Jim Verner

Organic Fertilizer Secrets

September 7th, 2012  |  Published in Jim Verner

While more and more cities, landscapers, nurseries, urban farmers, and home owners are turning to organics, many do not understand all the benefits of organics, how they work, and when they should be applied. Those who come from a synthetic fertilizer background often attempt to use organics in ways similar to the chemical fertilizers. When they do, they are missing much of the benefit organics offer. The goal of this brief paper is to mention some of the “secrets” that will not only give better agronomic results with organics… but also save you money.

Effective use of fertilizers is as much art as science. Your plants will tell you a great deal when you “listen.” And how do you listen to your plant? By keeping a close eye on how it grows. If it is not looking like the picture in the seed catalog, something is wrong. Often this is due to stress that causes the plant to lose its genetic potential. And that is an area where good organic fertilizers can work wonders since saving genetic potential is a key to healthy plants.

1. Not all organic and “natural” fertilizers are the same!

Read labels carefully. Ingredients should be listed, although many labels show this in small print. Unfortunately, many landscape and garden fertilizers that call themselves “organic” or “natural” are simply a mix of some organic material with synthetic fertilizers. These products will not build a healthy soil the way a true organic fertilizer does. Certified Organic Farmers are required to use only true organic inputs per the rules of the USDA National Organic Program. Look for the OMRI or Washington State Organic seal on the label to know you are getting a true organic.

2. Plants can use, and benefit from, the organic form of nitrogen!

This will lead some to shake their heads in disbelieve. For years, soil scientists taught us that plants could only use the inorganic forms of nitrogen – ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-). We learned that organic matter and proteins had to be broken down in the soil to these forms of nitrogen. They said the benefits of organics were improved soil structure and micronutrients, not a special form of nitrogen. Now, research and practical experience have shown that plants do use the organic protein form of nitrogen (NH2) and that it has very significant benefits – stronger root systems and greater stress resistance. Of course the organic proteins also supply the ammonium and nitrate that plants need. With synthetic fertilizers, the plant only gets the inorganic forms and has to use its energy – energy that could be used for better growth, flowering and fruiting – to metabolize them into the organic NH2 that is a precursor to the proteins and carbohydrates that provide the energy to the plant.

3. Relying on compost to supply all the nitrogen needed by the plant has a downside!

Compost is a wonderful soil amendment, especially when it is a fine, finished grade compost. It supplies a full range of nutrients the plant needs plus the microbes that are essential for a healthy soil. But, it is important to understand that even the best compost has about the same amount of the major nutrients – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). Plants need considerably more N (the only nutrient that makes growth) than P and K so when you only use compost, the levels of P and K increase to excessive levels and these two nutrients reduce the availability of calcium (Ca). Since Ca is needed for strong tissue, if the plant doesn’t get it in sufficient amounts the tissue is weak. If you supply an organic protein fertilizer that has higher N, it makes an excellent complement to compost.

4. Organic fertilizers containing animal proteins and manures smell – plant proteins don’t!

Organic materials like blood meal, feather meal, guano, fish, etc. definitely smell. The odor makes them difficult to store and they can draw flies if not mixed well into the soil. Plant proteins have a clean, cereal smell, and their nutrients are quick acting and long lasting.

5. Organic fertilizers can be applied at any time! Even with the seed!

Because organic nitrogen does not leach or volatilize like synthetic nitrogen, it can be applied any time. In fact, there are real benefits when the organic protein fertilizer is applied with the seed or earlier in the season than is recommended for synthetic fertilizers. Applying synthetic fertilizers with the seed can burn roots and cause damping-off, but organics won’t burn. This is because the organic NH2 form of nitrogen is similar to the seed’s own protein that produces growth immediately before the plant has any leaves, so it enhances germination and establishment. It is important to use good quality compost in potting mixes since the microbes improve the availability and effectiveness of the organic protein.

6. Not all composts are the same!

Look for good, fine particle size compost that has a clean earth smell. If it contains bits of wood and leaves, the microbes will use the nitrogen to breakdown these woody bits rather, stealing the nitrogen your plant should be getting. Your compost supplier should be able to give you a carbon-nitrogen ration (C:N). The best composts are in the 15:1 range. Composts with woody material can be 100:1 or higher and this robs your plants of the nitrogen they need for optimum growth. If you make your own compost, remember that food scraps, while they contain many good nutrients, can be high in sodium. If your compost has a manure or ammonium smell, it is not finished – and this can burn roots just like synthetic fertilizers.

