If you are gardening on a budget, don't worry! You can still have an impressive harvest, even if you are trying to be thrifty. I've learned simple ways to use convert organic matter from my homestead to maximize plant growth, without the use of chemical fertilizers, and I'm going to show you! Keep reading if you want to learn cheap ways to add nitrogen to soil.
As a long-time gardener, I have came to realize that there is a science behind gardening as well as a general intuition that strengthens with each passing season. Year after year, there is maintenance that has to be done to your garden soil, whether you are gardening in pots, raised garden beds, or directly in the ground!
There are different categories of plants that absorb and release different nutrients into the soil as they grow and produce their harvest. It's a cyclical rhythm that mimics our own bodies: nourish and rest followed by growth and productivity.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Using a soil testing kit
- Can nitrogen levels in the soil be fixed?
- Crop rotation to fix nitrogen
- Using manure in the garden
- DIY nitrogen fertilizer for plants
- Do egg shells make good fertilizer?
- How to use grass clippings in the garden
- How to add fish emulsions to your garden
- Blood meal and bone meal
- Identifying Low Nitrogen Levels in the Soil
- More gardening posts
Using a soil testing kit
During the spring, prior to planting the garden it is best to take garden soil samples for a soil testing kit. This testing kit will let you know if you have a nutrient deficiency throughout your soil by testing the NPK ratio in your soil. A well balanced soil will have a good balance of three essential nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. I do kind of cringe when I hear this phrase, but it always rings true, "If you're not testing, you're guessing."
For now, lets focus on one of the main nutrient in your soil---nitrogen. And it probably will be, because growing plants use A LOT of nitrogen. So say you take the soil samples and the results have determined that your soil's amount of nitrogen level is low.
Can nitrogen levels in the soil be fixed?
What to you do now? Can you fix it in a cheap manner or do you have to buy all new gardening soil or the expensive store chemical fertilizers to raise the level? I have some great news---you can restore the nitrogen in your soil using cost effective methods.
Crop rotation to fix nitrogen
Let's start by talking about a basic crop rotation. Did you know that there are four main categories of garden plants? They are legumes, root, fruit, and leaf. If you rotate these crops through your vegetable garden each year, they will replenish most of your essential soil nutrients naturally.
This works because root vegetables prefer potassium, fruits prefer phosphorus, leaf vegetables prefer nitrogen, and legumes restore nitrogen. Legumes are the category we are going to dive farther into because they are pretty handy! When you have a nitrogen deficiency in your soil you can use plants from the legume category to fix this. They are considered to be the "nitrogen-fixing plants" because they have certain nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots that convert the atmospheric nitrogen into a plant friendly nitrogen.
One way to benefit the entire garden during the off season is using legume winter cover crops or spring cold weather legume crop that is harvested before the summer crops are planted for nitrogen fixation. Some legumes crops consist of clover, alfalfa, beans, peas, and chickpeas. I love planting red clover or alfalfa in my raised beds and letting it grow when my beds are resting and then snip it off at the base in the spring.
Composting of organic material is a great way to add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to your soil. Did you know that coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags, grass clippings, and fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps are all great additions to your compost pile?
Remember, patience is a virtue in the composting game. As you layer, mix, and turn your compost, watch as it breaks down over time. It will look like really dark soil when it is ready to use!
How long it takes to compost different materials
- Kitchen Scraps:
- Compost Time: Around 2-3 months.
- Tip: Balance is key! Mix green scraps (fruit peels, veggie leftovers) with brown scraps (dried leaves, newspaper) for optimal composting. Toss in a handful of soil to introduce beneficial microorganisms.
- Straw or Hay:
- Compost Time: Approximately 3-6 months.
- Tip: Chop it up! Smaller pieces decompose faster. Layer straw to create airflow, preventing a dense mat that can slow down the composting process.
- Manure (Cow, Horse, Chicken):
- Compost Time: 4-6 months.
- Tip: Mix it up! Combine manure with other compost materials to balance nitrogen and carbon ratios. Ensure the compost reaches a high enough temperature to kill any harmful pathogens.
- Leaves and Garden Waste:
- Compost Time: About 6-12 months.
- Tip: Shred it! Break down large leaves or woody materials to speed up decomposition. Turn the compost regularly to aerate and speed up the process.
- Wood Chips or Sawdust:
- Compost Time: 6-12 months.
- Tip: Use sparingly! Too much sawdust can slow decomposition. Mix it with other materials to maintain a good balance.
Using manure in the garden
I just briefly touched on it above, but manure is an excellent to increase your soil fertility. Animal waste from chickens, cows, and horses make great fertilizers.
I would recommend making sure that you let the manure age or compost for a year prior to applying it to your garden. Most cow manure and animal manure is considered hot and will burn the roots of your plants, resulting in plant death. Chicken manure in particular is considered a "hot" compost, and must be thoroughly composted before adding it to the garden.
