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"When evaluated by cost, my formula works out to be much more economical than any other approach."


Building Fertile Soil The Easy Way
by Steve Solomon

In all subsequent installments of this column I will recommend using varying amounts of a "complete organic fertilizer" recipe I've worked out, or COF. COF is ideal for all types of vegetables, putting into them the highest possible nutritional values to sustain the humans who eat them.

In case you are not the sort who reads the fine print, or not one to go to the trouble to search out the several ingredients I am suggesting, may I say at this point that strong chicken manure based composts, which are often available premade at supermarkets and garden centres, when applied at double or triple the quantities that I suggest for Complete Organic Fertilizer, will seem to do almost as well if in addition you give each ten square metres of your garden one half to one litre of agricultural lime per year. I say "seem to do almost as well" because it is my long-considered conclusion that using Complete Organic Fertilizer mix will result in a much higher nutritional content in your vegetables.

Many gardeners depend on tankage (meat meal) to boost their vegetables' growth; this substance has a high nitrogen content, true, but lacks other nutrients. It is not a balanced fertilizer.

When evaluated by cost, my formula works out to be much more economical than any other approach – you get nearly double the amount of NPK per dollar from COF compared to chicken manure composts.


The perfect fertilizer for home-garden vegetable crops would be a dry, odourless, finely-powdered, completely organic material that would not burn leaves if sprinkled on them, would not poison plants or soil life if somewhat over-applied. It would slowly deliver to the plants about 5% nitrate-nitrogen (N); 5% phosphorus (P) in fairly available form and only 1% potassium (K, from kalium, its Latin name). It would also contain substantial and perfectly balanced amounts of calcium, magnesium and all the other essential minerals such as iodine, cobalt, manganese, boron, etc. It would release slowly so the nutrients didn't wash out of the topsoil with the first excessive irrigation or heavy rain.

"The perfect fertilizer for home-garden vegetable crops would be a dry, odourless, finely-powdered, completely organic material that would not burn leaves"

Major nutrients in this ratio (5:5:1) with plenty of Ca and Mg (at a Ca:Mg ratio of about 6:1) produce high levels of nutrition in the food we grow. You could markedly and inexpensively increase bulk yield by boosting potassium levels but the nutritional content of the vegies would decrease as the potassium (and the bulk it creates) went up. Most commercial growers, be they chemical growers or organic growers, push potassium to high levels because this element is inexpensive and makes them larger yields and higher profits. But this result happens at the expense of the health of the consumers' health.

COF approaches my target of 5-5-1 but probably comes out more like 5-4-2 (NPK). If you include all the suggested ingredients, it also abundantly supplies all minor (or trace) nutrients.

Complete organic fertilizer is created inexpensively by the gardener by mixing materials obtained at relatively low cost per unit of weight, buying it from farm- or animal-feed suppliers in bulk sacks of 25-40 kg each. City gardeners are going to have to make a journey a bit beyond the farthest suburbs in order to find such a supplier. This trip will be worth it! All materials are measured out by volume: that is by the scoop, bucket, jar, shovels-full, etc. Proportions varying plus or minus 10% of the targeted volume will be exact enough; perfect measurement is not necessary. Do not attempt to make this formula by weight.

Blend as uniformly as possible:

  • 4 parts any seedmeal except coprameal
  • 3 parts any seedmeal except coprameal and 1 part meatmeal (tankage).   This higher-nitrogen option is slightly better for leafy crops in spring
  • 4.5 parts coprameal supplemented with 1.5 parts blood-and-bone meal to boost the nitrogen content.

  • ½ part ordinary agricultural lime, and
  • ½ part dolomite lime

    (for the very best results)
  • ½ part phosphate rock or guano
  • ½ to 1 part kelpmeal

  • Seedmeal, blood-and-bone meal, and the two sorts of limes are the most important ingredients. These alone will grow a great-looking garden.
    Guano and kelpmeal may be harder to obtain but including them adds considerable "fortitude" to the growing plants and greatly increases the nutritional content of your vegetables.

    "Complete organic fertilizer is created inexpensively, buying it from farm- or animal-feed suppliers in bulk sacks of 25-40 kg each"

    Go as far down the list as you can afford to, but if you can't find the more exotic materials I wouldn't worry overly much. If money is a concern that stops you from obtaining kelp or guano, please consider this: in my opinion, a person can't spend too much money creating maximum nutrition in their food because any money spent here saves heaps in health costs of all sorts – and how do you place a money value on the experience of suffering?

