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What’s Hiding in Your Organic Fertilizer?

by Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati on December 17, 2011

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If you’re concerned that some common organic practices support animal farming, then it’s time to learn about the byproducts in your fertilizers, the health risks they pose, and the alternative, green, truly organic fertilizers you’ll find in your own backyard, or on the garden store shelf.

From green manure to nettle tea, there are heaps of healthy, easy and sustainable stock-free fertilizers available to safely and effectively revitalize and nourish your garden. But before I jump into these nutrient rich concoctions, let’s first talk about the products that should be prohibited on your property and some of the reasons why.

The animal-based fertilizers below are commonly used in organic farming, and are found in many organic fertilizer mixes.

Animal Manures:

From cows, pigs, chickens, etc. This one shouldn’t shock anyone. I think we’ve all walked by a yard that had the tell- tale odor of “fresh manure-based fertilizer”. Did you know though that the manure you buy at your local gardening store may contain livestock-grade hormones and antibiotics that can be readily absorbed by the plants you are growing?

….Minnesota researchers planted corn, green onion and cabbage in manure-treated soil in 2005 to evaluate the environmental impacts of feeding antibiotics to livestock. Six weeks later, the crops were analyzed and found to absorb chlortetracycline, a drug widely used to treat diseases in livestock…

From: Organic Farming: Supporting Factory Farms?

Feather meal

Feather meal is made from the ground feathers of birds such as chickens raised for consumption. It is partially hydrolyzed under high heat and pressure, and then ground up. Growers use this byproduct for its high nitrogen levels, despite the fact that plants cannot easily absorb it in this form.

Other misuses: Animal feed.

Bone Meal

Bones are stripped, dried, and ground. It is used for its high phosphorus and calcium content despite the fact that bone meal is dangerous to breathe and has been suggested as an agent for spreading Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) (the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy “mad cow disease”) to humans.

Do you feed your roses with bone meal? Not a good idea, says the world’s foremost expert on a group of rare diseases, found in animals, that sometimes make their way into humans. Breathing in the dust from contaminated bone meal could be deadly, says Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek (GUY-doo-sheck), a brilliant Harvard Medical School graduate and Nobel laureate. In his latest book, Deadly Feasts (Simon & Schuster), author Richard Rhodes traces the history of these diseases, called spongi-form encephalopathies, that reduce the brain to a spongy mass, causing their victims to stagger, fall, develop dementia and paralysis, and soon die a terrible death.

– “Mad cow disease” from feeding your roses? – Medical Update September 1, 1997. Brown, Edwin W.

Bone Meal can also be a danger to your pets. If an animal consumes a large quantity of bone meal (for their size) it will form a cement-like ball in their stomach, which may block the digestive track and need to be removed by surgery.

Other misuses: Toothpastes, vitamins and supplements (calcium), animal feed.

Bone Ash (bone earth)

Consisting of the ash of burned bones, it is used in much the same way as bone meal.

Other misuses: Making of ceramics, cleaning and polishing compounds.

Fish emulsion / Fish Hydrolysate

After the human grade “edible” portions of fish are removed, the remaining fish parts, (guts, bones, cartilage, scales, meal, etc.) are ground up. This mix often has high acid based preservatives added to it to keep the contents from putrefying. The fish parts used can also contain heavy metals and toxins that the fish absorbed during its life time.

Fish emulsion

Emulsion is fish hydrolysate that has had the oils removed and proteins denatured and simplified by heating. It is used for its nitrogen phosphorus and potassium content.

Other Misuses: Farmed animal feed, companion animal food, human consumption.

Urea (Carbamide)

If the word “urea” makes you think of urine then you’re right. It is a waste product created by digested protein filtered out by the kidneys and excreted from the body in urine. These days, urea is mostly created synthetically for commercial use by mixing ammonia and carbon dioxide, but it can still be animal derived. The same antibiotic and hormone implications of manure may also apply to animal derived urea. Some of the impurities found in synthetic urea(such as biuret)  can also impair plant growth so it’s best to avoid this product all together.

Other misuses: Rock salt for de-icing, cigarettes, Nair/Veet (other hair removal agents), pretzels (yes really), skin creams, flame-proofing agents, tooth whitening products, dish soaps, dyes, animal feed and more.

Blood Meal

Blood meal is made from dried blood that is literally scraped from the slaughterhouse floor. Even those farmers that use it admit that it is dangerous to breathe and can carry a number of harmful pathogens. Warning for animal lovers: Blood meal may attract your pets or other animals and if ingested can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Ingesting blood meal can also result in severe pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) which is bad news for your pup.

