From Marjory Wildcraft’s GrowYourOwnGroceries.org.
There was a time when people gardened because backyard produce was far better and cheaper than anything from the store. To tell the truth, it still is, or at least it still can be. Yet some are convinced that you have to spend a bundle of money to have a really nice, healthy garden. I think that this misconception grew out of the fact that most people have backyards that are filled with really poor/weak soil. The reasons for this are complicated – a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that if the soil is weak, your plants will also be weak. And so it follows that weak plants have poor production, leading to more time and money spent on a low quantity of low quality vegetables.
This means that you need to enrich your soil. Because most people are not making their own compost at home, they need to buy fertilizer. Plant fertilizers purchased from the local garden center often contain chemicals that may harm your plants, and are not environmentally friendly. In addition, fertilizer can be a bit pricey, and this is most likely why the myth that home gardens are expensive continues. This is not necessarily true, you needn’t spend a bundle of money because, believe it or not, you are full of fertilizer!
Making your own organic plant food is easy and fun. It should be noted that most people understand that the best way to get good garden soil is to use compost to amend the soil. Of course, that is true. Compost can be made at home out of leftover food scraps and lawn clippings, and so it is virtually cost-free. Composting may be all one needs for a successful home vegetable crop. If, however, the soil is still lacking in nutrients or if you are planting a more demanding vegetable garden, augmenting with another type of fertilizer may be advisable. So why spend good money on store bought fertilizer when you can make it yourself with just a small amount of information?
The key to a good garden is good soil. Of the essential nutrients plants need to thrive, most of them are found in soil. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and to a lesser extent calcium, magnesium and sulfur are called macronutrients, and these are the nutrients that plants need most. The remaining micronutrients can be supplied in smaller amounts even by some of the poorest soils out there.
While it may not be the most exciting of gardening topics, nothing is more important than having a basic understanding of fertilizer. Just like you and I need nourishment – so do plants. Understanding just a small bit of information about fertilizer can go a long way toward helping your garden grow big, strong, healthy plants on a light budget. Before we look at some inexpensive homemade fertilizers, let’s look briefly at the subject in general. All fertilizers fall into one of two basic categories: chemical/inorganic or natural/organic.
Organic Fertilizers Versus Synthetic Fertilizers
Chemical/inorganic fertilizers are manufactured using synthetic substances that usually contain highly concentrated forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (these are the N-P-K values listed on the fertilizer packaging). These fertilizers work quickly because they feed the plants directly. But they do come with a downside – they add no nutrients to the soil itself and they can, over time, even destroy the beneficial organisms needed for healthy soil. When you use large quantities of this inorganic stuff over and over again, its byproducts will actually build up in the soil and in time they can hinder plant growth.
Organic/natural fertilizers, on the other hand, don’t feed the plants directly but rather add essential nutrients to the soil where they become available to the plants, more slowly, over time. Organic/natural fertilizers often use alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, or fish emulsion to provide nitrogen; bone meal or rock phosphate to provide phosphorus; and kelp meal or granite meal to provide potassium. The downside here is that they work much more slowly, first breaking down in the soil into forms that the plant roots can more easily absorb, then making their way up the plant roots to your hungry plants.
Understanding the Basics about Fertilizer
While there are also many important micronutrients in good fertilizer it is understanding the “big 3,” the N-P-K, that is the key to making your own effective fertilizer at home. The N is for nitrogen, the P for phosphorus, and the K for Potassium. Each has an important role to play in the health of your garden.
Nitrogen is the nutrient plants use most to grow large and lush – tall stems with lots of good leafy growth. If you examine the N-P-K content of commercial products that advertise “miracle growth” you will find there is no real miracle at all – the amazing growth is due to a balanced but high N-P-K ratio with a hefty amount of nitrogen in the mix.
Phosphorus is needed to grow strong healthy root systems, and to promote vigorous flowering. Commercial “blooming” mixes are usually high in phosphorus.
Potassium helps with plant growth, protein production, plant hardiness, disease resistance, insect resistance and efficient water use. Plants without enough potassium grow slowly and can have yellow leaves.
