Your garden plants need minerals, too

Quick-fix chemical fertilizers seem too good to be true and they are.

by Don Trotter


ello fellow Earthlings and welcome to the garden. In our ongoing quest to grow healthy gardens without the use of synthetic and potentially hazardous chemicals, we are often faced with some very basic problems.

I was asked by a reader a few weeks ago to explain why I thought natural/organic fertilizers were better, when chemical compounds seem to work so much faster and appear to be benign. I wrote back, asking this reader if they were serious and not just my first heckler. The reader said that he was, in fact, serious, even though he had been reading my weekly column for more than two years and was very familiar with my "dogma".

I got the hint and thought about how to convince this doubter, who has read about soil quality, water pollution and biological diversity, why our way is better. Logic didn't seem to work and the common sense of naturally tending to the garden wasn't convincing enough. So I came up with an answer to this detractor of the natural way that he couldn't argue with.

This is what I came up with.

Dear Gilligan, [Name changed to protect the environmentally challenged]

Thank you for your insights regarding plant growth and the perceived ephemeral trendiness of organic and natural gardening. I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that blue crystals (product name deleted) and other synthetic chemical fertilizers perform better than plant foods and fertilizers that are of natural origin. Your statement that chemical fertilizers are harmless to the environment and to the people exposed to them is also something I have to take issue with, but your question challenging me to give you a quality that organic plant foods have that chemicals don't is what I'll address.

Natural/organic plant foods provide a far greater abundance of essential plant nutrients than chemical compounds used for this purpose. No chemical fertilizers manufactured today have the capacity to supply plants with the variety of micronutrients that organic plant foods commonly supply. Natural/organic fertilizers inherently carry these minerals along with them. Without resorting to flowery language, this essence of life is the one thing that synthetics can never provide. The subtle, natural way these organic plant foods works depends on their ability to promote stimulate plant growth by focusing on the soil-plant dynamic.

These natural plant foods promote the growth of symbiotic bacteria and fungi in soil that allow soils to more effectively supply plants with the essential minerals needed to function properly. Although organic plant foods do not often work as quickly as your chemicals, they do work far longer. Long after the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in your chemicals are depleted or flowing down the storm drain, organic plant foods combined with sunlight continue to provide nourishment to the complex biological process known as photosynthesis, thus plant growth.

Plant growth is not sustainable by providing only major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (what are referred to as "complete fertilizers" in conventional chemical manufacturing). For the most part, chemical fertilizers only provide these three nutrients. Some have a little sulfur and iron or calcium added, but they are nowhere close to providing the other minerals essential for healthy plant growth. Boron, magnesium, chlorine, manganese, copper, zinc, and molybdenum are commonly provided by natural/organic plant foods, in addition to the N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), sulfur, calcium and iron sometimes provided by chemical products.

It is also good to note that chemical fertilizers are often antagonistic to the symbiotic organisms in the soil due to their high analysis, which can commonly be more than 30 percent nitrogen. The really bad part of this is that most of these nutrients are lost to runoff that ends up in the storm drain system. They eventually find their way into our lakes, streams and ocean, causing one of the most destructive types of water pollution.

Your argument for the use of chemical fertilizers is a good one. These products do, in fact, supply high quantities of a few nutrients. But if any single ephemeral quality exists between chemical and organic plant foods, it is with chemicals. These products are potentially dangerous to the environment and are certainly antagonistic to the natural systems that nature and four billion years of evolutionary improvement have provided for plants. Soon, chemical fertilizers will be found out by the general public to be temporary (ephemeral) solutions as plant foods. Then, the innate common sense of gardeners and farmers alike will then kick in and natural/organic plant foods will be the norm. Thank you for your interest in this subject. I hope I have stated my argument to your satisfaction.

And that is how it went. To all of you users of organic plant foods that are periodically waylaid by neighbors willing to criticize you for your practices in the garden, I offer you this argument in favor of your plants, the environment, and common sense.

  Got questions? Fax the Doc at (760) 632-8175 or email him at Don Trotter's natural gardening columns appear nationally in environmentally sensitive publications. Look for Don's book Natural Gardening A-Z from Hay House at bookstores everywhere and at all online booksellers. Check out Don's columns in Hearst's Healthy Living Magazine, coming soon