Other misuses: Animal food supplements, cheese making, foam rubber, adhesive in plywood, medicines and more.

Eggshells

Heated and ground eggshells are often added to soil for their calcium carbonate. The risk of salmonella poisoning with properly treated shells is very low, but commercial sources of egg shells are bound to link back to high-density farms including battery hen houses.

Other misuses (for egg protein, white and yolk included): Shampoos, skin preparations, etc.

Making a good mix of vegan organic fertilizers to meet your garden’s unique needs is easy and ecological. I’ve split my list into free fertilizers (which we most commonly use and a good place to begin), fertilizers that cost a little bit of money but are worth the output, and those fertilizers to use sparingly.

Free vegan organic fertilizer

Compost

Every good gardener has a great compost pile (if they have the space.) If you’re just beginning, I’ve got a good guide to compost to help you get the most out of your kitchen/yard scraps. A good compost pile is full of wonderful nutrients, nitrogen and beneficial microorganisms to keep your garden going strong. Not only is making your own compost pile easy to do and a free way to feed your garden, it also encourages a strong worm population which is wonderful for your plants.

Vermiculture or Vermicastings (Worm Castings)

Worm castings improve the soil structure and increase fertility. They can be added to your garden without purchasing them from a store (which is potentially harmful to the worms being ‘cultivated’ for the product), by simply providing the right environment for the worms to thrive in. Re-establishing the natural worm populations in your garden is as easy as providing a cool, damp and dark environment with plenty of nutrients for them to enjoy (compost pile/hay mulch.) If you’re interested in increasing your worm population this link will help you get started.

Hay Mulches

Mulching is simply covering the ground with a thick layer of organic material. Mulching will not only feed the soil as it breaks down, but will also suppress weeds and encourage worms in your garden. You can do this while plants are growing (as long as you don’t overwhelm the plants) or you can apply mulch when you’re shutting down your garden for the winter.

Compost Teas

You can make wonderful liquid fertilizers with comfrey or nettles and other composting plants. These fertilizers are nitrogen rich, can often be created for free, and your garden will love them. Here are some directions on how to make your own nettle or comfrey compost tea.

Low cost vegan organic fertilizers

This list is intended as a resource rather than a list of specific recommendations.
If you choose to use soy, cotton or alfalfa meal we would highly recommend finding an organic source as conventional sources of these crops are usually heavily sprayed and genetically modified.

Green Manures, Nitrogen-fixing crops

You might have to spend a small amount of money to get this crop growing, but it’s worth the reasonable investment. Fast-growing plants, such as wheat, oats, rye, vetch, or clover, can be grown as ‘green manure’ crops before your standard planting, and then tilled into the garden as you ready the beds. Green manure crops absorb and use nutrients from the soil that might otherwise be lost through leaching, then return the nutrients into the soil when they are tilled under. The root system of cover crops also helps improve the soil structure and prevent erosion. Vetch, peas, broad beans (fava beans), and crimson clover are known as nitrogen-fixing crops because they are particularly good at bringing this nutrient back into the soil when they are tilled into the bed. Adding cover crops to your garden during fall and winter will also help reduce weed growth.

Alfalfa meal, Flax Seed Meal, Cottonseed Meal and Soya Meal

All excellent sources of nitrogen.

Epsom Salts

An excellent source of magnesium.

Seaweed (fresh, liquid or meal)

Often used for its trace elements. Seaweed is best when harvested fresh from the sea (as opposed to washed up and sitting on beaches.) Some veganic gardeners use bulk kelp meal or spirulina instead (which are sources of potassium and trace minerals).

Vegan organic fertilizers to use sparingly

While all of the fertilizers below are stock-free and valuable, they are obtained through mining, so we use them very sparingly or not at all. They are good soil amendments though, so if there is a particular deficiency in your soil, which these products will rectify, attempt to use them in small quantities.

Lime

A source of calcium and magnesium, it is also used to help break up heavy clay soil. Calcium is essential for strong plant growth and aids in the intake of other nutrients. Lime can be used to raise the pH level, if your crop requires this.

Gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate)

Gypsum adds calcium to the soil without raising the pH.

Dolomite

A finely ground rock dust and prized source of calcium and magnesium.

Rock Phosphate

Prized for its high phosphorus content, the primary mineral in phosphate rock is apatite.

Rock Dusts (or Stonemeal)

Containing a blend of different powdered rocks, when mixed with the soil its mineral content is slowly released, revitalizing overworked soils and stimulating microbial activity.

