Before planting in the spring, I like to do a quick soil test for pH (soil acidity or alkalinity) and nutrients (your basic NPK, or, nitrogen, phosphorous and potash [potassium]). I just use an inexpensive testing kit from a local nursery, although if you want a more detailed soil analysis or suspect you have serious problems with your soil, you can have it tested in a lab. In the US, your cooperative extension office does this. In Canada, try this.
I don’t really need a kit to tell me what’s up with my soil; Vancouver soil is typically acidic and nutrient deficient (perhaps because the rain leaches the good stuff out?). Despite regular amendments with compost, I’m always fighting those underlying traits. I like to do the test anyway, partially because it’s fun in a nerdy Grade 8 Science kind of way, and partially because I just want to double check.
This year’s test didn’t reveal any big surprises. Again, my soil was borderline acidic, so I’ll add a bit more lime. If your soil is alkaline, try granular sulphur, coffee grounds, or pine needles.
As for the nutrient test, my soil was low in phosphorous, and even lower in nitrogen. Typically, other than amending with compost and manure, bone meal and blood meal are suggested as organic soil supplements for these deficiencies (blood meal is high in nitrogen; bone meal in phosphorous). I’ve used both in the past, but this time I decided to look for alternatives to these slaughterhouse byproducts. No, I’m not a vegetarian, nor am I concerned about contracting BSE through the use of bonemeal. But in the past year I’ve stopped buying commercially-raised beef, so it would just seem wrong to use a byproduct from that industry. And I also question how blood and bone meal can be considered an organic amendment, when they aren’t likely produced from organically-raised beef. Plus, well, let’s face it: spray-dried blood is just icky.
Thankfully, there are vegetarian alternatives to blood meal, bone meal and fish fertilizers:
Instead of blood meal or fish emulsion, try alfalfa meal* or alfalfa pellets (sold as rabbit food) to raise your nitrogen levels. With an NPK ratio (the percentage of available nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potash (K)) of about 3-1-2, alfalfa is a green manure that also provides a dose of phosphorus and potash. Because it heats up in the soil, (making it a great compost accelerator) be careful not to burn your plants: don’t add it to the planting hole.
Cottonseed meal*, with a NPK ratio of approximately 7-2-2, is another good nitrogen source. Available at your local feed store, cottonseed is acidic, so unless you’re trying to lower your soil’s pH, avoid it or use in combination with lime.
Soft-rock phosphate, with a NPK ratio of 0-3-0, will raise your phosphorous levels and is a good slow-release substitute for bone meal.
*In the interest of full-disclosure, it seems unlikely that these products would be sourced organically-grown plants, unless otherwise noted. Is that why the organic gardening guidelines developed by Garden Organic (following standards set by the British Organic movement, the UK
government, and the EU) don’t endorse the application of any fertilizer, organic or otherwise?
It is always a good idea to test before you plant so you don’t plant and then lose!! Great post!!
I keep thinking I should do this but get lazy and just wing it. Maybe when my little guy gets older I’ll do it for the “science project” perspective you mention. How are you doing, by the way??
Crafty Gardener says
I just received one of the little soil test kits and can’t wait to try it out. Glad I came across your post as it has some useful information.
can we test my soil once “le lentil” is born?
i’m pretty sure it’s crap, even with all the compost…
You post this after I just sprinkled “organic” bone meal all over the garden. Crap, I don’t know why I didn’t think about it not being so “organic”. Oh well, I will think about it next time.
I learned something from this blog. Great article! Dad
There is an excellent recipe on the Mother Earth site for homemade organic fertilizer. It made my wimpy garden into a veritable Eden! And other than Japanese beetles, I had very little pest problems, possibly due to the vigor of the plants. Try it, you’ll like it!
Andrea Bellamy says
Lets Plant – I agree. There’s a lot about gardening that’s trial and error. But soil is the foundation of it all, so let’s not mess with it.
Melanthia – I think kids would love helping with this project! I’m good, thanks for asking… even though I was due three days ago. The waiting is killing me!
Crafty Gardener – oh, super! Glad to be of help.
Robin – of course, darling.
James – I guess my timing was off just a little. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Bone meal is considered appropriate for use in organic farms (in the US, at least). Although maybe we need to hold ourselves higher than the government standards!
Bill – aka Dad. Finally, I’m teaching you something!
Heather – Thanks for the tip – I’ll check it out.
I’ve always used bonemeal … never even thinking about where it comes from. Will have to scout out alternatives. My soil tends to be alkaline, but acidic in places.
Thank you for this helpful post. I read it last week but then got busy in the garden and forgot to come back and comment. I do need to amend the soil in my containers so really appreciate this info.
I was looking at the West Coast Seeds online catalogue and found Mary’s Mix – A Complete Organic Fertilizer Blend [New for 2008] Made from a blend of quality seed meals, rock phosphate and kelp.
Have you tried it?
Looks like I’m going to have to break down and start fertilizing this year. I add compost to my heavy silt alkaline soil every year but the results are always spotty. I’m starting to get jealous of my neighbors with raised beds.
I agree with your alternatives except instead of cottonseed meal, one should look at soy bean meal or corn gluten meal. Cotton is one of the most over-sprayed crops today and you may be introducing some potentially persistent nastiness into you soil.
Sadly, my two offered alternatives, though REALLY high in nitrogen, are predominantly GMO crops. If you can find organic, great, but I haven’t yet. So you may have residue to deal with there too.
Soft Rock Phosphate is great stuff, but not at all mobile in terms of soil chemistry. It is not to be broadcast, as that would be wasting it. Put it in the planting hole or scratch it into the root zone if it’s an established plant.
Andrea Bellamy says
Gardener in Converse – that was exactly my concern, and why I noted, “it seems unlikely that these products would be sourced organically-grown plants…” We need a source of organically-grown cottonseed meal!
Urine is great for boosting Nitrogen and Phosphorus, as well as other nutrients. However, its pH though will vary from person to person, but easy to check.