Build Your Best Garden
Building your best garden starts with providing the right nutrients, in the right proportion, to feed all the organisms that live there. We gardeners typically focus on how the nutrients in fertilizers help our plants grow, thrive and reproduce. But without well-fed soil microbes doing their part to build soil structure and make those nutrients available to our plants, fertilizing is at best a quick fix.
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That’s one reason we believe so strongly in using only natural and organic ingredients. Chemical fertilizers may be more quickly absorbed by plants directly, but they do little to feed, and may even harm, the microbes that are so crucial to the long-term health and fertility of the soil. That fast-acting nutrient boost from chemical fertilizers is usually short-lived, requiring multiple applications that can leach through the soil or evaporate into the air. Natural and organic fertilizers are primarily broken down by the soil microbes, which in turn feed the plant. They release their nutrients more slowly to plants and soil microbes alike, providing all the building blocks for your best possible garden.
Feed Your Plants
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 16 to 20 elements that are considered absolutely critical for plant development, growth and productivity. Only three of those, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, are delivered to plants via water and air. The other 13+ elements must come from the soil, absorbed or taken in by the plant’s roots.
Understanding the role of all the key nutrients needed for plant health and growth is important because of the “Law of the Minimum.” Developed by 19th century German scientist Justus von Liebig, the Law of the Minimum states that if one of the essential plant nutrients is deficient, plant growth will be poor – even when there is ample supply of all other essential nutrients. In other words, you can dump a truckload of nitrogen-rich fertilizer on your lawn, but without enough key micronutrients like Molybdenum to help metabolize the nitrogen, or potassium to regulate water, you’ll still be dreaming of greener pastures. Each of the essential elements plays a unique and critical role in the life of your garden’s plant.
Although Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, or NPK, are often considered the garden’s main dish, calcium may be equally important – and is often overlooked. These four macronutrients can be considered the most essential of the essential nutrients.
Calcium (Ca) is extremely important for root development and nutrient uptake or transport, ensuring plants can take in the nutrition they need from the soil, which also drives plant vigor. It also helps activate key enzymes in the plant. Stunted growth is a sign of calcium deficiency, along with blossom end rot in tomatoes.
Nitrogen (N) is part of every living cell, and the primary driver for green growth above the ground because of its role in photosynthesis and amino acid formation. Leafy greens, lawns and corn are all huge consumers of nitrogen from the soil, while legumes like beans and peas actually absorb nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil. Symptoms of a nitrogen deficiency include yellow or purple leaves or stunted growth.
Phosphorus (P) is a primary driver for root development and plant reproduction, so adequate phosphorus is necessary for production of quality fruits, vegetables, seeds and grains. It can be very difficult to tell when a plant is not taking in enough phosphorus until it starts producing smaller or fewer blooms and fruits than would be expected.
Potassium (K) is key for developing overall plant hardiness and disease resistance. Potassium helps regulate water retention in plants and promote drought resistance by regulating the opening and closing of stoma. Wilting leaves and plants that have lost their turgor are signs of a potassium deficiency.
Secondary or Minor Macronutrients:
Every great meal needs some side dishes to complement the main dish, and that’s where, Magnesium and Sulfur come in. Though they are consumed by plants in smaller quantities than N-P-K, they’re no less important to overall plant growth and health.
Magnesium (Mg) is necessary for production of chlorophyll, which allows the plant to absorb energy from the sun’s light. It also assists with plant respiration and phosphate metabolism. When magnesium is in short supply, it tends to move to new plant tissues, so signs of deficiency will show first in older leaves and stems.
Sulfur (S) is important in the formation of proteins for plant hardiness and seed production. It also plays a key role in photosynthesis. Like magnesium, it travels to new plant tissues first, meaning older plant parts will show the yellowing or stunted growth that signal sulfur deficiency.
Micronutrients or Trace Minerals:
If the macronutrients are the primary plant foods, the micronutrients are the spice of plant life. The small quantities needed of each of these nutrients is often readily available in the soil without amendment, but only a soil test can tell for sure.