Always remember the one basic rule that applies to the use of all fertilizers – “less is more.” If you use too much fertilizer or too strong a concentration you could do much more harm than good. Plant roots can be harmed and you will soon see the tell-tale symptoms of fertilizer burn – brown curled leaf edges and leaves that wither and fall from the stem. Always err on the side of caution – “less is more!”
Now, with a simple understanding of the information above, you are ready to get out and make your own fertilizer. For my purposes I needed a good, effective, general use fertilizer. Here are a few of the solutions I’ve had success with:
Easy Household Fertilizers
There are quite a few common items found in your kitchen, or elsewhere around the house, that can be used as plant fertilizer.
• Aquarium Water – Water your plants with the aquarium water taken right out of the tank when cleaning it. Freshwater only please, do not use water from a salt water tank. The fish waste makes a great plant fertilizer.
• Banana – Bananas are not only tasty and healthy for humans, but they also benefit many different plants. When planting roses, bury a banana (or just the peel) in the hole alongside the rose. As the rose grows, bury bananas or banana peels into the top layer of the soil. Both of these approaches will provide the much needed potassium that plants need for proper growth.
• Blackstrap Molasses – Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of many different nutrients that plants use. This includes carbon, iron, sulfur, potash, calcium, manganese, potassium, copper and magnesium. What makes this an excellent type of fertilizer is that it feeds beneficial bacteria, which keep the soil and plants healthy. To use blackstrap molasses as a fertilizer, mix it with another all-purpose fertilizer. A good combination to use is one cup each of epsom salts and alfalfa meal. Dissolve this combination in four gallons of water and top it off with one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. Or simply mix blackstrap molasses in with compost tea. Do this only after the compost tea has steeped.
• Coffee Grounds – Used coffee grounds contain about two percent nitrogen, about a third of a percent of phosphoric acid, and varying amounts of potash (generally less than one percent). Coffee grounds are particularly useful on those plants that like things a bit more acidic such as blueberries, evergreens, azaleas, roses, camellias, avocados, and many fruit trees. I recommend that you allow the coffee grounds to dry and then scatter them lightly, as a mulch, around your plants. Avoid scattering them thickly when they are wet, because clumps of coffee grounds have a tendency to get moldy.
• Cooking Water – Many different nutrients are released into the water that food is cooked in. Water that is used to boil potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and even pasta can be used as a fertilizer. Just remember to let the water cool before applying it to your soil.
• Corn Gluten Meal – Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the wet-milling process for corn. It is used not only as an organic preemergent herbicide, but also as a fertilizer that is 10 percent nitrogen. To use as a fertilizer, simply spread a thin layer of corn gluten meal and scratch it into the top inch of soil. Plant veggie starts inside the treated area for optimum nitrogen benefit and do not worry about accidentally harming your plants. Corn gluten meal only works as an herbicide before the seeds germinate, not after, so it is useless as a post-emergent herbicide.
• Egg Shells – Egg shells contain about 1% nitrogen, about a half-percent phosphoric acid, and other trace elements that make them a practical fertilizer. Calcium is an essential plant nutrient which plays a fundamental part in cell manufacture and growth. Most roots must have some calcium at the growing tips to grow effectively. Plant growth removes large quantities of calcium from the soil, and calcium must be replenished, so this is an ideal way to “recycle” your egg shells. Simply crush them, powder them in an old coffee grinder, and sprinkle them around your garden soil.
• Epsom Salts – 1 tablespoon of epsom salts can be combined with 1 gallon of water and put into a sprayer. Apply once a month, directly to the foliage for a quick dose of magnesium and sulfur.
• Fireplace or Fire Pit Ash – Ashes can be sprinkled onto your soil to supply potassium and calcium carbonate. Hard wood is best, and no charcoal or lighter fluid please as this can harm you plants. Don’t use ash in areas where you are trying to maintain acid-loving plants – the ashes are alkaline and can increase alkalinity in the soil.
• Gelatin – Gelatin can be a great nitrogen source. Dissolve one package of gelatin in 1 cup of hot water and then add 3 cups of cold water. Pour directly on the soil around your plants once a month. This is great for houseplants!
• Green Tea – A weak solution of green tea can be used to water plants every four weeks. Use one teabag to 2 gallons of water.
