There’s no doubt about it, plants need food. These 11 free natural fertilizers can be found in most homes. Let’s stop throwing them away and instead use them to feed the vegetable garden.
We all want to get the best harvest we can from our vegetable garden and it seems logical that the more fertilizer we use the more robust our plants will be. And we’ll get larger harvests. But that’s just not the case.
In fact, too much fertilizer can actually decrease yields instead of increasing them.
Synthetic fertilizers are expensive and set us up in a never ending cycle of dependency on them. Fortunately, synthetic fertilizers are not necessary to grow food, there are plenty of natural fertilizers that most of us can easily get.
Differences between fertilizers
Synthetic fertilizers feed the plant. They are formulated to work fast and you’ll notice larger, more robust plants very quickly after fertilizing. But it is usually short lived.
On the other hand, these natural fertilizers feed and build healthy soil. They will feed the plants slowly but over a longer period of time.
In the long run, you’ll get better results from natural fertilizers that build soil than you will from synthetic fertilizers that just feed the plants.
Most people suggest getting a soil test done so you know what the soil type is and how to amend it. That is good advice for amending soil. However, radically changing the soil isn’t the goal with natural fertilizers, building soil and feeding the plants is the goal.
You do not need to get a soil test before using these natural fertilizers. However, none of these natural fertilizers should be piled on or around the plants day after day. Instead, they should be spread out and used in combination with other soil building methods.
Natural fertilizers for the vegetable garden
Almost anything can be composted down and made into fertilizer for the vegetable garden. The items listed below are high is at least one of the “big 3” nutrients that plants need – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) or potassium (K).
By using a combination of all of these that you have available, you’ll be able to feed the vegetable garden without purchasing synthetic fertilizers.
Coffee grounds are about 2% nitrogen and are really great for most plants. While coffee grounds can make the soil more acidic, you would have to apply quite a lot to significantly change the ph level of the soil. Sprinkle coffee grounds around plants that have yellowing leaves (a sign they probably need more nitrogen) and they will perk up.
Most coffee shops package their used coffee grounds and give them away to gardeners, you just need to ask.
Egg shells have about 1% nitrogen and are high in calcium. Plants use calcium for cell growth and remove quite a bit of calcium from the soil. Egg shells is great way to replace that calcium. To use egg shells in the garden, crush the egg shells and sprinkle around the plants. You can use a grinder to powder them if you want the nutrients to be available to the plant quicker.
Banana peels are high in potassium which is beneficial for plants that produce edible “fruits” such as tomatoes and squash. Both of these plants are very heavy feeders and benefit from additional nutrients. To use banana peels, you can bury them just under the soil surface and let them decompose. If you have a lot of banana peels you can cut and dehydrate them, then powder them before sprinkling them around the plants. This will get the nutrients to the plant quicker than burying a whole banana peel.
Wood ash contains potassium and calcium. Wood ash from burning hardwood is best but any wood ash will do. Just make sure ONLY wood has been burned; no lighter fluid, charcoal, food, or trash.
You can sprinkle wood ask on the soil and water in. A little goes a long way, so just sprinkle. Wood ash is alkaline and can alter the ph of the soil if used in excess. Also, don’t use wood ash on acid loving plants.
Worm castings are incredibly nutritious and easy to get when you raise worms through vermicomposting. Worm castings make a great mid-season feeding for plants that are heavy feeders such as corn, tomatoes, and squash. They are also great for container herbs and vegetables because you only need a tablespoon or two per pot.
Fish emulsion is a great fertilizer but is also expensive. You can easily make your own, just know that it’s about a two week process. This makes a good fertilizer that the plants can use very quickly.
If you fish you can also just bury the fish scraps in the garden. You will want to either chop them up or blend them first so they decompose quicker. The nutrients won’t be available as quickly as they will if you make an emulsion, just so you know.
If you have a fresh water aquarium, you can also use the dirty aquarium water to water plants. The fish waste will provide nutrients to the plants.
Blood meal is another fertilizer that can be purchase but is not balanced, in fact, it’s almost all nitrogen. Blood meal is exactly what it sounds like, dehydrated blood that’s been powdered. The blood comes from slaughtered animals.
If you you hunt or raise meat animals, then you can save the drained blood when you butcher and use it on the garden. You can also use the blood from the raw meat that you’ve purchased (there’s always some blood in the chicken or beef package.)
You can dehydrate the blood and powder it so you can use it overtime. Or you can dilute it with water and water your plants with it whenever you happen to have blood available. Blood is very high in nitrogen and can burn your plants, so be sure to dilute it and pour it on the soil, not the plants.
Just like blood meal, bone meal is sold as a fertilizer and just like it’s name suggests, it’s made from ground up bones. Many of us save bones to use for soup broth but we’re still left with soft bones at the end.
Making your own bone meal is a good way to use up those bones. This can be done several different ways. This method uses a blender and dehydrator to get the powered bone meal.
Comfrey (or weed) Tea
Comfrey and weeds are very high in nutrients and can be used to make a foliar spray. It will take a few days to make the tea, but it’s well worth it. Learn how to make comfrey tea here. You can use the same method with any weeds or plants as long as they are disease free.
With the exception of rabbit manure, all manure needs to be composted or aged before using it in the garden. But once it’s composted it makes a good mid-season side dressing for perennials and heavy feeders.
If you don’t have any livestock, you can probably find someone who does and would love to give you some of their bedding to compost.
Compost is a catch all phrase for organic matter that has decomposed into a rich soil. While almost anything can be composted, there are some things that don’t belong in the compost you’re going to use in your vegetable garden.
Some of the things you don’t want to put in the compost pile are pet (dog and cat) waste, human waste, citrus peels (especially in large quantities), meat and dairy. These things need to be composted separately for various reasons.
But everything else…leaves, garden waste (without disease), cardboard, livestock bedding, kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, etc… can be added to the compost pile and be turned into nutrients to feed your garden.
What about fertilizers for fruit?
The free fertilizers that work in the vegetable garden will also work in the fruit garden or orchard. Just remember a little goes a long way.
Friday 15th of May 2020
What are the details about citrus peels? Why are they composted separately? If citrus peels are composted separately, is their compost used differently also? Thanks!
Saturday 16th of May 2020
Hi Mabel, Citrus peels take a long time to breakdown which is one reason that it's not recommended that they be put in the compost pile. The main reason people cite for not composting citrus peels is because they have the citrus essential oil in them and can harm the beneficial microbes that are breaking down the compost pile. Organic gardeners actually use orange oil as a pesticide.
However, you'll find people who do put citrus peels in the compost and their compost breaks down just fine. If you cut the peels into small pieces they will also compost faster. I actually do add our citrus peels to our compost pile, but our pile is quite large so I don't think it has an negative impact. However, when we're preserving our citrus harvest each year and have several 5 gallon buckets of peels, those get composted by themselves because there's just too much. I use that compost to fill in low spots in our yard.