Plants are living things. Like people and animals, pants require sun, water and nutrients to grow. They absorb nutrients from the soil in which they are planted. Good soil yields good plants.
The dilemma many farmers face is how to maintain good soil. Crops draw nutrients out without giving anything in return so after a few years of planting what was once good soil becomes depleted and worthless. Since WWI, the quick and easy solution to this problem has been artificial/chemical fertilizer.
During WWI, German scientist Fritz Haber came up with a way to “fix” or capture atmospheric nitrogen by turning it into ammonia. Nitrogen, along with phosphorus and potassium, are the main elements needed to keep soil fertile. These three elements are more commonly known as NPK.
The problem with the Haber process is that it capture nitrogen in its gas state. In order to convert it into a useable liquid, the ammonia must be kept under pressure which can be dangerous. On Wednesday a chemical fertilizer retail outlet in West, Texas exploded leading to several deaths and many injuries. The culprit was the pressurized ammonia. You can read more about the incident here:
- The Texas fertilizer plant explosion is horrific. But how common is this? (Washington Post)
- Texas Mayor: Death toll in plant explosion now 14 (Chicago Tribune)
- Explosion Highlights Dangers of Anhydrous Ammonia (National Geographic)
- News guide: Key facts about the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas (Washington Post)
This obvious danger isn’t the only issue with chemical fertilizer. They are routinely overused. If a little is good, a lot is better, right? Except it isn’t. Plants can only absorb so much NPK. Excesses leech into ground water or wash away into water sources where they wreak havoc on fragile ecosystems. Furthermore, while NPK are crucial to plant growth, they are not the only necessary elements. Plants also need magnesium, sulfur, calcium, boron, copper and iron, to name a few.
Proper soil management can eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. Certain crops – namely soybeans and peanuts – are especially good a fixing nitrogen naturally. This was one of many reasons George Washington Carver loved peanuts so much. (That and peanut butter!) However, to get the most benefit from these crops, they must be planted and then tilled under, not harvested. There are few farmers today who are willing to allow a field to lay fallow for a season in order to replenish nutrients naturally. It’s all a matter of perspective though. Yes, you’d be losing a season of profit, but you’d be saving money by not having to buy chemical fertilizer. I don’t know the numbers, but my guess is you’d come out close to even.
Another way to maintain soil fertility naturally is by composting. Anyone can start a compost pile and there is no downside to it! It’s good for the environment, the plants, and your wallet. What more could you ask for? Did I mention it’s easy to make one?
Basically, as organic matter decays, it produces all those wonderful elements that plants need to grow. Microorganisms break down organic matter – kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, leaves, grass, etc. – and turn it into all-natural (and free!) fertilizer. Because the breakdown happens slowly, nutrients are released in intervals, allowing plans to absorb almost all of the nutrients and minimizing run-off waste. My dad has used compost in his garden for as long as I can remember and it has kept his soil rich and kept countless pounds of food waste out of landfills. When organic matter (think kitchen scraps) is thrown out, it goes to landfills where it produces methane gas as it rots. When properly composted, this “trash” can create rich, fertile soil, a.k.a. Gardener’s Gold.
For more on composting: