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by Carole Schwalm Leafy vegetables growing in the early morning sun with a fence and grass field in the background.

for the want of manure the fabled cities fell? ~ Richard W. Langer: Grow It! (1972 Avon Books)

The ancient civilizations like the Mayan, grew crops but did not raise animals on a large scale. One theory is that their cities were destroyed, not by war, but because the land was exhausted. Without manure replenishing the soil, the agriculture could no longer supply population. You have to reinvest in the dirt because each season plants use up nutrients, whether this is by adding manure or through other sources.


Plants need carbon dioxide. This is free. It comes from the air and is taken in by the leaves. They need sunlight, and this is another freebie. Plants require water (sometimes not free if you are a city farmer, but nothing a rain barrel or two wouldn't solve).

Plants also need salts. The big three are: nitrogen, phosphates and potassium (or potash). Your plants are telling you they are undernourished if they look sickly, have yellow leaves, aren’t blooming or growing or if they are, they produce small fruit.

Garden of cabbage and lettuces growing in a raised garden bed. Nitrogen, the main source of chlorophyll, encourages stem. It is one of the main benefits of using manure, also blood meal, canola meal, and fish powder. It is especially beneficial for ‘leafy greens like cabbage, lettuces and spinach.

Phosphates encourage root growth. Weak crops have scrawny, spindly root systems that are stressed to the max trying to feed plants and fight disease. Phosphates encourage healthy seeds, and beneficial for crops like beans and peas.

Potassium or Potash contributes to plant strength and its general health. It aids ripening. Plants also need trace elements like iron, magnesium, boron, manganese and others.


You may think: if my tomato plant produces x amount of tomatoes -- if I triple that amount or fertilize once a week, I’ll have xxxxxxxxxx tomatoes! If so, you’d be wrong. You can over-fertilize or literally unbalance nature. Besides, if you have adequately prepared your soil in the spring, you don’t need to keep adding fertilizer. It is always wise to get your soil analyzed before you begin to correct its shortcomings. This is a smart money-saving tip to take advantage of before you invest in seeds, plants, and even fertilizers. Your soil could have more than enough phosphates, for example, and adding could be detrimental to your plant’s health.

There's nothing colder than chemistry ~ Anita Loos

The quote may not apply, or perhaps maybe it does! Once upon a time it was the thing to think that if you added enough chemicals, you could grow crops in any conditions. Thus a dynamic was created. Then the chemical fertilizers soon begat chemical insecticides. And Mayan history risked being repeated: The more chemicals the more the organic quality of the soil was lost. Chemicals are absorbed into the plants you eat and into the lawns where children and pets play. They end up in water systems. Plant-wise, synthetic fertilizers promote little water-retention abilities you find in organics. You also need to bear in mind that chemical fertilizers are quick. The plants look stunning, but have puny roots.

Soil is a living thing.

A large plot of a variety of vegetables growing in a garden. WHAT ARE ORGANIC FERTILIZERS?

The simple answer is that they are 100 percent natural. They are not chemicals. Manure is a natural fertilizer that ferments quickly and helps open up soil. There is a caveat: the quality of the manure depends on how the animals are fed and penned.

Compost is another natural, born of waste materials like vegetable matter, as an example, that breaks down and forms humus and proteins used by microbes and worms. The caveat here is: do not add diseased elements or weeds to your compost recipe.

Lime is an old farming remedy, but helpful if you’ve experienced a lot of rainfall. It corrects the acidity and adds calcium. Berries, radishes, watermelons, and potatoes resonate with the right amount of lime.

Many organic soils contain things like worm castings. You can also mix your own, adding castings, coir, calcium, humus, kelp, bone meals, and guanos.

Organic fertilizers are slow, releasing nutrients in a more-natural way.

Read how our organic fertilizer experiment turned out in our Fertilizers & Compost article.

Share your organic fertilizer experience or if you'd like more information.