A Budget-Friendly Guide to Organic Fertilizer and Soil Amendments

Budget and time contraints can limit our choices when it comes to organic fertilizer and soil amendments. Feed your garden the nutrients it needs with these low-cost options.

  • Cattle produce the most weed-free manure, and there can be a great deal of it at dairies and stockyards where it is concentrated and easy to pick up.
    Photo Courtesy Cool Springs Press
  • Hairy vetch, with its beautiful flowers, is a green manure legume that can deliver, or “fix,” 60 to 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre when sown in recommended densities. This is just one of the many legumes grown to be tilled into soil to add both nitrogen and organic matter.
    Photo Courtesy Cool Springs Press
  • In urban and high-density suburban communities, the most common large animal is the horse, often concentrated at boarding stables where manure is always plentiful. This is the best place to get started on your manure safari.
    Photo Courtesy Cool Springs Press
  • In "The Small Budget Gardener," author Maureen Gilmer shares advice on everything from amending the soil and fighting off pests and diseases in the garden, to sourcing and propagating plants, and creating landscapes and garden structures with free or recycled materials.
    Photo Courtesy Cool Springs Press

In The Small Budget Gardener (Cool Springs Press, 2009), Maureen Gilmer offers down-to-earth, budget-friendly advice, ideas and resources to help you squeeze the most from your garden. In this excerpt from Chapter 3, "Free Dirt," Gilmer explores inexpensive choices for organic fertilizer and soil amendments, from animal manure to agricultural and forest byproducts, and where to find them.

Green Choices for Organic Fertilizer

We don’t live in a perfect world, but there’s huge pressure to become a “perfect” organic gardener. We try hard to follow all the rules, but the reality is that budget and time constraints limit our choices. Gardening itself is important no matter how you do it, and successful yields is the real goal, not necessarily the process. So if you have to break a few rules now and then, don’t feel you’ve committed a mortal sin. Keep the perfect organic gardening model as your ideal and strive to follow it knowing that nothing is perfect and neither are gardeners.

What makes traditional gardening different from the organic approach is the use of synthetic fertilizers. These are rated by the three numbers on the label, which indicate the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) in the formula. For example, a common granular all-purpose product is 16-16-16. Compare that to cow manure, which is about 2-5-2.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. When you look at the organic materials in the charts that follow, remember that they do more than just add nutrients, they contain all sorts of smaller minerals, microorganisms, and soil conditioning abilities.

These charts are prepared to illustrate the vast potency differences so the new organic gardener discovers where the nutrients lie. It also helps if you compare your sources and their potency for the best value per dollar you spend. Fortunately, many are free, which is one of the beautiful things about organic gardening.

Top Three Synthetic Garden Fertilizers and Their NPK Analysis 

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