Apply savvy when you apply fertilizer - test soil now

GardeningAugust 29, 2012 

One of the major complaints leveled by chemical heads against organic gardening is the fact that organic fertilizers take too long to work. This is because, with the exception of a few tundra plants and the element boron, the only way organic nutrients in organic fertilizers can enter into a plant root is after microbes have converted them into inorganic, charged particles. And, yes, those that advocate for the use of chemicals are correct: Sometimes this can take months.

There are several solutions to this problem. The first is to use one of the few soluble organic fertilizers that include Chilean nitrate and bat and bird guano. These are "hot" and have to be applied carefully so as not to damage the roots of plants. Since they are soluble, they are applied at the time of planting. Putting them down now would pretty much be a waste of time and money.

A second method is called "banding." It involves adding organic fertilizers to the soil in the vicinity of the root zone, in a location where the roots will grow into it. There are a few tricks to banding as you don't want to destroy all of the soils mycorrhizal fungal network. However, the practice increases the amount of nutrient uptake and appears to stimulate root growth as well. And, since the fertilizer is down in the root zone of the plant, there is less of it available for competing weeds.

I will, of course, discuss banding and the use of soluble, organic fertilizers next spring in time for planting. However, smart organic gardeners also apply organic fertilizers in the fall so that microbial activity can immediately commence and by next spring ample nutrients will be available at planting time.

Once again this season, I am urging all gardeners (and not just Alaskan ones) to have their garden soils tested. We live in an age where information is power and yet virtually no gardeners test soil. How can you tell what you soil needs by way of additional nutrients if you don't test it? The only answer is, "You can't."

Here are places that test Alaskan soils: Soil and Plant Analysis Lab, 533 E. Fireweed Ave, Palmer, 99645, 907-746-9450; Kinsey Agricultural Services (a favorite of mine), 297 County Highway 357, Charleston, Mo. 63834 ( neal@kinseyag.com); SoilTest Farm Consultants, 2925 Driggs Dr., Moses Lake, Wash. 98837; A & L Eastern Agricultural Labs, 7621 Whitepine Road, Richmond, Va. 23231, 804-743-9401 (www.al-labs-eastern.com ); and Brookside Laboratories, 308 South Main St. New Knoxville, Ohio 45871, 419-753-2448 (www.blinc.com).

Return times vary, but each will give you specific recommendations for your soils.

Even without a soil test (but you must get one, so you might as well try and get it done right now), you should apply organic fertilizers, compost and mulches to your soils in the next few weeks as it is "fall." Soybean meal or Alfalfa meal or pellets if you are worried about GMOs in the soybeans (and who isn't?) and kelp would be two I would spread out before adding mulches or compost. These supply amply NPK and micronutrients. Once you put them down, then add compost and then mulch. These will contain plenty of microbes to break down the organics. They will retain these in their bodies. When they die or are eaten, nutrients are released. For the most part, this will occur when soils start to warm up next spring.

So, there you have it. Test your soils. And even if you are going to wait, put down some organic fertilizers now. As for chemical fertilizers, if you must use them and destroy your soil food web, wait until the spring. Anything you put down now will likely run down to the water table where it is useless for your plants.

Jeff Lowenfels is the co-author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com/home or during his radio show, 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday on KBYR AM 700, kbyr.com.

Garden calendar

FIRST FROST: I AM NOT ANTICIPATING ONE FOR SEVERAL WEEKS. IF ONE COMES BEFORE I WRITE THE ANNUAL COLUMN ON WHAT TO DO, I WILL POST INSTRUCTIONS AT WWW.TEAMINGWITHMICROBES.COM/HOME.

HARVEST: JUST DO IT. POTATOES AND BRUSSELS SPROUTS GET SWEETER WITH COLDER WEATHER AND A FROST OR TWO. STILL, YOU CAN HARVEST THEM NOW IF YOU DESIRE.

EXCESS: BEANS CAFE WILL TAKE EXTRA FOOD.

PLANT: TREES, SHRUBS, PERENNIALS AND SPRING FLOWERING BULBS.

CLEAN UP: TIME TO START CLEANING THINGS UP FOR THE WINTER. AS YOU WORK IN THE GARDENS AND YARD, START THAT CHORE.

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