7. For turf, leave the cuttings, and use a mulch mower if possible!

When grass cuttings are hauled off, all the good nutrients and organic matter in them are lost. By leaving cuttings, you will help increase the soil’s organic matter and recycle the nutrients. This improves water holding capacity of the soil and reduces the need for fertilizer applications.

8. If you use recycled water or if your soil has high sodium levels you need extra care!

Sodium (Na) can be toxic to plants if levels are high, and since it is very soluble in the soil solution a soil test can be misleading. Recycled water tends to have high sodium as well as other “salts” (but some of those salts are good nutrients and will be beneficial, even reducing the amounts of fertilizer needed). The best way to overcome high sodium is to periodically, maybe once a year, a) increase organic matter by applying a good quality compost, and b) add a fine ground calcium sulfate (gypsum) to the compost or spread it on its own.

There are many more “secrets” that will help you get the most from your organic inputs. If you have questions or comments, just give me a call: Jim Verner, jim@organicag.com, 559-286-5646.

The Benefits of Organic Fertilizers: Quick Acting & Long Lasting

May 2nd, 2012  |  Published in Jim Verner

The Benefits of Organic Fertilizers: Quick Acting and Long Lasting

Landscapers and horticulturists often prefer “slow-release” or “controlled-release” fertilizers.  After all, in spite of their high cost, it seems to make sense.  We know that some nutrients, especially nitrogen, can be lost to the atmosphere or leach into ground water, leaving the plant without the nutrients it needs to grow and wasting the money spent.  One option to minimize these problems is to apply a slow-release synthetic fertilizer.  It can be applied less often, and this saves labor, which is another word for money, and can offset the higher cost.

But there is more to the slow-release fertilizer story.  It is about two important characteristics of organic fertilizers that are often misunderstood:  1) amine nitrogen and 2) carbon.  A good organic fertilizer works even better than slow-release synthetics.  It is worth our time to understand these organic concepts.  It will end up helping us save even more time and more money.  And we will be following a sustainable program that is environmentally friendly.  On top of all this, our lawns and gardens will look better than ever.

Nitrogen – understand the differences between nitrate (NO3-), ammonium (NH4+), and organic amine (NH2) nitrogen

First some basic background on nitrogen: it is the only nutrient that produces growth.  Of course the other essential nutrients are needed for healthy growth, but they can’t make growth on their own.  The other primary, secondary, and trace elements are used by the plant to produce enzymes and structure that make enhance nitrogen use.  But all these other elements won’t produce growth if there is no nitrogen.  Think of nitrogen as gas for a car – without it, the car won’t run, even if it has all the necessary elements like brake fluid, transmission fluid, water in the radiator, and air in the tires. Of course, when the car has gas, it needs all those other things to run properly.  But without gas the car won’t even start, and those other things don’t help a bit.

Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured from soluble forms of nitrogen and other nutrients.  The nitrogen is in the synthetic readily-soluble ammonium and nitrate forms.  So, to be “slow release” they must be chemically altered or coated to slow down the rate they enter the soil solution where they can be taken up by plants.  The release rate from these treatments is affected by water and temperature, and it may not be consistent with the needs of the plant.

The nutrient most likely to be lost is nitrogen.  Ammonium can volatize as ammonia and nitrate will move with the water that seeps downward in the soil.  Nitrogen on the surface can be lost when there is runoff.  These losses not only waste the money spent on nitrogen, they contaminate ground water and surface water.

For many years, scientists believed that plants use only the ammonium and nitrate forms of nitrogen.  But new research has proven that there is a third form of nitrogen, amine, that is also important for plant growth.  And this form of nitrogen, along with C (carbon), is only available from organic fertilizers.  Amine nitrogen is a precursor of the proteins and carbohydrates that fuel the plant’s growth.  When plants take up nitrogen as synthetic ammonium and nitrate, they need to use some of their energy to reduce these forms to organic amine and protein.

So, you may ask: If plants can make their own amine, what is the benefit of giving them nitrogen in this organic form?  For starters, amine is the form of nitrogen that a seed produces when it germinates.  It does this by hydrolyzing the protein in the seed into amine.  This organic compound is the only form of nitrogen that the seed can use immediately for growth, even before it has leaves.  Ammonium and nitrate nitrogen, on the other hand, must be converted to organic amine in the leaves.  This is why the application of synthetic fertilizers is not recommend to seeds.  But organic proteins and organic amine applied with the seed improve establishment.  Research shows how seeds with higher protein levels germinate better.  Without protein in seeds to produce the amine nitrogen, there will be no germination.

