I sometimes hear garden experts say that organic fertilisers are not as high in nutrients as chemical fertilisers, so you have to use more of them. This is simply not true.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reported in February, 2009 that hundreds of studies have shown that “incrementally higher levels of fertilizer negatively impact the density of certain nutrients in harvested foodstuffs.” They also reported that the complex way in which nitrogen is absorbed in organic cultivation results in more efficient assimilation of the nutrient, allowing organically grown plants more energy to produce antioxidants, and the formation of less nitrates. Nitrates in food can form carcinogenic nitrosamines in the digestive tract.
Excess use of nitrogen fertilisers (including uncomposted manures and manure teas) promotes bursts of soft, sappy growth that is much loved by chewing and sap-sucking garden pests. Overuse of a particular nutrient can block the absorption of other nutrients. Nitrogen and phosphorus compete for absorption. Overuse of chemical nitrogen fertilisers can also result in deficiency of the less mobile phosphorus.
Organic fertilisers don’t need to be as high in nutrients. Organic fertilisers made from a variety of recycled organic matter will contain a full range of major nutrients and trace elements. Organic fertilisers in the form of compost, castings from worm farms, animal manures, leaf mould, and broken down green manure crops and organic mulch add humus to soil, but chemical fertilisers do not.
Humus, the most stable form of organic matter, consists of electrically charged particles called ions. Nutrient elements also carry a weak electrical charge. Humus has a large surface area and many charged sites to hold nutrient elements through electrostatic force where they are easily accessible to plants, and regulate their absorption so that nutrients are not absorbed by plants in toxic quantities. Humus also provides a habitat for a group of beneficial fungi that assist nutrition in a wide range of perennial plant families. Some chemical fertilisers, such as superphosphate, suppress the activity of these fungi and other beneficial soil organisms.
Although clay particles in soil also carry an electrical charge and are capable of holding some nutrients, without humus in soil, phosphorus can become locked up with iron, manganese or aluminium, and unavailable to plants, and nitrogen and sulphur can leach from soil.
A suitable soil pH plays an important role in efficient absorption of a full range of nutrients. Adding extra fertiliser when soil is too acid or alkaline for particular species of plants will not help their growth. Humus in soil assists in maintaining a suitable pH. See:Changing soil pH
Although we tend to worry about plants getting enough fertiliser, fertiliser plays a relatively small, but essential, part in plant growth. The major contributors to plant energy are water and carbon dioxide. In the presence of sunlight, the green parts of plants can convert these into carbohydrates, which form the cell structure of plants. You could say, in fact, that plants are solar powered.