• Hair – Hair is a good source of nitrogen and it does double duty as a deer repellent. A good source for this hair is not only your hairbrush but also the local barbershop or beauty salon. Many of these establishments will save hair for your garden, if you ask them for it. But do not limit yourself to only human hair. Dog hair, horse hair, and cat hair work just as well.
• Horse Feed – What makes horse feed irresistible to horses is also what makes it an excellent fertilizer. The magic ingredient is molasses. To use horse feed as a fertilizer is simple and easy. It can used as a soil amendment just by sprinkling it on top of the soil. Alternatively, it can be dissolved in water alone or combined with another organic fertilizer, and applied as a soil drench.
• Matches – The old fashioned easy strike matches are a great source of magnesium. To use this as a fertilizer, simply place the whole match in the hole with the plant, or soak the matches in water. The magnesium will dissolve into the water and make application easier.
• Powdered Milk – Powdered milk is not only good for human consumption but also for plants. This source of calcium needs to be mixed in to the soil prior to planting. Since the milk is in powder form it is ready for use by your plants.
Four Easy Homemade Fertilizer Recipes
These are some slightly more complex fertilizer recipes that I like to use. My favorites are the Simple Tea and the Quick Fix, but each of these make regular appearances in our garden fertilizing schedule:
Simple Tea Recipe
This simple recipe has been used for 1000s of years. Give it a try in your garden for a quick and inexpensive dose of nutrients for your plants.
• In a five gallon bucket, mix 1/4 cup of epsom salts, 2 cups of urine (yes, good old pee pee), and 2 cups of wood ash (again, no lighter fluid or charcoal, please)
• Fill the rest of the bucket about half way with grass clippings, pruned green leaves, or even green weeds pulled right out of the ground
• Fill the bucket to the top with water and allow the mix to steep for three days
• After steeping, strain the tea or decant into empty milk jugs or old 2 liter bottles
• Before use, dilute by 50% by mixing half water and half tea into your favorite watering can
• Apply this wonderful mix by pouring it directly onto the soil around your plants
If your results are anything like mine you will see a noticeable difference in just a few days.
Note: Steep only for three days. By the third day, most of the soluble nutrients will have seeped out into the water solution. Stopping now prevents fermentation, which you want to avoid. Fermented materials will smell bad, and their pH can change rapidly, so it’s important to stick with a three day steeping and then use the concentrate within a day or two.
Fish Emulsion Recipe
Fish emulsion is a homemade fertilizer made using fish waste – such as fish parts and guts – and water. This organic all-purpose fertilizer has also been around for 1000s of years and it works great, but it takes weeks to make, and the mixture must have time to rot before you can use it. Yes, there is some bad smell here, it is made from rotting fish after all!
• To begin the process, fill a 55-gallon drum about one-third full with a ratio of 2 parts water and 1 part fish waste
• Allow this mixture to steep for 24 hours
• After steeping, add more water to the drum until it is completely full
• Cover loosely and let the drum ferment for several weeks – we usually allow about 3 weeks for fermentation
• To use, apply the fish emulsion fertilizer to the soil around your plants at a rate of 3 gallons of liquid for every 100 square feet of yard or garden
Seaweed Fertilizer Recipe
Another fertilizer with a 1000 year pedigree. Not only is seaweed an all-purpose organic fertilizer, but it also contains mannitol. Mannitol is a compound that increases a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients in the soil. Either fresh or dried seaweed can be used to create the all-purpose fertilizer. However, if you use fresh seaweed or dry salted seaweed, ensure it is thoroughly washed before using.
• Add 8 cups of chopped seaweed to a five gallon bucket and fill halfway with water (rain water is always best if it’s available)
• Loosely cover the container, and let the seaweed steep for about three weeks
• After steeping, strain the seaweed and transfer the liquid to a container to store it for up to 3 weeks
• To use, mix half water and half seaweed tea into your favorite watering can and apply it to the soil around your plants. Your plants will thank you for it within just a few days.
The Quick-Fix Fertilizer Recipe
If you haven’t got time to wait 3 days to make the Simple Tea, you might want to try this idea. Most of the ingredients can be found around your home.