Understanding how plants take up and utilize the amine form of nitrogen gives us a better understanding of why organic fertilizers are both quick acting and long lasting.  The first thing the organic amine does is produce better root systems.  And roots are what determine the quality of top growth.  As the amine nitrogen continues to be released during the season, roots stay healthier, with greater resistance to stress and disease.  Plus, a better root system is more efficient in utilizing the nutrients and moisture in the soil.  Of course plants still need ammonium and nitrate for optimum growth and health, and organic proteins supply these as well.  But only organic proteins supply amine, and when plants get a continual supply of amine they can use the other forms of nitrogen more efficiently.  This is why experience shows that when a good organic fertilizer is used, one or two applications per year maintain the plants in better condition than multiple applications of synthetics.  And, what is even more surprising, the total number of units of organic nitrogen applied over the year is usually about 1/3 of the units normally required with synthetics, yet plants and turf look better and are healthier than when they get the higher rates of synthetics.

Additional Benefits of Organics: Soil Structure, Trace Elements, and Water Efficiency

Agronomists have always recognized that organic fertilizers and organic matter in the soil produce positive results and healthier growth in plants.  They attributed these benefits to factors such as better soil structure, micronutrients in the organics, and greater water holding capacity, all of which are true.  But when it came to nitrogen, they didn’t understand organic amine.  They believed that the organic proteins had to convert into ammonium or nitrate before the plant could use the nitrogen, and that is where they made their mistake – we now know that plants can take up the amine form of nitrogen and since it doesn’t have to be reduced in the leaves, it immediately begins to build roots and strong growth.

Organics Encourage Balanced Hormone Production.

Plants produce hormones to control how they use their energy, and research is showing how each form of nitrogen influences the production of different hormones in the plant.  The better root system produced with organic fertilizers makes the hormones that encourage stronger growth above and below ground and greater resistance to disease and all forms of stress.  Strong roots reduce the hormonal effect of high nitrate uptake that produces weak, lank growth.  This means top-growth is also stronger, with less water loss through transpiration.  In turf, the grass fertilized with a good organic is more wear-resistant and needs to be mowed less often.

Timing Organic Fertilizer Applications

Another important point about organic amine nitrogen is the timing of fertilizer application.  Organic protein will not burn the roots.  In fact, it does just the opposite: organic amine starts producing root growth immediately, even when the temperature is too low for the plant to produce vegetative growth. This means organic fertilizers can be applied with the seed and they will improve establishment since the amine supplements the protein in the seed.  When top-dressing, organics can be applied earlier than synthetics – the organic nitrogen will not be lost to leaching or volatilization and the amine will start building roots immediately.  Then, when the temperature is sufficient for vegetative growth, the plant will begin growing with a stronger roots system.  Good timing for turf in California is usually late summer and late winter.

Carbon – essential for a healthy soil.

Then there is carbon.  Synthetic fertilizers, even slow-release, do not contain carbon.  Organic fertilizers do.  This is important because carbon is necessary for a healthy soil.  Carbon feeds the microbes that breakdown and recycle the nutrients in organic matter.  Long term use of chemical fertilizers depletes the soil’s carbon, reducing organic matter and building up salts and hard-pans.  Organic fertilizers increase the soil’s organic matter and microbes, improving water efficiency and promoting better germination, stronger roots, and healthier growth.  Some companies offer “bridge products” – a blend of some organic matter and synthetic fertilizers.  While the organic matter is a benefit, the synthetics are still synthetics and do not contribute to a healthy soil.  For soils with low organic matter, add a good quality compost along with the organic fertilizer.  It should be free of wood particles and have a rich earthy smell and feel.  To learn more about how organic fertilizers feed the soil as well as the plant, just Google “the soil food web” and you will find plenty of information on the internet.

In Summary – what should you do for a healthy soil that will produce healthy turf, plants, and trees?

Keep these points in mind when thinking about how to fertilize your lawns and gardens:

1. Even the best “controlled release” synthetic fertilizers release all their nitrogen in the ammonium and nitrate forms.

2. With these forms of nitrogen, the plant has to make its own amine by converting ammonium and nitrate nitrogen into organic amine and protein.

3. The chemical and physical methods used to slow the release of synthetic nutrients can give inconsistent results due to variations of temperature and moisture conditions, so the release may not match the needs of the plant.

4. Remember that all the benefits that the carbon, organic matter, and organic fertilizers bring to the soil are missing in synthetic fertilizers.

If you would like further information how organic fertilizers protect the environment and keep your lawn, plants, shrubs, and trees healthy, contact Jim Verner at California Organic Fertilizers, Inc., jim@organicag.com, 559/286-5646.