by Amber

Fertilizer Pollution & Your Garden

If it weren’t for the excess nitrogen applied to farmland, there would be no fertilizer pollution. Wrong! What kind of fertilizer are you using in your garden? How about on your lawn? It’s not the size of the plot, but the fertilizer itself that is causing the problems with nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in drinking water and waterways. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing on 80 acres, a big backyard garden, a few raised beds, or a collection of pots on the balcony – most people who grow food, flowers and lush lawns are pollution contributors.

The biggest source of fertilizer pollution is synthetic nitrogen, so unless you’ve made the switch to organic fertilizer, you’re just as guilty as the next guy. Here’s why…

Plants only absorb 10-50% of the synthetic nitrogen in common fertilizers. The rest of it, when using non-organic fertilizer, becomes mobilized – there is nothing in the soil or potting mix to hold it in place. Unabsorbed nitrogen blends with irrigation and rainwater, following the path of least resistance… downhill, deeper into the soil where groundwater is running, or out the bottom drainage of your containers.

So, if you apply 10-10-10 when you plant, and it’s not a slow-release product with a polymer coating, your plants are only getting 1%-5% nitrogen. The rest is contributing to the fertilizer pollution problem. Using Miracle-Gro Tomato Fertilizer? That 18-18-21 is giving you obese plants and anorexic soil. Actually, all fertilizers made with synthetic nitrogen are causing the magic properties in your soil to starve to death. If you stick to cheap fertilizers because the organic ones just seem to be too expensive a way to get the same results, faced with this information, you should instantly realize that a) you’re frugal purchase is mostly money down the drain, and b) you’re just one of millions responsible for harmful algae blooms and ocean dead zones. On top of that, you’re killing your soil, which leads to bigger garden problems.

Soil is more than just dirt, at least until you murder it. Even the most frugal gardener has seen that some organic fertilizers contain microbes – it’s prominently displayed on the front of the labels. One can’t help but notice this as you peruse garden fertilizer options on store shelves. Why do you suppose those little organisms are in there? For one, dead soil needs assistance in bringing it back to life, which is a necessity when using natural fertilizers. Microbes that are naturally present in soil are responsible for turning decomposing organic matter into plant available forms of nutrition. They do a great many things in keeping plants healthy and thriving.

One important function of soil microbes is make storing phosphorous possible. And if your soil is dead, there is nothing present to tie up any phosphorous not absorbed by what you’re growing. So, that unused portion of the fertilizer you bought joins the excess nitrogen in drainage and runoff too. That blue green algae choking the life out of the west side of Lake Erie is in love with phosphorous. Granted, the bigger share of the problem is coming off of farmland, because that covers millions of acres in the watershed in this region – BUT… there are also millions of people with lawns and gardens in the same watershed who are contributors to the issue.

Synthetic nitrogen is also a huge part of the climate change. It removes the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, and causes microorganisms to over consume carbon and humus in soil. In healthy soil, microbes have a balanced diet – about 1 part nitrogen to 20 parts carbon. Giving them synthetic nitrogen is like turning kids loose in a candy shop. They eat everything in site, as fast as possible. The more fake nitrogen you apply, the less good stuff is in your soil. Pretty soon, life in it is only possible via artificial support, and everything you plant has reduced immunity to pests and diseases. Which, in turn, costs you even more time and money, as you arm yourself and your plants with various fungicides and insecticides trying to regain control of the situation.

The only way to avoid  the wasted plant nutrients, and soil murder – is to use natural fertilizers. If you’ve always thought that organic fertilizer is weak stuff because the analysis on the bag is low, like 1-1-1-, or 2-4-1… reconsider. Strength is not always found in being bigger.

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.