Benefits of using natural fertilizers

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You have many options to consider when choosing a fertilizer. This guide lists the 5 major benefits of using natural fertilizers in your garden. Some newbie gardeners may think that as long as it gets the job done, any fertilizer will do. Some even say, “the faster it works, the better.”

There’s one massive problem with this line of thinking though: fertilizers, especially chemical ones can be hazardous to people, pets, and the wider environment. Most commonly, improper handling can cause skin irritations, while accidental ingestion can result in fainting, stomach pain, seizures, and other symptoms. Some chemical fertilizers are also quite explosive.

It’s not surprising then why many home gardeners are looking at safer plant food alternatives. If you’re one of them, here’s what you should know about natural fertilizers and some of their benefits.

Lavender-blue airy stalk of organic flowers in the garden

1. Natural fertilizers work slowly but surely

Organic or natural fertilizers take their time to work, generally acting and delivering nutrients at a slower rate. Now, for some, this is a disadvantage. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the results of their gardening efforts as soon as possible?

Getting impatient and using chemical fertilizers, however, can take a toll on your plants and the soil. Remember that while synthetic fertilizers work fast, they also tend to overfeed plants. Do this often, and the plants could end up burned and damaged. And beyond that, plants can only take up limited amounts of nutrients in a given period of time. Excess fertilizer will wash away into the groundwater as pollution (most commonly as eutrophication of streams, lakes, and oceans).

“Plants do not require the high concentrations of nutrients found in the usual nutrient solution formulations. Numerous studies on potassium; phosphorus, and nitrogen have demonstrated that plants grow normally and contain normal concentrations of these nutrients in their tissues if the nutrients are available in the 0.1 ppm range.”

Mineral Nutrition of Plants: Principles and Perspectives, by Emanuel Epstein and Arnold J. Bloom

Another consequence of relying too much on chemical fertilizers has to do with soil structure. Keep in mind that pure chemicals can be hard on the organisms that keep the soil healthy. Earthworms, for example, help aerate the soil.

Without these useful organisms, the soil becomes more compact. This then leads to your plants having a difficult time accessing the nutrients they need from the soil.

2. Organic fertilizers help improve soil structure

One of the most important benefits of the right natural fertilizer is it can help boost soil health. Natural soil conditioners like composted yard waste do this by making the soil texture better, allowing it to hold water longer, and encouraging bacterial and fungal activity by providing food for the microbes.

Now, if you have no idea whether your soil’s healthy enough to grow vegetables and flowers, you should consider a soil test. This way, you get a detailed report of the nutrients available in your soil, as well as deficiencies you need to address. Many tests also provide detailed fertilizer recommendations, so you can be sure that what you’re adding is actually needed (and isn’t in fact harmful).

3. Natural fertilizers are safer

Some people are confused about what “natural” or “organic” means when referring to fertilizers. If you’re also not sure about this, the simple answer is that the term “organic” in organic fertilizers doesn’t have anything to do with the standards of processing common to food items. It simply means choosing plant food materials derived directly from plants, animals, or naturally-occurring minerals/rocks.

Organic or natural fertilizers don’t go through the extra steps of extraction and refinement. There’s minimal processing involved compared to their chemical counterparts, which makes them a lot safer for people and animals, as well as the environment.

Also, since they’re made from powdered minerals, plant, or animal waste, some manufacturers don’t even market them as fertilizers. They’re sometimes labeled as soil conditioners or soil amendments.

“Organic gardening uses plant and animal by-products to maintain soil and plant health and doesn’t rely on synthetically made fertilizers or pesticides.”

Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Healthy Garden, by Deborah L. Martin

4. Organic fertilizers are sustainable and better for the environment

The importance of organic fertilizer becomes even more apparent when you look at its environmental impact. If natural fertilizers are minimally processed, then synthetic fertilizers are quite the opposite since their production involves oil and fossil fuels. 

Of course, this is already bad enough, but when you consider how chemical fertilizers run off into our waterways, it’s hard not to think twice before using them. You see, when they run off into streams, lakes, and other bodies of water, synthetic fertilizers encourage the growth of algae. This robs fish and other organisms of oxygen, which upsets the balance of marine ecosystems.  

Runoff chemical fertilizers could also leach down to the water table, becoming a risk to human health. Fertilizer runoff has made groundwater undrinkable in some regions due to careless over-application. By contrast, organic fertilizers don’t run off as easily, as they are generally not nearly as soluble in water. Plus, they also help increase species biodiversity within the soil (rather than decrease it).

“Chemical fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides are often potent toxins and we don’t believe they are worth having around your family garden. Humans have been growing food for thousands of years without chemicals, and you can too. Start with a  healthy soil that can be amended with nature’s fertilizer – compost.”

The Book of Gardening Projects for Kids, by Whitney Cohen and John Fisher
Omri-listed topsoil being delivered with dump trailer

5. You can make your own natural fertilizer blend

Those who haven’t tried organic fertilizers may hesitate because they’re more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. While there’s some truth to this on the surface, don’t forget that you can make your own all-natural fertilizers. For example, grass clippings are rich in nitrogen and make great plant food for an organic lawn (see more organic lawn fertilizers here).

Another example would be kitchen scraps. Combined with garden waste, you can make your own compost. Remember that if your garden is well-fed with homemade compost, you likely don’t need to apply purchased fertilizer very often (if ever).

Some reminders before switching to organic fertilizers

Given the advantages of natural fertilizers, you might think they’re the ultimate solution to your garden woes. Not so fast, before you make the switch to organic fertilizers, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.

First, if you’re buying natural fertilizers, don’t forget to do your research. Not all commercially-sold organic fertilizers are made the same (some have a high salt content). It helps to understand which ones will supply your plants with enough nutrients. Here are some of the best organic fertilizers:

Second, you need to understand how temperature affects your natural fertilizers. In cooler temperatures, some organic fertilizers may find it hard to supply enough nutrients. Read and follow the instructions for the natural fertilizer you choose.

Last but not least, don’t get discouraged if natural fertilizers don’t give you fast results. As I’ve said, they take their time to work, but ultimately, they’re the better option for your plants and soil. Your plants (and Mother Nature) will thank you in the long run!

White astilbe flowers in the shade garden

Want more gardening tips and advice?

Now that you know the main benefits of using natural fertilizers for your garden, don’t stop here. Keep on learning about organic fertilizers so you don’t have to worry about them not being effective or using them wrong.

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Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a Master Gardener and founder of the gardening website Home for the Harvest. She has been featured by Better Homes & Gardens, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Mother Earth News, and the National Garden Bureau. Mary Jane lives with her family in the Okanagan Valley.