Fertilizer questions...

prairiemoon2 z6 MAMarch 14, 2006


I am not new to organic gardening and understand the basic premises of using compost and animal manures and cover crops. I am someone who cannot do the physical work required to keep the soil humming. Instead when the lawn is getting cut in the fall and there are leaves everywhere I have someone run over leaves and add the chopped leaves to a passive compost pile or sometimes dig them into a bed in the fall.

I use diluted fish emulsion/kelp fertilizer through out the gardening season, but that is about all I do.

I have a few problems. One is, I always grow containers full of annuals and perennials on the patio and I am just not satisfied with the growth I get from applying only fish emulsion. I often hear instructions to add slow release fertilzer to containers when you are potting them up, which I never do because I don't know of one that is organic. So if someone has some experience with organic fertilizers for container ornamentals, I would appreciate it. I also grow vegetables and use what little compost I have there than on the ornamentals.

Next, I have been told recently not to use fish emulsion any more as it is damaging the ecology and the fish. Can't remember the explanation but it made sense at the time. Any further info on that?

Then I wonder if I need to be concerned with the safety of blood meal and bone meal. Are there any concerns that I should be aware of for those?

I see some organic suppliers like Gardens Alive, and they offer lots of formulations...expensive but are they really worth it and necessary, or can I mix something up myself?



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Are you using fresh soil in your containers each year? If you do, you shouldn't need much fertilizer anyway. If not, I'd just make a compost tea and water maybe 2X a month. I really think that Americans over fertilize... we are programmed with Miracle Grow, every thing has to be big and lush.
Can you get someone more 'able' to rototill compost into your soil? Or maybe the "no till" method would be easier for you.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2006 at 9:41PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA


It is really expensive to buy fresh soil every year for the amount of containers I have. So the last two years, I have been emptying out the containers in the fall and mixing the leftover soil with some chopped leaves and leaving it in a pile until the next year. Then I buy fresh potting soil and perlite and I use 1/2 and 1/2 old and new soil.

I will never be accused of over fertilizing. I don't even fertilize my lawn. I do think I have swung too far in the opposite direction though. I am definitely a person who fertilizes too little. I have fertilized with diluted fish emulsion for my containers about 4x a summer and am still not feeling like the result is what I want. Around the yard, I am not concerned because I usually grow low maintenance plants and they do fine without it. In containers, I really am looking for that "lush" look and why not? I would like to fertilize as much as I need to to accomplish that. I have heard people say that they fertilize every day with 1/2 strength miracle grow to get the best results in their containers. I don't want to use miracle grow, but would like to use something to get the same result in the containers of annuals. I am fine with relying on compost in the vegetable garden.

No, I am not in a position to get someone to rototill for me and I really prefer my soil not to be rototilled. As you have pointed out, the 'no till' method is better for me and my circumstances. I would add layers of organic materials if I had a lot of them, but I have a small yard and can't do very much collecting from other sources. I seem to do okay with the yard and even the veggie garden. My main target for fertilzing is my containers.


    Bookmark   March 15, 2006 at 2:54PM
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Hey check this out. A new company called GPC "Garden Promise Company" has a new product that dispenses 100% USDA / OMRI Listed liquid fertilizers via disposable cartridges. The product works with home in-ground irrigation systems. Any common DIY'er can install this GPC system. What's so damn cool about it is that you can fertilize selectively to each watering zone by just plugging in any of the 15 different organic cartridges offered.
The cartridges last anywhere from 30 - 45 days (depends on how much to select to be used during each watering cycle) and only cost $7.90\
The GPC injectors are priced at $29.90
And get this the company offers a 2 year full-replacement warranty on the injectors. www.gardenpc.net

I heard they're launching the product on their web-site on April 1, 2006

Here is a link that might be useful: The Garden Promise Company

    Bookmark   March 16, 2006 at 2:26AM
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Container gardening is artificial to begin with and it you use a "soilless" mix as the growing medium that is usually something has has very few if any nutirents to feed those plants. Compost might help, providing all the other conditions that make life are present, however there are any number of people that grow plants in containers using compost as the growing medium and they are satisfied with the results. But if you do use peat moss or coir these will have no nutrients to feed the plants and you need to supply a balanced food source to the plants.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2006 at 6:52AM
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your problem is slow growth? if yur adding fish emulsion
and bloodmeal they should be getting nitrogen.if the leaves are yellowing frequently it could be,nitrogen, magnesium or iron you need. if the stems are weak or purple you might need
phosphorous or potassium, for this you can use 1.seabirdguano
2.insect eating bat guano 3. or a 0-10-10 fish emulsion diluted strength in vegetative...n-p-k are vital, but overfertilization can be just as extreme as under..less is more...if you water with tap chek the ph, if your ph is wrong your plants cant use the nutients(acid rain).
organic matter is important for a living soil
compost,wormcastings,guano and manure all contribute to organic matter. Also, increasing microbe levels with
molasses or soil activators.. microbes are what make the
soil "alive".. they fight bad microbes,break down nutrients
into something the plant can use,move nutrients throughout the pot..(so the plant can use nutrients not directly touching the root zone)and produce muric acid wich is a "chelate" wich is the catalyst for nutrient intake.

