There are many topics that are explosive. Sports teams, politics, putting beans in chili or not, and so on. Among gardeners, a hot topic is always whether or not one should use strictly organic methods or use non-organic chemical fertilizers. Bring up the topic among gardeners and those who eat veggies or shop for produce, and its like rolling a hand grenade into a crowd – its going to get ugly.

In my efforts to be a better gardener, steward of the soil, and a healthy cook, I’ve done some research over the years. Ultimately, I find myself being partial to organic methods, but I’m not going to toss out non-organic, chemical fertilizers when they benefit my garden, so long as they aren’t a long-term threat to health, either my own or my soil.

What I have decided is that in my container plants, I will readily use chemical fertilizers and non-organic nutrients if it is needful. Usually, with container plants, it is at least helpful. The soils in my containers are not going to contribute significantly to the long term buildup of salts or chemical residues in my garden beds because they have been heavily used and leached by the time they are recycled. I amend the garden with my container gardening mixes to bring the beds back up to volume. It also helps to add tilth and increases the soil’s water retention ability. But by the time I put the potting mixes into the garden plot, they have been sitting idle for a winter, and most of any chemical fertilizer has been leached out by repeated rain. That’s my theory, at least. It will require more study, but for now that’s how I operate and it works.

Speaking of using potting soil (or prepared potting plant mixes, there is usually no soil in them, just peat and compost), if you add them to gardens, consider what wise crop rotation practices teach us. Consult your resources to see which kinds of vegetable crops should follow last year’s crop. You can’t plant the same stuff in the same dirt every year, its not healthy. I’ll post about that one of these days, but you can read up on it virtually anywhere that people talk about gardening. This means you should be thoughtful about where you dump your potting mixes. If you plan to grow tomatoes in the garden bed, for example, don’t toss your old container mix into that area if you grew tomatoes in the pots. Give it two years, that’s the general rule, before you grow a crop in the same soil.

But back to fertilizer. I’ll use chemical fertilizers in my potted plants because I don’t have a problem with non-organics. I like the control I get, and the fast results. In the past, I have had good results using fish emulsion, a low-impact, weak fertilizer with a 5-1-1 ratio, to boost growth on potted tomatoes before they began to set fruit. This is a nice organic option. But I am not opposed to a slow release chemical fertilizer being mixed into the soil. In fact, I really loved the results of Miracle Grow potting soil mix on my tomato jungle in 2009. I grew tons of tomatoes in what amounted to 3 gallons of potting soil or less, per container. The slow release was really helpful, and yes I had to water twice a day with such a small container and the high heat. Here’s what that looked like, in part:

jungle 2009

AS for my main garden plots, I will not use chemical fertilizers in them (or synthetic pesticides and herbicides). I want to keep an eye on long-term health of the soil, keep up my worm and micro-organism population, and benefit from the purity of natural nutrition. This does not mean I won’t amend soil with things like garden lime. That is a natural and organic material and necessary for tomatoes so they will not suffer from blossom end rot, a condition that did show up a bit in 2014 for me. That tells me what deficiencies are in the soil. But I won’t use chemicals in my plots because of long term health concerns.

Here is a good comparison of chemical fertilizers and organics, showing the benefits and problems with each. Read up, research, decide what is best for you. It is not taboo for gardeners to benefit from the advances in chemistry that can help get over a downturn in productivity. Nor is it more noble to be totally organic. There is benefit in moderation, balance and thoughtfulness. Instead of strict adherence to one position or another, gardeners should study the risks and benefits of both sides, and wisely choose what will work best for them, their health, and the health of their soil.

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