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What Makes a Fertilizer Organic

By Mike D Walters

If you are an at-home gardener, whether it is on a large or small scale, you have surely by this point noticed a wide range of fertilizers that are available to you at every garden store. Fertilizers may be grouped into two major categories: chemical or synthetic fertilizers, and organic fertilizers. So what is the main difference between these two types?

Synthetic fertilizers are made up of chemical, non-renewable ingredients such as ammonium phosphate, urea, nitrate salts, or potash. Essentially, these chemicals work like steroids on a plant. They cause the plant to grow rapidly and mature quickly. Of course, this is desirable for fruit and vegetable farmers who may wish to be able to sell their harvest in a short amount of time. However, the fruits and vegetables do not have the time to develop the nutrients and flavor that are natural to them. If you have ever eaten a tomato that has been grown with chemical fertilizers, you probably noticed that it tasted mealy and a bit bland. This is because the fertilizer hastened its reddening process, but not did not develop its flavor or nutrient content.

By contrast, organic fertilizers are made of organic materials that are natural and sustainable. These materials do not have to be mined from the earth, and are often by-products of other industries. These include fish emulsion, blood meal, and bone meal, which are all by-products of the food industry. Other organic fertilizers may contain ingredients such as manure, guano, or sea kelp.

The most significant difference in how chemical and organic fertilizers work is in how they are absorbed and used by your plants. With chemical fertilizers, the ingredients feed only your plants, whereas organic fertilizers nourish your soil. Organics work with the natural soil ecosystem that exists in your garden. Sometimes gardeners are inclined to use chemicals because these appear to work more quickly, and provide instant gratification. Organic fertilizers will take longer and do not provide instantaneous results. However, they also do not deplete your soil or burn out your plants' roots as chemical fertilizers do.

Organic fertilizers encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and nutrients in your soil. They are also insoluble, meaning that they must combine with your soil and its microbes to be absorbed and used by your plants. In this manner, your plants' roots are only able to take up as much fertilizer as it can use at any given time. Comparatively, chemical fertilizers are soluble, meaning that they are immediately available to the plant. This means that the plant will absorb all of the nutrients from the fertilizer at one time. Just as with human beings, it is not healthy for plants to overeat in this manner.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, soluble fertilizers may be washed out of your plants' roots by water before they even have a chance to affect the plants. Soluble fertilizers do not tend to stay where they are placed. They run off of the plants, polluting groundwater and nearby lakes and streams. Organic fertilizers, since they do not contain chemicals, are non-polluting. Overall, the environmental footprint that is left by organic fertilizers is much smaller than chemical fertilizers.

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