Free, Homemade Liquid Fertilizers

Make these easy liquid fertilizers — then sit back and watch your seedlings and plants thrive!
By Barbara Pleasant
February/March 2011
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Homemade liquid fertilizers made from free, natural ingredients — such as grass clippings, seaweed, chicken manure and human urine — can give your plants the quick boost of nutrients they need to grow stronger and be more productive.
ILLUSTRATION: ELAYNE SEARS
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Many organic gardeners keep a bottle of liquid fish fertilizer on hand to feed young seedlings, plants growing in containers and any garden crop that needs a nutrient boost. But liquid, fish-based fertilizers are often pricey, plus we’re supporting an unsustainable fishing industry by buying them. So, what’s a good alternative?

MOTHER EARTH NEWS commissioned Will Brinton — who holds a doctorate in Environmental Science and is president of Woods End Laboratories in Mt. Vernon, Maine — to develop some water-based, homemade fertilizer recipes using free, natural ingredients, such as grass clippings, seaweed, chicken manure and human urine. His results are summarized on our chart of Homemade Fertilizer Tea Recipes.

Why and When to Use Liquids

Liquid fertilizers are faster-acting than seed meals and other solid organic products, so liquids are your best choice for several purposes. As soon as seedlings have used up the nutrients provided by the sprouted seeds, they benefit from small amounts of fertilizer. This is especially true if you’re using a soil-less seed starting mix (such as a peat-based mix), which helps prevent damping-off but provides a scant supply of nutrients. Seedlings don’t need much in the way of nutrients, but if they noticeably darken in color after you feed them with a liquid fertilizer, that’s evidence they had a need that has been satisfied. Liquid fertilizers are also essential to success with container-grown plants, which depend entirely on their growers for moisture and nutrients. Container-grown plants do best with frequent light feedings of liquid fertilizers, which are immediately distributed throughout the constricted growing area of the containers.

Out in the garden, liquid fertilizers can be invaluable if you’re growing cold-tolerant crops that start growing when soil temperatures are low for example, overwintered spinach or strawberries coaxed into early growth beneath row covers. Nitrogen held in the soil is difficult for plants to take up until soil temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit or so, meaning plants can experience a slow start because of a temporary nutrient deficit in late winter and early spring. The more you push the spring season by using cloches and row covers to grow early crops of lettuce, broccoli or cabbage in cold soil, the more it will be worth your time to use liquid fertilizers to provide a boost until the soil warms up.

Water-soluble homemade fertilizers are short-acting but should be applied no more than every two weeks, usually as a thorough soaking. Because they are short-acting, liquid fertilizers are easier to regulate compared with longer-acting dry organic fertilizers, though I like using both. With an abundant supply of liquid fertilizer to use as backup, you can use a light hand when mixing solid organic fertilizer into the soil prior to planting.

Remember: If you mix too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer into the soil, you can’t take it back. As soil temperatures rise, more and more nitrogen will be released, and you can end up with monstrous plants that don’t produce well. In comparison, you can apply your short-acting liquid fertilizers just when plants need them — sweet corn in full silk, peppers loaded with green fruits — with little risk of overdoing it. Late in the season, liquid fertilizers are ideal for rejuvenating long-living plants, such as chard and tomatoes, which will often make a dramatic comeback if given a couple of drenchings.

Making Your Own

To explore the art of making fertilizer tea, Brinton began by trying various ways to mix and steep grass clippings, seaweed and dried chicken manure (roughly 33 percent manure mixed with 66 percent wood shavings). The best procedure he found was to mix materials with water at the ratios shown in the Homemade Fertilizer Tea Recipes chart, and allow the teas to sit for three days at room temperature, giving them a good shake or stir once a day.

“By the third day, most of the soluble nutrients will have oozed out into the water solution,” Brinton says. Stopping at three days also prevents fermentation, which you want to avoid. Fermented materials will smell bad, and their pH can change rapidly, so it’s important to stick with three-day mixtures and then use them within a day or two. Brinton also studied human urine, which is much more concentrated than grass, manure or seaweed teas, and doesn’t need to be steeped.

