How to Apply Organic Fertilizers

How to Apply Organic Fertilizers and How Often?

It’s important to know how to apply fertilizer and how often so your prize winning garden doesn’t turn into a Nuclear Battlefield.

Things can go south pretty fast if you use the wrong fertilizer or apply too much.

How to Apply Compost or Composted Manure

Mix in Entire Soil Bed
A great way to apply compost or composted manure is to mix it with the existing soil. You till the soil and then dump the compost on top and mix thoroughly.

So how deep do you till the soil?

I recommend digging up or tilling about 12″+ of the existing soil. If it’s hard and compacted, you can use a claw hammer to break it up or soak it with water to soften it. Watering the soil makes it really easy to till. Just water the area with a hose, let it sit and then water more until you can dig up 12″ of soil. If it’s gets muddy, just let it sit until some of the water gets absorbed or evaporates.

I like to mix compost and soil in a 1/1 ratio. One part soil and one part compost. It really changes the soil drastically. This will provide fertilization for 8 months to 1 year plus provide a huge increase in water retention. You won’t have to water nearly as much.

Now for maintenance you can just apply more compost to the top of the soil until the growing season is over or cold weather kills the garden. When this happens, you can till the entire garden and re- compost it. This will prepare the garden for the next growing season.

Mix in Soil Around Plant Base

Applying compost around the plants is another popular method of fertilizing a garden. It is a more efficient way of fertilizing because the fertilizer is only applied in small amounts directly to the plants root line. Just dig up some of the soil around the plants and mix in the compost.

This method only puts fertilizer where it is needed and not over the entire garden bed. Fertilizing the entire bed could stimulate grass or weed growth. We don’t want that.

Mix in Soil in Rows Separating Plants

If you grow vegetables or flowers in rows then you might consider fertilizing in the area or rows in between the plants. Like farmers do when irrigating fields with water. The trench next to the row of plants gets watered.

Dig a trench a few inches away from the row of plants, several inches deep. Add some compost and mix well. This will provide fertilizer to the soil right next to the plants’ root line. Water will redistribute the nutrients to the plant roots. It’s a very simple method and works well. It’s much faster than fertilizing each plant individually.

This method also reduces the probability of weeds and grass being stimulated or encouraged to grow.

Layer on Top Of Soil Bed

This is the easiest way to apply fertilizer to a garden. Just spread a 2-3″ layer of an organic type fertilizer like compost over the top of the garden soil. It will fertilize for many months and decrease water evaporation tremendously. Your garden will stay moist and your plants will grow like crazy.

This method will provide fertilization for almost the entire growing season. I like low maintenance and this method is one I use regularly. This is also used in the No-Till gardening method where you just pile compost over the current soil and plant seeds. No digging, tilling or shoveling or backaches.

This is another version of a Raised Box Garden but without the Box. It’s a raised garden bed. I do this type of gardening.

Layer on Top of Soil Around Individual Plants

This is a more conservative approach to the above method. You minimize unneeded fertilization by only applying compost around the individual plants. Usually I spread compost in a 4-5″ perimeter ring around each plant depending on how large the plant is. A large tomato plant would need a 6-8″ ring of compost around its base or root line. This aligns the nutrients directly above the roots and is very effective. It can be a little time consuming if you have 50 plants. You might need to re-apply every 3-4 months.

Layer on Top Of Soil in Rows

This method is a cross between spot fertilizing and blanket fertilizing. It’s faster than spot fertilizing but does not use unnecessary amounts of fertilizer nor encourages excess weed or grass growth.

If you grow in rows, layer compost in between the rows of plants using a 2-3 inch layer. This will provide nutrients that will seep into the soil when watered. It will spread to the neighboring rows and fertilize the pants. It’s very effective.

Compost, worm castings and composted chicken manure works extremely well.

I would recommend adding compost every 3-4 months in order to maintain adequate food for growing and fruiting plants. It doesn’t take much time to do. I like this method.

How to Apply Mulch

Mulching is an awesome method of fertilization. Mulching is spreading a layer of organic material on top of the soil. The organic material can be grass, leaves, shredded tree trimmings, wood chips, compost or composted steer or cow manure.

Mulch does many beneficial things to soil and gardens. First off, it decomposed and releases nutrients into the soil like compost. It also decreases water evaporation, insulates the soil against heat and cold, modifies the soil texture and attracts earth worms, microbes, bacteria and nematodes. it is amazing stuff.