also trace elements(wich give all fruits and veggies their taste characteristics)can be obtained from liquid seaweed
wich contains all trace elements(stuff flows down hill)
and makes for a bigger tastier crop.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2006 at 2:19AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Hi rusty..

I have not used bloodmeal. One of my questions was should I be concerned using either bloodmeal or bonemeal? No, I don't get yellowing leaves, just less vigorous growth and blooming than I want. I am growing ornamentals for the most part in containers, but sometimes do try tomatoes and peppers.

So I will keep my eye out for some of the symptoms you describe this year. I do use the fish emulsion exclusively but not frequently. I have heard of the molasses being used. Do you mix a certain amount into water?

Yes, I do add compost to my soilless mix.

So how do you check the ph of your water? I did watering from the tap almost every day last year. What is an acceptable ph range for the water? If there was a problem though, I probably would have seen symptoms of deficiencies, right?

Thanks all for your help..

    Bookmark   March 17, 2006 at 5:45AM
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Hi Prairiemoon,

Lets try to get back to your specific questions...

Bone meal and blood meal. Blood meal is very high in N, and that's about it. N (Nitrogen) is one of the nutrients that plants rely on heavily. It is responsible for green leafy growth upwards. In nature, plants get N through the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, through a process called mineralization. Blood meal is, in a broad sense, "organic matter" because made from the carcasses and remains of animals from meat rendering plants. However, it is not allowed under strict organic certification programs (for example, by farmers whose produce is certified organic). I won't go into the detailed reasoning, but if you oppose agri-business, you might want to think twice about using a lot of blood meal.

Bone meal is also made at meat rendering plants. Animal bones are dried, steamed, ground, and pelletized. Bone meal adds a big hit of P (Phosphorus) and not much else. P is responsible for root and bloom development in plants. Bone meal is also not allowed under most organic certification programs.

My comments here are very condensed and simplified-- all this information is available in more detail on the web through the miracle of Google.

Kimmsr's comment about container "soil" environments being artificial is key to your situation. Organic growing tends to require living, biologically active soil. I say "tends" because many people use organic fertilizers in container growing mediums, with good results. This is a topic that causes a lot of debate that we don't need to go into here.

Anyway, should you use bone meal or blood meal in containers? Probably not. These materials require the presence of a diverse bunch of micro-organisms, as well as consisent oxygen and moisture (a "living" soil) to turn their organic N and P into the inorganic forms that plant roots can use.

Your practice of mixing half the leftover potting mix with leaves and letting sit for the winter may be providing some life, but it will be high on the fungal side, and high on the carbon (dead leaves) that will hog any available N to help it decompose. Not a great environment for a microherd.

IMO, what you need to do is to try a range of organic liquid feeds as a soil drench. This will help provide the missing nutrients in a form that is more likely to be made available to plant roots. Things to try:

- compost tea
- alfalfa emulsion/tea
- liquid kelp
- fish emulsion that is low-N / high-P
- worm castings (on the "soil" surface, will be "watered in")
- mixing compost with your potting "soil", up to about 1/4 by volume.
- feeding more than 4x per year. Remember that potted plants are absolutely dependent on what you feed them, and your infrequent feeding has likely put them into a feast/famine cycle. Feed a very dilute soil drench every week. Or even every second or third watering. Very, very dilute.

IMO, since you are not dealing with a living soil environment, and you're not eating the plants, you shouldn't worry too much about a strict organic regime. Before I get pounced on by other readers, let me say that the evils of chemical agriculture are rooted in the scale and side-effects of its destructiveness.

The big problems: soil degradation; oil-dependency (in terms of both the manufacture and transportation of chemical ferts); monoculture and the consequent loss of locally-adapted varieties; and diminished plant health due to the thwarting of natural processes that feed plants.

So I certainly don't advocate using Miracle Gro or any sort of bright-coloured powder made by the chemical giants. BUT, you may be able to find locally-made alternatives. There's a guy in my area who makes a product in his barn that I use for my indoor plants (along with the liquid kelp and compost tea). It's not quite organic, but it is not harming the planet either.

