Your lawn and garden simply don’t need chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. In fact, these chemicals weaken your plants. What your plants need is properly managed soil, which is not as difficult or mysterious as it sounds.
Good Soil Management Reduces the Need for Fertilizers and Pesticides
In the vegetable and fruit garden, different plants have different needs. Some, like sweet corn and broccoli, require lots of nitrogen; others very little. But plants also need potassium and phosphorous for healthy root, seed, flower, and fruit development. Fortunately, compost made from kitchen scraps, yard waste, and composted animal manure is in most cases all that is required for any plant to thrive, because it delivers all three of these elements along with many others, including bacteria and fungi to nourish the soil food web.
If your garden soil has been decimated by years of chemical dependency or subjected to extreme weather events like flood or drought, additional nutrients may be required for one or two seasons. But the only way to determine what elements need to be added is to have the soil tested by an independent laboratory. Randomly adding fertilizer – organic or otherwise – is simply guessing, and may affect plants’ flowering or yield. Additionally, plants will only use the amount of nutrients they need, so excess fertilization simply washes off into local waterways, creating a host of other problems.
Compost Is the Best Way to Feed Plants
Compost—homemade or purchased—is always the best bet to bring the soil back to normal and a neutral pH. And the good news is, it’s virtually impossible to add too much of it. If you’re growing acid-loving plants like hydrangeas, rhododendrons, or azaleas, scratch-in peat moss around the plants each spring.
Soil Management in Your Lawn
Experts without ties to the fertilizer industry agree: The only nourishment a healthy lawn requires is the grass clippings created by a sharp mulching blade on your lawn mower. That’s it, proven science (If decimated from years of fertilizer and pesticide use, then it will require organic amendments). The roots of the grass pull up nutrients from the soil, and when the grass is allowed to grow to the proper height (three inches), and the tops are finely cut by the mulching blade (no more than one inch), they decompose and feed the living grass. By the way, never cut the lawn when it’s wet, as the blades will rip the grass, not cut it. This makes the lawn vulnerable to pests and diseases.
How to Rehab a Struggling Lawn
If your lawn is thin or just won’t green up as much as it should, the culprit is probably poor soil, as the grass is only as healthy as the soil it’s rooted in. To get your lawn back in shape, first aerate the lawn and then spread a thin layer of leaf mold, finished compost, or composted manure. Reapply these amendments a few times during the season to keep feeding the soil.
Seed the lawn in the fall and apply corn gluten meal in early spring to control weeds (the corn gluten meal will also add nitrogen as it decomposes). Adding a synthetic fertilizer will initially green up the lawn, but it won’t solve the soil problem. The next season you’ll be right back where you started, only you’ll have even more soil damage.
Todd Heft is a lifelong gardener and the publisher of Big Blog of Gardening. He lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA with his wife, who cooks amazing things with the organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs he grows. When he isn’t writing or reading about organic gardening, he’s gardening.