Since the beginnings of agriculture, people have been looking for ways to improve soil fertility and generate greater yields of crops and flowers. Today, modern science and traditional wisdom provide answers for gardeners who want to start a fertilization program for their gardens. Both synthetic and organic solutions are widely available.
Far from inanimate and nonliving dirt, soil contains nutrients and organic matter that help plants to grow. Like any food supply, the nutrients in soil are limited unless replenished, and plants grown in soil with inadequate nutrients are less productive and more prone to disease. Fertilizers deliver essential ingredients to plant roots or restore soil fertility, naturally increasing nutrient availability.
Both synthetic and organic fertilizers can be used on gardens. Synthetic fertilizers use chemical processes to derive nutrients from inorganic substances. Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, use natural sources of nutrients, such as compost, manure and bone meal.
Fertilizers are available as premixed packages, or they can be purchased as individual ingredients that contribute a particular nutrient to the soil. Prepackaged fertilizers typically contain nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sometimes other minerals or micronutrients. For gardeners who need to address a particular deficiency, other fertilizers provide a single nutrient. For example, rock phosphate provides only phosphorus.
Selecting a fertilizer requires first understanding the particular type and needs of the soil in your garden. For example, providing nitrogen-rich fertilizer is not likely to improve plant health if your soil lacks potassium and calcium. Local agriculture extension offices can perform soil tests, which are often free, and the report you receive will contain recommendations for what fertilizers to apply. Many basic organic fertilizers, such as compost, are intended to improve long-term soil health without addressing particular deficiencies.
The obvious advantage of using fertilizers is faster growth and improved yield. Synthetic fertilizers possess the added advantage of being immediately available for use by the plant, while organic fertilizers require microbial action in order to be usable by the plant. Because a core philosophy of organic agriculture is systemic health rather than improved growth in a target species, organic fertilizers work to improve long-term soil health and fertility, improving your garden for years to come.
No fertilizer is perfect, and gardeners should read packaging carefully and apply products as directed. Synthetic fertilizers, if over-applied, may increase salt levels in the soil, leaching water from plants and burning them. Misuse of synthetic fertilizers has also caused significant environmental damage in the form of polluted groundwater and aquatic dead zones. Organics, while generally safer to apply both for the plant and the local ecosystem, do not deliver a immediate response like synthetics. They also require larger quantities and more labor as well.