Alternatives to store-bought fertilizer for your garden are all around you
The cost of everything from gas to burgers may be rising, but home gardeners growing produce have found a way at least to avoid paying $4 for a pound of tomatoes.
Fertilizing those tomatoes — or cucumbers or flowers, for that matter — is another story, as the cost of soil amendments has been soaring.
All plants require nutrients, which occur naturally in the soil. But over time, they become depleted and need to be replenished for plants to thrive.
Most fertilizers contain three primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, represented by the N-P-K ratio on the package. Nitrogen directs the plant to channel its energy into green, leafy growth; phosphorus encourages the development of roots, fruits and flowers; and potassium benefits the plant’s overall health.
Many fertilizers also contain secondary nutrients, like calcium and magnesium, and micronutrients like iron, copper, boron, manganese, zinc and molybdenum. All are necessary for optimal plant growth.
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The good news is they don’t have to come from a bag or a bottle.
There are many ways that home gardeners can save money while providing their plants with high-quality nutrients.
Consider grass clippings: Allowing them to remain on the lawn after mowing can eliminate the need for fertilizer. As they break down, fresh clippings release a natural source of nitrogen into the soil that will sustain turf grasses (don’t use fresh clippings in garden beds; they’ll burn your plants).
Compost is the single best soil amendment available. It increases sand’s moisture retention, improves clay’s drainage and adds beneficial nutrients to the soil. Incorporate generous amounts into beds or planting holes, or use it in place of mulch.
If making compost isn’t your bag, there’s no need to buy it: Simply collect fruit and vegetable peelings and other kitchen scraps (but no meat, dairy or fats) in a bowl on your countertop. Whenever it fills up, dig its contents into the garden. As the scraps decompose, they’ll add nutrients to the soil. Just be sure to bury them at least 10-12 inches deep to avoid attracting hungry wildlife, and dig several inches from plant rows to avoid damaging roots.
Many gardeners treat their plants with fish emulsion, an organic, fast-release liquid fertilizer made from whole fish and byproducts from the fishing industry. It contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur and sodium, among other nutrients. It’s about as expensive as it sounds, but there are ways to avoid buying it.
Plants appreciate a wide array of fish-based applications, including a whole fish placed at the bottom of each planting hole, buried fish scraps (again, at least 10-12 inches deep) or homemade fish emulsion made by soaking scales, bones and entrails in a tightly sealed 5-gallon bucket of water for at least a month, then straining the liquid and using it to water plants. (Avoid using drained water from canned tuna, however, as its high sodium content may damage the soil and your plants.)
If you’re an angler, you already have access to these amendments. If you aren’t, your local fishmonger may be willing to give away — or sell at low cost — scraps and heads that would otherwise be discarded.
Plants also benefit from used fish tank water, which is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients.
When you boil vegetables and pour the water down the drain, you’re discarding a motherlode of vitamins and minerals that could enrich your garden. And water from boiled eggs is full of calcium, which is especially useful for tomatoes and peppers. Let each come to room temperature before applying.
You can even use eggshells in place of garden lime, as both are made of calcium carbonate. Microwave for 2 minutes to dehydrate them — then grind in a high-powered blender, coffee grinder or food processor. Incorporate the resulting mineral-rich powder into the soil. The same can be done with banana peels, which are full of plant-boosting potassium.
I recently learned of the benefits of watering plants with a homemade yeast brew. I gave it a try, mixing a packet of bread yeast and a tablespoon of sugar into a liter of warm water, then placing it in a dark spot for 2 hours. Next, I diluted the frothy mixture with 3 gallons of water and applied about one cup to each plant. Three annual applications (not more) are recommended — one each as plants begin rooting, flowering and fruiting.
It’s too soon to ascertain any benefits to my garden, but the science seems sound: As yeast digests sugar, it releases nitrogen, phytohormones, amino acids, enzymes and other root-stimulators that aid plant growth and productivity. It also feeds beneficial bacteria in the soil and improves plants’ disease resistance.
And the best part is it cost about 79 cents to make.
Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at [email protected] and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.
How to protect your garden before and after severe storms
Here’s what gardeners can do in face of storms
As we celebrate blooming roses, ripening tomatoes and the pollinator frenzy in our backyards, we gardeners also should be aware of the downsides of summer: thunderstorms, tropical storms and hurricanes.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an “above-normal 2022 Atlantic hurricane season,” and even as tornado season winds down, some threat remains year-round in parts of the country.
So what’s a gardener to do? After ensuring that people, homes and other structures are safe, our thoughts naturally turn to our beds and borders. We’ve poured our blood, sweat, tears and money into them, so protecting our investment — and the joy it brings — matters.
Before the storm
When storms are predicted, close patio umbrellas and store garden furniture indoors, if possible. Examine trees for cracked or broken branches and remove them before they’re torn by strong winds and sent flying. If those trees are large, hire a certified arborist to inspect them; the cost is nothing compared to the damage they could cause if they were to break or topple.
In warmer climes, palm trees are well-adapted to high-wind conditions, so there’s no need to prune them, but remove coconuts and store them safely indoors.
If your soil is moist — either naturally or from recent rain — apply 3 inches of mulch over beds and borders. That will offer protection against the soaking effects of a deluge, which could uproot trees, especially shallow-rooted ones like white pine, birch, willow and tulip poplar, among others.
Stake any newly planted trees to support them, and bring hanging baskets and planters into the home, shed or garage. If that’s not possible, line them up against the house or another protected spot.
Protect the flowers of small blooming plants by covering them with buckets or cloches topped with something heavy, like a brick, to hold them in place. Wrap larger plants with burlap secured with twine. Orchids, bromeliads, succulents, air plants and other tree-dwelling plants can be tied into place with fishing line.
Check that all vining plants are secured to their supports, and that the supports are firmly staked into the ground. If they don’t feel secure, remove the supports and lay them – and the plants – on the ground until the threat passes.
Lay row cover fabric over tender, young seedlings and pin it into place with landscape pegs.
After the storm
Once the storm has passed, clear away fallen fruit and vegetables, which could attract rodents if left to rot on the ground, and remove protection from around plants.
Inspect trees for damage. If you can safely remove hanging, broken branches while standing on the ground, do so. But avoid pruning anything higher than your head or climbing a ladder to prune. Those jobs are best left to a professional — and that doesn’t mean a guy who shows up at your door with a chainsaw, who is unlikely to know what he’s doing and could be a scammer.
The International Society of Arborists maintains a list of certified arborists on its website at https://www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist; start your search there.
If a small tree has been toppled or uprooted, straighten and stake it as soon as possible, tamping the soil firmly as you replant it. Insert stakes into the ground around the trunk, attach twine, rope or cord to the stakes, and fasten them to the tree. Apply 3 inches of mulch or straw over the soil, keeping it 3 to 4 inches away from trunks, and water the tree regularly for the remainder of the growing season. This will help re-establish the root system.
Wind sway helps trees develop strong trunks and roots, so don’t keep the tree staked for longer than six months to a year.
Salt spray can desiccate, or dehydrate, trees and shrubs near the coasts, and they might not show symptoms until the following year. Apply mulch around trees to retain soil moisture, and water deeply and repeatedly to flush out salts.
Refrain from pruning evergreens or removing dry tips until after new growth appears the following spring.
If high tides encroach upon your property, salt will likely form a crust on the soil’s surface, leading to dehydration. Most plants won’t survive such devastation, but the soil can be restored: Water deeply, then spread gypsum over the soil. It will react with the salt to form sodium sulfate, which will wash through the ground with repeated waterings. Continue watering deeply for the rest of the year.
Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual Gardening Calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at [email protected] and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.
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