Green Sand

Used as a soil amendment and fertilizer, it has the consistency of sand but 10 times the moisture absorption. Green Sand is mined from deposits of minerals that were originally part of the ocean floor. It is a natural source of potash, along with iron, magnesium, silica and as many as 30 other trace minerals. It may also be used to loosen heavy, clay soils.

Rock Potash/Potassium

Potassium enhances flower and fruit production and helps ‘harden up’ foliage, making it less susceptible to disease. Rock potash is very slow-acting (it may take years to fully release its minerals). Because the potash is released gradually as the mineral weathers, it is usually used when preparing the soil for planting.

Wood ash

Contains some potassium, phosphate and trace amounts of micro-nutrients such as iron, manganese, boron, copper and zinc. It can have an alkalizing effect on the soil, which many plants do not like, so use it sparingly.

If you’re interesting in simplifying the process and picking up a pre-made fertilizer blend, then I’ve listed a number of veganic products you can find online or at your local garden store below:

Warning: Most of these companies are not strictly vegan, so read the labels and if it doesn’t have a vegan organic guarantee it’s best to pass.

Lady Bug Cottonseed Meal 7-2-1 vegan organic fertilizer

“Ingredients: Ground cottonseeds. No filler. Waste not, want not. This natural fertilizer is made from the waste products of cotton farming – instead of throwing the nutrients out in the landfill, farmers found a way to turn their scraps into plant food. Garden Pep Cottonseed Meal is an old-fashioned fertilizer, similar to fertilizers that our grandparents used on the garden and farmland…”

FloraBlend Vegan Compost Tea (.5-1-1)

(From General Hydroponics)
“FloraBlend is a compost tea that is fermented from a proprietary blend of plant materials, plus seaweed, rock powders and micronized leonardite.”

Yum Yum Mix 2-1-1
Available in 4.5 lb shakers, 5 lb, 12 lb, 25 lb & 40 lb bags.

Includes:
Alfalfa Meal: Nitrogen; Vitamins-A, B, E, carotene, thiamine, biotin, pantothenic acid, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid, choline; 16 amino acids, co-enzymes, sugars, starches, protein fiber
Cottonseed Meal: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium
Kelp Meal: Nitrogen; Potassium; Vitamins-A, B, B2 , C, calcium, pantothenate, niacin, folic acid; minerals-barium, boron, calcium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, sodium, strontium, sulfur, zinc; 17 amino acids
Greensand: Iron, Potassium, Silicate, Phosphorus, 30 trace elements
Rock Dust: Calcium, Sulfur, Magnesium, Boron, Cobalt
Rock Phosphate: Phosphorus, Calcium, Trace Elements
Humate: Salts of Humic Acid – improve soil characteristics and aids in releasing other nutrients to plants in usable forms
Dry Molasses: Carbohydrates, Sugars, Trace Elements – feeds and attracts beneficial soil organisms

– Yum Yum Mix

Down to Earth Vegan Mix 3-2-2
Available in a 6lb box and a 25lb bag.

Contains soybean meal, alfalfa meal, kelp meal, rock phosphate, sul-po-mag, stonemeal and greensand.

VeganVeggie – Annual Soil Amendment for Vegetable Gardens (Vegan formulation)

Available in: 1 lb., 2 lb., 10 lb., and 15 lb.

“It is designed to bring your pH to neutral, which is the ideal environment for vegetable gardening, and it will pay for itself by producing a more flavorful and more abundant crop.  You will experience more veggies per plant and superior flavor.”

– Sweet Corn Organic Nursery

VeganPepe – Organic Fertilizer for Pepper Plants (Vegan formulation)

VeganPepe is rich with a non-animal protein source of nitrogen, soft-rock phosphorus and other trace minerals, as well as a beautiful combination of other Vegan-approved organic soil amendments that are perfect for pepper plants.

– Sweet Corn Organic Nursery

VeganMator – Organic Fertilizer for Tomato Plants (Vegan formulation)

VeganMator …provides the proper nitrogen to phosphorus ratio for tomatoes.

– Sweet Corn Organic Nursery

VeganSea – Water Soluble Seaweed Powder

This product is also the perfect soil amendment for addressing soil deficiencies, and it has a multitude of other benefits as well.  Among these are that it will help create an environment in the soil that will help plants survive frost and drought conditions, and because it raises the sugar levels in plants it helps prevent and treat insect and disease problems.  It is also the perfect product to use when transplanting because it will help prevent shock and will promote rapid root development.

– Sweet Corn Organic Nursery

If you know of another company that is putting out purely vegan fertilizer mixes, please let us know so we can add them to this list. As always, good luck with your environmentally friendly and ethical vegan organic growing!

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