What to feed The great natural versus chemical debate

Quite honestly, only you can decide which plant food is convenient and successful for your own garden. A plant doesn't know the difference between one form of an element like nitrogen and another — it's nitrogen in any case. Some gardeners swear by one fertilizer and use only that kind; other gardeners use a variety of fertilizers. The only way to know which fertilizer you should use is through personal trial and error. That said, you need to know a few things about natural and chemical fertilizers to help you make your decision. Check out Table 4-1 for a side-by-side comparison.

An off-season exercise: Adding organic matter with cover crops

If you have a large flower bed or big vegetable garden, one fairly easy and undeniably efficient way to give it a dose of organic matter is to plant a cover crop at season's end: You grow plants just to maintain and improve the land during the off-season to prepare the garden for next year.

Sow the cover crop according to the directions on the bag and let the plants grow. It should hog the area to sufficiently thwart weeds. And of course, a cover crop provides plentiful organic matter and limits erosion. Good choices include annual rye, buckwheat, clover, winter barley, and winter rye. Here are some tips based on your region:

i In mild-climate areas: Sow the cover crop in mid-fall. When the plants are about a foot high and are still soft and green, dig them in (if practical) or till with a rear-mounted rotary tiller (see Chapter 5 for info on rototillers). Then let the plants decompose or meld for a month or more.

i In cold-climate areas: Just plant the cover crop in fall and let winter kill it. The stuff will decompose at least somewhat, with or without snow cover. Till the area in spring, when the ground is workable again. Wait a few weeks before planting the area.

Table 4-1

Differences between Natural and Chemical Fertilizers

Trait

Natural Fertilizers

Chemical Fertilizers

Form

Are organically based; examples include compost (homemade or store-bought), manure, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, bloodmeal, bonemeal, and liquid seaweed

Come in various forms, including granules, powders, and concentrated liquids; examples include baggedand boxed fertilizers in various formulations, including Miracle-Gro and Osmocote.

Cost and maintenance

Pound for pound, are generally more expensive in terms of the amount of fertilizer they provide, but they also improve the soil and tend to last longer than chemical fertilizers

Are usually affordable and easy to maintain

Effects on soil

Tend to improve soil texture and quality

Do not contribute to long-term soil fertility

Presence of secondary nutrients and micronutrients

Can include beneficial minor elements

May or may not contain these nutrients; check the label

Effect on organisms

Feed helpful soil organisms

Usually have a neutral effect

Rate of release

Tend to release nutrients slowly, so plants aren't damaged, but results aren't always as dramatic

Are a fast-acting way to jumpstart plant performance but must be applied correctly so they don't injure or burn your plants; special slow-release chemical fertilizers are the exception

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