Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden

5 min read|Last updated at: August 23, 2022

While the average citizen probably has felt the impact of the war in Ukraine through high inflation and volatile prices, they are often unaware that farmers are facing severe difficulties in obtaining fertilizer. Due to prohibitively high prices that have approximately doubled over one year, farmers have stopped buying it. The disruption in foodstuffs and fertilizers from Ukraine has caused a dire situation that can lead to worldwide food shortages, particularly in the poorest areas of the world. 

In the wake of the fertilizer shortage, some farmers have begun utilizing creative ways to deal with the crisis, including using slow-release fertilizers or changing to crops with less nitrogen requirements. Fortunately, if you are a home gardener, you probably do not require the scale of fertilizer commercial farmers do. However, it is still recommended that you look for alternative fertilizers for the garden because they are more sustainable than synthetic fertilizers. Whether you are an organic gardener or a casual gardener searching for more ways to be eco-friendly, natural fertilizer and composting methods are worth considering. 

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

Worm Castings   

Worm castings are an incredibly dense, nutrient rich fertilizer that can improve a crop’s growth and yield. They have also been shown to increase resilience to pests, heat and disease, and enhance the soil structure. A slow-release fertilizer, worm castings deliver nutrients gradually to the soil, generally over the course of two months. You can purchase certified organic worm castings online and use them as a growing medium or soil amendment.

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

For those interested, Vego Garden has an in-ground worm composter that is compatible with our extensive raised metal beds collection. Unlike other vermicomposting systems, this worm composter can be situated in the soil in your raised bed, allowing worms to move in and out to deposit worm castings, so that you do not have to harvest them yourself. Use 2 – 3 composters in larger beds to create enough worm castings. By choosing to compost, you are participating in a cyclical gardening system – reducing the amount of food waste that goes to landfills while simultaneously creating rich, organic fertilizer.

Hugelkultur   

If you are on a budget, you should definitely try out the hugelkultur method. Not so much as fertilizer but as an inexpensive way to fill a garden bed, the hugelkultur method eliminates the need to til the soil or supply additional fertilizers. Hugelkultur, which translates to “hill mound” or “hill culture” in German, is a raised bed technique that uses layers of large rotting logs, sticks, compost, and plant debris. By layering different materials on top of one another – a process that replicates the natural landscape of a forest – gardeners can create a sustainable and cost-efficient garden bed. 

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

Grass Clippings        

There is no need to bag up the grass after you have mowed the lawn. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn helps release nutrients and water back into the soil. A common myth is that it causes thatch build-up – a layer of dead plant matter that causes the grass to wither and die – but that is not true. To prevent over mowing, do not cut the grass blades more than one third of their length. 

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

Aquarium Water       

One unexpected source of fertilizer is aquarium water. While dirty aquarium water may be hazardous to fish, the accumulation of nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia, and other vital nutrients will benefit the soil – as long as it is freshwater – saltwater will dry out the soil. Do not attempt to water your plants if you own saltwater fish. Reserve aquarium water for houseplants or ornamental flowers, as the water can be chemically treated, making it unhealthy for vegetables and other food crops. 

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

Food scraps  

Whether you plan to place in your worm composter or bury directly in the dirt, kitchen scraps are a viable source of compost. Compost is especially useful during droughts or hot weather, as it can help retain soil moisture. Make sure to use items that will decompose quickly – most sources do not recommend meat or dairy products. 

  • Coffee Grounds – Some gardeners will advocate sprinkling coffee grounds directly onto the soil, but used coffee grounds should not be added if you have a worm composter. Even if it is diluted, coffee grounds still contain caffeine, which can inhibit plant growth and can kill worms and beneficial microbes if too much is present. When used sparingly, coffee grounds can be used to improve soil retention, aeration, and drainage. They will also deter slugs and snails, although the explanation is still unknown. 
  • Eggshells – Eggshells are a good source of calcium carbonate and are often used as a soil amendment to raise soil pH and strengthen a plant’s cell walls. To prepare them, crush them into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or food processor, and mix the pieces into the soil in the fall or garden season. 

Best Fertilizer Alternatives for the Garden | Vego Garden

Biofertilizers       

Biofertilizers are substances made up of algae, plant extracts, and microbes that can increase yield, plant quality, and enhance soil health. Considered more cost-effective than synthetic fertilizers, they enhance a plant’s nutrient uptake by colonizing the rhizosphere. Nitrogen fixing bacteria comprise of the majority of biofertilizers available in the market, with Rhizobium widely used due to its efficiency in nitrogen fixation. If you live in the Texas area, check out Microlife for organic fertilizer options. Biofertilizers are recommended for beans and legumes, as studies have shown that applications have enhanced growth and productivity. 

Related Questions

Can gardeners use manure?  

Despite sounding disgusting, manure is an ancient practice that has long been used by farmers. Its reputation for spreading disease and smelling bad deters many gardeners, but some organic farmers continue to use it, mainly to improve soil texture and water retention capacity. Because manure is heavily regulated by federal and state authorities due to concerns over water contamination, it is recommended that home gardeners use manure that has been properly composted or sterilized, which can be obtained from local farmers, garden stores, and other commercial sources. Wastes from pets, pigs or humans should never be used, as they can carry high risks of spreading diseases. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) recommends that you wait 120 days after application before harvest  for edible crops that grow directly in the soil. For other crops, the suggested wait time is 90 days. 

Does mushroom compost kill your plants? 

Mushroom compost is often used as a manure alternative. It is easy to assume that mushroom compost contains mushrooms, but it usually consists of wheat or rye straw, gypsum, and horse or chicken manure. Mushroom compost derives its name from the growing medium used to grow mushrooms. However, because mushroom compost is rich in soluble salts, it can kill germinating seeds and salt-sensitive plants. 

Should you compost weeds? 

Many gardeners will just throw garden weeds in the garbage, but recently some have turned to making weed tea or composting it. One recommended way is to hot compost it, but that requires a large composting bin and is time consuming, making it not possible for many gardeners. Another way is to use weeds that have not gone to seed, but that is also a time-consuming process. Finally, weed tea can produce foul odor and there is little support for its efficiency. The easiest way is to dry them in the sun – a process that desiccates the roots and renders weed seeds unviable.