Plants need nutrients to grow; flourish; and fend off pests, diseases, and environmental stresses. Giving them what they need is a key to successful organic gardening, but as with humans, overdoing poor food choices spells trouble. The best way to feed plants is to feed the soil. Vast numbers of beneficial organisms call the soil home; nourish them, and you nourish the plants. Adding organic matter, such as compost, provides fungi, bacteria, earthworms, and other soil dwellers both food and a hospitable environment. In turn, they break down this organic matter into nutrients that plants can use.
In some cases, you may need to apply extra nutrients to keep plants healthy. Using organic slow-release fertilizers encourages strong, steady, healthy plant growth. Most organic fertilizers provide a broad range of nutrients, and they won't harm soil life or hurt plant roots.
The synthetic fertilizers that conventional gardeners use provide a few specific nutrients in a form that plants take up immediately. They make plants grow quickly but don't necessarily make them grow strong and healthy because fast-growing leaves and stems are soft and juicy — and very inviting to pests. Plus, any applied nutrients that the plants can't use are wasted, sometimes running off to pollute waterways. Synthetic fertilizers usually come in concentrated liquids or granules that you must dilute in water, and improperly diluted solutions can burn plant roots.
Turn to Chapter 5 for information on soil-building, and see Chapter 6 for information on organic fertilizers.
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