BUT there is one kind of fresh manure that can be applied immediately to you garden! Rabbit manure is not considered hot and is a good nitrogen source. We had a bunny when the boys were little, and I would just add the rabbit poop and any scattered alfalfa in her pen directly to the garden. I even placed a handful of rabbit manure directly into the holes I transplanted my leafy greens into.
I have had friends that also do this for their tomato plants also! Just writing this makes me think it's time to get another rabbit... We also have had great luck using llama manure without composting it first.
DIY nitrogen fertilizer for plants
If you have noticed that your nitrogen thriving plants are starting to die, you can use a quick homemade fertilizer to give them a boost. One of my favorites is adding banana peels to a mason jar and filling the jar with water. Let it sit on the counter at room temperature for a few days and then strain the peels and use the brown 'banana water' to water your plants.
Coffee grounds is another "quick" fix. By this, I mean that you can take the coffee grounds from your morning coffee and sprinkle them along the base of your plants as needed. But don't do this too often! The grounds can build up in the soil and attract pests, create offensive odors or even become toxic to the plant.
Do egg shells make good fertilizer?
Some people claim that a fertilizer remedy can be made by soaking finely crushed eggs shells in water overnight, then dumping both the water and the eggshells at the base of your plants. While egg shells actually DO contain trace levels of nitrogen and other minerals, adding this to your soil is likely not going to benefit your garden in the short term. Think of this as more of a long-term soil amendment if you choose to do it, but my first choice would be composting the shells using a traditional method.
How to use grass clippings in the garden
Grass clippings compost down great when blended with other organic wastes, but you can also apply then directly to your garden. Applying them directly to the top of your soil once your plants are tall enough, will serve as both a nitrogen source as they compost and as a weed barrier.
By laying the grass clippings on top of the soil, it will prevent sun from reaching any of the tiny weed starts, which in turn will prevent them from growing! Just avoid grass that has been sprayed with weedkillers or other chemicals.
How to add fish emulsions to your garden
This might be the smelliest and nastiest option, but I LOVE using liquid fish emulsions in my garden and house plants! Fish emulsion is a fabulous cost effective way to get a nitrogen rich healthy soil. I buy it by the gallon at our local hardware store.
You can make your own fish emulsions by blending up whole fish or fillets in water until it is a very finely pureed and becomes a homogenous liquid. Strain the emulsions and make sure to dilute before adding to your garden.
If you have a fish tank, don't just toss the water when you clean the tank. The best way to use the fish tank water is to disperse it throughout your garden. Using fish tank water is such and easy way to remedy low nitrogen levels.
We personally have a stock tank in the middle of our raised beds. It has fish in it and is so easy to use as a water source for the garden beds when needed. Realistically, we probably don't have enough gold fish to make a very nutritious fish water, but it definitely doesn't hurt! Fish are actually a relatively cheap way to have a cute accent in the garden and supply nitrogen-rich fertilizer at the same time.
Blood meal and bone meal
Bone meal is a fertilizer that's an ideal soil additive for growing root vegetables and tubers like carrots, beets, potatoes and radishes. I also use it on my irises. It has very high level of phosphorus, which aids in healthy root formation, hence the root veggies! Bone meal fertilizer can also help establish freshly planted perennials.
Blood meal is made from dried slaughterhouse waste, and is one of the densest non-synthetic sources of nitrogen for plants. We make homemade blood meal by saving the blood when we Process Meat Chickens. We place a large bucket under our cones to catch the blood as it drains out.
There are two options that you can buy at the store, but they will cost more money than the options listed above. Blood meal and alfalfa meal are both a good source of nitrogen. They are commonly found at any garden supply store and considered to be a commercial fertilizers but not synthetic fertilizers.
Identifying Low Nitrogen Levels in the Soil
I know that not everyone tests their vegetable garden soil. Usually an experienced gardener will utilize crop rotation to keep the soil balanced in a natural way, watching for signs that imply nutrient deficiencies and adjusting as needed. But even with crop rotation, you could still get nitrogen deficient spots in your garden.
How do you identify low nitrogen areas if you don't test the soil? Well, the plants growing in a nitrogen-deficient soil will produce a more yellow colored leaf, smaller fruit, and have much slower growth. If you start to see any of these signs, I recommend adding store-bought or other sources of nitrogen around the base of the plant.
When you add a source of nitrogen to your garden, you will want to gradually add it. Adding too much nitrogen can also have results that are not in your favor, trust me.
Having too much nitrogen in the soil will result in your plants having lots of sprouts and new growth. You probably thing new growth is a good thing, but when it comes to growing vegetables, rapid new growth on a plant, is not good. If your plants have too much greenery growth on them, they will not be putting as much energy into the fruit production as they should. They will have to also use their energy to maintain the growth of the plant leaves.
Throughout your gardening season you will be spending significantly more time trimming back many of your plants so that they can dedicate more of their growth to the fruit over the leaves.
This is really just a jumping off point, but hopefully it helps you get started! A good read after this one is Organic Pest Control in the Garden. If you are new to gardening, I have several posts I'll share below. Just tap the pictures to read more!
Happy gardening, friend!
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