glyphs-new

Using Fertilizer? Think Twice Before You Do.

Find out why many fertilizers offer short-term gain, but inflict long-term pain.

When your plants look wilted, discolored, or otherwise unhealthy, is your first impulse to reach for a traditional fertilizer? For your plants’ health, you might want to rethink that first impulse. Traditional fertilizers can give your plants an immediate boost, but in the long term, these fertilizers can be very harmful. They offer short-term gain, but inflict long-term pain.

What is traditional fertilizer?

Traditional fertilizers consist of mostly nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are also known as NPK fertilizers.

Why are traditional fertilizers harmful?

Contrary to popular belief, these fertilizers often harm your plants. Phosphorus, for example, damages the essential relationship between a plant and its mycorrhizal fungi. NPK fertilizers compromise trees’ root systems, block the uptake of micronutrients, encourage attack from harmful pests, and cause a host of other issues for plants. They also pollute waterways.

Traditional fertilizers can be harmful even when labeled “organic” or “slow-release.” These often have the same negative impact on plants and the environment as do traditional NPK fertilizers.

If I can’t use fertilizer, how should I feed my plants?

You’ll hear us say time and again that healthy soil is the foundation for healthy plants. Increasing the health of your soil biology (i.e., all of the life that exists in soil) greatly improves the health of your soil. To increase the health of your soil biology, add organic matter. Examples of organic matter include compost, wood chips, leaf mulch, grass clippings, and cow manure.

The change you will see with this approach is gradual (no instantaneous boosts to plant growth as you might see with NPK fertilizers), but if you build a solid foundation then your plants will thrive in the long-term.

There are other key factors to think about when you’re improving the health of your soil. These include avoiding herbicides, mosquito sprays, and soil compaction.

What is the fundamental difference between traditional fertilizer and organic matter?

Put simply, it’s biology versus chemistry. Traditional fertilizer only addresses the chemistry of the soil. Enhancing life in your soil, however, goes far beyond adding chemicals.

Healthy soil has many components. In the urban landscape, the missing component is usually healthy biology. Traditional fertilizers focus on the chemistry of the soil, which is rarely the issue.

Are there alternative types of fertilizer that are good for my trees?

Not all fertilizers are created equal. There are some great products out there, but they focus on enhancing soil biology versus simply inputting chemicals. Look for products that have the following:

  • Low to no nitrogen
  • No phosphorus
  • Mostly organic matter (i.e., cow manure, or plant material like kelp or yucca)
  • Beneficial fungi
  • Beneficial bacteria

Final thoughts

You don’t have to buy a brand name mixture to ensure that you have healthy plants. Think about it this way: organic matter is food for your soil biology. In the same way that you don’t want to eat high-fructose corn syrup, yellow #5, or refined flour, you also don’t want to feed your soil chemicals. Choose organic matter instead. If your soil is healthy, your plants will follow suit.

If you want your plants to be sustainable and thrive long-term, resist the short-term gain of chemicals and focus on increasing the health of soil biology instead. If the biology of the soil is healthy, the soil will provide all of the nutrients your trees and shrubs need. You’ll never need to think about traditional fertilizers again.

Like this article? Pass it on.

Related Articles

From Dead Dirt to Healthy Soil in 7 Simple Steps
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
Right Tree, Right Place: What to Plant and Where to Plant it
Video | How To: Choosing the Right Tree for Any Location
Our Favorite Tree Recommendations for Tricky Areas
Using Fertilizer? Think Twice Before You Do.
The #1 Reason Most Soil Tests Don't Work
Friend or Foe: When to Take Action Against Pests
The Insect Apocalypse is Here. How Can You Help?
16 Fascinating Facts About Fungi
Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Unsung Heroes of Tree Care
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
From Dead Dirt to Healthy Soil in 7 Simple Steps
6 Pruning Mistakes to Avoid
How to Install and Enjoy Your Rain Gauge
Help Save the Monarch Butterflies!
4 Fascinating Facts About Mistletoe
Proper Care for Newly Planted Trees
8 Ways to Accidentally Kill Your Tree When Planting
Drop that Rake! Why Leaving the Leaves is Vital to Your Plant's Health
Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves
Video | How To: The Fundamentals Of Watering
Video | The Fundamentals of Mulch: Proper Care, Installation, and Selection
Too Many Choices: Which Mulch or Weed Barrier Should I Choose?
When Good Mulch Goes Bad
How To: The Fundamentals of Mulch Installation
Five Ways to Spot a Thirsty Tree or Shrub
Soaker Hoses, Irrigation Systems, and Treegators, Oh My!
Drought Resistant Trees
How To: The Fundamentals of Watering
The Joy of Planting Native Trees in Durham, North Carolina
Brightening Up Neighborhoods Across Durham
Changing lives one seed at a time in Durham
Soil Decompaction - An Essential for Good Tree Health
Emerald Ash Borer is in NC!
Cabling & Bracing - Options for Making Your Tree Safer
Tree Care for Crape Myrtles
How to Prevent Tree Damage
Help! My Tree Has a Disease!
Dragon’s Blood Tree
Deep Root Fertilization: Myths & The Truth
The Dangerous Truth About Ghost Insurance Policies
Stump Removal - The Mighty Stump Grinder!
Happy Trees Begin With Proper Planting
Trees & Shrubs Need Check-Ups Too!
How To Protect Your Trees from a Lightning Strike
Mulching: A Cheap, Easy Way to Increase the Health of Your Trees!
Crape Myrtles: A Tale of Love, Murder, and Proper Pruning
The World's Oldest Trees
Help! Insects are Attacking my Trees & Shrubs!
Tree Care: Save Money and Increase Your Property Value
Root Collar Excavation is Critical to Your Tree's Survival!
Tree Risk Assessment: The Key to Safer Trees & Peace of Mind!
10 Tips on How to Choose the Right Tree Service and Avoid Scams
Happy Trees Grow From Healthy Soil
TCIA Accreditation: Empowering You With Confidence
What is Tree Care?
Mulch Volcanoes: the Mt. St. Helens of Tree Problems
Trees Need a Thriving Soil Food Web
Call Leaf & Limb