The Growing Importance of Creating Your Own Fertilizer

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We’ve all been watching prices climb at the grocery stores, and it’s only getting worse. There are issues at every level of food production and distribution. Certain kinds of mandates have made it more difficult for truckers to do their job. Meat processors had to add a variety of safety protocols and new jobs, such as “social distance monitors,” in their processing plants to slow down Covid outbreaks. The more overhead expenses the processors have, the more the costs of the actual product increase. And in between the megadrought and skyrocketing fertilizer prices, food is simply getting harder to produce. The ongoing fire at the fertilizer plant in North Carolina will not help. 

The Organic Prepper has long encouraged readers to learn as much as they can about producing food. Even apartment dwellers can usually produce something. If you are blessed with a yard, you can probably produce some of your own fertilizer, too, in the form of compost. 

Fertilizer is a gift

When I lived along the Gulf Coast, all I had to do to get high-quality compost was dump lawn and food scraps in a pile. I’d spray the pile with a hose several times a week if the weather was dry. A few times a year, I’d dig into the bottom of the pile and pull out beautiful black, crumbly compost for my garden. 

I can’t do that these days. I live on the High Plains. It’s really dry. We get snow in the springtime, and that’s about it. Fifty years ago, my area would have snow on the ground for much of the winter, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Here, to get compost, you need to water and turn religiously during the summer months. But we don’t have water during the summer months. Between the drought and the increased development in my area draining the reservoirs, my well is in a pretty sorry state by August and September. So far, I’ve had enough for my animals, garden, and household needs, but we really don’t have much extra. 

Water is vital to producing your own fertilizer

For the past couple of years, I have been trying to capture as much water as I can. Having more than one 55-gallon rain barrel is illegal in my area. So I’ll admit I have one 55-gallon rain barrel. Since it’s so dry here, even when it snows, it will often begin to melt the next day. For example, we might have two days of snow and then a week of 50/20 highs and lows. So we have freeze/thaw cycles every single day. 

Because I have things to do besides haul water, I hooked up a hose to the base of my rain barrel and ran it from the barrel to my garden. I mulch my garden heavily in the fall. When the ice in the barrel melts, it runs into my garden, soaking into the soiled wood chips, straw, leaves, kitchen scraps, etc. The mulch captures the water, and the water breaks the mulch down into organic soil particles faster than it would break down on its own.

Compost protects your land

An additional benefit of keeping my garden soil as wet as possible is that it is less likely to blow away. My area is so windy; oftentimes, during extended dry periods, you can see the wind ripping away exposed soil. I want to prevent as much of that as possible.

I also have a large compost pile, where I let my hot (nitrogen-rich) manure and soiled animal bedding break down before adding to my garden. I can’t water this enough to make it active during the summer. It just dries out; I dug into it this fall to see what had decomposed. The part closer to the top, which had had snowfall on it during the winter, had broken down into nice black garden-ready compost. But I had not reached down far enough when I had turned it the past few years and found dried out chunks of moldy hay that I’d put in three or four years ago.

Snow can help you produce your own fertilizer too!

So, this year, I made the composting area wider. It captures more snow now. I’ve also been better about mixing the snow into the compost periodically. Like in my garden, the soiled bedding captures more of the moisture. Very little moisture runs off; it stays in the compost area, and when it warms up, it will decompose more quickly. My goal has been to capture as much moisture as possible on my property by directing it into areas that will soak it up.

Snow has additional benefits for your garden and compost heap. It actually contains nitrogen, along with other elements. The old wives’ tale about snow being “poor man’s fertilizer” has been proven correct. Snow also contains a smaller amount of deuterium oxide, also known as heavy water. Heavy water slows down some of the chemical processes in plants; conversely, plants watered with melted snow have grown faster in trials. Capturing as much snow as you can will not only save money on water, it will also help fertilize. 

(Make sure you check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on canning what you harvest from your garden as well. Waste not, want not!)

Tips on “growing” your own compost/fertilizer

If you live in an arid environment but want to garden and are looking for inspiration, I can’t recommend Gary Paul Nabhan’s books strongly enough. I read Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land a few years ago, and it gave me a lot of ideas in terms of siting gardens and directing runoff. Mr. Nabhan gives many examples of cultures that have survived and thrived in desert environments, often using extremely low-tech methods of raising food. Raising food with limited water is not impossible, but it does require some planning. 

I have been describing big projects, but there’s no reason people with suburban lots can’t do something similar on a smaller scale. I had a nice yard when we lived in Houston, but it wasn’t particularly huge. We were still able to compost. Rain barrels can be expensive. I got mine from a friend who was moving to Florida. If you can’t afford a rain barrel, you might be able to afford gutter extenders, which are available at most hardware stores. You could use those to direct runoff from your roof into a compost heap. 

And what goes into your compost heap if you don’t have livestock? Yard and kitchen waste. Think before you bag: is it compostable?

A note about kitchen waste: Don’t put meat/dairy scraps in a pile in your yard. You will attract all sorts of unwanted visitors. When we lived in Texas, if I had a large number of shrimp shells that I didn’t want to toss in a landfill, I would bury them a few feet deep in my garden bed. Meat/dairy products can benefit your soil, but if you don’t manage them properly, your stray animal problem will make it not worthwhile. We buried them deep enough that rodents and cats couldn’t get them; we had a solid privacy fence that kept out stray dogs. We were able to make it work. You may or may not be in that situation, but it’s something to think about.

Things have changed

Many (not all) Americans have gotten used to life’s necessities being cheap and readily available. Many people have not had to think about where their food came from, where their garbage went, why everything worked when you flipped a switch or turned a faucet. That’s changing.

