In this blog I wanted to dive into a topic that's been on my mind a good bit lately. It has to do with gardening myths, trends, and fads that I frequently see on YouTube and other social media outlets. Many of these gardening trends claim to eliminate or drastically reduce the need to fertilize your garden. And while that is a great goal to have, we need to peel back the layers and separate fact from fiction.
Techniques That Advocate No-Fertilizer
I see this misinformation most often from those promoting Back to Eden or No-Till Gardening. Not every proponent of these methods will make the lofty claim that they don't require fertilization, but many of them do. Some proponents of these methods insist that having perfect soil biology eliminates the need for fertilization.
Now don't get me wrong. I am definitely a proponent of having good soil biology. But some of these statements are misleading to beginner gardeners because they don't inform the viewer of the time and effort it takes to create this "perfect soil." Additionally, most gardeners will never get to that point. I've been gardening on our current land for over 10 years and have some pretty good soil. But we still have to feed our plants.
Where Does This Gardening Myth Originate?
When I see someone touting their lack of dependency on fertilizer, I immediately begin to ponder what is the motivation for this type of system. Obviously, being more self-sustainable is great and not having to buy fertilizer means you're able to grow your own food more cost-effectively.
But not everyone is growing their own food as a necessity. Many, like myself, are doing it just because we enjoy being outside and watching plants grow. I also enjoy the convenience of being able to walk in my backyard and harvest some veggies for dinner. But I rarely look at things from the aspect of whether it's cheaper to grow veggies or buy them.
Others believe that "Big Ag" has engineered varieties of vegetables that require more fertilizer. They contend that this is a way for big chemical companies to make us reliant on their products. I'm not a big conspiracy guy, so I don't subscribe to this theory. But each to their own.
The Nature Argument
I often see many permaculture and no-till enthusiasts talking about "replicating nature" in their backyard garden or on their homestead. They present this idea as if nature is a perfect system and perfect model for growing your own groceries. But I think that's far from the truth.
The plants we're trying to grow in our backyard don't exist in nature. I've hiked almost every State Park in Georgia and have yet to see cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower growing in the woods. These vegetables that we grow in our backyard garden were bred to be more productive than native plants. They also are more "needy" than native plants.
The other part of this argument that bothers me is the fact that nature isn't perfect. Many species have and will continue to go extinct without any interference from man. Nature isn't perfect.
Are We Growing Food or Replicating Nature?
I have a couple pecan trees in my yard that usually give us a few 5 gallon buckets worth of pecans each year. We take them to the farmers market downtown, get them cracked and shelled, and then freeze them so we can use them throughout the year. But some years we don't have as much rain and we don't get many pecans.
On the contrary, there are many commercial pecan groves near our house that produce pecans every single year. This is because their pecan trees have an irrigation system and those trees get fertilized. They get exactly what they need to produce an abundant harvest every year.
If we depend on a system that replicates nature, we have to deal with the harsh reality that we may not get consistent production each year. But if we create an environment that provides the water and nutrients that plants need to produce maximal harvests, we have a much better chance at putting food on the table.
Where Does the Truth Lie?
As with most things in life, the truth often lies in the middle. Yes, we can responsibly use gardening techniques and systems that create healthy soil ecosystems. And these biologically active soils can certainly reduce the amount of fertilizer we may need to add to our plants.
But eliminating the need to fertilize completely is a bit of a pipe dream. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's very unlikely. It's also important to note that creating amazing soil biology takes years. It's not something that happens overnight.
As a result, you're probably going to have to fertilize heavily in the first few years until you get the soil biology cranking. Add lots of organic matter and compost to your garden plots so you can start building that soil biology, but don't be afraid to feed your plants in the early years of a garden plot.
Personally, I don't like growing small cabbage. I'd rather grow a large cabbage. I want to maximize the harvests I get from my garden space and the time that I pour into it. Replicating nature may sound all warm and fuzzy, but we need to be realistic and understand that plants in our garden have different needs than wild plants in the woods.