Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

The Debate over Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers

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Ask most any gardener whether they prefer organic or chemical fertilizer, and chances are you’ll spark a lively debate. However, if you could ask your plants the same question, you’d find out that at the most basic level, they really can’t tell the difference – nutrients are nutrients.

Yet there ARE significant differences between organic and chemical fertilizers in terms of nutrient availability and the long-term effects on soil, plants, and the environment. So how does a conscientious gardener decide?

Terminology

To begin with, the terminology can be confusing, since labels and gardeners freely throw around words like organic, natural, inorganic, chemical, synthetic, artificial, and manufactured. The good news is that the choice can be reduced to either organic or chemical fertilizers.

Organic Fertilizer

The words “organic” or “natural” in this case simply means that the product is only minimally processed, and the nutrients remain bound up in their natural forms, rather than being extracted and refined. In the case of fertilizer, “organic” does NOT refer to the standards of processing associated with food.

Organic fertilizer is usually made from plant or animal waste or powdered minerals. Examples include manure and compost, as well as bone and cottonseed meal. They are usually sold as “soil conditioners” rather than as fertilizer, because the nutrient ratios are difficult to guarantee. Organic fertilizers may be processed in a factory, or, in the case of manure and compost, at a farm.

There is also a growing selection of more highly processed products now available, with labeled analysis of nutrients and contents. For example, Scotts Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Plant Food is a manufactured product composed entirely of chicken litter and ground up feathers, with an N-P-K ratio of 7-1-2. Garden Safe Organic Plant Food is made of poultry manure with a label very similar to chemical fertilizers.

Advantages of Organic Fertilizer:

  • In addition to releasing nutrients, as organic fertilizers break down, they improve the structure of the soil and increase its ability to hold water and nutrients. Over time, organic fertilizers will make your soil–and plants–healthy and strong.
  • Since they are the ultimate slow-release fertilizers, it’s very difficult to over fertilize (and harm) your plants.
  • There’s little to no risk of toxic buildups of chemicals and salts that can be deadly to plants.
  • Organic fertilizers are renewable, biodegradable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly.
  • Although rather expensive in packages, you can make your own organic fertilizer by composting or find inexpensive sources—such as local dairy farms—that may sell composted manure.

Disadvantages of Organic Fertilizer:

  • Microorganisms are required to break down and release nutrients into the soil. Since they need warmth and moisture to do their job, the effectiveness of organic fertilizer is limited seasonally. The good news is that these microorganisms obtain energy from decaying plant and animal matter, so an application of organic fertilizer provides a complete package of nutrients for your soil.
  • Organic fertilizers break down according to nature’s rules, so they may not release nutrients as soon as you need them. You have to be patient – you won’t see improvement overnight. In fact, you may actually see a deficiency in your plants during the first couple of months until the first application breaks down. Hang in there! You’ll most definitely be rewarded.
  • Nutrient ratios are often unknown, and the overall percentage is lower than chemical fertilizers. However, some organic products are actually higher in certain nutrients.

Chemical Fertilizers

Chemical fertilizers (also called inorganic, synthetic, artificial, or manufactured) have been refined to extract nutrients and bind them in specific ratios with other chemical fillers. These products may be made from petroleum products, rocks, or even organic sources. Some of the chemicals may be naturally occurring, but the difference is that the nutrients in chemical fertilizers are refined to their pure state and stripped of substances that control their availability and breakdown, which rarely occurs in nature.

Advantages of Chemical Fertilizer:

  • Since nutrients are available to the plants immediately, improvement occurs in days.
  • They are highly analyzed to produce the exact ratio of nutrients desired.
  • Standardized labeling makes ratios and chemical sources easy to understand.
  • They’re inexpensive.

Disadvantages of Chemical Fertilizer:

  • Chemical fertilizers are primarily made from nonrenewable sources, including fossil fuels.
  • They grow plants but do nothing to sustain the soil. The fillers do not promote life or soil health, and even packages labeled “complete” do not include the decaying matter necessary to improve soil structure. In fact, chemical fertilizers don’t replace many trace elements that are gradually depleted by repeated crop plantings, resulting in long-term damage to the soil.
  • Because the nutrients are readily available, there is a danger of over fertilization. This not only can kill plants but upset the entire ecosystem.
  • Chemical fertilizers tend to leach, or filter away from the plants, requiring additional applications.
  • Repeated applications may result in a toxic buildup of chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, and uranium in the soil. These toxic chemicals can eventually make their way into your fruits and vegetables.
  • Long-term use of chemical fertilizer can change the soil pH, upset beneficial microbial ecosystems, increase pests, and even contribute to the release of greenhouse gases.

