Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • January 2014
Written by  Valerie Dantoin Adamski

Planning an organic garden? — Local farmers offer fertilizer tips

In my Organic Soils, Nutrients and Composting course, students learn a great deal about the physical, chemical and biological qualities of healthy soils. When we explore organic fertilizers, I like to take into account that many adult learners already have some experience with fertilizers. So, I ask them to share what they know, and their “real life lessons” become the springboard for discussions about favorite fertilizers — why they like them, or why they tried one and moved on to something else.

If you use or have an interest in using organic fertilizers, you may enjoy — and even learn something from — these excerpts from our discussions:

“I personally have seen benefits from poultry manure/litter on the farm. Plants seem to be healthier and more full of life … It lacks the amount of nitrogen compared to fish meal, but is still better than most other manures. If possible, I would also use chicken manure that was not fed GMOs.”

One student who works at an organic certifying agency said agency clients commonly use composted poultry manure. Agency employees all used manure of some kind on their farms. This student clarified:

“It must come from on-farm sources to work toward a closed-loop fertility system — which is key.”

“I have to say that any organically fed animal’s manure or, for that matter, organically managed green manure (plant material) would be my favorite, most practical, most cost-efficient way to replenish my soil’s nitrogen needs — and with a mix of chicken manure and a slight boost of phosphorus to boot … To me, the easiest way to control the organic aspect of your nitrogen source is by utilizing the stuff made right there in your presence. Granted, there are the hassles of dealing with gathering, distributing and storing until you can safely add it.”

Some ideas were more unexpected:

“Kelp! I fell in love with kelp and sea grass as a mulch or fertilizer in New Zealand. I’d be out in the gardens weeding and the stuff would just glisten in the sun like tinsel on the Christmas tree. So kelp wins for nostalgic reasons.”

“Worm castings are black gold! Their use was first introduced this spring on our farm. Farmer Dale went on quite the inspirational rant, quoting and praising Will Allen of Growing Power, who swears by this worm bile/poop. I experimented with two raised beds. One amended with love and a blend of castings and compost; the other solely with love. The compilation greatly exceeded that of my singular good intentions. Though I’d like to add, things still grew — and with significantly fewer weeds — in bed number two.”

“I am on the same wavelength: raise the worms like any other animal on your farm and collect their ‘goodness’ to use on the plots.”

Of course, not all “natural” products are organic:

“One of the fertilizers I used in the past … contains bat guano, Chilean sea bird guano, Norwegian sea kelp, natural sulfate of potash, steamed bone meal, oat bran and rock phosphate. It worked really well. The plants seemed to flower a lot more, but like I said, it was not certified, so I will be looking for new fertilizers in the future … It was $35.50 for a one-gallon bottle of concentrate.”

“I have been a fan of the fish emulsion and have used it throughout the growing season. I thought I was using an organic source, but it turns out the brand I was using was not OMRI-certified. This was most likely due to the fact that it had four percent phosphoric acid in it. No wonder I never considered it to be too stinky, as this is the ingredient added to tame the horrible smell. I’ll definitely be changing my brand.”

Fish fertilizer was particularly educational this year. One student lost seedlings due to the long, cold, wet spring and tried a fish fertilizer recommended by a local seed company:

“Well ... it worked nicely enough. I started the third attempt of seedlings indoors, but the smell really upset my wife and kids. It was official — no more farming in the house!”

Valerie Dantoin Adamski, organic-sustainable agriculture and food educator at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s degree in agronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband own Full Circle Farm in Seymour and have been sustainably grazing a 75-cow dairy herd for 20 years. Valerie can be reached at 920-498-5568. For more information about NWTC’s organic and sustainable farming program, visit

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