The lab analyzed the four extracts for nutrient and salt content. Salts are present in most fertilizers, but an excess of salts can damage soil and plant roots. Brinton found that chloride and sodium salts were so high in urine that they needed to be diluted with water at a 20:1 ratio before being used on plants. In comparison, the seaweed extract could be used straight, and the grass clipping and chicken manure extracts needed only a 1:1 dilution with water to become plant-worthy. Read the full report from Woods End Laboratories.

As a general guideline, most vegetables use the three major plant nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — in a ratio of roughly 3-1-2: three parts nitrogen, one part phosphorus and two parts potassium. This means that an N-P-K ratio of 3-1-2 is more “balanced” in meeting plants’ needs than 1-1-1, the ratio many gardeners assume is best. Because liquid fertilizers are a short-term, supplemental nutrient supply secondary to the riches released by organic matter and microbes, they don’t need to be precisely balanced. The teas made from grass clippings and urine come closest to providing the optimum 3-1-2 ratio.

Nitrogen helps plants grow new stems and leaves. Phosphorus is essential for vigorous rooting, and is usually in good supply in organically enriched soils. Potassium is the “buzz” nutrient that energizes plants’ pumping mechanisms, orchestrating the opening and closing of leaf stomata and regulating water distribution among cells. The grass clipping and poultry manure teas are rich in potassium, which should make for sturdy plants with strong stems when used to feed young seedlings. Blending some grass or manure tea with a little nitrogen-rich urine would give you a fertilizer to promote strong growth in established plants. I like to add a few handfuls of stinging nettles, comfrey, lamb’s-quarters or other available weeds to various mixtures, which probably helps raise the micronutrient content of my homemade concoctions in addition to providing plenty of potassium.

On the practical end of liquid-fertilizer making, you may need to use a colander to remove some of the grass clippings before you can pour off the extract. If you haven’t completely used a batch of fertilizer within two or three days, pour it out beneath perennials or dump it into your composter.

It’s important to relieve drought stress before doling out liquid fertilizer. Watering before you fertilize helps protect plants from taking up too many salts. Also keep in mind that continuous evaporation in containers favors the buildup of salts. By midsummer, a patio pot planted with petunias or herbs that are regularly fed with any liquid fertilizer may show a white crust of accumulated salts inside the rim. Several thorough drenchings with water will wash these away, making it safe to continue feeding the plants with liquid fertilizers.

There is no doubt human urine can be a valuable fertilizer for garden plants. The average adult produces about 1 1/2 quarts of urine per day. Diluted 1:20 with water, this would make about 7 gallons of high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer, so a family of four could produce enough high-nitrogen fertilizer for an average garden and lawn. As Brinton suggests, when we think of N-P-K, we should also think N-Pee-OK!

Maybe it’s all the diapers I’ve changed, but I don’t like minding pails of pee. In winter at my house, we have a bucket of sawdust stationed on the deck to help us capture this valuable resource, and we keep a designated bale of hay out in the garden for urine deposits. If you do the same, you can use the urine-enriched sawdust and the hay from “pee bales” as nutrient-rich mulches in your garden.

Whatever materials and methods you choose, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of making your own no-cost liquid fertilizers.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .


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Post a comment below.

