Look to Mother Nature

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by Daniel Bowman
Containers of lemon basil fertilized with duck manure.

Several years ago, while transforming our sand dune into an organic garden, I introduced my husband to the concept of “beneficial detritus.”

“This,” I said, pointing to decimated tumbleweeds and puncture vine. “You don’t want this in the garden. The seed heads will sprout. But this …” I gestured at poplar and mulberry leaves that had blown into our fenced garden from neighbors’ unfenced yards. “It’s beneficial. The leaves will decompose to be some of the best fertilizer, and it won’t burn any plants.”

That “beneficial detritus” now composes part of our yearly soil amendments, alongside goat manure, decomposed hay, kitchen compost, and the whey from my cheesemaking projects. We layer it on, avoiding soil disturbance if we can, then allow the whey and irrigation to boost the microbes and water nutrients down to the plant roots.

In the gardening world, we navigate terms and concepts that can make our heads spin: “organic,” “GMO,” “conventional.” Then, we deal with those less-trustworthy terms: “all-natural,” “low-impact.” What, exactly, do these terms mean for your garden? When choosing seeds and amendments, which do you grab, and why does it matter?

You may know that just because something’s organic doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. And most of us know why we should compost chicken manure before applying it to tender plants. But beyond that — do you choose fish emulsion, bone meal, organic kelp extract, or steer manure? Or a combination? Is there a one-size-fits-all amendment? And does the price point matter?

In this issue of Mother Earth News, author Daniel Bowman gets at some of these questions by narrating his experiment with different fertilizers for growing sweet basil. Which performed best? The answer may surprise you.

When looking to organic fertilizers, sometimes we only need to look to Mother Nature. How does she fertilize forests? Those leaves that drop from trees, that tomato plant that was healthy before the killing frost — those still contain many nutrients that the plant needed to survive. Detritus (fallen leaves that get chopped up beneath the feet of wildlife) has nourished massive trees since forests began. Wildlife brings in the manure, which decomposes naturally in the leaf litter. Rains push nutrients into the soil for plants to use.

Mother Nature can teach us a lot about our own gardens and where we should spend our money. Often, a low-cost or free option is right before you, and it can be the best choice for your setup.

When choosing your organic fertilizers, what goes into your soil? Which do you buy and which do you bring in as compost, free manure, or even irrigation water with added benefits of fish droppings or decomposed algae? How do you incorporate the free offerings — fallen leaves, old hay, garden plants from last year — into your garden? Do you till them into the soil, broadfork them, make compost tea or bokashi, or layer lasagna-style? We’d love to hear tips and tricks from different climates and growing zones. Email them to me at

May your peppers grow thick and your tomatoes not crack,

Marissa Ames