Build Better Garden Soil With Free Organic Fertilizers!

Avoid high fertilizer costs — here are your best organic fertilizers, including two that you won’t even have to pay for! Build better garden soil using organic fertilizers found in your very own backyard.

| April/May 2008

  • Fertilizer
    You can build better garden soil by applying the right types and amounts of organic fertilizers.
    Photo by Barbara Pleasant
  • Alfalfa Meal
    By reading the packaging and doing a little math, you can compare exactly how much you’re paying for the nutrients in different types of fertilizer. For example, when you use this bag of alfalfa meal as fertilizer, you’re paying about $17 per pound of nitrogen.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee
  • Grass clippings
    One of the best options for organic fertilizer is also the cheapest. Putting fresh grass clippings in your garden is a great way to add nitrogen to your soil.
    Photo by Walter Chandoha
  • Worm Poop
    With this type of fertilizer, it would cost about $14,000 to get a single pound of nitrogen!
    Photo by Peyton Baldwin
  • Fish Emulsion
    With this type of fish emulsion fertilizer, a pound of nitrogen would cost about $112.
    Photo by Peyton Baldwin
  • Beds and Paths
    Another useful strategy for improving your garden soil is to construct beds and paths. With this garden plan, you can add any soil-improving fertilizers directly to the beds, where they’re most needed, while restricting foot traffic to the paths, where it does the least damage.
    Photo by William D. Adams
  • Crimson Clover
    Plant crimson clover as another nitrogen-fixing cover crop.
    Photo by David Cavagnaro
  • Compost 1
    Although it’s rarely labeled as a fertilizer, adding compost is a great way to build your garden soil. You can give plants an extra boost as they’re growing by applying the compost as a “side dressing.”
    Photo by David Cavagnaro
  • Vetch
    For a great low-cost fertilizer, try planting vetch as a cover crop.
    Photo by David Cavagnaro
  • Bill Adams
    Mother Earth News contributor Bill Adams in his Burton, Texas, garden.
    Photo by William D. Adams
  • Wood Ashes
    Wood ashes can be sprinkled on acidic soils to provide phosphorous and potassium. Do not apply more than 2 cups per 100 square feet per year.
    Photo by Walter Chandoha
  • Mulch
    A mulch of grass clippings, straw or leaves helps suppress weeds and also feeds the soil as the organic materials slowly break down.
    Photo by Barbara Pleasant
  • Red Clover
    Red clover is another great choice for a cover crop that will add nitrogen to your garden soil.
    Photo by David Cavagnaro
  • Prices for various dry fertilizers.
    Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS
  • Prices for various blended fertilizers.
    Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS
  • Prices for various liquid fertilizers.
    Illustration courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS

  • Fertilizer
  • Alfalfa Meal
  • Grass clippings
  • Worm Poop
  • Fish Emulsion
  • Beds and Paths
  • Crimson Clover
  • Compost 1
  • Vetch
  • Bill Adams
  • Wood Ashes
  • Mulch
  • Red Clover

The information in this article was reviewed and updated in January 2015. —MOTHER EARTH NEWS

As more and more people recognize the many benefits of organic gardening methods, a fresh crop of organic fertilizers are sprouting on store shelves. Many are overpriced, and some are stunning rip-offs that reputable stores and catalogs should be ashamed to sell. The really amazing thing is that two of the best organic fertilizers are easily available to most of us absolutely free! (See below) It’s definitely a buyer-beware world out there. If you’re not careful, you could pay five, 10 or 4,000 times more than necessary to get the nitrogen and other nutrients you need. Here's what we found when we evaluated the pricing for 21 fertilizers:

The Best Free Fertilizers

All products labeled as “fertilizer” must be labeled with their content of the three major plant nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (N-P-K). Most organic fertilizers are bulkier than synthetic chemical products, so their N-P-K percentages are typically lower than synthetic products, and their application rates are higher.

Also, because organic products are biologically active, their N-P-K numbers may change somewhat from batch to batch and over time. Because of this, it can be hard for producers to comply with the labeling laws. As a result, some excellent organic fertilizer options, such as compost, often are not even labeled as a “fertilizer.” One of the best free fertilizers, grass clippings, break down so quickly that they can’t be bagged and sold.



But make no mistake, compost and grass clippings do what fertilizers are supposed to do: They enrich the garden soil with nutrients that plants and microscopic soil life-forms are eager to use. In most areas, you can easily collect grass clippings from your neighborhood, bagged and set out ready to bring home. And many communities make yardwaste compost (made mainly from grass clippings and leaves) available for free.

So, if you can get free clippings or compost, how much should you use? Here are guidelines prepared with help from soil scientists at Woods End Laboratory in Maine.

Abby
6/10/2016 10:41:05 PM

Due to active organic food market,organic fertilizer is booming recently.To invest organic fertilizer production is a good way to solve livestock manure pollution and realize substance recycle. Fan Way is specialized in manufacturing organic fertilizer production line and providing organic fertilizer production process technology for you. http://fertilizer-machinery.com/ http://fertilizer-machinery.com/production_line/organic-fertilizer-plant/index.html Providing customized organic fertilizer manufacturing process for you.


Chitra
10/8/2015 8:57:44 AM

Hi: Had a quick question. As a vegetarian I am not particularly keen to use fertilizers with meat or fish meal in it. Which of the bought fertilizers that you assess would work but not have anything more than manure? (animal waste product seems fine to me :)) Thx Chitra


Patricia
5/12/2015 6:00:13 PM

I'm surprised that your coffee pot, local Starbucks or some other coffee shops as an avenue for free bags of used coffee grinds. I grab a bag whenever they're available and use them in potting mixes, the compost bin or by blending it directly into the garden soil.






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