The Grand Rapids Press – Grand Rapids, Mich.
Jul 22, 2007
Ever wonder why salty pretzels and peanuts are served free at your favorite watering hole?
They make you drink more.
Salt is a great dehydrator used to melt ice and make jerky, a commodity that doesn’t necessarily melt in your mouth.
Yet, we unwittingly spread salt-laden products on our lawns and gardens, hoping to give plants a boost.
Plants already stressed from heat and scant rain eventually may collapse like a well-oiled barfly after one too many baskets of peanuts.
That’s a watered-down synopsis of what Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine, wants chemical-dependent gardeners to understand.
“In many fertilizers you find ammonia. Ammonia is a salt; it dehydrates the life in the soil,” Meyer said. “Over time, you will kill life in the soil and cause it to dehydrate.”
Many leading brands of synthetic fertilizers contain ammoniacal nitrogen at concentrations of about 3 percent. The content hits 12 percent for one company’s rose fertilizer spikes.
“High-nitrogen fertilizers are fast release, but they break down slowly,” he said. “They function like steroids: It produces rapid growth, but it is not sustainable. It is too much for the plant to produce and support, and that makes the plant vulnerable to disease. Any plant under stress is disease-prone.”
Synthetic fertilizers, he said, can kill beneficial life in otherwise healthy soil, including beneficial bacteria and microbes.
“A teaspoon of healthy soil has more living things than there are humans,” he said.
This is not an alarmist message from a guy trying to sell his magazine.
The message has been borne out in research. Like all things in life, moderation is the key.
Tried and true
Meyer is not a fanatical, long-haired tree hugger dressed in tie-dyed shirts. He lives in a comfortable Pittsburgh suburb where you’d best have a decent-looking yard unless you want to face the wrath of neighbors.
“I live in a suburban area; my lawn needs to look good,” he said. “I’ve been there 16 years and have never sprayed anything on it. Sure, there’s a few dandelions in spring, but otherwise, I’m not hearing complaints from neighbors who rely on the chemicals.”
Long before Miracle Gro, Scotts and other popular fertilizer brands, plants were fortified organically simply because that was the only option available.
Chickens, cows, sheep — just about any barnyard animal you can think of, were put to use before they ended up on a China platter for Sunday supper.
Weeds can be dug out by hand. For a pre-emptive strike, Meyer recommends using corn gluten meal in the fall. This time-tested organic product hinders germination of weed seeds. Milky spore is nature’s answer to grub control.
Grass clippings and shredded leaves are fine natural fertilizers for the lawn, Meyer said.
Organic health insurance
Perhaps the best way to enrich the soil is with copious amounts of compost.
People with compost piles are sold on the benefits. You can make your own or buy it in 40-pound bags.
Covering the garden with shredded leaves in fall pays huge dividends over time, Meyer said.
Each fall, I visit Grand Rapids neighborhoods and collect brown bags crammed with leaves before the city’s refuse trucks get to them. Then, I spread them out, slice and blow them into the garden with the mower.
Some municipalities maintain huge piles of yard debris for residents to pick up and use for compost. It may not be the rich, earth-colored loam portrayed in commercials for compost tumblers, but works just as well.
Compost also works as a multivitamin for plants coming out of a pot and going into the ground.
“It is alive with all these things that, when it breaks down, provide nutrients plants are designed to take up,” Meyer said.
Soil enriched with organic matter is better able to retain moisture, making the drudgery of watering less frequent, he said.
“Gardening is a gratifying experience if you are not beating your head against the wall,” Meyer said. “Working with nature works. You are not working against, but collaborating with nature as your ally.”
If only Mother Nature wasn’t so stingy with the rainfall.
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