Two giants enter the ring, and while the fight is ugly and the crowd even more unruly, a truce that amplifies our gardens can be found.
The debate between synthetic and organic fertilizers has been roaring longer than most of us have been alive. But with climate change concerns, advancing agricultural technology, and growing awareness about the quality of foods we consume at a high, the debate between synthetic and organic fertilizers has, perhaps, never been greater.
I think it’s about time we end this debate!
How A Plant Uptakes Nutrients
To our crops, they couldn’t really give a *bleep* whether you’re giving them synthetic or organic fertilizer as long as you’re giving them enough. And that’s because they can’t tell them apart!
Plants only uptake a nutrient (element) when it’s in the form of either a positively charged ion (cation) or a negatively charged ion (anion).
When you give an organic fertilizer to your plants like manure, the crops are not uptaking the substance as a whole as plants can’t uptake organic matter except for chelated nutrients. Instead, they wait for microorganisms in the soil to break down the organic material. Within organic material, you can find phosphorus in the DNA, nitrogen, and sulfur in the proteins, and on.
After the microbes have digested the larger molecules, chemicals like nitrate and phosphate ions are released in a form available for plants to absorb. Those ions are identical to the ones synthetic fertilizers deliver to our crops. For example, a nitrate ion, whether from manure or a synthetic fertilizer is always 1 nitrogen atom bonded with 3 oxygen atoms in a trigonal planar arrangement, giving it a negative charge.
With synthetic fertilizers, humans are the microorganisms. For example, we can break down phosphate rocks for phosphorus and pull ammonia from the air for nitrogen. Once we have the elements we want, we can suspend them in water and package them up as fertilizer for our plants.
The term synthetic fertilizer is a bit of a misnomer, often giving someone an inaccurate view that these fertilizers are unnatural. Synthetic fertilizers are composed of mineral salts that are quite natural as they contain chemical elements that make up you and me, along with the Earth. They are defined as synthetic chemicals, yes, but simply because they are created by human forces and not by nature. And this is an important distinction because there are synthetic elements.
However, while there are synthetic elements, none of them appear in our synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic elements are created in nuclear reactors, particle accelerators, and atomic bombs and do not naturally occur on Earth. The only ‘unnatural’ synthetic in synthetic fertilizers is the chelating agent EDTA.
- Fast-acting; quickly fixes nutrient deficiencies
- Easy to formulate different blends for different needs
- Highly accurate nutrient amounts
- Good for growing in poor soils depleted of microbes
- Microbes’ health doesn’t matter
- Significantly easier to use in hydroponic applications
- Great when you need only a certain element
- Cheaper to buy when purchasing from the store
- Easy to apply too much, causing nutrient stress, toxicity, lockouts, and pollution runoff
- More frequent applications
- Does little for the environment; more often hurting it than helping
- May not contain beneficial secondary and micronutrients for plant health and growth
- Doesn’t improve soil; nor adds organic content to it
- Salt build-ups are common, especially with overuse
Organic fertilizers come from natural sources like manure, compost, and bone meal. But this doesn’t even come close to all the examples of things that can be turned into organic fertilizers. And that is one of the great things about organic fertilizers; with a little research, you’ll likely come across a way where you can save a decent amount of money when it comes to feeding your crops.
- Often provide beneficial secondary and micronutrients
- Feeds beneficial soil microbes that have a synergetic relationship with our crops
- Microorganisms can also breakdown contaminants
- Can improve soil texture, aeration, water movement, and fertility
- Last longer / fewer applications
- No salt build-ups
- Slowly corrects a nutrient deficiency
- Putting together perfect blends takes time, and applications can be messy
- Element composition of organic fertilizers from the same source may be highly variable
- Organic fertilizers from different sources have different breakdown periods
- E.g. blood meal releases nutrients for up to 6 weeks, whereas eggshells for only 2 weeks.
- Cold soil temperatures will slow breakdown and release rates
- Soils depleted of microbes eliminate some of the advantages of organic growing
- Store-bought organic fertilizers are traditionally more expensive; composting can help, however
Calling A Truce
In the end, we don’t have to pit synthetic and organic fertilizers against each other. They both have their own pros and cons. And by smartly bringing them together in our gardens, we can eliminate many of their downfalls. Remember, in the end, synthetic and organic fertilizers look the same to our crops, letting you choose which is best for you and your environment. What that looks like will vary from garden to garden.
For example, for my favorite heavy-eating crops, I often stick to synthetic nutrients. However, for crops that aren’t sensitive or big eaters, along with ones I’ve never grown before, organic fertilizers are fantastic! They help me focus my attention where I want to while being delicate on the new crops that I’m still learning what works best.
While we don’t shy away from synthetic fertilizers here at ChilLED, we don’t ignore the dangers to the environment they can have. Simply put, we are using way, way too much. From the home gardener to the commercial operation. That’s why we encourage all to look into introducing organic fertilizers into their gardens to reduce their reliance. Along with simply dialing back our synthetic nutrient dosages, organic gardening can help combat additional problems associated with synthetic fertilizers. Then there is your wallet. Even the apartment-dweller can set up something like a worm bin for composting without too much hassle, turning your food scraps into free fertilizer!
With synthetic and organic fertilizers, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
That’s a wrap!
While I believe harmony can be found between the two, is the debate settled for you? I want to know what you think? If you’re pro one way or another, do you feel the same way about synthetic vs. organic insecticides? Sound off below about those and more.