Organic, Natural and Synthetic Fertilizers Revealed, part 1

Are you environmentally conscious? Are you “Green?”

More and more, homeowners are making choices they believe to be the best for their lawn, as well as for the world around them. But what if I was to tell you you’re being duped by slick marketers who play on your emotions? Furthermore, what if I told you that extreme environmentalists exaggerate facts or even lie in order to sway your thoughts to their side? What if I let you in on the secret of “buzz word” marketing that both sides of the issue use to sway your opinions? Is there a middle ground? Can you achieve a beautiful lawn without destroying the environment?

The answer is “yes.” However, the savvy homeowner must first be armed with basic information. (stay with me folks, this one ain’t gonna be funny or bombastic…just down and dirty info)

This topic will have to be broken into several postings as I want to explore every side of the issue. In Part 1, we must first define some terms. Also, keep in mind that this post is about FERTILIZER and not pesticides or insecticides. We will get to them later. For now, think FERTILIZER.

Definition or Fertilizer: Any of a large number of natural and synthetic materials, including manure and nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds, spread on or worked into soil to increase its capacity to support plant growth. source

It is important to keep in mind that fertilizer IS NOT plant food! Plants create their own food through the process of photosynthesis. Fertilizers (nutrients such as Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus) only serve to support this process. And, just in case you are wondering, grass is a plant!

There are 3 loosely classified “types or sources” of fertilizer: Natural, Organic and Synthetic.

(1) What is Natural fertilizer? The term “Natural” refers to “Existing in or formed by Nature” or “based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature” Source: dictionary.com

So let me ask you folks, is everything in nature safe to put on your lawn? Crude oil is found naturally in Texas, but I don’t think any of us would spread it in our front yard. In addition, do you see a difference in elements that are found naturally or made synthetically if they are chemically exact matches? Phosphorus for example, is a basic element in lawn fertilizer. There are plenty of places where phosphorus is mined from a natural deposit, yet, phosphorus is also manipulated in the lab and used in your daily vitamins. Which one do you want in your stomach?

Phosphorus in it’s natural state is not always concentrated enough to be effective for your lawn anyway. In other words, you might have to spread 20 pounds of naturally found phosphorus on your front lawn in order to get the same results that 1 half-pound of synthetic will get for you. Which is better for the environment in your opinion?

The point here is that just because something is “natural” does not mean it is automatically good for your lawn or the environment. Sometimes science improves on nature. The other thing to keep in mind is the advertising you see on TV and websites. If someone is touting their products are “all natural” or “naturally derived” they are playing on your sense of emotion. Most folks think the terms “natural” and “organic” are interchangeable… they are NOT!

(2) What is Organic fertilizer? The term Organic means: “Of, relating to, or derived from living organismssource You can see that organic could be classified as “a step closer” to being environmentally aware in this regard. To further confuse you, some things that are organic are also natural, but not everything natural is organic! Got it? Furthermore, just because something is organic, does not give you license poop.jpgto place mass quantities of it in your lawn. Too much of a good thing ain’t always good. Rotten bananas are organic, but if you eat 500 of them in 1 hour, you’ll plug up your toilet and then die.

Organics for lawns can come in many forms such as blood meal, poultry waste(chicken parts and chicken poopy), manure(cow poopy), compost and fish emulsion, just to name a few.

The main issue with organics, in my opinion are: they STINK, they are very EXPENSIVE and they require a lot of product be put down in order to achieve results. In other words, they contain low concentrates of the nutrients needed to effect plant production. You gotta spread a lot of stinky poop on your lawn to turn it green! Hello neighbor!!!!! :) Another problem with organics is the Nitrogen will only be released with higher temperatures. Organics are NOT water activated.

(3) What is Synthetic fertilizer? Synthetic just means “man made.” The elements (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) are still there, but have been bonded with other other compounds or carriers (such as salts) in order to make them more readily available for the plant. Because of science, the release of nutrients can be controlled, thus the term “slow release” or “quick release” fertilizer. The salts that bond the elements dissolve with water and the elements are trickled into the soil. In addition, the amount of each element can be controlled. If you want more Nitrogen in your mix, you purchase a synthetic fertilizer with higher concentrations of that element. Thank you scientists! This also allows less total product to be put down in one treatment…back to our example under natural fert where you might have to put down 20 lbs of natural, vs a half-pound of synthetic.

There are also some disadvantages to synthetic fertilizers. Those being cheaply “made” brands that contain high concentrations of salts that can over time, damage grass plants and adversely effect the composition of the soil. The solution here is to by brand name, higher priced offerings, and apply the stuff at the suggested rate on the packaging. You gotta read the instructions, or in this case, product labeling. Either way, even the very best of synthetic fertilizers are on average 30% cheaper than natural and 80% cheaper than organics.

It boils down to this: Elements are elements no matter how they are mined, made, found, bonded or released.

So what’s the real environmental concern then? You’ll have to wait for part 2 for the answer to that one! In part 2, we’ll talk about cultural practices, as well as explore some of the hybrid forms of fertilizers.