Many gardeners like to think that because they’re growing food on a small scale their soil will never get depleted of nutrients, but that’s not so. Thankfully there are some quick and easy ways to add nutrients back into your soil without having to resort to commercial fertilizers.
1. Coffee Grounds
Coffee grounds can add vital nitrogen back to your soil. They also add organic material and can help improve drainage and aeration. Because they’re slightly acidic, they are often recommended as a fertilizer for acid-loving plants such as blueberries and azaleas. Be sure to let the grounds dry before placing them in your garden, however, as wet coffee grounds placed around plants will quickly sprout fungal growths that could damage your plants.
Manure is a time-honored fertilizer that contains huge amounts of nitrogen. The best types to use are chicken, horse, or cow manure. Never use feces from humans, pigs, dogs, or cats, as that is a good way to spread harmful diseases or parasitic worms.
Most manures are classified as “hot,” meaning that their high nitrogen content can actually burn plants. Therefore you never want to spread fresh manure into a garden. Always let it sit for at least six months, or work it into a compost pile, before using it as fertilizer. If you don’t have your own animals to harvest manure from, chat up a local farmer or any local riding schools who may be more than happy to let you haul away a ton of manure.
3. Wood Ash
Wood ash can play a beneficial role in raising soil pH if you live in an area that suffers from acidic soil. Ash is also high in various minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. If you’re spreading it directly into a garden it should be used in small amounts and watered in until you can determine its effects on your soil. You can also work it into a compost pile.
Be sure to use ash that derives from burned wood or hardwood charcoal. Ash from briquettes, or from fires that have been started with lighter fluid, could contain toxic chemicals that can be damaging to your garden.
4. Epsom Salt
Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, can be used to add both magnesium and sulfur to the soil. A small amount dissolved in water can be used to water plants such as broccoli, cabbage, and greens.
Eggshells can provide much-needed calcium to soil. Calcium deficiency can result in blossom end rot in vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes, in which the ends of the fruit begins to rot on the vine before the fruit has even fully ripened. Be sure to wash eggshells thoroughly and dry them in an oven or toaster oven at high enough heat to kill any salmonella or other pathogens. Eggshells work best by grinding them to a powder in a spice blender and sprinkling the powder onto the soil or working into the soil around the base of a plant.
Last, but not least, compost is one of the best ways to amend your soil. Just imagine that a whole bunch of detritus that would otherwise get thrown away can be mixed together to provide you with rich compost that can improve the quality of your soil. Just be sure not to add meat or dairy products to your compost, as those can attract mice, raccoons, opossums, or other pests.
Composting materials are generally classified as being either “brown,” meaning they have a high carbon content, or “green,” meaning they have a high nitrogen content. Brown materials include fallen leaves, pine needles, straw, corn husks and stalks, or shredded paper. Green materials include vegetable and fruit peels, cut grass, coffee grounds, and manure.
The ideal ratio is to add four parts browns to every one part greens. Compost piles need to be rotated periodically to aerate the pile so as to prevent compaction and make sure that the aerobic bacteria that break down the organic material can do their job. Depending on your skill at composting, weather, and the size of your pile, you could have viable compost in a matter of months or even weeks.