Making a Choice

If you wish to live in harmony with nature and make a lasting improvement in your own patch of earth for generations to come, organic fertilizers outweigh chemicals by leaps and bounds.

Can a shot of chemical fertilizer make your containers spill over with blossoms, and give you the biggest tomatoes and greenest lawn in the neighborhood? Absolutely. Just be sure you understand what’s really happening to the earth under your feet, so that you’ll make your choice consciously.

Further Information



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26 Comments on “The Debate over Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers”

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  1. Matt Says:
    October 21st, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    What do you think of the “Dead Zones” in our oceans coastal areas? Do you think it’s just the fertilizer runoff from agricultural uses, or do you think John and Jane Q. lawn care are contributing to it? Will using organics help?

  2. BA Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    Personally I never fertilize the yard because it makes the grass grow faster, which means more MOWING!

  3. Sybil Says:
    November 20th, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Are coffee grounds organic fertilizers?

  4. Whats so great about organic? - 420 Magazine Says:
    August 27th, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    [...] plant just as in nature. Mainstream website but good info on chem vs organic can be found here: DIY: The Debate over Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers – Danny Lipford BTW, Thanx for the +rep!! __________________ -E. Scott FitzBongloads "too many Freaks, [...]

  5. Warren Turner Says:
    January 4th, 2010 at 12:52 am

    To answer Sybil’s question–strictly speaking, coffee grounds from organic coffee would be considered organic. But I use coffee grounds from coffee conventionally grown with litle guilt, since boiling the coffee must certainly remove most contaminants (and deposit it in the coffee I’ve just drunk). So all in alln any coffee grounds should be considered safe. As far as using chemical fertilizers–why do it, when organic fertilizers are about the same price and actually add organic matter to your soil when they break down–as opposed to chemical fertilizers from fossil fuels, that don’t. Break the cycle.

  6. sadhananta Says:
    August 30th, 2010 at 11:24 am

    are manure and organic fertilizers the same?

  7. shabana Says:
    October 3rd, 2010 at 12:03 am

    please give disadventage of fertilizers

  8. joseph .f. Says:
    January 2nd, 2011 at 2:31 am

    soil degradation,nitrogen leacging,and artificial is artificial not as natural.for further imformation see books of soil physics or soil science in librerys.

  9. fernando Says:
    March 1st, 2011 at 2:49 am

    Hello Iam from Indonesia
    Before 1970 Indonesian Farmers dont use chemical Fertilizer, because the soil has natural fertility from compost of organism. After 1970, the government give advice to improve their crop production with using chemicals fertilizers and pestisides … at the result the crop production is increase so ‘great’ than before and so advantagous for the farmers. From time to time indonesian farmers like to use chemical fertilizers and pestisides, but the result of crop production after the long time using chemical fertilizer decrease from time to time. the land farming has no fertility, because the organic material in land is lost. and its the big problem now ….
    do you have a solution sir?
    thankyou so much

  10. jenny Says:
    April 17th, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Do organic fertilizers have an advantage over inorganic fertilizers in crop production?

  11. Rob Says:
    May 6th, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Hello Jenny-
    As Julie states in the article, there is absolutely a difference between organic and chemical fertilizers in crop production, most noticeably in long term effects. Organic fertilizers are far superior to chemical fertilizers for long term crop production. Here’s the briefest explanation I can give.
    Think about growing in a container. A perennial can last several years being fed chemical fertilizers. But over time, the plant will start exhibiting signs of deficiencies and start to lose vigor. Even if you use the most complete chemical fertilizers containing all the necessary macro- and micronutrients the plant requires, the plant doesn’t continue to grow as healthy and robust as it once did. Toxic salts begin to build up, the soil becomes compact and the aeration and drainage ability of the soil diminishes, the ph balance of the soil changes creating nutrient lock-out, and the beneficial microbial life in the soil will start to die off. Simply transplant the plant into a new pot with new soil and viola, the plant starts growing robustly again! It’s not that you were not providing the proper nutrition to the plant; it’s just that you were not doing anything to maintain the health or tilth of the soil.
    The same holds true for long term crop production. As we’ve heard Danny say many times on his show, healthy soil makes a healthy garden! For long term healthy lawns, gardens, containers, and crop production- remember to feed the soil, not the plant, and you will always be rewarded.

