by Jayne Rising
As if we don’t have enough problems with shortages, it seems there’s a global shortage of commercial fertilizers as well. These inputs are required to produce the amount of food needed to feed everyone. A lack of fertilizer will cut significantly into food production. That, of course, will lead to even higher prices at the grocery store.
In this article, I’ll discuss the reasons for the shortages and what fertilizer alternatives exist. It’s well past time to think outside of the standard supply chain, folks.
A quick primer on plant nutritional requirements
Plants need twelve essential nutrients: NPK, of course, but also calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, boron, zinc, copper, manganese, and molybdenum. Deficiencies in any of these will result in problems. Calcium deficiencies, for example, result in blossom end rot in tomatoes and melons. Nitrogen and iron deficiencies result in leaf drop, while a lack of boron will result in buds breaking and dropping off. Iron is a key part of the chlorophyll molecule, which is totally necessary for photosynthesis. Several of these nutrients assist in disease resistance and general plant metabolism. I could go on, but I think you all get the idea.
Where do we usually get these things?
From the store, of course. Anything from Azomite to Milorganite has been, for many years, readily available. The times, however, are a’changin’. Even if fertilizer is produced, transportation has become an additional challenge. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is a product of natural gas, which is in short supply for many reasons. China and Russia have announced plans to limit or stop exporting nitrogen fertilizer, which is a problem for the rest of us.
Whether urea or DAP, farmers already struggling under higher production costs are now facing soaring fertilizer prices. With farms going under at a record pace, this isn’t helping matters. What little food is available is going to continue to rise in price. Of course, hungry people are even more motivated to do whatever’s necessary to find food.
So what can we, as preppers, do about this?
One method is stocking up. However, no pile of goodies lasts forever, and one has to defend that pile. Since it’s written right into the NDAA that our government can come into your house and take pretty much anything they want, including you, having a tasty pile of stuff could make you an attractive target.
There ARE several alternatives to commercially produced fertilizers. Many of them are readily available if you only know where to look!
For example, bone meal is simply ground-up animal bones and is an excellent source of phosphorus. Yet another use for leftover turkey or chicken bones!
Composted manure is just that: manure that sits awhile, just like other composted materials. Of course, this isn’t the best smelling stuff, and urban neighbors might complain, but it’s a complete fertilizer. If you have backyard chickens, let them run in the garden a bit. Fish emulsion is also a complete fertilizer; our ancestors added a fish carcass to their plantings to good effect. Be aware that fish can attract rodents, however, so bury it deep! Farmers realized early on that manure could increase their crop yields.
Common foods to use as fertilizer
Here’s another source discussing common foods that we can use as fertilizer.
Coffee grounds contain not only the big three (NPK) but several micronutrients as well. Some say they also act as a pest repellent, most notably against snails and slugs, but this is so far anecdotal.
How about eggshells? They’re a great source of calcium, along with small amounts of nitrogen and magnesium. They can be crushed up and added to the soil directly, which I do, or set in water for four weeks to make a liquid fertilizer.
Then there are banana peels! These will provide potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Again, bury them with the plant or make a liquid fertilizer.
Got milk? Milk is another excellent source of calcium, in addition to the standard NPK. Again, as a dairy product, this could attract rodents, so it’s strongly discouraged in the compost pile. You can apply it either to the roots or the leaves in liquid form.
Homemade garden fertilizer
Don’t forget the grass clippings, weeds, beauty bark, and other organic matter! These materials contain varying amounts of everything plants need to grow healthy. Waste not, want not, right? I leave my grass clippings on the lawn, use them as mulch, and turn them into my raised beds to add organic matter at the end of the season. I do similarly with fallen leaves and even small branches.
I’ve written about adding Rhizobium and mycorrhiza to your soil before. These organisms have many benefits but are obligate parasites, meaning they need the plants to survive. However, it’s unknown how long they can last in soil, so why not give them a try? Some research has shown that they can survive in soil. Besides, if someone can cultivate them in the lab, anyone can cultivate them in the home, just like mushroom spawn. PDA (potato dextrose agar) is very easy to make. You don’t even need an autoclave as long as you can sterilize it, and I think the fungi will be OK with regular table sugar in a pinch.
And let’s not forget good, old-fashioned crop rotation!
While crop rotation can be a challenge on a small urban lot, it has the long-recognized advantage of allowing the soil to regenerate. While most plants, including food crops, require the same set of nutrients, those nutrients used by different plants are in different quantities. Many plants, such as beans and peas, are nitrogen fixers. Rhizobium binding with these increases nitrogen production. Rotating in various ways increases yields and builds soil over time.
Here’s a historical account of rotation systems that have been in use since the Middle Ages.
In addition to the need to adjust to supply chain problems, organic fertilizers have many benefits. They improve soil structure and are available to plants throughout the season. Because fertilizers are less soluble, there’s less runoff and, therefore, less loss to the soil. These fertilizers are also great for the micro fauna. Everything from beneficial worms to beetles that just love munching on those yummy leaves! Plus, they’re available using things we have around the house, namely food that would go to waste or isn’t edible anyway, such as the humble banana peel.
The best part is: these amendments are free for the taking! All we have to do is make use of them. Do you have any go-to fertilizers you would suggest? How do you think this global shortage shortage of commercial fertilizers will affect the already struggling food supply chain?
Jayne Rising is a gardener and bookworm with a BS from the University of Wisconsin and a Master Gardener certification. She’s been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010 and teaching others how to do it since 2015. She’s involved in a number of local urban agriculture initiatives, working to bring a sustainable and healthy food system back into the mainstream.