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How Does Your Garden Grow

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Now that it's spring, it's time to start playing in the dirt -- your garden's dirt, that is. When it comes to supplementing the soil, one of the simplest and best ecological choices you can make is to use an organic fertilizer.

Organic fertilizers are derived from natural sources; they work like a charm, are slow-releasing and, most important, are friendly to our waterways and soil. They help build soil life and nourish your garden, lawn, landscape, houseplants and containerized plants with gentle, stable devotion, akin to a mother's love.

Synthetic, chemically processed fertilizers, on the other hand, are like fast food; they're a quick-acting quick fix, not a nutritious, delicious, natural meal. When used incorrectly, they can burn tender plants. Not only that, they add nothing to the soil and are often derived from petroleum.

Nowadays organic fertilizers are easy to find. At the local mega-store, alongside the tried-and-true Espoma natural fertilizers, I saw that good old Miracle-Gro, so famous for its chemical liquid fertilizer in an eye-catching blue hue, has a new organic fertilizer derived from chicken manure. On our farm we use the Harmony brand pelletized organic chicken manure fertilizer as an all-purpose garden nutrient with great success, and I was delighted to see that Ellwood Thompson's carries the same brand this time of year. It comes in a 50-pound bag, which is mighty convenient when you have a decent-sized area to amend.

We also often apply organic liquid fertilizers — fish and a fish-and-seaweed combination — to our plants' foliage. Mixed with water and used in a hose-end sprayer or a backpack sprayer, they give your plants a nourishing drench. It's an effective concoction but a stinky one — it's not unusual for buzzards to circle overhead when we are spraying it. Rest assured, the aroma dissipates quickly and the buzzards move on in search of an actual carcass. Neptune's Harvest and Alaska are both excellent brands easily found at good garden stores.

Always ask for organic fertilizers from your local source if you do not immediately see one on the shelf, and if you have trouble determining whether a fertilizer is organic or not, a simple rule can help you decide. All general-purpose fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — or NPK for short — and are given a corresponding numerical denomination indicating their ratio in the mixture: for example, 5-4-3 or 10-10-10. When these three numbers add up to more than 15, start reading the label closely. The fertilizer is likely synthetic and may not be organic.

The soil is what feeds us. Return the favor by cultivating a wholesome, nourishing relationship with your little piece of earth. HS

Amy Hicks started Amy's Garden, a certified organic farm, in 1995. Along with husband George Ferguson, she sells specialty produce and cut flowers at local farmers' markets.

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