For decades, adding synthetic fertilizers to gardens and lawns has been the norm. And while they indeed have short term benefits, studies are now showing that the health of our soil, plants and waterways have been negatively impacted.
So, what should we use instead of chemical fertilizers to ensure we foster balanced soil and healthy plant growth? Skip ahead to learn about nine organic alternatives to synthetic fertilizer. Or read on to find out more on the harmful environmental effects of chemical-based fertilizers.
- Is fertilizer bad for the environment?
- How can fertilizer use be detrimental to the environment?
- 5 effects of fertilizers on the environment
- 9 fertilizer substitutes that are good for the environment
First up, let’s take a look at why exactly is fertilizer harmful to the planet?
Is fertilizer bad for the environment?
While natural fertilizers such as compost and natural soil amendments are essential to maintaining healthy soil, synthetic fertilizers are known to be harmful to the environment. They often boost plant productivity initially, but they negatively impact soil health in the long run.
Unfortunately, because chemical fertilizers are so easy to apply, they remain popular even though there are so many other options available. Outdoor garden composting, indoor compost bins and Lomi are just a few of the organic alternatives out there.
How can fertilizer use be detrimental to the environment?
Synthetic fertilizers are known to contribute to greenhouse gas levels, cause issues with aquatic life, reduce soil fertility and attract pests. Further, chemical-based fertilizers can be harmful to children and animals and should be used with caution on lawns and gardens that are easily accessed by kids and pets.
Read on to learn more about these environmental problems, as well as about alternative fertilizers that can help balance soil with essential nutrients and grow beautiful, healthy plants.
5 effects of fertilizers on the environment
Now that we’ve established that the use of chemical fertilizers can be harmful to the planet, let’s take a look at five specific negative effects.
- They contribute to greenhouse gases: Not only does the production and transportation of chemical-based fertilizers contribute to greenhouse gases, some soil organisms are known to transform excess nitrogen into nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide, or N2O, has a much higher warming potential than the more commonly mentioned carbon dioxide.
- They can cause harmful algae growth in waterways: Chemical-based fertilizers are used because they provide a way to get beneficial nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to plants. Unfortunately, the nutrient level is often much too high, meaning excess runoff ends up in waterways such as streams, rivers and lakes - to the detriment of aquatic life. Some waterways have even developed harmful algae blooms due to excess fertilizer use.
- They can disrupt soil balance: While some claim that synthetic fertilizer kills the organisms in soil, others state that instead it disrupts the natural processes by overstimulating the soil’s beneficial microbes and bacteria. Either way, the result is soil that may produce well on a short-term basis, but will likely wind up depleted and unhealthy.
- They can attract pests: Even though some chemical-based fertilizers include pesticides, instead of deterring insects that are harmful to crops, it actually attracts them. This is because synthetic fertilizer use weakens the soil and thus weakens plant growth, opening them up to vitamin deficiency and disease - something plant-destroying pests love.
- They can be harmful to children and pets: Children and pets may be negatively impacted by contact with synthetic fertilizer and symptoms can range from mild to severe. A pet who eats grass or a plant that has been treated may experience vomiting or seizures. And if an animal ingests the fertilizer directly it can be fatal. As for children, studies have shown chemical fertilizers can contribute to reduced fetal weight, neurological effects and cancer.
9 fertilizer substitutes that are good for the environment
Since the early 20th century, the agricultural world has become increasingly reliant on chemical fertilizers to keep up with crop yields for a growing population. But studies have shown that synthetic fertilizer is no better than organic fertilizer and - in fact - organic fertilizers have the benefit of not just feeding the soil, but healing it. Here are nine fertilizer alternatives that are good for the environment, including several you can make yourself.
Compost is nature’s fertilizer. And one of the best parts about it is that with a little time and effort you can make your own - for free! Compost is created when decomposing organic material breaks down in either an aerobic or anaerobic environment.
An aerobic environment means oxygen is highly involved in the decomposition process. The oxygen encourages aerobic organisms to flourish and speeds up the composting process. An example of anaerobic composting would be a backyard compost pile. On the other side, anaerobic composting occurs when there is little to no oxygen, such as in the Bokashi composting method.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Compost is nature’s way of using its own resources to feed the next cycle of plant life. It truly is a zero waste way of gardening. It also is the most effective way, because instead of working against nature as chemical-based fertilizers often do, compost works alongside it - just as nature intends.
2. Lomi dirt
Everytime you run Lomi, you have the opportunity to create your very own nutrient-dense homemade dirt. Add food waste and other organic scraps, turn on Lomi’s Grow mode and in 16-20 hours what you have left is a nutrient-rich soil amendment chalk full of healthy microbes you can add to your indoor and outdoor plants.
So how exactly does it work? Well, Lomi uses oxygen, heat and abrasion to speed up the breakdown process of the organic matter. The fragmented waste provides more surface area for beneficial microbes to speed up the decomposition, leaving you with Lomi dirt - which you can then mix with soil at a 1:10 ratio and add to your garden.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Lomi dirt is an all-natural alternative to fertilizer. Instead of feeding plants with synthetic compounds, Lomi dirt simply blends with the soil you already have, boosting its nutrient content organically.
