When Charlie Wilber, farmer extraordinaire, grew tomatoes for fun and profit, he knew a thing or two about vegetable gardening.
Wilber is famous for his tomato trees. His green thumbs grew vines like skyscrapers, packed with the red fruit – 1,368 pounds of tomatoes on 4 plants. Several of his crops broke Guinness World Records.
But Charlie didn’t spend a cent on Miracle-Gro or other chemical foods.
No, Charlie did things the old fashioned way. His favorite fertilizer was free, straight out of the rabbit warren. Because Charlie Wilber, who detailed every step of his killer tomato techniques in his book, “How to grow world record tomatoes,” knew that synthetic fertilizer is bad for plants.
The Fertilizer Myth
Who wouldn’t be? Fertilizer companies have been programming us since we could read advertisements that we need fertilizer to grow huge, beautiful flowers, fruits and vegetables.
Publicity campaigns for synthetic N-P-K are backed with plenty of potent advertising costing hundreds of millions of dollars. There’s no shortage of professional photos to prove their point, either. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing is believing.
But scientists who get up close and personal with soil around fertilized plants see the damage. Fertilizer destroys important microbes. It also builds up in the soil, making your garden hostile territory to friendly fungi as well as thirsty, hungry roots.
It doesn’t stop there. Fertilizer can actually trigger deficiencies. Used as directed, any balanced chemical fertilizer can disrupt natural chemical reactions that make soil nutrient-rich and good for your plants.
Fertilizer is also murder on earthworms. Scientists at Montana State University’s Integrated Pest Management Center are warning homeowners that “heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers with high nutrient content can kill earthworms and beneficial microorganisms” found naturally in soil.
No, chemical fertilizer is not garden-friendly. In fact, it’s bad for your plants. You can do better without it. Here’s why.
Why we fertilize
How did all this happen? Why are we damaging our plants? What kind of gardeners spend $40 billion a year on products they don’t need?
Back in the late 1800s, before fertilizer was invented, a global crisis was looming in the civilized world. Scientists believed the world was running out of food. Millions were about to starve.
Into this dark scenario entered German chemist Fritz Haber. A friend of Albert Einstein, Haber worked furiously on a solution. He found the answer in 1908: A cheap, fast-acting liquid that boosted crop output almost overnight made of concentrated, chemical Nitrogen.
Armed with this powerful new invention, farmers everywhere could now grow megatons of crops to feed the hungry planet. And Haber, who had averted catastrophe, would win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
100 years later, most gardeners remember growing up with Miracle-Gro and Scotts fertilzers. Who gives a second thought to “plant food”?
We just don’t know any better.
Fritz Haber’s 100-year-old liquid Nitrogen formula is almost unchanged. And that’s a problem.
For starters, many fertilizers are, technically, salts. Do you know anyone who waters their garden with salt water? There’s a reason for that.
In his book, Urban Soil in Landscape Design, Philip J. Craul points out, “When a fertilizer is applied to the soil, we are adding salts.” The salts build up, season after season, until “osmotic potential reaches a critical level.”
Now you’re in trouble. As Craul explains, “[T]he plant root has difficulty in extracting the water from the soil.” Water all you want. Those plants are doomed.
Ammonium Nitrate, NH4NO4, has a major “salt Index” of 104.0. Ammonium Sulfate: 68.3. Milder, but still deadly.
Urea: 74.4. Sodium Nitrate: 100.0. Potassium Chloride: 120.1. And the leader: Potassium Nitrate, which posts a searing 147.3 on the salt scale.
The chemical salts problem is one reason fertilizer is bad for microbes. Another reason is the “use it or lose it” rule of the plant-microbes connection.
When you fertilize your plants, the microbes machinery shuts down. Plants simply do not need microbes if they can get nutrients from you. Good-bye, beneficial bacteria. Farewell, friendly fungi.
Fertilizer commercials don’t bring this up, of course. They talk instead about nutrient deficiencies, and how their fertilizers are a cure.
Light green leaves? Chlorosis — an iron deficiency. Small, reddened leaves? That’s a phosphorus shortage. Dying stem tips? Boron needs a boost.
Here’s something you won’t hear from the fertilizer folks: Most soil has everything you need to grow near-perfect plants.
Take iron. When plants (including lawns) show symptoms of an iron deficiency, it’s almost always because the pH is too low (from chemical N-P-K fertilizers). Not because there is a need for iron.
Plants need 32 elements to grow big and strong. Vegetables especially need a wealth of nutrients, plus trace elements. A simple soil test is the only way to tell if your soil needs iron, or boron, or phosphorus, or anything at all. Rich, healthy soil is packed with N-P-K and more.
Bottom line: Fertilizer does not make soil rich and healthy. Your rich, healthy soil, however, can be ruined with fertilizer. Stop using fertilizer this year. Instead, enrich your soil with compost and organic matter. Then get it tested.