• In an empty 1 gallon milk jug, mix 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of ammonia (a very strong source of quick nitrogen), 3 teaspoons of instant iced tea (the tannic acid in this helps the plants to more quickly and easily absorb nutrients), 3 teaspoons blackstrap molasses (this helps feed soil bacteria), 3 Tablespoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide (hydrogen peroxide is a powerful oxidizer, as it combines with the air and water it decomposes, freeing the oxygen elements and thus providing a supplement of oxygen to the plants and aerating the soil), 1/4 cup crushed bone scraps (this adds phosphorus – any bones will do but I like to use fish bones myself as they also provide potassium), 1 crushed egg shell or 1/2 a dried banana peel for potassium (you can omit if using fish bones, but I would still add the egg shell for the calcium – especially for my tomatoes as it helps prevent blossom end rot)
• Fill the jug the rest of the way with water (again rain water is best). Replace cap and allow the jug to sit in the sun for about 1 hour to warm, then water your plants with this mixture at full strength.
Using What Your Animals Give You
There are many other ways to make your own fertilizer, and some are easier to make than others. It doesn’t get much easier than using manure from your animals. For eons, man used “free” fertilizer from manure to fertilize his crops. Manure can be used as is after drying, or in the form of manure tea.
Before manure is used in the garden, it should be aged and dried, and/or composted first. Age fresh manure for at least 6 months. Well-aged manure on its own makes a great fertilizer for garden plants. You can spread aged manure directly on top of your garden soil at a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Another option is to till it, or mix it by hand, into the top layer of soil in the fall or winter, prior to spring planting. Generally, fall is the best time to use manure in the garden. This allows plenty of time for the manure to break down, eliminating the threat of burning plants in the garden come springtime. As the soil absorbs manure, nutrients are released. This enriches the soil, which in turn helps the plants. One of the most important benefits of using manure in the garden is its ability to condition the soil.
Composting manure is one of the best and safest ways to use this free fertilizer, as it eliminates the possibility of burning your plants and controls potentially harmful bacteria.
Nearly any kind of manure can be used. Generally horse, cow, and chicken manures are the most commonly used for manure fertilizer. Some people also use sheep, rabbit, turkey and more. It is not recommended that you use manure from your cats, dogs, other household pets – or any other meat eating animals. These manures are unsuitable for the garden or the compost pile, as they are likely to carry parasites.
Manure Tea Recipe
Manure tea enriches the soil and adds much needed nutrients for healthy plant growth. The nutrients found in manure tea make it an ideal fertilizer for garden plants. The nutrients from manure dissolve easily in water where they can then be added to a sprayer or simply used in a watering can. The leftover manure can be thrown in the garden or reused in the compost pile. Manure tea can be used each time you water plants, or periodically. It can also be used to water lawns. However, it is important to dilute the tea prior to use so as not to burn the roots or foliage of plants. I fill my watering can 1/2 way with the tea and then fill it with rain water. I use this every 3 weeks or so during the growing season.
• Place a shovel-full of well aged manure in a large burlap sack or pillowcase
• Make certain that the manure has been well aged or “cured” beforehand. Fresh manure is much too strong for plants, and it can contain harmful bacteria.
• Suspend the manure-filled “tea bag” in a 5 gallon bucket, and add water to create a mix of 5 parts water to 1 part manure
• Allow this mixture to steep for up to two weeks
• After steeping, remove the bag, allowing it to hang above the container until the dripping has stopped
• Skipping the tea bag and adding the manure directly to the water usually speeds up the brewing process. Without a bag, the tea is usually ready within only a few days if you stir it thoroughly during this period. Once it has fully brewed, you will have to strain it to separate the solids from the liquid. The remaining manure can then be added to the compost pile.
• To use, dilute the tea by half, as mentioned above, prior to use
This list of homemade fertilizers is by no means exhaustive. If I’ve missed any of your favorites, be sure to let me know in the comments below! Keep in mind that the most important thing you really need to understand about making your own fertilizer is that you control what goes into the fertilizer, so you know exactly what goes into your garden and therefore what goes into your body. Making your fertilizer is also a great way to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”
Lately, before I toss anything into my trash, I stop and ask myself, “How else can I use this?” As often as not, the things I would have otherwise thrown away can help out in my garden. And, best of all, I’ve come to realize that my home, my animals, and even my own body are all full of fertilizer!