    COF works out to be less costly than chicken manure composts or Dynamic Lifter, which is pelletized chicken manure sold in Australia, because it is half again stronger. Unlike Lifter, it has no odour.


    Seedmeals are normally used as animal feed supplements (mainly for horses and dairy cattle) and are a by-product of extracting oil from canola seeds, cotton seeds, coconut meat (called coprameal), flax seeds (linseedmeal), soybeans, etc.

    Most seedmeals analyse (NPK) about 6-4-2, although coprameal is about one-third weaker and for this reason its use is not highly recommended. However, if coprameal was the only oilseed waste I could obtain I would be glad to use it.
    The amount of minor nutrients – calcium, magnesium and trace nutrient minerals – varies enormously from meal to meal and lot to lot; this depends upon the soil quality that produced the oil seeds. Because most broadacre farm soils are severely depleted, most seedmeals in commercial trade are probably rather poor in terms of supplying nutrients other than NPK.
    Seedmeals will not be sold by their plant nutrient content, but are rated by their protein content because of their main use--animal feed. As a rough rule of thumb, for every six percent protein the meal will contain one percent nitrogen.

    If more than one sort of meal is available, choose which ever type is the cheapest per unit of protein because the largest portion of the cost of distantly-produced sorts is usually freight. Sources are animal feed dealers and farm stores, usually in sacks weighing from 50 lbs to 40 kg depending on your country. Seedmeals are stable and will store for years if kept dry and protected from mice in a metal rubbish bin.
    Canolaseedmeal is currently the cheapest seedmeal in Tasmania where because canola oil is being produced here. When I lived in Oregon I used cottonseed meal from California. People in the midwestern USA will probably find soybean meal the most obtainable. Those in the South of the USA will probably use cottonseed meal.
    I am certain to receive complaints and objections from some readers about the pesticide and herbicide residues they are certain will be in these seedmeals. All I can say to such people is that I don't worry overmuch about this. Most toxic residues are oil-soluble and are removed when the oil is extracted from the seed. The waste of this process (seedmeal) is a relatively clean substance. Besides, this industrial waste is then mixed into soil where it is thoroughly decomposed before it becomes fertilizer. Besides, in this industrial civilization of ours, the only way to obtain fairly clean soil amendments is to grow them entirely yourself, in other words, garden only with composts and manures produced organically. This restriction is beyond the ability of most of us to attain.

    "In the midwestern USA - soybean meal. In the South of the USA - cottonseed meal. In Tasmania - canolaseed meal."

    Lime(s). There are two useful sorts: "agricultural lime," which is nearly pure calcium carbonate; and then there is dolomitic lime, a variety of limestone containing both calcium and magnesium carbonates, usually in more or less equal amounts. (Do not use quicklime, burnt lime, hydrated lime, or other "hot" limes.) If you had to choose one lime you're probably better off using dolomite, but best off by far is using a mixture of the two types. Lime is not expensive if bought in 25-50 kg sacks from a farm store. The whole subject of liming gets DEEP! I cannot deal with the complexity in this short article. The bottom line is that even if your garden has been limed, even if by soil test its pH is quite acceptable, use lime(s) in the fertilizer mix because vegetables need calcium and magnesium as nutrients, and in the right balance, which is about 4-8 parts calcium to each part of magnesium. That is why I stress using a mixture of two sorts of limes, so as to produce that 4-8 to 1 ratio.

    Phosphate rock or guano slightly boosts phosphorus levels and is also rich in trace elements.

    Kelpmeal seems quite expensive but a 25 kg sack will last the average gardener many years and will supply a wide range of trace minerals and growth regulators that act like plant vitamins, increasing plant resistance to cold, frost and other stresses. I suggest that you purchase your kelpmeal by price; some places have much higher labour costs so kelpmeal from Scandinavia costs heaps more than the same product from Korea.


    Preplant: atop each 10 square metres of raised bed or each 20 metres of planting row, uniformly broadcast 4 to 6 litres of fertilizer. Hoe or spade the fertilizer in, blending well. If you "no dig" your garden, just spread it. Soil animals will eat it and mix it in for you. This amount provides a degree of fertility sufficient to grow carrots, beets, parsley, beans, peas, perhaps enough for leaf lettuce, and other 'low-demand' vegetables. Clay soil usually needs a generous six litres per 10 sq. metres for the first few years until it has become saturated with nutrients; then it'll need less to maintain itself. If using less-potent coprameal as the basis of your mixture, err on the side of being generous.

