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Homeyer: Manure for Christmas?

We had a little snow recently, so it’s starting to feel like winter. I relish winters for many reasons ­— cross country skiing, Nordic skating and snowshoeing among them. But I also love winter because it gives me a chance to slow down a little and sit near the woodstove with a good book. I like looking out on a snowy landscape and reflecting on what I do in the garden and asking myself what I might need to do differently. I grow my plants using all-natural methods and avoiding chemicals. Allow me to share my thoughts about why I do.

Ever since Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” in 1961, gardeners have been aware that applying pesticides to their vegetables might not be a good idea — not for the gardener, not for the environment. But many who avoid pesticides still use chemical fertilizers — even though there are better alternatives.

Mother Nature has been growing green plants for millions of years. Chemicals used as fertilizers or pesticides have been used for only about 100 years. Plants evolved along with soil bacteria, fungi, earthworms and a variety of other microorganisms that coexist within a mutually beneficial system. A single teaspoon of biologically active compost can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million filamentous fungi and a million protozoa.

Gardeners who use chemical fertilizers ignore the benefits of those soil critters, and opt for “feeding” the plant. Organic gardeners nurture the soil and the living things in it, allowing plants and microorganisms to work their wonders as Mother Nature intended.

Plants produce food by photosynthesis, and in good times, healthy plants make more food than they need. They give off some of their excess food, exuding it from their roots and onto their leaf surfaces. This is not wasteful. It’s sharing the food with other organisms that can help them, particularly beneficial fungi. Green plants attract beneficial fungi by sharing carbohydrates with them.

Fungi are better than green plants at extracting minerals from the soil. Neither green plants nor fungi can extract minerals from a grain of sand or a speck of clay. But fungi can produce acids that convert soil components into substances they can use and that are needed by green plants.

Fungi are attracted by the carbohydrates produced by green plants, and develop symbiotic relationships with them. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” arrangement. Does your soil have the necessary microorganisms to work with your plants? If not, you can now buy beneficial fungi to add to your soil — mycorrhizal soil fungi are now being sold and promoted to encourage health in woody plants. Soils in new housing developments or those that have been treated with chemicals may need some help.

The chemicals in a bag of 10-10-10 are not poisonous to you or your plants, they just don’t do much to improve the soil over the long term. Most are water soluble and can be washed away or used up quickly. Not only that, excess soluble fertilizer can inhibit some beneficial soil organisms. Too much nitrogen, for example, can induce nitrogen-fixing bacteria to go dormant.

Bagged organic fertilizers, on the other hand, are much better for your soil and plants than conventional chemical fertilizers. They contain things like seaweed, ground oyster shells, peanut hulls and naturally occurring minerals. They contain many of the micronutrients needed by plants — and missing in chemical fertilizer.

Organic fertilizers, in general, are slow-release fertilizers that provide nutrients over a much longer period than chemical fertilizers. And chemical fertilizers only provide three of the 16 chemical elements needed by green plants to grow and be healthy. It’s like giving plants white bread with marshmallow fluff — instead of a seven-course French meal.

Yes, a dose of liquid chemical fertilizer can force quick growth, but sometimes that’s not healthy. Scientists have found that excess nitrogen can build up in plants as amino acids. Since amino acids are the building blocks of protein, plants with an excess of them are very attractive to insects. Some pests will feed on over-fertilized plants while avoiding plants nurtured with organic methods. A healthy plant with well-balanced growth resists disease better than one with fast weak growth, too.

I feel that it’s important to understand that organic gardening isn’t just about avoiding negative consequences. Organic gardening actually presents many advantages if one understands how plants, microorganisms and soils interact. If you nurture your soil naturally, your gardens will flourish.

But what can you do now? You might even want to order a truckload of composted cow manure for a loved one as a holiday gift. It’s the one time when you’ll get hugs and kisses for giving your sweetie a lot of manure! Enjoy the holidays, but plan on sharing the good times with your soil and plants.

Read about Henry Homeyer’s new children’s book, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet,” at his website, www.henryhomeyer.com.