Boron (B) assists in the development of flowers, fruits an seeds, and is also instrumental in strengthening cell walls for vigorous growth.
Chlorine (Cl) is an essential element in osmosis and regulating stoma, which helps keep plants adequately hydrated.
Copper (Cu) helps activate enzymes for multiple plant growth and reproductive functions and helps produce chlorophyll for photosynthesis.
Iron (Fe) plays a key role in lignin formation and is essential in energy transfer, both required for strong plant growth.
Manganese (Mn) is an essential element in the production of chloroplasts, making it another building block photosynthesis. It is also believed to help speed germination and plant maturity.
Molybdenum (Mo) assists with the function of enzymes that produce amino acids, and helps plants metabolize nitrogen.
Zinc (Zn) helps with the production of enzymes and growth hormones and is vital for carbohydrate transformation. Because zinc is so important to flower and seed production, smaller than average leaves and low yields can be a sign of zinc deficiency.
Beneficial, But Maybe Not Essential Micronutrients:
Those first thirteen nutrients, along with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, are the ones most scientists agree are essential for most, if not all, plant species. There are a few more that are still being debated in horticultural circles: are these nutrients just a garnish, or something more nourishing?
Cobalt (Co) helps with overall plant growth and transpiration. Although it may not be essential for all plant types, it has been shown to have a crucial role in the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes.
Nickel (Ni) is thought to be a key element in enzyme function, particularly the enzymes that allow plants to process synthetic nitrogen sources like urea.
Selenium (Se) is not considered essential for flowering plants, but may be beneficial for stimulating plant growth.
Sodium (Na) is believed to play a similar water-regulating function as potassium.
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Feed Your Soil
Your garden’s soil is an amazing, dynamic plant-growing system. Healthy soil is rich in organic matter and microbes that together with the atmosphere, precipitation and sunshine, provide all the needed elements and conditions for strong plant growth.
Two activities are very important to maintaining soil health and related plant vitality: optimizing decay cycles (by which organic matter is recycled to recover critical elements), and providing supplemental nutrients, usually by application of fertilizer. The most effective fertilizers for promoting long-term soil health and fertility are made with natural and organic nutrient sources like those found in Garden Maker™ Naturals fertilizers. These natural and organic ingredients feed the soil in three key ways: by promoting decay cycles, building soil structures and nourishing beneficial microbes.
Promoting Decay Cycles
Decay of organic matter that enriches the soil is a cycle – there must be organic matter present to decay, and there must be microbes present to cause the decay. Organic matter, plants and microbes have a symbiotic relationship; organic matter enriches the physical attributes of the soil by holding water, warming in the sun, and providing a food source for soil microbes. The microbes break down the organic matter, making elemental nutrients available to the plants, while the plants provide cooling shade and a continuous supply of organic matter to keep the decay cycle going.
Decay of organic materials also adds complex chemical and biological compounds to the soil that help maintain the proper pH (6.0 to 6.8) to enable a healthy balance of microbial life. All these components of the decay cycle result in healthy plants with deep, extensive root systems that are better able to absorb nutrients and water from the surrounding soil.
Nutrient needs are relatively small at the beginning of a crop’s or pasture’s growth, then increase dramatically during peak vegetative growth and during seed production. If soil is healthy and the decay cycle is progressing normally, last year’s residues will be digested and their nutrients released and available to the plant at about the time the plant is approaching its peak needs. Anything that interrupts or slows the decay cycle can result in inadequate nutrition when the plant most needs it. In gardens with healthy, biologically active soil, the natural nutrient release mechanism is one reason natural and organic farmers can reduce their fertilizer inputs after several years.
Building Soil Structure
Soil structure has an important impact on the transport of nutrients from soil to plants, based on how they hold water and nutrients. There are 3 main types of soils. Sandy soils are composed of large, loose particles that drain easily. Sandy soils will never compact, so they provide ample space for root growth, but are also poor repositories for water and nutrients. Unless sufficiently amended or conditioned, sandy soils will only support the hardiest of plant life.