Apply a thick layer of mulch over the soil. I prefer 2-3 inches but you can go thicker than that. It won’t hurt anything. Mulch is the best seed starter. Plant seeds in the soil and cover with 1″ of grass mulch. The seeds will germinate every time, usually in 7-10 days.

Mulch will decompose over time and you will need to replenish it. Grass mulch will decompose quicker than compost or leaves. When you see the grass mulch getting thin, add another 2 inches. Grass mulch will last about 2 months depending on how thick you apply it. Compost mulch will last longer, around 4 months or so for a layer of 2″. It’s very easy to maintain mulch fertilizer and it works very well.

How to Apply Worm Castings

Worm Castings….I love this stuff!!! Worm castings are absolutely the best fertilizer, organic or non-organic. Nothing else can come close for slow release complete fertilization. OK, I got that out of the way. Now lets talk about how to apply it to a garden bed.

Worm castings are much more nutrient rich than any other organic fertilizer. Apply it very sparingly. A little goes a long way but more will not hurt. But since it’s rather expensive, $25/ small 12 lb bag, I use it only where the plants are growing.

I recommend sprinkling it on the soil and mixing. It will provide nutrition for months. You can also just sprinkle it on top of the soil and it will work as well. Use it in close proximity to the plants for the most efficient fertilization. One bag can go a long way. I only use worm castings around the root line of plants. I do not use it like mulch.

I use a tablespoon to measure or apply worm castings. When I apply it to my small Oak Tree, I apply 2 tablespoons every foot around the root line. I dig a small hole and dump it in and cover.

In the garden, I sprinkle worm castings around the vegetable plants and then water. It’s amazing how well plants do with it. I had watermelon plants growing so fast that they covered half of my backyard in a few months.

Why Do You Need to Fertilize Gardens?

Why do you need to fertilize gardens?

Any garden will run low on nutrients if you continue to grow plants without fertilizing. Plants need a steady supply of nutrients in order to grow and produce flowers and/or fruit.

Plants use nutrients in the soil such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium in order to grow, flower and reproduce. Eventually these nutrients will become scarce as the plants use them up, just like water. When plants use up the water in the soil, they will wilt and die unless you provide more water. The same goes for fertilizer. If you don’t maintain a steady supply of fertilizer [nutrients], plants will suffer and die.

Let’s talk about what organic fertilizers do.

Nutrients or Plant Food

Fertilizer provides the 3 main nutrients that support plant life. They are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium or Potash. These 3 will assure a healthy and productive plant. They are responsible for growth, root development, disease resistance, flowering and fruit production.When the soil runs low on any of these nutrients the plant will suffer and may die. Unless the soil naturally gets organic material deposited on it like fallen leaves, fertilizer will be needed periodically to maintain a healthy garden.

Organic fertilizers like compost and composted manures are slow release long term fertilizers. Non-organic or chemical fertilizers like 5-10-10 are short term fertilizers that dump all of its nutrients quickly.

If you want the absolute best fertilizer, use Worm Castings.

Water Retention

Some soils are good at water retention while others are not. Soils rich in organic material are great at water retention. Clay and sandy soils are not. They tend to dry out or let water run through too quickly.

Clay soils dry, crack and become rock hard. Water does not penetrate well and tends to run off. Once clay gets wet, it does hold on to water but a little too much. Then drainage becomes an issue. Adding compost or any organic material to a clay soil will improve its water retention/drainage characteristics. Organic material helps water penetrate the soil by creating air pockets which allows water to penetrate and drain. I recommend mixing half compost to half clay soil.

Sandy soils are the opposite of clays. Sandy soils do not retain water and drain too quickly. Organic fertilizer will increase water retention and slow down drainage. Plants will have more time to soak up water plus you will have to water less often. A good mixture is 50/50 compost to sandy soil.


Some soils like clay are tightly packed and do not have much space in the matrix. This causes some issues with plant roots. Air has a difficult time penetrating clay soils which is vital for bacteria, microbes and decomposition of any organic material. Aerobic activity in soil is beneficial and needed. Clay soils need organic material mixed in it in order to allow air in. It created gaps and spaces in the soil for water and air.

For proper aeration of tight matrix soils like clay, mix the soil 50/50 with a good organic compost or composted manure.

Enhance Texture

Texture refers to how the soil acts or it’s physical characteristics, for example…is it sandy or compacted or rocky. The proper texture will allow plant roots to grow easily into the soil. A poor texture can restrict root growth and stunt plant growth. Carrots need good soil texture especially but so do all plants. Texture also promotes water retention and aeration.

