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Gardening

Hey, you with the chemical fertilizer. You’re just making more work for yourself.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 9
  • Published May 9

A man spreads fertilizer on a lawn. (Getty)

The cause of much of the work in a yard is a direct result of how you fertilize. Right now is when most homeowners make the biggest mistake: putting a high-nitrogen fertilizer on lawns and gardens to green things up quickly. Don’t.

All garden fertilizer labels show three numbers representing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the bag or container. This is the “NPK trilogy.” These are three essential elements that most influence plant performance and can be missing from soils. Synthetic, chemical fertilizers usually display high number trilogies with double digit numbers like 32-0-4, numbers from a so-called turf-building formulation for lawns. (Today’s lawn fertilizers are not supposed to have any phosphorus as we are running out of it, so the middle number is now 0.) Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, display low, single digits, like 4-0-4. The chemical fertilizer feeds the plant. The organic fertilizers are actually microbes, too. The microbes, in turn, feed the plant.

Both get the job of growing plants done or they wouldn’t remain on the market. Setting aside the health issues associated with non-organic gardening, why wouldn’t you want to put down as much nitrogen and other nutrients as you can? Haven’t Scotts and others streamlined the system so gardening is simple and easy and quick? Well, no. There are really good gardening reasons to skip the synthetic, chemical fertilizers. And these are especially applicable here in Alaska.

First and foremost, the microbes in the organic system do most of the work so you don’t have to. Trust me on this. It has been at least 20 years since I have put anything down on our main lawn. How does it look? Well, it has been featured in the Deere Company magazine. It looks as good as any lawn in town! Not only do I not have to waste time buying and applying fertilizer, I can easily get away with mowing only every two or three weeks. (I tell myself I mow more frequently to keep the dandelions from flowering, but I actually like mowing.)

Since there is no picking up the clippings, there is really no work to maintaining the lawn other than watering in the spring (which you should be doing right now). Chemical lawns, on the other hand, are stimulated and grow fast. They need mowing at least once a week Outside, but here in Alaska you can reliably count on two and even three times a week. And, since no one wants to do that much work, the lawn often isn’t mowed in a timely fashion. The eventual clippings are so thick you end up having to rake them up. Work.

Next, chemically fed lawns become compacted as soil structure deteriorates. Turns out, it is those microbes thriving in the organic lawn that make soil structure. They produce the glues that stick soils into aggregates and support the critters that make the tunnels and burrows to bring in air, water and organic matter. No compaction and no problems with drying out all the time. You get yellow and thin patches. If we have dry spells, things get worse because compacted as the soils don’t hold as much water. You have to water the lawn. Work.

Once the natural soil food web is out of whack, unnatural things start to happen. In addition to compaction, diseases and pests take advantage of some missing element and thrive. This includes invasions of insects because their enemies are no longer present. Shady, wet lawns growing too fast because of high nitrogen get powdery mildew. Finally, there are the mounting concerns about lawns turning into moss — I am hearing all about them. The truth of the matter is that this happens naturally to lawns up here because our soils are acidic in part due to the occasional hit of acidic volcanic ash.

Using high-nitrogen lawn fertilizers, however, really speeds up the process because every time you put down high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer, you lower the soil pH and that encourages the growth of moss. And let me tell you, if you want work, try renovating a moss-ridden lawn. You will be cursing the day you put down that 22-0-4 and 32-0-4.

I haven’t even mentioned what happens in your garden beds when you use high-nitrogen fertilizers. Well, if there is one thing chickweed likes, it is lots of nitrogen. And all that soil-structure building is just as important in in the garden soil as it is in the lawn’s.

The bottom line? Save yourself a lot of of work. Stay away from synthetic, chemical fertilizers. Use fertilizers that are plant- and animal-derived with single digit NPK numbers. Consider things like alfalfa and fish meals, fish hydrolysates, granulated molasses and manure. Believe it or not, compost works great as a lawn food and obviously on garden beds as well.

Jeff Lowenfels has been writing a weekly gardening column in the Daily News for more than 40 years. His new book, “Teaming With Fungi: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae,” is now available at stores and online. Reach him at jefflowenfels@gmail.com or at www.jefflowenfels.com.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Veggies to start in the ground this week: Beets, carrots, collards, kohlrabi, lettuce, Swiss chard, turnip, zucchini. Make sure you soils are moderately warm! Stagger planting so everything doesn’t ripen at once.

Visit nurseries: Buy starts before there are no starts.

Harden off: All plants grown indoors. I leave ours outdoors in the shade for three days and then given them some sun. Don’t make it complicated.

Bare root sales: The best sales of the year on trees and shrubs is now, when they are sold bare-rooted. No hardening off needed. Plant them now or pot them up and plant when you want.

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