 

Kenneth
7/23/2014 1:18:32 AM
I had never heard about this. Making homemade liquid fertilizer is nice one and useful for our garden. Having different plants in garden is the basic aim of a gardener. Not only is this, taking care of those plants the responsible of that gardener. Liquid fertilizer is very effective in case of increase the growth and productivity of plant. Beside this we can get liquid fertilizer with a suitable price from GS Plant foods. For details you can visit- http://www.gsplantfoods.com/

Veera
6/18/2014 3:40:17 AM
The fact that this fertilizer is purely homemade from freely available household waste is amazing. This pure green concept is simply awesome. http://www.pinterest.com/seodress/rocklin-real-estate-qualified-realtor-in-the-rockl/

Jorgen
6/17/2014 5:15:54 AM
This is good. It's very interesting. Thanks for sharing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_utcOWbN7E

Diedre H.
6/7/2011 10:18:44 AM
hi! we tried making the grass clipping tea, and i thought i did it right, but it came out smelling just awful, like some passing animal had relieved itself in the bucket. is this normal? should i dump it out and try again, or is it ok to use? i don't want to put it on my vegetable plants if it's gonna kill them.

DrFood
3/15/2011 3:37:49 PM
What about wood ash and urine? Urine is primarily a nitrogen source, would wood ash complement that? We went through a lot of wood in our wood stove this winter, and I plan to break up the charcoal and add it to my garden beds and compost, but what can I do with so much wood ash? An unrelated question--I recall that asparagus is far more salt tolerant than the average plant, so does that mean it's a good candidate for fertilizing with urine? (As an MD I can reassure y'all that unless you have a bladder infection, urine is sterile.)

Barbara Pleasant_3
3/14/2011 7:21:20 AM
Lancy, you are right about charcoal, and we covered biochar in 2009: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/Make-Biochar-To-Improve-Your-Soil.aspx. Kerry, great points about WHERE you use manure-based fertilizers that may contain salmonella. Plants that hold their crops high (tomatoes, sweet corn) will naturally stay clean, but not so with lettuce! And yes, all N is water soluble and easily lost, though organically-enriched loam has some holding power. Liquid fertilizers of any kind are a small piece of the overall soil fertility puzzle. Melinda, can’t you bury those fish remains in your garden? They will feed soil microcritters and you won’t lose nutrients or incur the mess and stench of making fish fertilizer. When I had a neighbor who wanted the small bream fished out of his lake, I buried dozens beneath my raised beds.

Melinda
3/12/2011 5:12:31 PM
I would like to know how to make my own liqued fish fertilizer from my own fish. After fishing I have been giving the leftovers to the wildlive to eat.

Kerry
3/12/2011 8:03:56 AM
I had used the water from my geese's pool to water my asparagus and blackberries for years without problems either to the plant or to us... (the manure was not dried, the geese made 'fertilizer tea' for me). Then I realized that maybe I should be concerned about salmonella or E-coli! A master gardener/farmer friend assured me that these are not taken up by the vascular system of the plant, so using it on the blackberries would be OK if the water is not splashed onto the berries, but better not to use it on anything where the food part of the plant touches the soil (such as asparagus, lettuce, carrots, etc.) I think the organic standard is 120 days since last application of manures to sowing/transplanting, but would have to look into the 'state' of that manure that is being refered to again. (fresh, dried, tea or ???) Barbara, is human urine as fertilizer addressed in the organic standards? I was also wondering how long the N would actually stick around in a bale of hay used to collect the urine. It is my understanding the N is not tested for in a soil test because it is so unstable? I mean; would it be a waste of time to collect urine all winter... would it be best to wait until closer to spring to begin collecting?

Lancy
3/11/2011 12:00:55 PM
Hi, About making your own fertilizer.. you can also add charcoal from stove and yard fires to great benefit. Google "Amazonian Dark Earth" for a real eye opener of what the ancients were doing two thousand years ago in the Amazon Basin. Boggles the mind it does. Lancy

