To Fertilize‚ or Not to Fertilize

To fertilize, or not to fertilize‚ that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler of the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged neighbors, or, to take arms against a sea of horrors from cancers to dead birds‚ and, by opposing, end them?

Oh, those outraged neighbors, who are certain that every neighborhood should look just like a toy train exhibition with all yards looking mass produced…it’s a lot of work, that green perfection. And it is pretty.

Oh, those endangered bees, butterflies, birds…to take arms to defend them…oh…They don’t have tear-jerking commercials showing their sad-eyed misery with pleas to send money to save them all. Americans love the underdog! Let’s love them, too.

To fertilize or not to fertilize? There are pros and cons of any decision we make, every time, so let’s look at the pros and cons of the ubiquitous fertilizer.

Fertilizing. There are so many joys of fertilizer! Green, green grass. Huge, luscious plants. Incredible yields. Sometimes outrageous blooms. Happy neighbors. Boasting to friends. The feeling of success. That feeling of success is a mighty pro; incredible yields/blooms are a bonus. Then (there’s always a then), the cons.

Standard fertilizers are petroleum based. It’s hard, in this day and age, not to understand the worry over petroleum-based products. Some fertilizers are not petroleum based, but they are the exception.

Standard fertilizer contains large amounts of nitrogen. This is great for improving the sheer size of leaves, etc. We love this. But this is horrifying for tiny butterflies, moths, and other creatures who depend upon leaves; the sheer size of the leaf, which is large without containing the expected bulk of nutrients (due to the overabundance of nitrogen) can literally lead to malnourishment of progeny, which leads to stunted and otherwise unfit adults, which leads to a loss of butterflies, moths, etc. This then leads to a loss of birds, fish, and other creatures that depend upon them as food.

That marvelous growth is because nitrogen acts as a water binder in plants. This means that fertilized plants are literally thirstier than others, which means a great deal of watering is needed simply to prevent death. We are all drawing out of the same aquifer; the water we use today will not be available for future generations, because it takes much longer for water to filter into an aquifer than it takes us to pull it out.

All that water is also immensely attractive to various insects, such as aphids, Japanese Beetles, and other miseries. Thus, fertilizer attracts pests, which we then need to control. Yikes!

Phosphorous is another huge problem of standard fertilizers. Frequently it runs off into local waterways, where it is gleefully consumed by algae, which promptly blooms atrociously. The “super-bloom” is great for algae, but terrible for fish, crabs, and other sea life because it removes oxygen from the water – which the fish, etc., like us, need to survive. What is great for algae, can be horrible for seafood. So, those who hate to fertilize, respect those who don’t, and vice versa.

Can plants grow without fertilizer? Of course. You’re not likely to get the first prize for the biggest tomato at the fair, because others will fertilize. However, your smaller tomatoes, lacking all that water, might be the tastiest around.

Your plants might not grow as quickly as your fertilizing neighbors. Your fertilizing neighbors will, however, be out there pruning and splitting and other plant containment activities that you will have to do – someday. Slower growing plants need much less pruning, shaping, mowing and splitting than their fertilized cousins. More fertilizer = more work.

Can you help plants grow without fertilizer? Of course. Mulch of all sorts is very useful, particularly in droughty Maryland. Green mulch is, perhaps, most useful; a large variety of plants, covering the ground like any mulch, pulls nutrients up from the soil for all to enjoy in addition to providing water-loss control and weed containment.

Careful watering will help. If we respect that plants like to go dormant in hot, dry months, and refrain from forcing them to perform despite that preference, we will help all but annuals, who go for broke each and every year, and just emerged seedlings, who have no defenses.

The rule is – water only annuals and seedlings. Allow all other plants to go dormant as nature dictates. Fertilizer interferes with nature’s plan; nitrogen forces plants to grow, despite their desire to sleep through summer’s heat and drought. It’s tough on the plants. Unsurprisingly, fertilized lawns and gardens quickly develop all sorts of issues that must be controlled. Many fertilized plants simply don’t return next year – regardless of their perennial, rather than annual, nature. Lawns get weird problems, same cause.

Then – there’s compost. Many gardeners consider compost the way around fertilizer issues. They are not wrong; compost is fabulous stuff, known as “black gold” in gardening circles.

Compost isn’t quite a perfect solution to the “fertilize or not to fertilize” question, but, particularly for the fertilizing faction, it’s really doggone close. Compost replenishes the nutrients removed by prior generations of plants. It also helps maintain moisture, a blessing in dry, drought-stricken months.

Compost is far better than the “vitamin pill” standard fertilizers offer. In addition to mild amounts of the standard “vitamins,” it offers a wide panoply of minerals and other vitamins. Beyond that, it’s also a “pro-biotic” pill for soils.

Compost is the way to go if you are amenable to playing – gently – with nature’s plan. You will still have to water annuals and seedlings, but they will grow robustly, rather than getting top heavy, as is common with fertilized plants.

Those who object to any amendment whatsoever to what nature provides should skip compost; highly recommended for those folks is lots of leaf mulch, which will help prevent soil depletion. So…to fertilize, or not to fertilize…Up To You.

Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email to receive the blog straight to your inbox.

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