03/21/2013 14:51

            Most of us are thinking spring even if the weather doesn’t seem to know spring is here. It appears that we still have time to make our plans for gardens and lawns before we can start digging.

            One of the decisions to be made before we plant is what kind of fertilizer we should use – first of all, should we choose synthetic or organic. The fact is that plants can’t tell the difference, writes Jan Phipps, a University of Illinois Master Gardener from Chrisman, Illinois, who farms, gardens, writes, and podcasts. “Nitrogen is nitrogen, no matter its source. Actually, nitrogen, an element, cannot be synthetic. Manufactured actually serves as a better description,” observes Phipps, “but most gardeners know the word ‘synthetic’.”

            Organic fertilizers are based on plants or animals – manure, seaweed, or fish. If the label has a list of chemicals it is synthetic or manufactured. Both kinds work but in different ways.

            Phipps explains: “Slow feeding organic fertilizer becomes available [to your lawn and garden plants] based on heat. As summer warms up, it kicks into gear. You actually feed the soil organisms, which then feed the plants. They rarely burn and help instead of harm the beneficial organisms present in soil. Most will improve the soil tilth [the condition of tilled soil]. The package will be labeled with the word ‘organic’ – but note that ‘all natural’ does not mean the same thing.”

            Manufactured inorganic fertilizers are quick-feeding and activated by water. Phipps warns that, “if applied wrong, they can burn the plant and harm the soil bacteria (the good guys), so always read and follow the directions. Synthetic fertilizers usually cost less.”

            Organic and synthetic fertilizers also affect the turf grass of our lawns differently. “Organic fertilizers promote the development of short, strong cell walls. Strong, thick blades lead to more photosynthesis, which leads to more energy for the roots. This leads to a deeper root mass, which means a healthy lawn needing less water and fewer mowings. Wide, thick blades shade the soil, leaving weed seeds to struggle.”

            “Synthetic fertilizers make the blades grow by elongating the cell walls, which results in taller, faster-growing blades – a disadvantage if you dislike mowing. Over time, synthetics can add salt to your lawn, killing beneficial microbes and dehydrating the air spaces needed for good root growth. This increases the need for water, which activates the fertilizer, causing it to be used up faster. Extra watering can lead to nitrogen-rich runoff that can pollute our streams, rivers and eventually lakes and oceans.”

            Understanding more about these two choices may help you use more than cost to help you decide which to choose – organic or synthetic.

            This information is taken from the Spring 2013 Illinois Farm Bureau Partners Quarterly Magazine.


Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 03/20/13 (for publication on 03/23/13 in the Journal-Standard, Freeport, Illinois). Della can be reached at info@stephensonswcd.org