There are a lot of different fertilizers out there and none are created equal. Both organic and inorganic fertilizers have benefits, but is one better than the other?
I have found that a lawn program that includes both organic fertilizer and inorganic fertilizer seems to work the best, but I tend to favor the organic. I like to start with a 65% organic, 35% synthetic ratio and increase the organic by 5 to 10% each year while decreasing the inorganic materials until I get to about a 85/15 split, but I want to go into more detail.
“Which type of fertilizer is best?” is a question that is debated all over the world and all over the Internet. I have read articles and research studies supporting both sides. If turf management is something that excites you, please do take the time to read the research. Right now, though, I’d like to come at the question from another angle.
Throughout my 20 years in the lawn care industry, I have managed thousands of properties and tested all kinds of programs, from fully-synthetic programs to fully-organic and everything in between. Informed by that practical experience, I’ve had the chance to form a few thoughts on the organic vs. inorganic debate based on what I’ve seen that works, and what I’ve seen that doesn’t.
Let’s take a look at the different types of fertilizer. When I refer to “organic” fertilizer, I’m talking about those derived directly from plant or animal sources such as manure, compost, and bone meal. Organic fertilizers usually contain many plant nutrients in low concentrations. Many of these nutrients have to be converted into other forms by soil bacteria and fungi before plants can use them so, they are typically released more slowly, especially during cold weather when soil microbes are not as active.
Despite the slower release, organic fertilizers have many advantages. With organic fertilizers, soil crusting is reduced. Organics may improve water movement into the soil and, in time, add structure to the soil. Organics feed beneficial microbes, thereby making the soil easier to work. Organic fertilizers may cost more than chemical or inorganic fertilizers because they are less concentrated, supplying fewer nutrients pound for pound.
Inorganic fertilizers, also called commercial or synthetic fertilizers, are characterized by the fact that they go through a manufacturing process before they are used. Examples of common inorganic fertilizers include ammonium sulfate and ammonium phosphate. People are often surprised to learn that many inorganic fertilizers actually come from naturally occurring mineral deposits. Inorganic, therefore, does not have to mean dangerous.
Inorganic fertilizers usually contain only a few nutrients – generally Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and some Sulfur, either singly or in combination. These nutrients are in a concentrated form, readily available to plants; however, since they are lost from the soil quickly, you may have to apply inorganic fertilizers several times during the growing season (unless you use a specially formulated, slow-release type). If you need only a certain element such as Nitrogen and want it to be quickly available to your plants, an inorganic fertilizer such as Ammonium Nitrate might be the perfect solution.
About 15 years ago when I lived back East, we ran programs that had no organic products in them at all. We mixed in the cheapest nitrogen food source, some weed control, and sprayed all day, every day. The lawn greened up fast and looked good...for about 4 weeks.
By the end of the season they would start to go yellow and were starving for the next feeding. The products did a great job at getting the color people want, and we were able to get properties to turn around quickly, but the programs did not have much long-lasting value.
Now, not every company does this. I know of some very good companies that run inorganic programs and add quality ingredients and micronutrients to their program. But, in my opinion, the best programs make use of organic fertilizers.
There has been so much development in organic fertilizers over the past ten years that there really is no reason not to use them. I have found that by building the soil with the right organic products you can slowly improve the overall health of the lawn, not just give it a quick fix.
My dream is to get to a place where I have one hundred percent organic solutions for all lawn problems. I believe that in the next ten years this will become possible, but we just are not there yet.
A major problem with a fully organic program is that the weed controls tend to be less consistently effective than synthetic weed control. In comparison to inorganic products, though, organic products are much more susceptible to problems from variables like weather, wind, and rain.
It is possible to make an organic program that will work. I believe I have found a good system to make them work, but it often means having to wait for a perfect window to use them which is very difficult with a full schedule.
When you use a fully organic program, you need to visit the property more often for weeds, which means more driving, which means more impact on the environment. A fully organic program can be done, but it can also be a hassle and does have some drawbacks.
One of the biggest obstacles to my dream becoming reality is the cost of organics. The product cost is, on average, about forty percent more for some weed controls. Unfortunately, the majority of that has to be passed down to the homeowner.
Many clients and homeowners cannot afford to have a fully organic lawn program, or can’t justify the price difference, especially when the organic route can take years to develop the lawn they’re looking for.
I have found by reducing the inorganic fertilizer drastically and increasing the organic inputs, you can cut down on products that have Nitrate rates by fifty to seventy-five percent, and still get that amazing green lawn.
It has taken me years to find that blend and I’m sorry, but I’m not about to give that away! But just know that it can be done. This gets great results and significantly decreases the impact on the environment as well as Nitrate runoff.
When you use a blend, you can get some of the benefits from the inorganic like longer lasting color and quicker greening, as well as some of the benefits from the organic like a healthier soil balance, less impact on environment, and less harm to beneficial insects and organisms. You can also do this while keeping the cost affordable for homeowners.
This is a win-win. My short-term goal is to get each lawn to an 85% Organic/ 15% Inorganic mix until the organic weed control price drops enough to make it affordable.
People may disagree with me on what the best fertilizer to use is, but this is what I have found through time, a whole lot of trial-and-error, and a great deal of experience. And it works really well here in Utah.
Many large companies are working on the organic weed control programs and I hope that as the demand rises, and more companies get on board with it, they will find more cost effective ways to produce organics. For now, though, a blended program is the way to go.