There are many alternatives out there. You just have to know what they are.
If you live relatively close to the ocean, seaweed washes up on the beach and (in most areas) can be picked up by the bucketful for free.
Seaweed contains an excellent balance of essential plant nutrients and it has the ability to neutralize acidic soil. There are several ways to incorporate seaweed into the garden:
- It can be used in its natural form by mixing with the soil either before or during planting.
- It can be used directly by piling it on the garden in the fall or winter and then digging it into the soil in the spring. Alternatively, you can use it with trench composting, which involves making a shallow trench, filling it with seaweed, and covering it with soil. Vegetables or flowers are planted directly on top of the seaweed and by the time the plants are established, the seaweed has broken down and the nutrients are available for plant growth.
- Seaweed can be added to the compost pile; in fact, seaweed powder is sold commercially as a compost activator.
- It can also be used to make a liquid fertilizer. You can fill a large barrel with seaweed and then top it up with water. Allow this material to ferment for several weeks when the weather is warm. The concentrated liquid seaweed fertilizer can be used to side dress plants by diluting it in ten parts water.
Shells from lobster, crab, and scallops supply calcium to the soil and help raise the pH. It is best to grind the shells before applying them to the soil. Fish offal is also excellent for composting.
Fish meal is a dry powder produced from fish waste. It is available even in inland areas. Although it is a good natural fertilizer, it can be harmful if excessive amounts are applied directly to the garden. It is better to mix the fish meal with peat moss in a composter and allow it to break down before using it in the garden.
When applying fish meal directly to the garden, use it sparingly and mix it thoroughly with the soil. Fish meal can also be used as a side dressing for leafy vegetables like cabbage and lettuce that require relatively large amounts of nitrogen. Do not apply fish meal directly over areas intended for sowing seed because there is a danger of burning the seed.
Peat is the partially decayed remains of moss and sedge plants. It is an excellent source of organic matter and is great for for improving the soil’s structure, moisture holding capacity, and ability to retain plant nutrients. A layer of at least 10cm deep should be incorporated into garden soil before planting.
Peat should be broken up or shredded before it is incorporated into the soil. In the fall, spread the peat over the surface of the soil and the frost action during the winter will break down the lumps. The peat can be worked into the soil in the spring when the soil dries out. Peat must be mixed completely with the soil in order to be effective.
Animal manure is an excellent source of plant nutrients and organic matter which can be found pretty much anywhere. Many animal manures contain a high concentration of nitrogen, such as poultry manure and hog manure. These manures should be used quite sparingly, especially on root crops. Nitrogen is the plant nutrient that stimulates leaf growth and excess nitrogen will result in too much top growth at the expense of the roots.
Instead of applying it directly to the soil, it is better to compost manure. Fresh manure can be difficult to mix with soil, may burn tiny seedlings, and may introduce weeds to the garden. One of the best methods of handling manure is to compost it with peat. The nitrogen in the manure helps decompose the peat, resulting in rich compost that supplies both organic matter and plant nutrients. This compost can be made one year and used the next.
Another way to use fresh manure is the trench composting technique. This involves making a trench about 30cm deep, putting the fresh manure in the bottom, and covering it with 15cm of soil. Seeds or plants are set on top and the manure rots during the season. The following year the manure in the trench is mixed into the soil as you dig up the garden.
Never use manures from Cats or Dogs. They can contain parasites such as roundworms that are not destroyed during the composting process. Many of these are very harmful to humans.
Wood ash supplies a small amount of plant nutrients, especially potash, and helps neutralize acidity in the soil. However, wood ash contains Lye (Sodium Hydroxide) and can be toxic to young seedlings if applied in raw form.
If you must it directly to the garden, always use wood ash sparingly. It is better to spread wood ash over the compost pile and let it react with the compost before applying to the soil. Layering wood ash with other organic materials in the compost pile will also benefit the composting process.
We never use wood ash unless we have produced it our self. This is because wood ash from unknown sources may contain the residues of burned plastic, tires or even worse. These residues are toxic and have no place in the garden.
It is best to store wood under cover for the winter and apply it to the compost in the spring. Because wood ash contains Lye has a tendency to raise the soil pH, which is a good thing if your soil is acidic. However, soil that is too basic can cause problems for some vegetables. For example, scab on potatoes tends to occur in soil that is too basic.
Leaves eventually break down into a rich humus material, commonly referred to as leaf mold. The best way to use leaves is to allow them to rot or compost before incorporating them into the garden. Adding a source of nitrogen, in the form of grass clippings, poultry manure, fish waste, or commercial fertilizer, will speed up the rotting process. Turning the pile two or three times during the summer will also accelerate decomposition.
Leaves can also be used directly by tilling them into the garden. However, leaves that are not broken down can interfere with the cultivation of the garden and the planting of small seeds. It is best to shred the leaves before tilling them into the garden. A very easy way to do this is to run over them a few times with your lawn mower, rake them out flat and run them over again. After a few minutes you will have some finely shredded leaves. Mix this with your grass clippings and your compost will be fantastic.
Worms consume decaying organic material that is found in healthy soil. An average worm can consume up to 2 times its body weight per day. The waste product that is excreted by the worms are called castings.
Castings are pure gold for any gardener. While these castings are part of the natural order for outdoor soil, it is possible to create a supply of castings to be used indoors. To produce them yourself, start by filling a plastic tub or barrel with one or more of the following:
- vegetable & food scraps,
- rabbit/horse/cow manure (Do not use Cat or Dog manure),
- dry leaves and grass clippings,
- The finer you make this stuff, the faster it can get eaten & processed by the worms.
Depending on how many worms you add, you will soon see this stuff that looks like dirt, or dark brown sand. These are the castings. You can stir these castings in your garden as both a fertilizer, and a soil improvement. You can also use these castings to naturally fertilize your houseplants.
If you don’t want to produce your own castings (or if you are in a hurry) there is another option. Many companies that sell worms for fishing can provide you with them. It is often quite inexpensive (or even free) as the worm farmers are only interested in the worms, not the waste products. Either way, worm castings are great for your garden, and completely natural.
Worm castings make a very potent “tea” or organic liquid fertilizer. In essence, “casting” tea is pretty much the same as compost tea. To make it you can soak a few pounds of castings in some water for a few days. A lot of minerals, nutrients and bacteria are released into the water and form a brown solution not unlike tea. This is a very good quality liquid organic fertilizer that really works well.