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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44 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 😀

  27. bekeleseble Says:
    November 15th, 2014 at 11:28 am

    i have question how i can estimate the amount of N,P,K available in compost how much kg of compost how many or percent of N,P,K?

  28. leroy Says:
    November 17th, 2014 at 10:34 am

    To me I think organic are better for plant life

  29. charles Says:
    November 17th, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    my question is defend the statement the use of inorganic chemicals do harm than good

  30. katie Says:
    November 18th, 2014 at 9:26 am

    how come people started to use chemical fertilizers in the first place?

  31. Steve C Says:
    November 29th, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    What about these new “Ionic” fertilizers? Do they still come with the same drawbacks as other chemical fertilizers?

  32. JJ Says:
    December 7th, 2014 at 5:26 am

    First of all in many case studies organics failed to yield as much as chemical grown. Secondly,the depletion of sulfer in soils. Plants cannot use Nitrogen for structural growth when sulfer is not available in sufficient amounts. And lastly, it takes a long time to replenish soils after a season where demanding crops have drained all nutrients and minerals.

    When farmers clear the natural vegetation, they at first get very good yields. But ploughing the land and removing the crop residue leaves the land bare. The plant nutrients are washed away. The fine particles, clay and valuable organic matter are eroded first, leaving a poor, hungry soil.

    When the soil is turned, the organic matter decomposes quickly. It turns into lifeless minerals or into carbon dioxide gas, which disappears into the air. Within 10 years after opening virgin land, more than half the organic matter is lost.

  33. taibat moji yusuf Says:
    December 24th, 2014 at 9:46 am

    organic fertilizers is the best for the sustainability of the soil fertility and the environment. To benefit the plants, Organic solid could be applied some weeks before planting and organic liquid some weeks after planting. However, inorganic fertilizer may be used to solve immediate problem of malnutrition

  34. evan Says:
    February 22nd, 2015 at 7:25 am

    thx this was realy helpful for my science fair project

  35. anonymous Says:
    April 26th, 2015 at 10:37 am

    Hello
    What applications will chemical and organic frtilizers have on the environment and people?
    Anonymous

  36. ELIZABETH.A. Says:
    May 19th, 2015 at 7:41 am

    I believe going the natural way is the best thus the use of organic manures. They are not toxic thus reduce the infections caused by diseases such as ulcers,cancers that are now deadly. They are also cheap. Provide nutrients wholesomely for your crops and also improves the soil structures. Maintain the quality environment.

  37. Josh Says:
    June 30th, 2015 at 1:53 am

    When I read the numerous comments from young students who have used this source to assist them in the completion of their science projects, I felt compelled to respond to its disturbing inaccuracies and misinterpretations.

    Food that is labeled “organic” in the U.S. is food that is certified by the USDA National Organic Program. Organic products are products that are certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute. “The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is an international nonprofit organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed® products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program.”

    This misinformed author writes that organic fertilizers are the “ultimate slow-release fertilizers, it’s very difficult to over fertilize (and harm) your plants.” Sodium Nitrate is sold as an OMRI-certified organic fertilizer. This product is not slow release and will raise the soil’s ph in proportion to the amount applied. As the ph rises above neutral, your plants will die.

    The author says that “there’s little to no risk of toxic buildups of chemicals and salts that can be deadly to plants.” And yet, two-hundred pounds of manure add about ten pounds of salt into the environment.

    The article also claims that “organic fertilizers are renewable, biodegradable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, while repeated application of chemical fertilizers “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.” Well, this one is just blatantly false. Azomite is an OMRI certified organic fertilizer. It contains the following chemicals (most of which are EXTREMELY toxic to humans when ingested). They are just as toxic to plants as they are to humans when they are overused.
    Arsenic (As): At high concentrations it is toxic to plants.
    Selenium (Se): Selenium is essential for animals and for bacteria, including the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Essentiality in higher plants is controversial.
    Tin (Sn): Inorganic tin is generally unavailable to plants, absorbed by root hairs and generally not redistributed elsewhere in the plant. Conclusive studies have not been made.
    Vanadium (V): Essential for the formation of chlorophyll in several forms of algae (lower plants). Its role in higher plants is not yet clear.
    Tungsten (W): Tungsten interacts with molybedum and at < 5 ppm W has been reported to have a positive impact on a variety of higher plants.

