Tuesday, December 5th, 2006...3:44 pm

The chemical/organic fertilizer debate

Here is a question from Micah and his wife  about growing plants in general.

Whether it’s about the lawn or potted plants, my wife thinks it is good to use chemicals like Miracle Grow and anti-weed fertilizer. What are your thoughts?  I’m a “natural” guy while my wife is an artificial supplement girl.  Who is right?  Or is there some middle ground?

This is really more than one question. Tomes have been written on these subjects.  I can only answer superficially.

There are lots of excellent companies that make excellent products that are on sale for the home gardener. Many companies have research staffs who not only do their own research but who follow the research coming out of the universities.  These companies try to make improved products to make it better and better as well as easier for the home gardener.  I have bought and used some of these products. And I constantly ask nursery people if they can recommend something new. 
 I have sitting in my house products like Miracle Grow or Schultz’s products like Plant Food Plus, an all purpose liquid plant food for both indoor and outdoor plants, and Schultz Bloom Plus for promoting Rapid Blooming (I used it outdoors) or Dyna-Gro a liquid Grow Plant Food, etc. Many of these products are essential trace elements that plants need to be happier. Because potted plants in the house are really in an artificial environment, with little soil around their roots, I like the potting soil for indoor plants that has slow release fertilizers.  But with a caveat. Different types of plants can have different needs. Cacti needs are different from orchids and they are different from the needs of African violets.  So whenever one uses a product  Read the Label to see if it meets your plants needs and follow directions carefully. 
Now when you talk about anti-weed products, you are talking about the outdoor garden. The outdoor garden soil is different from your indoor garden soil. When you are talking about fertilizer, you have to know the state of your garden or lawn  to know what fertilizers your property or garden or lawn needs. To spread just any fertilizer can be a waste of money, time and energy. Therefore you MUST have your outdoor soil tested to know what to use.  The Garden Lady answered a question about Acidic Soil in her Nov. 7th column that talked about testing your soil.
Let me repeat, if you want to start a new lawn or new garden/s or when you want to see if your existing lawn or your existing garden’s soil nutrients are perfect, the Garden Lady advises to have your soil tested. The Garden Lady suggested that you call your nearest Master Gardener chapter to ask where you can purchase a soil testing kit. You will then  take soil samples of the areas you want tested. Your lawn area is one location- your front yard OR your back yard, not both sites in one test kit; your vegetable garden is another location; your flower bed is another location, etc.  These test kits are EXTREMELY EASY to use. You just mail the soil to your Agriculture extension which does the testing of the soil. The Ag. extension will then send you instructions on what nutrients you need for what you are going to plant and how much of the products (fertilizers, lime etc.) to use. Now, if you don’t want to go to your Master Gardeners,  you can get soil testing kits at your garden supply store or through garden catalogues. I don’t know how these store/catalogue tests are taken, but directions come with the kits. Having the tests done make you and the people who want to help you be more intelligent about your needs- there is now no guessing. The test doesn’t have to be done every year.  A good site on fertilizer and what is needed is this
Now your last part of the question was on products for getting rid of weeds. This is a huge subject on its own.  Some weeds can almost suggest which nutrients are missing in your soil. So if you balance your soil as recommended by your having  the soil tested, it will help eliminate the weeds. Different weed controls are needed for different weeds- you wouldn’t use a weed control for narrow leafed weeds if you have to control broad leafed weeds. Certain weeds are almost impossible to control so that your typical lawn feed and weed product wouldn’t be successful.  There are lawn weed controls and non-lawn weed controls. Here is a good site that talks about the different problems and their control suggestions. 
The question of chemical controls of weeds is a big one. Environmentalist are concerned with too many chemicals being used. If chemicals can kill weeds, they can be dangerous to humans. Those applying them can inhale them if they are not using them carefully. They can get into your body or children’s bodies through the skin or in pets, through their feet. The chemicals can be washed off and go into sewers that goes into water supplies or down into the ground water to contaminate the water. If you live near a body of water, like a stream or a pond the chemicals can contaminate the water. Because chemicals are sold over the counter, it doesn’t mean they are benign. The government is constantly removing chemicals from the stores because they learn of health problems the chemicals can cause. You can no longer buy some of the chemicals your parents may have used in their gardens. So scientists have to come up with newer ways to get rid of weeds. The safest way is always recommended first. Pulling or pouring boiling water to eliminate weeds are two ways that are not toxic. Having the perfect soil because you had it tested and followed Ag extension advice is a solution that can prevent problems.  
It is up to you whether you want a safe, benign method of weed control or you want to use chemicals. Though I recommend certain products that garden companies sell, remember that the companies are in the business to make money.  Sometimes the weed and feed companies tell you to use their product more than you really need-I call it overkill- and you shell out more money, time and energy. Be wary of some services that want to sell you their weed and care maintenance services. They hire people who don’t know about the chemicals they use and they come very frequently with those products. If in doubt, check with your local Master Gardener Group. They are volunteers for the Agricultural extension and will be honest about what advice they give. They also know the products that are no longer on the market.
If you do buy garden products always READ THE LABEL, carefully and completely and  FOLLOW THE PACKAGE DIRECTIONS.

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