Each spring, right up until not so long ago, I used to buy a packet of Nitrophoska – not a large one, but just enough for a little sprinkle on each vege bed. I can't tell you why I did it because my gardens are so stuffed with seaweed, compost, and animal manure that there's not a lot of room for anything else. I suppose you could put it down to an unfounded anxiety that I wasn't giving my veges enough of what they needed, or perhaps it was simply that I'd grown up on a farm where the same fertilizer spread on the swede paddock got thrown onto the garden. The crazy thing is, I just didn't ever think to question what I was doing. Until, that is, I noticed my neighbour's brassicas were seriously better than my own, and found out that she was a 100% organic gardener.
It wasn't only that the heads on her broccoli were larger than mine, or that her cauliflowers were a lot fuller and more compact; her brassicas were just plain healthier. They sported greener, fleshier leaves with stronger ribs. They grew shorter, fatter stems. And they kept looking good for weeks. It was as if each plant's energy was slowly going into flower production rather than height. The only difference between my friend's garden and mine (we even used the same animal manure and similar amounts of seaweed), was that she wasn't using Nitrophoska – or any other chemical fertilizer.
I thought long and hard about that and decided to be brave enough to ditch the little blue pellets. It was scary (I even doubled the strength of my liquid animal manure to compensate) but you know what? Not only were my broccoli and caulis much larger and more compact, my cabbages 'held' much longer before they split and cracked.
I decided to read up on artificial manures to find out what was going on, and this is what I discovered: chemical fertilizers such as Nitrophoska are fast-acting. They give plants a kick start and feed them for up to three months. Then the food kind of runs out (at which stage I guess you're supposed to add some more to the soil). Yep, that sounded like my inorganic garden – all bang followed by a sudden petering out of energy and not much to show for it in the harvest department.
It's hard to admit you've been so wrong for so long, but I seriously believe that force feeding is not the way to go. Organic gardeners aren't just hippies, or faddists. They're not only interested in saving the planet or looking after their health. Like you and me, they are seriously into growing the best vegetables they can – and they know that going all-out organic is the way to do it.
I know we don't all have the time to load barrows of animal manure and seaweed onto our gardens and, in many cases, as we get older or busier, we don't always have the energy. But while palletised animal manures, liquid seaweed, and ground bone are available in garden centres, you don't have to compromise on convenience to go organic.
If you haven't already ditched the chemical fertilizers, I hope you'll give organic gardening a go. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pot!
PS: If you do decide to quit the chemicals, try aged pig manure as a substitute. I have it on the best authority that you won't find better fertilizer anywhere!