Cow manure is one of the most commonly used organic fertilizers and is comparable to a high quality compost as far as nutrients go. Poultry manure is another popular choice and people who raise chickens often do so to reap the benefits of manure in their garden.
Manure is known to increase soil aeration, improve soil structure, lessen erosion and deliver nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Different animals produce different manure and therefore nutrient levels vary in cow and poultry manure, as well as sheep and horse manure.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Manure has the ability to increase the carbon in soil while also decreasing the carbon in the atmosphere. Just make sure to only add composted manure to your garden, not fresh, as fresh manure can contain hormones, weed seeds, chemicals and harmful bacteria.
4. Bat guano
Bat guano, which is bat feces, may sound like something you want nowhere near your garden, but it actually has been used as fertilizer for thousands of years. To be effective, it needs to come from only fruit and insect bat species. And unlike manure, which usually needs to be worked into a garden prior to planting, bat guano can be added during the growing cycle. Also unlike manure, it can be added fresh.
Bat guano can be added to your compost pile to help speed up the decomposition process. It even acts as a fungicide. All in all, it’s a pretty great all around fertilizer.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: A single ounce of bat guano contains billions of beneficial microbes. With so much talk about healing our soil, bat guano is certainly one organic way to do so.
5. Fish emulsion
A by-product from the fishing industry, fish emulsion is made from ground up fish parts that are then dried into small pellets or made into a liquid fertilizer. Fish emulsion is high in nitrogen, which helps plants to photosynthesize. It’s also a great choice for sensitive plants that are easily damaged by other types of fertilizer.
If you’re up for it, you can make fish emulsion fertilizer yourself using one-part fresh fish, three parts sawdust, one bottle of unsulfured molasses and water.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Not only is fish emulsion beneficial to soil and plants, it also takes waste that would have been thrown away and repurposes it into something useful.
Why not fertilize your plants with a plant? Seaweed has been used as a fertilizer for centuries thanks to its high nutrient content. The nutrients are also highly bioavailable, meaning plants absorb it easily. And unlike chemical-based fertilizers, which contain a handful of nutrients, seaweed has over forty vitamins and minerals to help your garden thrive.
Seaweed fertilizer is also a natural pest repellent as slugs and other insects avoid it due to its salt content. And if you need one more benefit to convince you to add seaweed to your garden, it can be worked into the soil fresh from the ocean - if you’re so lucky to live close enough that you can harvest it yourself.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Seaweed is a completely organic option. And because seaweed grows in abundance, as long as it is sustainably harvested it is an excellent eco-conscious option.
7. Jobe’s Organics All Purpose Fertilizer
If you don’t have space to make your own compost, don’t yet own a Lomi, and find the thought of adding manure to your garden gross, you may be interested in other non-synthetic fertilizer options. Jobe’s Organics All Purpose Fertilizer is a popular and reasonably priced product that contains a variety of natural nutrient-sources such as feather meal, bone meal, poultry manure and potash sulfate.
This all purpose fertilizer has an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) ratio of 4-4-4. What this means is that the fertilizer is balanced to help plants grow robust foliage, establish strong roots, as well as produce better-tasting fruits and vegetables.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Jobe’s Organics fertilizer uses their proprietary Biozome technology, which is a unique blend of healthy bacteria, Mycorrhizal fungi and Archae. Interesting fact, Archae is a recently identified microorganism that is found in some of earth’s most extreme environments - such as heat vents on the ocean floor.
US-based company Holganix calls their Bio 800+ organic fertilizer “a complete ecosystem in a bottle.” And once you read a bit about it, it’s easy to see why! Containing over 800 species of soil microbes, it was made to target soil and roots, which benefits the health of garden plants, flowers, trees, shrubs and lawns.
This microbial boost helps plant life develop a tolerance to weather, foot traffic, disease and pests, as well as decreases the need for other fertilizers, pesticides and water. And even though less watering is required, Holganix can help cultivate lusher lawns and more plentiful gardens.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Aside from being a 100% organic product, Holganix has also pledged to help stop millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides from entering the planet by Earth Day 2025.
Did you know that one of the oldest recycling initiatives in the United States was a fertilizer made from wastewater? And guess what - that fertilizer is still popular today! In fact, the product Milorganite is in such demand that it often flies off the shelves of home gardening stores faster than it can be produced.
So what is in Milorganite that makes it so sought after? First, wastewater is captured from the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Then microbes are used to digest leftover nutrients in the water. The cleaned water is sent to Lake Michigan, and the microbes are kiln-dried into small pellets that you can then spread on your lawn and in your garden.
Why this is an eco-friendly alternative: Milorganite calls their product - as well as other organic fertilizers - the equivalent of “slow food” for plants. It’s made from all-natural, organic matter from a local source and therefore its production creates less greenhouse gas emissions than synthetic “fast food” fertilizers.
Now that you know a bit more about synthetic versus organic fertilizers and how the former can harm the health of soils, waterways, children and pets, it’s time to start making your very own fertilizer at home with Lomi!
Want to learn more about gardening? Check out our indoor gardening guide for beginners. Want something more advanced? Here are thirteen things you can do with finished compost.
Written by: Larissa Swayze