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Healthy Soil Produces Healthy Plants
by Michael Dean
November 24, 2002

From Mesopotamian fertility dances of old to the composting practices in our own backyards, a caring regard for the earth and its bounty has been a part of culture for thousands of years. This tradition has been well established over time, and one may wonder why an explanation for organic gardening is necessary. The onset of the industrial revolution brought synthetic chemicals and a desire for technology and its’ products. Synthetics made their way into many parts of our lives, including the products we use in our homes and gardens. This led to the development of a well-established system of gardening using NP- K (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) soluble fertilizers and pesticides.

Today many gardeners have a desire to return to organic methods due to increasing concerns regarding continued synthetic chemical use. The organic industry has been growing at a rate 20 % per year for the last 10 years world wide, not because it’s a trendy new fad, but because people care about the impact of the products they use on the environment, as well as the impact they may have on them and their families.

What is organic gardening? Organic gardening is the cultivation of plants without the use of synthetic chemicals or pesticides, while improving soil structure and protecting the environment. The framework for understanding the relationship between plants and soil is different in organic methods than in conventional or chemical gardening methods. The conventional method is to feed the plants directly with salt-based,water-soluble nutrients in a form that is directly absorbed by the plant. These nutrients are formulated sing N-P-K in differing quantities depending on the requirement of the plant species. Other micronutrients may be added to balance the formula for specific needs. Although these products can provide desirable plant growth, many salt-based fertilizers by-pass the living organisms in the soil, and can be toxic to them. This puts into question the effect of soluble fertilizers on soil organisms and the role they play.

Using conventional methods one could assume that soil is only required to retain moisture and hold the plant in an upright position. Excessive use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides can ultimately lead to the destruction of soil organisms and the subsequent breakdown of essential soil organic matter. In addition, due to the highly soluble nature of many of these fertilizers, nutrient leaching from the root zone is a major concern, with up to 70% missing its target and potentially contaminating groundwater.

In contrast organic fertilizers are generally not soluble and need to be processed through the organisms living in the soil, creating a natural slow release. Organic fertilizers are generally made from plant and animal by-products and natural minerals. As these natural fertilizers break down they feed the microorganisms in the soil and stimulate population growth of soil borne organisms. These microorganisms facilitate the release of other nutrients, which are normally tied up in the soil. In healthy organic soil there can be up to 15,000 different species of bacteria, 8,000 species of fungi and a number of other little critters such as beneficial nematodes, protozoa and earthworms. The total number of organisms in a single handful of soil can be a staggering five billion! These organisms are the bio-activators in our soil, which cycle and recycle nutrients, and help plants to resist attack from diseases and insect pests. This community of soil organisms depends on a steady supply of organic matter and minerals. We can provide these essential materials by applying compost, various organic fertilizers and broad-spectrum natural mineral supplements, like glacial rock dust. Microorganisms convert these materials into storable and absorbable plant nutrients. A very high percentage of these natural materials will be used, contributing to the overall health and vitality of the soil and the plants that grow in it. The organic system of focusing on soil health builds organic matter, assists in moisture retention, protects plant roots from exposure, and provides an environment for beneficial organisms, which all help in protecting the plants against disease and pest infestation. This also helps to explain why organic fertilizers are highly effective with relatively low N-P-K. Healthy soil produces healthy plants. When using an organic fertilizer, for leafy greens, corn or any other fast growing plant choose a higher nitrogen (N) blend (i.e. 5-2-2). If you are planting flowers, choose a blend that has slightly higher levels of phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) (i.e. 2-8-4.) For just about everything else, or when in doubt, choose a balanced all purpose blend (i.e. 4-4-4).

There are many individual products available which may be used for specific nutrient deficiencies such as blood meal or alfalfa meal for nitrogen; fishbone meal, rock phosphate or bat guano for phosphorous; greensand, mined potassium sulfate or kelp meal for potassium to name a few. When you use organic fertilizers in your garden you can rest assured that it is the way nature intended. Your children, pets, the fish down stream and your plants will thank you. When you choose more natural methods of gardening not only will you benefit from the tireless work soil microorganisms do on your behalf but you can also look forward to larger, brighter blooms on your flowers and bountiful harvests of delicious, healthy fruits and vegetables!

This article first appeared in the Complete Canadian Gardener, May 2002 issue.

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