A Better Garden Fertilizer

For those who've taken the leap into organic gardening or are about to, an expert offers his recommendation for garden fertilizer.

| June/July 2006

better garden fertilizer - author with large cabbage

Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seed Co., has gardened extensively in California, Oregon, Canada and Australia, where he now lives. His book, Gardening When it Counts, is available at Mother Earth Shopping. 


Because my garden supplies about half of my family's yearly food intake, I do all I can to maximize my vegetables' nutritional quality. Based on considerable research and more than 30 years of vegetable growing, I have formulated a homemade garden fertilizer mix that works great in most food gardens. I call it Complete Organic Fertilizer, or COF. It is a potent, correctly balanced mixture composed entirely of natural substances. It's less expensive than similar commercially compounded organic fertilizers, and it's much better for your soil life than harsh synthetic chemical mixes.

The use of COF plus regular, minimal additions of compost has a long track record of producing incredible results. I've recommended this system in all the gardening books I've written over the past 20 years. Many of my readers have written back, saying things like, "My garden has never grown so well; the plants have never been so large and healthy; the food never tasted so good."

Complete Organic Fertilizer

To concoct COF measure out all materials by volume: that is, by the scoop, bucketful, jarful, etc. Proportions that vary by 10 percent either way will be close enough to produce the desired results. Making this formula by weight is more difficult and I suggest you do not try to. I blend my COF in a 20-quart plastic bucket, using an old one quart saucepan as a measuring scoop. I make 7 to 14 quarts of COF at a time.

At any cost of materials this mix is a good value when judged by the results it produces, but COF can be unnecessarily expensive unless you buy the ingredients in 50 pound sacks (20 kg) from appropriate vendors. Urban gardeners may have to do a bit of research to find rural suppliers. Farm and ranch stores as well as feed and grain dealers are the best sources for seed meals and kelp meal, which are typically used to feed livestock. If I were an urban gardener, I would visit the country every year or two to stock up. The other ingredients usually can be found at garden shops, although garden centers may sell them in smaller sized packages at relatively high unit prices. You also may find the these items on the Internet but they will be less costly from farm/ranch supply stores.

Seed meals and various kinds of lime are the most important ingredients (Read The Quick and Easy Guide to Homemade Organic Fertilizer for my basic fertilizer recipe). These alone will grow a great garden. Gypsum is the least essential type of lime, but it contains sulphur, a vital plant nutrient that is deficient in many soils. If gypsum should prove hard to find or seems too costly, don't worry too much about it — simply double the quantity of inexpensive agricultural lime. If you can afford only one bag of lime, in most circumstances your best choice would be ordinary agricultural limestone. The most fundamental nutrient ratio to get right in your soil is the balance of calcium to magnesium; it should be about 7 (calcium) to 1 (magnesium).To achieve that you could alternate agricultural lime and dolomite. First go through two bags of ordinary ag lime and then use one bag of dolomite lime. I strongly disagree with the many Rodale Press home gardening publications that insisted dolomite lime is the best single choice. Repeated use of dolomite has caused many organic gardens to become hard and compacted, making it seem that even more compost was needed than was actually required. Had the same soil had its magnesium to calcium ratio brought into proper balance, it would have loosened up by itself, seeming as though huge quantities of compost had been added.

Bone meal is usually available at garden centers. Guano, rock phosphate and kelp meal may seem too costly or too difficult to obtain, but they add considerable fortitude to the plants and increase the nutritional content of your vegetables. Go as far down the recipe as you can afford, but if you can't find the more exotic materials toward the bottom, don't worry too much. However, if concerns about money stop you from obtaining kelp meal, rock dust or a phosphate supplement, I suggest taking a hard look at your priorities. In my opinion, you can't spend too much money creating maximum nutrition in your food — a dollar spent here will save several in health care costs over the long term.

8/31/2014 10:32:05 PM

for me, it was difficult to find good pure organic fertilizer (NPK), but i found one good supplier. if some one need - http://richfieldua.yolasite.com/

5/6/2014 1:09:59 AM

Thanks for sharing such a nice blog. It is very useful for our farming sector. All we quite known about organic fertilizer. But most of us unknown about its composition and use. There are several types of organic fertilizer available in market. Before we going to buy this we have to know details its composition and use.http://www.gsplantfoods.com/liquid-fish--kelp-blend.html is one of the most effective organic fertilizer.

jess james
12/18/2013 10:01:45 PM

If it works then go with it, mostly its a matter of experimenting a bit as everyone has different soil compositions and climates but this seems like a good place to start.

6/1/2013 10:09:32 PM

Are you nutz????? I wouldn't touch bone meal (think mad cows) with your 20 foot vaccinated crowbar!!!!

5/31/2013 2:04:20 PM

what are the amounts of each of the ingredients? i cannot seem to find it on this article. thanks


radical mama
6/22/2010 6:37:05 PM

"Gypsum is the least necessary kind of lime, but it’s included because it contains sulfur, a vital plant nutrient that is deficient in some soils." Gypsum is not lime. Lime is calcium oxide, gypsum is calcium sulfate. Gypsum does not change the soils pH, lime does. Gypsum, if used in high qty's, will make the magnesium unavailable, lime will not. Limes calcium is not immediately available, gypsums is. Gypsum is great for tomato blossom end rot, lime is not.... get the picture..... They are not interchangeable.

6/19/2010 7:23:30 AM

There is more to this than fertilizer. I love amazing people and this dude is one of them.

6/18/2010 9:54:33 AM

I'm a little confused - how much of each ingredient do you mix together?

paul brakebill
7/21/2008 12:16:01 PM

I know that heretofore using newspapers and/or magazines with color print for mulching vegetable gardes is dangerous because of lead content in the print. Has that changed or is it still not usuable as mulch?

clifton middleton
6/23/2008 9:15:17 AM

The Water Crisis, A Practical Solution The Water crisis is the most serious problem humanity has ever created or faced. We are experiencing worsening water shortages around the world and mankind induced water pollution has infused the entire food chain with neurotoxins, poisons, pharmaceuticals and organic nutrients, all of which threaten the health and survivability of the human family and planet ecology. One of the main causes is something that is buried and seldom thought about, namely, our modern, water based sewer system. The average water consumption is 150 gallons per person, per day. We flush all of our disposables down the drain, into the sewer system where more chemicals are added and then finally pumped back into our water system. Water based sewer systems are the prime polluters and our use of them has proved to be full of unintended and unanticipated horrors. The use of water based sewer system wastes and contaminates the entire water supply by mixing pollutants and nutrients that if captured and recycled, could provide sufficient agricultural nutrients to ensure a sustainable food supply. System to reduce water consumption by 80 percent One practical solution to the water shortage is to replace our centralized water based sewer system with on site, waterless toilets and to recycle grey water. Grey water is the water from the kitchen and shower and can be recycled, on site and reused for landscaping and gardening. This will reduce our demand on the water source by up to 80 percent while simultaneously creating a sustainable, renewable, agricultural resource, namely, organic nitrogen. Changes pollutants into renewable source of food and energy No Mix toilets collect urine and feces in separate places, the toilet bowl has two drains, one, in the front for the urine and one in the back for the feces. The feces are dry composted and the urine is processed for agricultural purposes. Nothing is flushed into the sewer/water system. Separating to

12/2/2007 3:45:21 PM

Can I use Algae for the Kelp?

3/5/2007 10:50:36 AM

Thanks for making the article so easy to find and print, It's always hard to find just the right article in all my magizines, and of course I misplaced the pullout guide. My garden and I thank you. Mitch

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!