by Betty Harris
The other day someone asked me what I do about fertilizers. I gave him a blank look because I don’t normally fertilize much of anything and usually concentrate on feeding the worms. I do apply acid based fertilizers for my blueberries and some fungal stuff for bushes, trees and perennials but mostly we over fertilize in this country. And we are mostly not conscious of cause and effect in many areas of our lives. For instance, did you know that 70% of pollution is from runoff and 50% of this is from what we do on our lawns.
At Western Welcome Week a fellow came by our booth where we were handing out info about the food waste forum we had last Saturday and he seemed to be from farm land somewhere out west. He was talking about growing corn and I asked him if the farm he was talking about planted any cover crops. He said they grew corn and then grew wheat after it and that this second crop of wheat was a cover crop. Since he was adamant that the stalks left after the wheat harvest is a cover crop there was no place the conversation could go so I just nodded as if I agreed and he left.
What I learned from my elder brother’s Future Farmers of America program in high school was that cover crops help build soil (our house didn’t have a lot of books or other reading material). Our father grew cover crops and turned them under and rotated crops and let fields lay fallow early on.
My older sister says she doesn’t remember much of our childhood. Boy, would I ever love to give her some of the images I’ve still got knocking around in my brain!! I remember that early on my father used a mule or two to plow and there were always a lot of birds that followed the mules eating the grubs and other soil animals that were turned up. As I got older my father’s farming techniques changed and the first piece of equipment was a huge John Deere tractor. Well, it was huge to me at the time and I often had nightmares about it coming after me. That tractor was small compared to equipment in American fields these days. But in the past 40 yrs when I went back to the farm there were no birds following the tractors. Instead of the soil animals being food for the birds farmers currently spread and spray all kinds of chemicals on dirt that no longer qualifies to be called soil. You see dirt is chemistry – soil is biology.
So now that I don’t live on the farm but love to garden I mostly feed the worms. And I make my own fertilizer for the vegetables. It often amazes me where ideas come from. Being an avid reader as a child I still read daily although a great deal may be online. However the Bemis library has two books that are worth the time to read. I always remember book titles even if I don’t remember the author’s name. Books I’ve either purchased or checked out of the library that inspire and educate include: Cows Save the Planet (ok, but you have to read it to get its meaning); The Earth Moved: The Amazing Accomplishment of Earth Worms; Teaming with Microbes and I toss in some historical novels and a romance or mystery and life if full…at least inside my head.
Some organic or environmental groups that I get news feeds from sent me something one day back in 2010 about making your own fertilizers from plants such as comfrey. Shortly after this I posted on FreeCycle and asked if anyone had any plants. I had some in Virginia when I lived there but never used it for anything for some reason. Probably because I’m not really big on herbal teas and didn’t study to find out how to make comfrey tea. But then the soil in Virginia was significantly better than what we have here in Colorado. A friend on FreeCycle, who is now my housekeeper, had some plants and gave me some. I now have about 8 plants along a fence that I make fertilizer from.
Fertilizer can be made from plants that have deep tap roots (wonder if we could make fertilizer from bindweed?) because the long tap root brings up nutrients from the ground… you know, dirt equals chemistry. In the spring when the comfrey plants get lots of leaves I cut them off and put into 3 gal buckets with water and put a lid on them and set them in areas around the garden. In a couple of weeks the plant leaves have disintegrated into the water. I take 3 other buckets and fill partly with water and divide the brew into them making a sorta 3-1 mixture that I then pour on my vegetables. If you look at them you will be amazed at how great they look without any other fertilizer.
Every where else in the yard I just mulch to keep down the weeds and feed the worms. When we bought this house it was mostly lawns and trees with little landscaping. We gradually removed the grass and added perennials that flower and attract beneficial insects. Last fall we decided to give away some peonies that are gorgeous but grow way too tall and fall all over the place. In the process of doing that we decided to improve the soil in that spot. After digging down about 24 inches and moving the soil to one side we added organic matter and discovered that there were no soil animals in the area at all, no worms, pill bugs, millipedes or anything. Thinking about this I realized that the issue was lack of organic matter and that this part of the yard that had been covered with grass had never been improved. Also it had no doubt had years of fertilizers and pesticides, herbicides, etc. which like the home farm had managed to kill the soil and turn it back into dirt. Since we could find no worms in this area we did a “worm transplant” which consisted of digging up worms from the excellent soil in the back and putting them in this newly turned area. This week we planted some tulip bulbs and discovered that there are now a goodly number of worms.
Nature has a multimillion-year-old partnership with soil microorganisms that allow plants to grow wildly without synthetic fertilizers. You can see this process by observing the crazy growth of weeds in areas that get no fertilizer at all. Texas is full of fallow fields of weeds that have taken over pasture land. Plants glean carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using photosynthesis and make their own carbon syrup of which about 60% fuels plant growth with the remaining transferred through roots to soil microorganisms. These microorganisms trade mineral nutrients that they have liberated from rocks, sand, silt and clay for their share of carbon.
Less than half the synthetic fertilizer that agribusiness applies to crops is used by the plants and much of the remainder runs off into ditches and streams and then gets concentrated in lakes and oceans creating algal bloom that sucks the oxygen out of the water that aquatic creatures need in order to live. Because farmers borrow so much money to grow crops that could die at almost any time they use too much fertilizer as an insurance policy
A common fertilizer in use today is phosphorous which has to be mined from the earth and the known supply is being quickly depleted. Chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuels creates much residual damage to the soil plus there is that run off issue that creates the pollution in our lakes, rivers and ultimate the oceans. And since fossil fuels will eventually run out as well as the world’s store of phosphorous it would be well if we learn how to make our own fertilizers and go back to planting cover crops and feeding the worms.