    Side dress: A few weeks after seedlings have come up, sprinkle small amounts of fertilizer around them, thinly covering the area that the root system will grow into over the next few weeks. As the plants grow, side dress every three or four weeks, placing each dusting further from the plants' centres. Each side dressing will take a bit more fertilizer than the last. As a rough guide on how much to use, side dress about four to six additional litres per ten square metres of bed, total, during a full crop cycle.

    Side dress anything you want to make grow FAST, like broccoli, tomatoes, capsicums, pumpkins, etc. If an application provokes no growth response, side dressing wasn't needed so do it no more.

    "Side dress anything you want to make grow FAST, like broccoli, tomatoes, capsicums, pumpkins."


    Once animal manures were about the only garden fertilizer, except where there were no flush toilets. Manure was the soil conditioner, the soil loosener, the increaser of soil moisture retentiveness, the source of the high levels of nutrients most sorts of vegetables demand. That method is so deeply set in peoples' awareness that I find it is hard to get people to consider anything else. But there are reasons to consider other methods than dependence on manures.

    A century ago soils generally were far less degraded than they are at present, so the manures produced by animals eating from those soils were more potent – were useful as fertilizer. These days, manure does not necessarily equal fertilizer.

    A century ago people had a far higher understanding of the differences among animal manures and they carefully chose a material whose properties suited their purpose. It was generally understood that there were two sorts of horse manure: "long" and "short." And there were a great many horses to make it – well-fed working horses that had to be in fit condition, not sickly hobby horses. There was cow, sheep, chicken, perhaps hog manure, too.


    Here's a brief rundown on these manures.

    Short horse manure is free of bedding of any kind. It is a reasonably potent substance if the horse has been properly fed. After careful composting with fresh garden vegetation, short horse will grow a pretty decent-looking garden, if used in large quantities. By proper feeding I mean not some sorry nag having to graze from a depleted paddock. I mean a horse eating top quality hay and fresh grass from a fertile field. The owners of that well-cared-for horse may also make sure it gets high-protein grain. It is possible to find high-quality horse manure these days, but most of what is offered the gardener these days is not that good.

    Long manure is horse manure plus the bedding in the horse's stall. In the old days that bedding was usually straw. "Long" has the advantage that the bedding soaks up urine, which contains about half the nutrients exiting the animal. It has the disadvantage of the bedding, which is very low in nitrogen. If long manure is to have much fertilizing effect it must first be thoroughly composted. Properly composted long manure makes a low-potency product that is quite useful for growing crops such as fodder turnips, Swedes, potatoes, beans, carrots and beetroot – these are often called low-demand vegetables.

    These days horses are usually bedded on sawdust, a far less valuable substance than straw. Sawdust takes forever to decompose and if very much of it is put in your garden without having fully decomposed, it will tie up the fertility of your soil for a year or more, actually worsening vegetable growth. To decompose sawdusty horse manure in a compost heap can take over a year and several turnings with thorough waterings to remoisten it. If the starting material was about as much sawdust as manure, make that two years to decompose. And if the starting material was mainly sawdust, make it three years. I have found that after thorough composting sawdusty horse manure is best used as a surface mulch under fruit trees and cane fruit. It is not fertilizer.

    "However, I urge you to regularly add only thin toppings of animal manure, or compost."

    Cow manure plus the bedding below those cows has about the same value as long horse manure. If the bedding is straw and the manure is thoroughly composted, it acts like weak fertilizer. If much unbroken-down sawdust is present, it acts like the reverse of fertilizer.

    I maintain my garden soil's organic matter with feedlot manure. At a price of under $25 per cubic metre delivered to me in loads of 7-8 metres, it is about the best value I know of available in northern Tasmania. This manure has little fertilizing value. Using enough to try to produce a strong fertilizing effect would thoroughly disorder my soil.

