What Is Fertilizer, Anyway? Part 1

The technology of farming is what literally started humanity. That’s right, before farming we hunted and gathered with most of our attention paid to survival instead of specializing. The first documented use of fertilizer is of Europe’s earliest farmers applying manure on their fields around 8,000 years ago. No doubt these ancient farmers noticed the thriving plants in the dung heap and realized that using manure in their fields will help their plants grow bigger, better, faster.

Mined inorganic fertilizers have been in use for many centuries, whereas chemically synthesized inorganic fertilizers were only widely developed after the industrial revolution, and through activity of the Military Industrial Complex.

“Fertilizer” is defined as: “a chemical or natural substance added to soil or land to increase its fertility.” This leaves how we define “fertility” open to interpretation, and does not address the fact that fertility is relative to the growing application. In a true objective sense, fertilizer is a crutch. Mother Nature doesn’t require fertilizer. Fertilizer is a human invention used in many cases to compensate for infertile soil, but if used properly, can become a mechanism to enhance the strength and yield potential of plants.

In concept, the original manure farmer is really no different from a modern hydroponic farmer using fertilizer salts to grow crops in water or soilless growing mediums. Many growers have experienced the massive yields achieved with hydroponics relative to soil-based applications. But there is one major difference, the manure is Mother Nature’s creation, and the hydroponic fertilizer salt is artificial and created by man. Anyone out there attuned to hydroponics will have surely had this conversation with someone at some point – what is the difference between an organic fertilizer and an artificial fertilizer? From the plants perspective, arguably not much.

Consider table salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl). When you stir it into water it dissolves into a sodium (Na+) and chlorine (Cl-) ion. Plants eat these ions. An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving the atom a net positive or negative. The relative imbalance of the ions begs cooperation with active transport sites in plant roots in the electrical world of opposites attract.

What's the Difference Between Organic & Chemical Fertilizer?Although there is a fair argument to be made about the complexity and isotopic potential of natural versus artificial sources of plant nourishment, technically, so the argument goes, whether the ion is from a mineral salt or from bat guano, the plant doesn’t really care.

However, from the perspective of the soil in the natural vs. artificial discussion is an entirely different story. Nature doesn’t understand artificial. In fact, most artificial materials take advantage of Nature on some level, if they don’t kill her outright.

Let’s be specific. Artificial fertilizers are not directly toxic, but they do not feed the microbes responsible for making plant food in healthy soil. The solubility is what makes artificial salts a good fertilizer, and the technology is how the ratios of elements are put together. This is completely different from Nature.

In healthy soil, microbes make plant food – not people. A tree doesn’t eat leaves, but the humus that the microbes in the soil make from it. This is what we call composting, which represents the most fundamental concept of nutrient cycling in living systems.

In a forest, there is no harvest, and in the closed nutrient, loop retains everything. Imagine if we pulled all the leaves out of a forest? The entire system would shut down, right?

Now imagine if we only added back half of what we removed? This is the status of the modern garden and farm. In the end, it is nutritionally empty and infested with pests and disease.

Artificial salts bypass the natural mechanism of biological decomposition and work to discourage microbes in an attempt to feed the plant directly. With awareness towards the complexity and subtlety of life, we can do justice to plants and ourselves using artificial techniques such as hydroponics – but this is a larger responsibility than most fertilizer companies realize.

Hydroponics makes sense because the growing process is totally separated from Nature, and accomplished in a closed system where one can leverage its benefits. But it would not be accurate to say that the average hydroponic fertilizer that contains no more than seventeen elements is everything a plant wants. How could it be? Do we imagine that plants desire no more than seventeen elements from Nature?

So, what the plant is eating in hydroponics is sufficient, but not what it could be. But the real no-no is when we apply hydroponic principles in a soil-based environment. This doesn’t leverage the point of the soil, or its strength, and brings into the scenario the need to flush excess salts out of the soil, which is difficult to do in the Earth.

This is an important point in regards to the differences between hydroponics and organics. With hydroponics we use refined fertilizers, they are essentially everything a plant requires for growth. But with organics, because Mother Nature creates the material, there is an innate diversity of nutrition that the grower gets without even trying.

Fertilizer: Salts versus NaturalThis is the qualitative difference some growers see in hydroponics versus organics. It’s not that it is impossible to achieve quality in hydroponics, but that the grower needs to pay more attention to the nutritional diversity, considering they have set themselves up as the sole proprietor. In the healthiest of soil all elements are in play. Even if the element is not used directly by a plant, microbes use every single one of them to create their enzyme potential. Growing a garden without all elements present is like hiring microbes to build a house, but giving them only half the tools needed.

Think of it like the limitations of LED plant lighting technology. It’s great when you can choose individual wavelengths to save electricity, but what happens if you miss one? In regards to fertilizer, we end up with NPK-based fertilization and the average gardener creating obesity in their plants by pumping them full of soluble nitrogen purchased cheaply at a Big Box store.

We have to get past the marketing and ask ourselves questions from the perspective of the plant. For example, why would Mother Nature make elements not needed in the garden?

The essential difference between natural vs. artificial is humanity. It is our logic, our decision, our responsibility. This is why our choices are so important. Any inkling of a closed mind on the best way to engage living systems will fail us.

Soil’s fertility is innate if human artificiality does not intervene. It is when we apply hydroponic methods in natural living systems that we end up with empty food and the toxic rescue chemistry of modern conventional agriculture.

Bottom line: don’t treat your soil like a hydroponic system. Plants make their own food. We can have the poorest of soil conditions and apply fertilizer and create a yield. The question is what are we missing if this is all we are doing?

In Part Two of this article, we will discuss the specifics of how plants use fertilizer to build themselves, and how the use of targeted biocatalysts can take major responsibility off of the plant to accomplish monster yields in the garden.

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Evan is a regenerative agricultural consultant with a background across every facet of the farming and gardening spectrum. He has founded and operated many businesses over the years - including a retail hydroponics store he operated for over 14 years, a wholesale company that formulated beyond organic products and vortex-style compost tea brewers, an organic lawn care company, and a commercial organic wheatgrass growing operation. He now works as a consultant in his new project Be Agriculture where he helps new and seasoned growers take their agronomy to the next level. What we think, we grow!