  12. d'germ Says:
    September 17th, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    @jenny… Big advantage because organic fertilizer utilizes microorganisms to produce the needed nutrients of plant so meaning its pro life you don’t have to worry in the future for it is environment friendly…

  13. khemaroth Says:
    December 4th, 2011 at 11:26 am

    what are the most disadvantages of chemical fertilizer? why? How?

  14. cam vansant Says:
    April 7th, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Trying be organic here in Florida, It’s expensive at first, and I did supplement with Miracle gro at first to try to save struggling plants, mostly I burned them!
    So as I raise the beds and keep buying amendments like compost & manure & peat, the soil on our eroded hill is finally producing decent crops after 4 years & I hope for better & better as I continue. Be patient, organic takes the time of nature, not quite what we humans & especially Americans are good at. Follow my research & adventures at greengardenchef.com

  15. annie Says:
    May 28th, 2012 at 1:05 am

    what are other names for organic fertilizer?

  16. vidhu priya Says:
    October 30th, 2012 at 9:29 am

    for ur love sake of nature please use only organic fertilizers

  17. Joku Says:
    December 12th, 2012 at 6:22 am

    QUOTE “what are other names for organic fertilizer?”

    All natural compost? Life’s debris? Original pooh (and other waste)? I dunno, just brainstorming.

    What could/would you mean by other names for organic fertilizer? A good many are NPK nutrients, so they’re only mixed up chemicals in their own right, sometimes with the source material(s) written on the label…

    I am not sure I understood what you meant, so if that wasn’t a careless post, please elaborate, I’d be glad to help you out with whatever you might be plotting to be potting. Hehheh.

  18. Yesenia Says:
    December 19th, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I am a student, and my science fair project is about chemical and organic fertilizers. How do chemical fertilizers affect streams and rivers and cause many sea animals to die?

  19. ayegbusi ayobami Says:
    December 28th, 2012 at 8:55 am

    What is the residual effect of Addition of inorganic and organic fertilizer(cocoa pod husk compost)?

  20. Hannah Says:
    January 21st, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    This site really helped me with my science project.
    Thank you, Julie

  21. Enamul Haque Says:
    January 27th, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Can you please tell me how to compare or justified the role of bio-fertilizer & bio-pesticides in sustainable agriculture

  22. daniel lyter Says:
    June 16th, 2014 at 10:06 am

    organic fertilisers are better regardless of them being slow to be used because they improve the soil holding capacity and give nutrients to the plant that it might even take a long time to have top drasing applied.

  23. manya Says:
    July 2nd, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Organic fertilizers are generally much more expensive than chemical fertilizers, mostly because chemical fertilizers have more concentrated levels of nutrients per weight of product than organic fertilizers do. One needs several pounds of organic fertilizer to provide the same soil nutrient levels that a single pound of chemical fertilizer provides, and the higher cost of organic fertilizer is one of the biggest reasons that organic produce is more expensive than non-organic. (The other big reason being lower organic yields, on average.) Although it is possible to make a lot of one’s own organic fertilizer as well, once the labor, time, and other resources are accounted for, homemade organic fertilizer is usually more expensive than store-bought chemical fertilizer too.

  24. manya Says:
    July 3rd, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    this site really helped me 2 make MY PROJECT….
    thanx fr d info…!!! :)

  25. Mike Maybury Says:
    July 24th, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Why no discussion of the crops grown for food in the garden. It seems a no brainer to me that if you provide only three basic chemicals, that’s what you get in the crops. If you fertilize the soil organically, you get a complete balance of all the trace minerals, which are so essential to health. It is clear that artificially grown crops cannot contain these balanced trace minerals, which a so essential to health, so animals and human’s health will suffer.

  26. Christian Corpus Says:
    September 2nd, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks anyway great info very helpful :D

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