With a little homework you might find something conscionable in your locale.

Good luck with the lush blooms. I love 'em too.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2006 at 10:39PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Wow, Bev! Thank you SO much for taking the time to answer all the questions I asked. You have just simplified my life..lol. I have been growing ornamentals in containers for awhile, and because of my commitment to growing organically, I have settled for less success with them than I knew I could get if I used a non organic fertilizer. I really felt conflicted about it. Since they were in pots, I knew I wouldn't be damaging the soil in my yard to use it, but I still just couldn't bring myself to use anything non organic.

Here is what I got out of your response.

First, I definitely DON'T want to support non organic fertilizer manufacturers like Miracle Grow. So that is still not a consideration.

I had vaguely been thinking along the lines you pointed out, that I am growing in an artificial environment in the pots and there really isn't any life going on in there. You have clarified for me what I had vaguely suspected, that in soil less mixes, the plants are completely dependent on what I provide for nutrients. I hadn't thought about the fact that I might be causing this 'feast/famine' result with my limited fertilizing schedule.

I like your suggestion to use more frequent diluted liquid feeds. Would you say 1/2 strength is good? Even if I just use the Kelp/Fish Emulsion [Neptune I think] that I have been using, only more frequently that might do the trick. I am thinking I should try that first.

I tried making compost tea last year, but I wasn't happy with the result. I left the compost in a covered plastic container with the water for too long I think and it didn't look good. I will have to pay more attention and try it again this year with better instructions for doing that. I will post a seperate post for that when I am getting ready to try it again.

Not sure what the alfalfa emulsion is, thinking about those alfalfa cubes you can buy at feed stores maybe? Another project for later.

Hmmm...on the worm castings. I am not keeping a worm bin, I imagine you can buy the castings. I hadn't thought of that either.

Yes, I could try to mix in 1/4 of compost to them. It just depends on how much I have to go around. [g]

Well, thank you very much for explaining all that. It was an education. :-) I will let you know how it all works out.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2006 at 7:20AM
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katwomn59(8b-Austin, TX)

I garden in containers on my balcony. I use a fast draining mix that is mostly pine bark or coconut husk chips and cocopeat. I used organic liquid ferts (mostly fish emulsion and liquid seaweed). Mixed in some compost and 5-5-5 granular ferts when potting up. Some compost tea once a month. Herbs I fertilized every other week, ornamentals every week. They did pretty well.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2006 at 9:15PM
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i found this stuff called "dr. earth", all organic, different mixes made for all types of plants. it can be mixed into the soil to feed the roots and can be made into a tea for side dressings. i got the one for veggies and applied it both ways and boy are the plants goin' nuts. i'm not advertising a company but i am advocating the results. especially because it's organic. i found it at my favorite nursery

    Bookmark   April 10, 2006 at 5:02PM
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Prairiemoon--I'm jumping in a bit late here, but I have used Electra fertilizer with great success for a number of years. It says it is organic, but I cannot vouch for "how organic" it really is. I do know that Logee's uses it and recommends it, and the old time farmer/gardener down the end of my street 25 years ago swore by it. That's how I first came to use it. I use it on everything-containers, veggies, flowers/roses etc. I also use Neptune Harvest products with good results. I don't know if all this supplies the trace elements, but I do have lush containers and mostly healthy plants. As noted, this year I am making my own potting soil. I will not be adding the CRF pellets. Instead I am mixing in Electra. Who knows what will happen-but I figure it is worth a try.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2006 at 10:50AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Thanks katwomn and lapazbob and newfiewoofie. I will look for some of these products at the nursery. :-)

Newfiewoofie..What are you using to mix potting soil this year?

    Bookmark   April 12, 2006 at 6:45AM
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Bev w,
Is potting soil not a living soil environment? Don't mean to spark a debate, but that is not what I am experiencing. Thanks for the comments

    Bookmark   April 12, 2006 at 1:59PM
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Prairiemoon-I am using the recipe from Al on the Container forum. I am substituting the Electra for the CRF and realize I may have to fertilize a bit more than others using the CRF-but I want that option-since I have herbs, roses annuals etc in containers-I figure they all won't need the same fertilizer routine.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2006 at 2:52PM
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byron(4a/5b NH)

From an Organic fertilizer co in N.J. There's Holly tone Garden Tone, and a 1/2 doz others in about a 5lb bag.

The big difference in that in soiless mix plus some NPK ferts your missing the other 13 nutrients needed.

~~Espoma is the Co Name

Here is a link that might be useful: Espoma

    Bookmark   April 12, 2006 at 4:02PM
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