How to Make Your Own Fertilizer

How to make your own fertilizerA few weekends ago, I discovered my supply of garden fertilizer was depleted - and so was my
pocketbook. Which got me thinking about how I could do more in the way of creating my own fertilizer for free, or next to it. Care to save some money, too?

First, the Small Print
There is only one organic, homemade fertilizer (with no store bought ingredients) that I'm aware of that's balanced - that is, that has equal (or nearly equal amounts) of the three basic components of fertilizer: N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorous-potash). In addition, you should be aware that homemade fertilizer, unlike store bought, can vary greatly in it's nutrients.

Compost turns trash into treasure. By tossing your
plant-based household scraps into a pile, you eventually get nutrient-rich fertilizer that looks like dirt. Anyone can do this. It's a crying shame not to. (To learn more about composting, see my how-to post, here.) Compost is great for adding to the soil before planting, or for sidedressing (placing fertilizer along the sides of plants), or for using like a mulch. Compost also does a superb job of attracting beneficial worms to the soil while helping to support excellent soil structure. It has its limitations, though. What sort of nutrients it contains depends upon what you put into the compost. This is why people who grow all their own fruits and vegetables either need to add outside material to their compost pile or purchase additional amendments for their soil.
Finished compost.

Compost Tea
This is as simple as taking a handful or two of fully composted material and placing it in a sack or pillowcase. Toss this in a bucket of water and let it steep for 2 weeks. Remove the composted material and dilute the liquid in a 3:1 ratio with water before using as a foliar spray.

Boys adding aged horse manure to a garden, c. 1940.
Not all manures are suitable for gardening, but cow, horse, rabbit, and chicken manure are all good choices. Horse manure is considered the gold standard for gardening, but like most manures, must be aged first. Let it sit for a year before using it, then dig it into the soil a few weeks before planting. Aged cow manure is often considered next best; use it just like horse manure. Rabbit manure is unusual in that it can go into the garden without aging first. Chicken manure should age six months to a year, depending upon who you talk to. I believe the difference in answers is really based not on the manure itself, but the bedding material found in it. I have read that chicken manure mixed with straw decomposes fastest - in about 6 months. If you use heavier bedding material, like wood shavings, it needs longer - about a year - to fully decompose. Nonetheless, because manure that isn't well aged can literally burn your plants to death, it's best to err on the side of over-aging.

Also, do remember manure is high in salts, which can make the soil toxic to plants, so use it no more than every year or every other year. Don't have your own critters to make manure? Ask around. Some ranchers and farmers are glad to give away the stuff, if you'll haul it away.

Manure Tea
Use only well aged manure. Put a shovel full into a sack or pillowcase, place this inside a 5 gallon bucket, and cover with water. Allow to steep for 2 weeks. Use the liquid in a 5:1 ratio with water.

Seaweed makes a high nitrogen fertilizer.
Fish or Seaweed Fertilizer
Both fish and seaweed are high in nitrogen, making them popular fertilizers at the beginning of the growing season. To make your own seaweed fertilizer, fill a 5 gallon bucket 1/5th full of seaweed, then add water. Cover and let steep for 3 days. Before applying to the garden, dilute with water in a 1:1 ratio. To make fish fertilizer, drop chopped fish scraps into blender to pulverize. Now place this in a 5 gallon bucket, filling it about halfway; add shredded newspaper, chopped dry brown leaves, or sawdust to the bucket, filling it within an inch of the top. (The added materials speed the decay process.) If desired, you may add a jar of molasses (which increase the aerobic bacteria activity and will make the smell of the rotting fish less noticeable) and some Epsom salts (which add sulfur and magnesium, often found in commercially sold fish fertilizer). Shake the bucket daily for two weeks, keeping it in a sunny location. After two weeks, dilute in a 1:1 ratio with water and use as a foliar fertilizer.

It's true. Human urine has been used as fertilizer for a long, long time. Many gardeners feel the best time to collect this urine is first thing in the morning - and that it should be used before it begins to smell like amonia. Dilute with water in a 20:1 ratio.

Comfrey leaves create a balanced fertilizer.
Comfrey (or Nettle)
Comfrey is a little known herb in the United States, but is frequently grown and used in England. It gets to be about 36 inches high, loves full sun but tolerates shade, and will spread like the Dickens unless you grow the Russian Bocking14 variety (Symphytum uplandicum). This plant creates a balanced liquid fertilizer. (Comfrey can also be used externally as medicine, can be fed to chickens, and attracts bees, so it's a very useful plant to have in your garden.)

Most experts recommend not cutting any leaves off comfrey in it's first year, while cutting off all blooms. This encourages strong root growth. After the first year, however, you can harvest leaves from the plant about 5 times a year, up through the fall.

If you have access to plenty of perennial stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), you may use it, instead. It will provide a liquid fertilizer that's almost as balanced.

There are several ways to make comfrey fertilizer, but the easiest I've seen is described in Dick and James Strawbridges' Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century: Drill holes in the bottom of a plastic container with a lid (such as a bucket, drum, or rain barrel). Place bricks, cinder blocks, or pieces of wood on the ground in a U-shape. In the center of the U, place a watering can; it will collect the liquid fertilizer. Pack comfrey (or nettle) leaves into the container with a lid; weigh them down with bricks or other heavy objects. (Some people like to put the leaves in a sack or pillowcase first, which helps prevent the holes from getting clogged.) After 10 days or so, the watering can will start filling with black liquid. A 10 gallon lidded container will produce about 4 to 6 pints of liquid fertilizer. Store the fertilizer in a lidded jar in a cool location, but don't let it ferment. Dilute the liquid 1:15 with water and use as a foliar spray. Place the used leaves in the compost pile.

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