At the other end of the spectrum are clay soils, which are composed of very small particles that are sticky when wet. They have a lot of valuable surface area where nutrients can adhere and they retain water very well. However, they compact very easily and may be lacking in the air spaces that allo movement of water and nitrogen, limiting their availability to plants.
In between sandy and clay soils, loamy soils have the most desirable composition for growing. These soils are a combination of sand, clay and organic matter, also known as humus. They resist compaction but retain enough water and nutrients to support plant life when well-managed. Humus is superior in holding and delivering exchangeable nutrients, nutrient ions that can be easily exchanged between the soil particle and the plant root. Particles of humus are more irregular and lumpy than clay, which enable them to hold about three times as many nutrient ions for plants to access.
For optimal plant health and production, soil needs sufficient organic matter (2-3% minimum), adequate moisture and a high biological activity to provide balanced nutrients and encourage strong root systems to absorb them. Fortunately, both clay and sandy soils can be made more like loamy soils with proper care and soil amendments. Adding natural organic fertilizer and soil conditioning ingredients from Garden Maker™ Naturals helps add organic materials and feed the microbes that process them into available nutrients, which both encourage the decay cycle to build more loamy soil.
Nourishing Beneficial Microbes
Soil microbes live throughout the soil, but develop a special relationship with the rhizosphere. The rhizosphere is a narrow region of the soil that is influenced by root secretions and soil microbes. Microbes deliver nutrients plant need and either directly destroy pathogens, or produce compounds that are antagonistic to harmful organisms. In return, the plants feed microbes with amino acids and carbohydrate products of photosynthesis. The healthier and more extensive the root system of the plant, the deeper and richer the rhizosphere, and vice versa. In a healthy rhizosphere, one gram of soil may contain 10,000 different species of microorganisms! And all those microorganisms need to be well-fed to provide their needed service to the soil.
Bacteria serve to decompose organic matter, leaving behind a sticky, mucus-like substance that acts as a glue to hold the soil together in aggregates that provide soil structure with multiple spaces for movement of air and water. Some bacteria also consume other pathogens that might otherwise be able to attack plants or other beneficial microbes.
Fungi are responsible for delivering about one third of the nitrogen plants need. They do this by linking soil nitrogen to carbon moving the N-C molecule to the root surface, and then releasing the carbon so that the nitrogen is presented to the plant for uptake. Other fungi, specifically mycorrhizal fungi, are critical for phosphorus uptake and help improve the availability of potassium. These hard-working microbes can bring phosphorus to a plant root from four inches away, and produce a substance called glomalin which can form as much as 30% of the organic matter in the soil.
Beneficial nematodes (tiny roundworms) keep pathogenic root-eating nematodes under control. They also consume other nematodes and bacteria, releasing nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil where fungi can make them available to plants. Some nematodes eat pathogenic fungi, helping maintain a healthy balance of microbial life.
Protozoa are one-celled wonders that serve as soil police squads, preying on bacteria and fungi to keep these populations under control. As with any multi-component system, when one part of the population gets out of control, the system fails to function as it should. The presence of ciliate protozoa, which feed on anaerobic bacteria, can indicate that oxygen is in limited supply and some soil aeration is needed.
Arthropods are a class of assorted creatures ranging from microscopic beings to significantly larger ants, beetles and centipedes. Their general function is to break up debris and aerate the soil with their foraging. But arthropods will not stick around if there is nothing to forage.
Earthworms aren’t really microbes, but are key contributors to soil richness with their nutrient-dense castings, or excrement. The burrowing earthworms also promote soil aeration, and the presence of earthworms is a good indication that the soil is healthy and abundant in nutrients and diverse microbial life.
By fertilizing with a variety of nutrient sources, such as those found in Garden Maker™ Naturals Signature Blends, you will be providing more complete nutrition to the incredible biodiversity in your garden, helping build healthy, fertile soil for years to come.
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