When plants grow, they need to pull nutrients to be able to sustain that growth. Beyond carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which they pull from the air and water, there are several other nutrients that are vital to plant growth. Though there has been a strong push for organic gardening and farming over the past few decades, organic fertilizers often cannot keep up with plant’s needs efficiently, and mineral fertilizers do not harm the earth, people or animals eating foods produced with them provided that they are used correctly and on a proper manner. Here’s a good look at why plants are not able to identify the source of the nutrients it consumes and why applying fertilizer properly is more important than the type of fertilizer that is being used.
As plants grow, they take up certain minerals, either from the soil or from the nutrient solution in a hydroponics system. However, as they use these minerals, the mineral must be replenished. A good example of this is blossom end rot in tomatoes and other fruiting plants. When a tomato plant begins growing, there is often sufficient calcium, a component of cell walls, already in the soil for it to get a good start. But as the plant grows, it begins to deplete the calcium in the soil. As it begins fruiting, the calcium available is no longer sufficient for the plant’s rapid growth, and the blossom end of the tomato begins to brown and rot from lack of calcium.
If you’re aware that tomatoes tend to be heavy calcium feeders, you have a couple of options available. You could use an organic fertilizer, such as sour milk, to supplement the calcium in the soil. However, the milk tends to separate during the souring process, so some plants would get more calcium than others. That’s why, for centuries, farmers have been spreading ground limestone on their fields to improve calcium availability for their plants. Though it’s an inorganic (mineral) source of calcium, the plants take it up just the same with no problems, and the issue of blossom end rot is avoided.
|Organic Sources (Residue from living matter)||Mineral Sources (Known as Inorganic)|
|Takes longer for intemperization and for the plant to exudate||Immediately available for the plant to exudate|
|Limited in the elements and ratios the plants need for a complete nutrition||Free to provide elements and ratios the plants need for a complete nutrtion|
|May be less harmful if misused||May be harmful if misused|
Calcium is relatively innocuous in the environment. If, as in the above example, the milk that has excess calcium has runoff, where the excess calcium runs off in rainwater, there is no real harm to the environment in most situations. However, other nutrients are not as benign where runoff is concerned. Nitrogen, when overapplied through organic or mineral fertilizers, can end up in runoff that travels into streams and ponds. Once there, it can feed algae, which are essentially water plants, causing them to undergo unprecedented growth. This, in turn, chokes off the other life in the waterway, eventually sterilizing it. This is why it’s much more important to apply fertilizers properly rather than focusing in the type of, where the damage is still possible but where it might fail in providing concentration and content needed for plants to thrive.
Because organic fertilizers come from natural sources, they are somewhat limited in their concentration and consistency. Organic nutrition is limited due to being a product of an organic reaction, with much of its process involving decomposition. Much of its bulk consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which is good for adding organic matter to your soil, but not as good at providing the other nutrients that your plants need to thrive. Organic matter can help your soil hold nutrients for your plants and reduce runoff, but only if the nutrients are already there. Think of it as a separate matter, where you have soil nutrition and plant nutrition.
This is where mineral fertilizers come into play. Though they are typically not organic, because they do not contain carbon, they are not necessarily synthetic or harmful either. As with the above example, ground limestone is a perfect example of a harmless mineral fertilizer. It comes from a rock, limestone, which is then ground to a smaller size so that the calcium in the rock is more available for the plants. This can be in any size from pellets that will last a few seasons to powders that provide a fast but effective shot of calcium to a declining crop.
So how do you use mineral fertilizers responsibly to prevent runoff issues? Nutrient Stewardship’s 4R’s concept is a great way to approach the issue:
Organic fertilizers do a great job to rebuild the soil, but they often fall short regarding plant nutrition, and because of how the plant takes up nutrients, it doesn’t matter whether your fertilizer source is organic or mineral. However, for the best efficiency in the garden, mineral fertilizers deliver a known amount of nutrition to the plant, making it easier to avoid runoff issues. This means that it’s more important to apply fertilizers responsibly rather than to limit yourself to only using organic fertilizers. If you’re growing in a soil-based environment, the combination of mineral nutrition with organic compounds will potentialize your plant’s capabilities, guaranteed. Ready to get started on your garden? Fitleaf is your partner in gardening and plant nutrition, helping you find the right answers for your home and market gardening questions, helping you live your best life now.
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