. You will need to fertilize plants more often (probably every two weeks), depending on the species, but exercise caution: The most common mistake people make is over-fertilization. Without the volume of soil found in large outdoor gardens, container gardens can be overexposed to fertilizer, which kills plants with "too much of a good thing."
As with any garden, target the soil, Organica Biotech's Hill advises.
"Container-garden soil is typically heated to about 800°F prior to packaging, killing all signs of life in order to make it weed- and pathogen-free," he says. "In doing so, most beneficial microbes are also eliminated, creating a sterile soil."
Hill recommends using Organica's Plant Growth Activator.
"The product feeds plants and improves soil biology in the container by releasing favorable microbes," he says. "Once again, these microbes increase soil's resistance to environmental stress, such as over-watering and under-watering, over-sunning and under-sunning, and limited space (contained root growth and shortage of nutrient-holding capacity), resulting in stronger, healthier plants."