    Mushroom "compost" is cow poo plus bedding straw. It has been only partially decomposed by the mushroom spawn and if spread under trees or berry plants as a mulch, will grow them quite nicely. However, unless you can buy it in bulk for around $25/cubic metre instead of in plastic bags holding about 20 litres each for three dollars each (exceeding $100/cu metre), then I believe its cost greatly exceeds its benefits. It has slightly more fertilizing value than feedlot waste but not strong enough to grow really big vegetables, nor balanced enough to grow vegetables of high nutritional content. You might get a second crop of mushrooms however, adding to its value.

    Sheep manure is usually pure manure, in fertilizing value about like short horse manure. When purchased in bags for a few dollars each the cost may exceed the benefits.

    Poultry manure is very potent stuff, especially if nearly pure. Dynamic Lifter is an Australian product — pelletized chicken poo. Chicken manure is best regarded as a strong fertilizer, not as a soil building substance. If used exclusively the crops get more than enough fertility before the soil gets enough organic matter, so your garden's organic matter content may run down, the soil becoming ever lower on humus the more chicken manure you use. Pure fresh chicken poo can also be mixed with straw or garden waste and composted first. This is a better way to use it. Poultry manure, usually a form of seed waste, produces vegetables of higher nutritional content than does manure from ruminants, usually a form of leafy grass waste.


    Most forms of organic matter we can buy are not potent enough by themselves to grow a good garden. So I do not recommend using most manures as fertilizers. Manures and composts and organic industrial wastes are, however, a useful and necessary source of organic matter.

    Adding organic matter is one thing every garden demands, so long as it is not overdone. So I suggest that before sowing or transplanting you always spread a thin topping of compost, or well-rotted manure, or other processed plant waste (mint straw, poppy trash, etc), and rake it into the surface. This little bit maintains organic matter levels nicely. Working partially decomposed organic matter into the surface few centimetres won't disorder the entire soil ecology the way you can disorder it by deeply digging in larger quantities of it. That's because the surface is where there's lots of oxygen to encourage soil organisms. There, right on the surface, half-finished organic matter will be rapidly decomposed by worms and other small soil animals, and will gradually be transported deeper as the soil life moves about, excreting deeper down in digested form (decomposed) what they've eaten near the surface.

    "Before sowing or transplanting - always spread a thin topping of compost, manure, or processed plant waste, and rake it into the surface."

    Highly nutritious vegetables come only from soil containing enough organic matter. But the process of gardening usually causes a rapid loss of soil organic matter. It must be replaced on an ongoing basis. However, I urge you to regularly add only thin toppings of animal manure and/or compost and/or organic industrial waste. The reasons for this frugality have much to do with maximizing the nutritional content of your food.

    By a thin topping of decomposed organic matter I mean a layer only ½ to one cm thick. In a year or two that slight but repeated addition will cause your soil to fill with earthworms, your soil will retain more moisture and become looser and easier to work, your plants will be healthier and have fewer problems with insects or diseases. More than that small amount is not merely a waste – it is actually a harm, because too much will lower the nutritional content of your food. If that statement challenges your beliefs or understanding, I am sorry. But it is a true statement to the best of my knowledge. Proving it here would be beyond the scope of an inexpensive book.
    I refer this earnestly inquiring person to a website I create, Follow the links there to the Agricultural Library and in that library read all the materials by William Albrecht, Donald Hopkins and Sir Albert Howard.


    Besides bringing in feedlot waste I also make compost. After all one must dispose of old garden vegetation and kitchen garbage somehow. However, the entire output of organic waste from any vegie garden is not nearly enough, after composting, to cover the soil one half centimetre deep once a year. Not even enough to cover half the garden that deep.
    But if two additional volumes of horse, cow or sheep manure and about 5% soil by volume were mixed into the waste vegetation generated by a garden, and the mixture properly composted, that might be enough to make a half-centimetre layer once a year. And if the manure used, cow, horse or sheep, were of the highest possible quality and purity (no sawdust), and your climate offered HOT summers that cause organic matter to decompose rapidly and release its nutrients fast, then the compost you make with it might grow a fairly decent garden.
    However, I find it cheaper and far easier to buy a load of semi-decomposed industrial organic waste every year or two than to seek out and haul in fresh pure high-quality manure and make compost with it.

    And then I use COF, complete organic fertilizer, as described above. But there is no reason nor need to use chemical fertilizer!


    Read an earlier Garden Corner article:
    Why I grow a big vegie garden

    "There is no reason nor need to use chemical fertilizer!"

    Steve Solomon

    Natural Health & Energy
    INHS Hygienic Review

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