Home made garden fertilizer – the real deal

Environmental Notes  

Jim Persoon
Oakdale Environmental Management Commission    

After the snow finally melted, I decided the lawn needed its first mowing. I dragged the mower out of the garage and spent almost an hour getting it cleaned up and started for another season. I remembered that last fall it had been acting cantankerous – running a little rough and leaking a little oil. It was obviously getting tired, but I had convinced myself that maybe a long winter’s rest would solve any problems.

No such luck. After mowing only half the lawn, the old problems returned. Somehow I nursed it through the rest of the lawn and then examined it more closely, trying to determine the source of the oil leak and the reason it was running a little rough. It quickly became obvious to me (and I admit I am a mechanically challenged person) that repairs would easily cost nearly as much as a new mower.

So it was off to the nearest big box garden store to buy a new mower. While I was there, I thought I would pick up a bag or two of lawn fertilizer – something I would definitely need so I could grow longer, healthier grass and therefore spend even more time mowing the grass – a job I really hate. Go figure.

In spite of my love-hate relationship with mowing, I wanted to get the best buy on fertilizer. So I fought all of my male instincts to just grab the first bag I saw and instead looked around at the various options.
I immediately noticed one basic difference in fertilizers for lawns versus those for gardens. You know how all fertilizers have a three number recipe on the label to tell you their chemical contents? Well, I noticed that lawn fertilizers have a zero for the middle number. That middle number indicates the amount of phosphate in the fertilizer, and so a zero means that lawn fertilizers have no phosphate in them.

Garden fertilizers have a second number that is usually a ten for the phosphate content.

Why is that? I know that Minnesota law prohibits lawn fertilizers from having any phosphate, which is the reason for that zero on the middle number. This is intended as a way to protect water quality. So why was that not true for garden fertilizers? And just as important, are there natural ways to fertilize gardens that eliminate use of phosphates?

Those questions brought me back to my earliest memories of gardening. As a child back in the 1950s, I remember visiting my grandparents’ home during the summer. One of my chores was to take the coffee grounds from breakfast and bury them in the garden between the rows of tomatoes, beans and radishes. At the time, I thought it was just a way to get me out of the kitchen so my mother and her mother could clean up without me in the way. 

But after some recent research on the topic of homemade garden fertilizers, I have found out that coffee grounds are good for the garden. And so are egg shells and banana peels. I also found that homemade garden fertilizers can range from the simple to what I consider the disgusting (manure tea). I decided to stay with the simplest ones. These include egg shells, which provide a rich source of potassium and calcium. Just crush dried egg shells into a powder and spread them around your flowers and fruit and vegetable plants. This is easy – especially for kids who love to grow things.

You can also make a mixture of banana peels, egg shells, milk and coffee grounds into a liquid fertilizer. Collect the banana peels and egg shells in a gallon sized re-sealable bag. After the bag is full, place this mixture in a blender with a small amount of whole milk and some coffee grounds. Blend until the mixture looks like a lumpy milk shake. Then, just pour it around the plants in the garden. As noted above, the egg shells and milk add calcium. The coffee grounds add nitrogen and the banana peels add potassium. So it’s all good – your plants will love it and you won’t need to use any potentially harmful chemicals.

This could be fun for you, and I know it will be for me. This type of natural fertilizer is going to be in my wheel house since I love bananas and hard boiled eggs. And I have always been a milk drinker, my father having grown up on a dairy farm. The tough part is going to be the coffee grounds, since I don’t drink coffee – seeing my mother re-heat and drink three-day-old coffee as a child tainted me for life on that subject. I’ll just have to ask her to save me her grounds!

Happy gardening!

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