The Problem with Synthetic Fertilizers, Go with Organic Lawn Care

I recently came across a website with great explanation of the differences between synthetic fertilizers and why organic sources of nutrients are so much better.  I thought I would share….

Application of synthetic or non organic nutrients The application of synthetic fertilizers to the soil discourages root growth and drought resistance. Think of it this way, if someone was to feed you all of your nutrients needs, eggs, steaks, french fries, etc. in the same place every day why would you ever go somewhere else? Well, OK you have a car but plant roots don’t. As we apply these, immediately plant available, nutrients to the soil, they melt and drop into the top one, maybe two inches of soil. If you ever dig in your yard you will notice that the roots really do not go down that far. Why would they? All of the nutrients are in the top 2 inches of soil. During times of low moisture and high heat, which is known around here as SUMMER, the roots do not penetrate far enough into the soil to be able to reach cooler wetter soils and suffer the consequences. If we begin a program that encourages increased root mass and penetration into the soil we dramatically increase drought resistance and overall health for turf

an compost tea supply the nutrients to the soil that plants and grasses need? The surprising answer to that question is yes. Not in the standard “fertilizer” form (nitrate) however, but as organic N, held by the biology in organic matter and microbial, biological forms.

Is compost tea a fertilizer? Most people have been told that compost tea is not a fertilizer. That statement can be made if only soluble, inorganic nutrients are used. The fertilizer industry has pushed to define N as only nitrate, possibly nitrite and maybe ammonium, the inorganic forms of N. While this is based on the soluble forms of N that most vegetable and row crops take up through their roots, it is far from the only source of N in the soil. Nitrogen enters the soil in organic forms such as plant roots, leaves, and other plant materials, in addition to dead animals, insects, and microorganisms, manure, and compost. As these decompose, the once recognizeable plant and animal materials are transformed into soil organic matter called humus which contains organic nitrogen. Living plants cannot use these organic forms of N. This is why microbes living in the soil are so important, because they convert organic N into forms of N that plants can then use. If the full soil web is present, then forms of N that are not nitrate, nitrite or ammonium will be cycled into these soluble forms by the organisms. And not just N, but any non-soluble form of any nutrient will eventually be converted from its non-soluble form to the plant available, soluble form by the organisms cycling system in a healthy soil. Natural systems do not require the additions of inorganic, soluble (and thus very leechable) forms of nutrients to maintain soil and plant health. The most productive systems on this planet are systems which do not have, and have not ever had, inorganic fertilizer applied

The organically maintained landscape In natural systems, organic matter generally cycles in place, added to the soil through root and stem decay of winter killed annuals and leaf decay. A thriving microbial community digests and breaks down this organic matter to release nutrients back to the soil. Organic soil amendments may be needed to help balance the soils chemistry, stimulate its biology, and restore its physical composition. Such amendments may also be needed to feed turfgrass in a lawn, which has extraordinary nutrient needs because it is grown in an unnatural way, perpetually mowed and kept green as long as possible.

NPK and Inorganic Fertilizers Lawn and landscape care methods which directly feed the plant with synthetic nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium (NPK) lead to damage to the soil and a weak root system, making the turfgrass or plants in the landscape more susceptible to insects, disease and drought. Over fertilizing the turfgrass or plant will also inhibit the development of mycorrhizae, a symbiotic fungi growing on or around the plant roots that help gather nutrients beyond the range of the root themselves. Eventually the soil structure collapses and becomes infertile.

Leaching Like the negative end of a magnet, nitrogen in the form of nitrate is negatively charged and is not attracted to soil’s negatively charged clay and humus. Negatively charged clay repels negatively charged nitrite ( NO2- ) and nitrate ( NO3- ) so they will not be absorbed by the clay and are left to move down through the soil and into the groundwater, where streams and drinking water can become contaminated.

Reviving collapsed soil structure To revive dead, compacted soil, it will necessary to apply compost and compost tea to improve and build soil life. A well balanced soil fertility program that increases humus content, organic matter and beneficial microorganisms recycles nutrients, improves water retention, balances minerals and buffers PH. In addition to compost, organic matter (manure) and compost tea other amendments may be indicated based on soil test results. These include natural surfactants to aerate soil, root stimulants and developers, rock dust, secondary and micronutrients, flocculants, vitamins, beneficial microbes, enzymes, organic humus, fulvic acid, kelp or dextrose.

What is nitrogen (N)? Nitrogen is an essential macronutrient because it is required to create amino acids and proteins, genetic material, chlorophyll and other important biochemical molecules. Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in the atmosphere (78%) but the gaeous form (N2) is inert and unavailable for use by animals and most plants. Turning N2 into available nitrogen or “fixing” it, requires breaking the bond between the nitrogen atoms which requires energy. Under natural conditions nitrogen is fixed by lightning strikes through the atmosphere and by the work of a few species of symbiotic bacteria and some free-living bacteria and fungi in the soil or water. As part of the symbiotic relationship, the plant subsequently converts the ammonium ion to nitrogen oxides and amino acids to form proteins and other biologically useful molecules, such as alkaloids. In return for the usable (fixed) nitrogen, the plant secretes sugars to the symbiotic bacteria.

What is Phosphorous? (P) Phosphorous, in the form of phosphate, is an essential macronutrient – it is a vital part of the cellular energy transfer. Phosphorous is added to soils in natural systems by rock weathering. Leaching and runoff removes phosphorous from the soils, where it is carried to aquatic systems like aquifers, streams, lakes and bays. In fresh water aquatic systems excess phosphorous can substantially increase plant productivity and lead to eutrophic conditions (lack of oxygen), causing increased phytoplankton and bacterial growth, loss of dissolved oxygen and loss of animal life in the system.

What is Potassium? (K) It is primarily used in fertilizers as either the chloride, sulfate or carbonate – not as the oxide. Potassium is an essential component needed in plant growth and is found in most soil types. Potassium has two roles in the functioning of plant cells. First, it has an irreplaceable part to play in the activation of enzymes which are fundamental to metabolic processes, especially the production of proteins and sugars. Only small amounts of potassium are required for this biochemical function. Second, potassium is the “plant-preferred” ion for maintaining the water content and hence the turgor (rigidity) of each cell, a biophysical role. A large concentration of potassium in the cell sap creates conditions that cause water to move into the cell (osmosis) through the porous cell wall. Turgid cells maintain the leaf’s vigor so that photosynthesis proceeds efficiently. Plants are apparently unable to regulate the uptake of potassium; and if the soil supply is high enough, a so called luxury consumption may result. Under such conditions, the high potassium content in the grass plant may cause an excessive amount of stiffness in the stems and leaves as well as other undesirable or harmful effects.

NPK note: Commercial preparations of fertilizers have a somewhat misleading labeling system. It is often said that the three main numbers listed is the amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium in the product. This is NOT the case. You must read the label carefully. If you read carefully, you will find that the last number is the percentage of Soluble Potash – NOT Potassium – expressed as K2O.