In a way, those of us that have fallen on hard times before are fortunate. Some of us have already spent a fair amount of time thinking, “How do I pay for this? Is there a way to make this cheaper?” A lot more people are heading into that territory.

Many people turned to gardening for a variety of reasons in 2020. If you are still fairly new to gardening, but have gotten discouraged, at water rates and fertilizer costs, don’t despair. Start looking around you. A truly shocking 30-40% of food in the United States is tossed into the trash. There are myriad reasons for this; look at your own food habits and ask where you are, relative to the average. I would never tell anyone to eat rotten food. But it doesn’t need to go into a landfill, either.

The same goes for yard waste. Most of it doesn’t need to go into a landfill. Yes, downed tree limbs are hard to deal with. However, you have options. For example, in my neighborhood, if a major storm knocks out a lot of trees, several neighbors will get together to rent a wood chipper. The $300/day price tag is a lot if you’re going it alone, but you have multiple friends that get together to rent it, it becomes a lot more affordable. Many of us use wood shavings for animal bedding, but it can also just be another good addition to the compost pile.

If you are able to start a compost heap, you might be able to get friends to pitch in. My friends and neighbors know that I keep pigs, and my pigs love scraps. My friends and neighbors love bacon. It’s a win-win. We’ve also talked a lot on the Organic Prepper about circles of friends and building community. If you have a couple of like-minded friends, a community compost/garden exchange may be a good project.

This is doable

The key to not only surviving but thriving is going to be avoiding waste. Look at everything as a potential resource. Yes, prices are going up, and yes, times may be getting hard. But people in the U.S. have gone through hard times before. If those of us who are honest and work with goodwill share ideas and communicate, we will get through it.

The Growing Importance of Creating Your Own Fertilizer
Joanna Miller

Joanna Miller

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  • “A few times a year, I’d dig into the bottom of the pile and pull out beautiful black, crumbly compost for my garden. I can’t do that these days. I live on the High Plain”
    Maybe you should think about moving to the Deep South. No water restrictions here. Basically no snow either. RED state too.

    • In the meantime, send the boys out to pee in the compost piles! Moisture and nutrients, plus will decompose faster. 🙂

      • Haha, I don’t need to send them out, they do it on their own 🙂 Didn’t put it in the article, though maybe I should have. . .

    • Thanks for the link! When we had plumbing problems, I used to tell my kids I was just going to ditch the toilet and build John Seymour’s “Thunderbox Loo.” I’ll have to check this out!

  • I didn’t know any of that snow info you shared–very interesting. We mostly get rain here & lots of it. A lot of people make their own liquid fertilizer also.

    I liked this statement from your article…very true: “If those of us who are honest and work with goodwill share ideas and communicate, we will get through it.”

  • It is hard to imagine a reason to restrict water saving barrels in a dry area . We usually have plenty of rain but I have found it more convenient to save our gallon milk jugs and keep filling them from my one barrel, and then use them to carry the water to the garden. Good weight lifting exercise too ! I can take 4 at a time if I position the handles together. (I’m 85) If you have a cow maybe someone can save them for you.

  • I have found that blended white paper is like white sugar to worms. I leave a blender out and toss in all my kitchen scraps add paper and then dish water. I pour the slurry in a bucket under the sink to later pour under pots and rocks in the yard. The worm population explodes and they transform clay into loam in a couple months… unless they become 🦆 food;). It is easy as long as I take the blended food out when I am going. This also keeps critters out of my compost and the whole process takes weeks and not months. Who knew that I could appreciate some of the junk mail!!?

  • Art Ludwig has a great book on using and constructing grey water systems, Create an Oasis with Grey Water. Grey water can be used to irrigate fruit trees, relieving some of the load on wells. Constructed bogs can clean grey water for other food irrigation uses as well.

  • Our property has an old outhouse we used for years prior to getting a septic system for our new house. The outhouse pit is full and needs clearing out. I considered calling a septic guy to suck it all out and take it away, but now think I can put it to better use by mixing it into the several hugelkultur mounds we have on site. Trick is, of course, to keep the animals out- my dogs love deer poop on a chilly morning, it’s like freezey pops for them.

  • In Arizona, back home, thank God!, we practice an old, American Indian version of hügelkultur. Instead of going up, as mountain people had to, we dig to get out the caliche (desert concrete/lime). Backfill is brush, logs, any organic matter even boxes and junk mail. Once topped with dirt, rake in a few inches of coffee ground from the restaurant. Water well, soak it down. As things decay, making humus, more dirt and organic matter (mulch and compost) is added. If this seems extreme, remember, this is the desert and plants will not root into lime even if dying of thirst. Humic acids should control any lime from water and help flush it.

  • Thanks for sharing this great information! I also live in the High Plains, and coming originally from CA, the weather is far different, so gardening is all about learning new ways to succeed. I had no idea about the snow tricks you shared here! There is at least a foot of snow covering my back yard right now, so instead of letting it melt away, I’m going to ‘convince’ hubby to go with me in the morning to clear it into large covered plastic trash cans (I don’t have a source for rain barrels…yet).
    I always learn so much when I visit your page. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, though, because I feel so ignorant here, and in daily life, I always thought I knew a lot more than most… You aren’t good for my ego, but you more than make up for it by raising my knowledge level, as well as making my garden and pantry much more efficient and impressive!

  • Instead of throwing things in a compost pile/ can we just throw everything into the garden and till it in the spring?
    New to this and learning!

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