    Please stop spreading false information and adding confusion to an already confusing topic.

  38. Josh Says:
    June 30th, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    In response to the following post:

    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.”

    I am not sure what you mean by “artificially grown.” Could you please elaborate as to what constitutes an artificially grown plant. If you are referring to “hydroponically grown” plants, then, as a hydroponic grower, let me assure you that my plants receive all the micronutrients and trace minerals they need. This would include the following: Boron, Magnesium, Manganese, Iron, Molybdenum, Sulfur, Zinc, etc. They receive these minerals because I buy these minerals at the fertilizer store and then proceed to feed them these minerals. Anyone who tells you that hydroponically/artificially grown plants are only fed three chemicals are misinformed. That being said, I DO NOT feed them “organic” fertilizers/trace minerals like azomite, which contain lead, arsenic, strontium, etc., because those elements are not essential to human health or plant health, and I, personally, would not deliberately add even small amounts of these toxic chemicals to my garden.

  39. Josh Says:
    June 30th, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Author says chemical fertilizers “don’t replace many trace elements that are gradually depleted by repeated crop plantings,” but then claims “repeated applications (of chemical fertilizers) may result in a toxic buildup of chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, and uranium (which are all trace minerals, btw) in the soil. If chemical fertilizers don’t contain as many trace minerals as organic fertilizers, how ON EARTH can you claim these trace elements build up in the soil to a greater extent when it is fed with chemical fertilizers, as opposed to when it is fed with organic fertilizers(which, according to you, contain MORE trace minerals)??? You don’t need a degree in horticulture to realize that this makes no sense whatsoever.

  40. Corneille Says:
    July 6th, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Hi, am from Ghana. Please I want at least five advantages of organic fertilisers over inorganic fertilisers.

  41. Josh Says:
    July 8th, 2015 at 12:35 am

    In Response to:

    ” Corneille Says:
    July 6th, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Hi, am from Ghana. Please I want at least five advantages of organic fertilisers over inorganic fertilisers.”

    Corneille,

    Organic fertilizers are certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), an international nonprofit organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed® products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program.

    In order for a fertilizer to be certified as “organic” and marketed as an “organic” product in the U.S., it must first meet a lengthy set of standards set forth by the OMRI. As the author states, the most fundamental of these requirements are that it:

    A. Be composed of natural compounds mined from the earth (like potash or azomite) or produced by recycling waste generated by living organisms (Strangely enough, however, manure would not be considered an organic fertilizer, since it is not a fertilizer at all, but a “soil amendment!” Soil amendments are very different than fertilizers and can be either “organic” or “not organic.” Unfortunately, many people confuse “soil amendments” with “organic fertilizers.”).

    B. It must not excessively harm the existing natural ecosystem.

    The main benefit of using an organic fertilizer or, for that matter, any organic product, is the peace of mind which comes in knowing that the product you are using has met more rigorous standards than another non-organic product. Additionally, they:

    They tend to be less acidic than non-organic fertilizers. As a result, the natural runoff that is generated should not be as toxic to the rivers, lakes, and oceans.

    They tend to do less damage to the beneficial microorganisms in the soil, thus contributing to a more balanced ecosystem. In a balanced ecosystem, the beneficial organisms should naturally keep the destructive ones from getting out of control.

    They tend to be less dangerous, with less risk associated with handling them. Highly combustible fertilizers, like ammonium nitrate, do not meet “organic” standards.

    Finally, since the compounds are not synthesized in a laboratory, they don’t tend to be associated with as many dangerous, chemical byproducts.

    I think that’s five :) Hope it helps!

  42. Alex Says:
    August 18th, 2015 at 2:39 am

    This is really helpful, Thanks all.

  43. Beth Says:
    August 22nd, 2015 at 11:10 am

    I wonder if there a way I can safely use my dog’s end product to fertilize my garden. My dog is healthy and eats only organically grown food.

  44. P.rossouw Says:
    August 26th, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I bought organic fertiliser. On the bag it says n.p.k.3.3.5.2.5. wants to know in general, what % of this are available to the plants. This fertiliser is made out of algae. Chemical fertilisers indicate on their bags per example, 22%. nothing on the bags of these fertilisers are indicated. Can you perhaps advise me?

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