Meet the ‘Maker: Bill, Builder of Fertilizer Formulas
Have you found a Signature Formula that’s great for your garden? Did you use one of our suggested mixes as a base for your custom blend? You can thank Bill, our Chief Formulator, for the balanced nutrients you’re feeding your soil and plants.
Bill was raised on farms in Missouri raising everything from vegetables to Nubian goats to cattle. In fact, he started gardening at age 8, when he grew tomatoes to grow at his own vegetable stand. His parents were sustainable farmers long before “sustainability” was really talked about, and the lessons in natural growing practices stuck with him. He went on to pursue a PhD in biochemistry and has spent his career helping nourish plants and animals with natural ingredients. When he’s not helping us with fertilizer formulas, Bill and his wife stay busy with the vineyard they planted in 2000. He has always maintained a big vegetable garden but has recently turned over most of the day-to-day garden responsibilities to his daughter. Of course, he likes to keep a hand in the soil, so to speak. We caught up with him between chores to ask him a few questions about his approach to fertilizing.
What do you think is the most underrated fertilizer ingredient?
From a nutrient standpoint, I think calcium is the most overlooked, and not utilized to its fullest potential. It is one of the top nutrients needed by plants, and most people don’t consider the calcium content of their fertilizer as much as the N-P-K. Related to that, alfalfa is an incredibly versatile and unique fertilizer ingredient. In addition to some nitrogen and potassium, it’s got good calcium levels in it. Alfalfa also contains triacontanol, a compound that helps stimulate root development.
What should gardeners consider when creating their own fertilizer mix?
The good news is that organic fertilizers are generally very forgiving, as long as you don’t get overly concentrated in a single nutrient. More is not always better. For instance, a 2-5-2 NPK is preferable to a 0-6-0. A good guideline is to stay within 2% to 6% each for Nitrogen, Phosphorus & Potassium to avoid burning plants and keep a good balance of nutrients in the soil. If you abide by this rule and use natural & organic ingredients, you can’t get yourself in too much trouble. Start with a 2-2-2 or 4-4-4 then adjust the ratios based on what you’re feeding and what you’re trying to accomplish – more phosphorus for flowering plants, for instance.
What is your fertilizer formulation philosophy?
There are really three key parts. First, to feed your plants well, you first have to feed the soil. Building a robust microbial population is key to making sure plants get the nutrients they need. Second, diversity is key, in both microbes and nutrients. I tend to use several sources of nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium in a single formula, because each ingredient brings a different trace nutrient profile and a different food value to soil microbes. And finally, many small meals are better than one big meal, particularly for vegetable gardens. It is better to apply less fertilizer, but more often - every 30 days instead of every 90 days, for instance.
What is unique about the nutritional needs of wine grapes, relative to other crops you’ve grown?
The biggest difference I see is that grapes prefer microbial populations that are heavier on fungi than grasses, which prefer bacteria-dominated soil. So I pay more attention to growing the fungal population of our soil. It requires patience, though. Fungi are delicate, fragile little organisms – when things get out of whack with the soil, they tend to be the first to go, and the last to come back!