The Move Away from Synthetic Fertilizers Toward Healthier Gardening
By Jen Baer, Green Mountain Compost
Chemical fertilizers are like sports drinks for your plants. They give your garden a short-term boost and then wash away with the rain, requiring frequent reapplication. And, like sports drinks, they do little to build the muscle and bones of the soil: its structure, its biodiversity, and its array of nutrients.
There’s little doubt that the use of conventional chemical fertilizers and pesticides will give your garden a short-term boost, but it’s not something that will sustain your plants over the long haul. Each year in the US, over 70 million tons of fertilizers and pesticides are used on residential lawns and garden. Synthetic fertilizer sales rely on the belief that the product’s high nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) content helps plants flourish by adding key nutrients to your soil.
The full impact, however, often includes killing off a large percentage of your soil’s vital microorganisms and slowly degrading the very soil on which your plants depend. Beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi break down organic matter, such as fallen leaves, into nutrients that are readily available for plants. They also fight off harmful parasites. When soil is deprived of its microorganisms, it undergoes a rapid decline in its ability to retain water, air, and nutrients, and provide proper drainage, making it susceptible to erosion.
When you take antibiotics, it can take your body a long time to recover its biological balance. Similarly, it can take a long time for soil to recover its biological diversity after exposure to a synthetic fertilizer. According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, phosphorous is one of the greatest threats to Lake Champlain and other bodies of water.
In contrast, maintaining your soil with compost, which is chock-full of organic matter and beneficial microorganisms, provides a slow release of nutrients over time. Soil that is rich in beneficial microorganisms enables ideal conditions for growth by supporting the natural immune systems of plants, limiting the population of plant disease organisms, and resisting parasitic insects.
Soil health isn’t all that’s at stake when synthetic fertilizers are used. Also at stake is our health. Recent studies show that fruits and vegetables that have been grown using organic methods have significantly higher nutrient and cancer-fighting content. Several core practices on organic farms — use of compost, cover crops, and slow release forms of nitrogen — can increase antioxidant and polyphenol content compared with conventional practices that depend on commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
So before you reach for that chemical quick-fix for your lawn or garden, you may want to mull over the price you, your soil, and our environment will pay, and consider the many practical benefits of using compost and other natural methods to improve your soil.
Jen Baer is the production coordinator at Green Mountain Compost.