Barbara Pleasant_3
2/24/2011 7:10:52 AM
From Kirk M: I want to try using human urine to fertilize my veggie garden in the Dallas, Texas, area. Some questions: How should I apply it? As a drench? As a foliar spray? Some other way? How much should I apply? The problem with urine is that it is high in two salts that can damage plants. This is why dilution (20:1) is so critical. Also, its nutrient value is pretty much limited to nitrogen, so its best use is as a booster fertilizer for fast-growing plants -- cabbage family crops that have been in the ground a month, sweet corn at early tassel, or pruned back tomatoes, for example. I would apply it to the root zone rather than the leaves. Consider other methods besides direct application. Keeping a pee bale of hay is easy, and produces a high nitrogen mulch. A sawdust pile enriched with manure becomes comparable to stable bedding, so it composts really fast. I've heard of people using buckets of homemade wood charcoal as urine collectors, which theoretically offets odors. The charcoal is eventually buried in the garden, as nitrogen-enriched biochar. Getting fertilization right comes with experience, as you see how various plants adapt to your climate and soil. Like other liquid fertilizers, diluted urine is only small part of the puzzle. Other methods like composting and mulching are much more fundamental because they result in fertile, healthy soil. The same cannot be said for frequent drenches with salty urine. Proceed thoughtfully.

creme de christine
2/21/2011 4:46:43 PM
Thank you so much for this fantastic article. I'm looking forward to completely grossing out my kids when I put Pee Beans in front of them this summer :D I'm not even gonna tell them about the menstrual blood.

Barbara Pleasant_3
2/20/2011 6:09:55 AM
Excellent question, Charles! Dr. Brinton used DRIED chicken manure, because drying has a trusted track record of killing salmonella. The ammonia gas given off by fresh poultry poo also kills salmonella and other pathogens. The best practice would be to make small piles to gas the material a bit, and then thoroughly dry some in the sun. Take it to crispy dry, or 10 percent moisture. Store this in an airtight container, and use it to make your liquid fertilizer.

charlesd
2/18/2011 8:21:49 AM
I was excited to read this article. I have a ready supply of chicken droppings. But shouldn't I be worried about salmonella? Especially with lettuce, greens and other vegetables eaten without being cooked?

hhunt
2/15/2011 8:26:51 AM
This question was asked regarding urine as fertilizer: You advocate using diluted human urine as a liquid fertilizer. But you fail to mention the implication of drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter)taken by people which is excreted in that urine. How does this affect a strictly organic garden? Janet Mother's response: The answer to Janet's question below about traces of drugs in urine is--no one has studied this question. Mother Earth News editors' best guess is that the traces of drugs in urine are not likely to harm anyone using the urine in their garden.

Barbara Pleasant_3
1/31/2011 9:06:44 AM
From Donna B: Is it safe to use chicken manure tea on root crops such as carrots? You could use a tea made from aged chicken manure that has been composted to black, but still you would need to dilute it well because carrots react badly to excessive nitrogen. Carrots would much prefer that matters of fertility be addressed before planting. If you were to make a tea for them I would use vermicompost. The humic acids in vermicompost (earthworm compost) are especially beneficial to carrots and other root crops.

Barbara Pleasant_3
1/31/2011 8:56:57 AM
From S. Wood: When using urine as fertilizer is there a stipulation when a person is on medications? As far as I know, the only medications that might affect urine would be chemotherapies and various nuclear medicine procedures like PT scans, since some unusual introduced toxins might be released into the urine in the days after these drugs are taken. If family members have not been given precautions about sharing bathrooms and such, urine can be presumed to be clean and safe when properly diulted (20 to 1) or added to compost. From what I hear, many people prefer to deposit it in bales of hay, or doughnut-shaped mounds of sawdust in which the center can gradually be filled in, thus limiting odors.

Elizabeth
1/29/2011 8:17:57 PM
I'm new to this idea of creating our own liquid fertilizer and I'm wondering what kind of pee catcher I should use. We have 4 children and I would be thrilled to not have to pay for fertilizer for my seedlings and garden!

Luckdragon
1/29/2011 5:21:53 PM
You missed one - women who use non-disposable menstrual products (the Keeper, Divacup, cloth pads, or sea sponge tampons) can collect menstrual blood, mix it with water, and use it as fertilizer. Plants LOVE it!








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