Free, Homemade Liquid Fertilizers

Make these easy liquid fertilizers — then sit back and watch your seedlings and plants thrive!

| February/March 2011

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.

3/18/2016 1:06:50 PM

Thanks, Barbara, for the great ideas! I know rose growers have been using teas for a very long time. Interesting to add urine to the various carbon sources like sawdust and hay. Would you have any pH issues adding sawdust to the garden soil? Or the current soil microbes in the garden soil using existing nitrogen while decomposing the sawdust or straw? Maybe the composting process is long enough for the sawdust or straw to mellow out. I know farmers who use cover crops and plow them under can have microbes tie us some nitrogen while they break down the cover crops. I think the bale of hay would be a great idea! Thanks for the sharing!!

3/6/2015 7:29:32 AM

OK so hows about using parts from the fish you catch like carp and suckers catfish or salmon or what ever. You know like heads and tails and skin fins guts what every your not going to eat. How would you make liquid fertilizer from this stuff??

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-

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