The perfect texture is soft and moist. When you dig in your garden, your should be able to dig into the soil by hand without difficulty. You shouldn’t need a hammer or screwdriver to dig a small hole. This texture is easily achieved by mixing your soil with compost in a ratio of 50/50 depending on how poor the soil texture is.

Insulate Soil Against Hot and Cold

Organic fertilizers like compost and mulch can insulate the soil from heat or cold if applied on the surface in a 1-2″ layer. Organic material does not absorb heat like soil does from sunlight. Soil heating is responsible for increased water evaporation. If you keep the soil cooler during the day, plants will have more time to take up water. And you will have to water less.

Organic material also can protect the soil and plant roots from the cold. It acts like a thermal blanket during cool nights. It acts as a barrier between the soil and the cold air. Compost is a great thermal regulator. Spread 1-2″ of compost on top of the soil to protect the soil and plant roots from heat or cold.

Soil Drainage

Soil drainage is critical for healthy plants. Most people do not know this and think it’s a bad thing. Why would I want water to drain out? Drainage prevents root rot. If plant roots sit in water for a long period of time, they will rot and the plant will eventually die.

Proper drainage allows water to pass through the soil slowly allowing roots to absorb water before it drains out. Sandy, gravel and organic material are drainage enhancers. Sand and/or gravel are great to place at the bottom of a raised box garden to promote good drainage. Fill the rest of the box garden with a good organic soil or compost. A simpler way to setup a raised box garden is to just fill it with a good organic soil or a 50/50 mix of yard soil and compost. Compost will promote good drainage by itself. The organic material creates spaces and holes in the soil matrix that allow water to pass through.

Attract Beneficial Insects

Believe it or not insects are generally beneficial to gardens and plants in general. Most people believe insects are harmful but most are not. Earth worms are the ultimate but they are not really insects. Worms are very desirable for garden and yards. They help decompose dead plant material, aerate the soil, fertilize the soil with castings and improve the soil texture by borrowing.

Worms are worth their weight in gold when introduced into the soil. Worm castings [worm waste] are the absolute best fertilizer known to man. It’s the perfect food for plants because it’s broken down by the worms’ digestive system in such a way as to be easily absorbed by plant roots. No other fertilizer comes even close. Worm castings also contain beneficial minerals, microbes and bacteria.

Ants can be helpful in the garden too. They will attack some of the harmful insects like aphids, grasshoppers, crickets and white flies.

Ladybugs are welcome in gardens because they eat harmful insects too. Attract them when you can.

Microbes, bacteria and nematodes are also attracted by organic fertilizers like compost and manures. They are beneficial for the soil and plants.They assist with breaking down of dead plant material

What are Non-Organic Fertilizers

Non-organic or chemical fertilizers are man made fertilizers. They are generally composed of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. These are 3 vital nutrients for plants. Non-organic fertilizers are label with 3 numbers that describe how much of each nutrient it has. For example 5-10-10 is a non-organic fertilizer with 5% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorus and 10% Potassium.

Non-organic fertilizers are used when you need nutrients to be available to plants quickly. These chemical fertilizers release the nutrients all at once or very quickly when watered. It can be very useful when you want a quick boost in growth or to save some plants from a deficiency before they die.

What Non-Organic Fertilizers Do

Non-organic or synthetic fertilizers contain Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium in specific percentages or ratios [5-10-10]. They release these 3 nutrients quickly into the soil when watered. These nutrients will provide everything a plant needs to grow, root, maintain a strong immune system, flower and produce fruit.

If the soil is not rich in organic material, synthetic fertilizers can make a garden lush and productive easily. You will need to apply fertilizer periodically to support continued growth and health.

Synthetic fertilizers do nothing for the soil or the soil ecosystem. They only provide vital nutrients for plants.


Organic fertilizers not only provide food for plant grow and health but also enhance/stimulate the entire soil ecosystem. For the healthiest and most productive garden, take care of the entire ecosystem.

Non-organic fertilizers are great for boosting growth or flowering when the soil has deficiencies. It’s inexpensive, easy to apply and works extremely well. It also works fast. You will see results in days unlike organic fertilizers which can take weeks to months for results.

How to Fertilize Soil Effectively [2020 update]

How to Fertilize Soil Effectively – gardens and grass [2020]

Fertilizing soil can be complicated. You have to figure out what fertilizer you need among the hundreds of types available. [5-10-10, 20-10-10, compost, steer manure, ammonium sulfate???]  It’s going to depend on the plants you are growing and the soil type/condition. I’ll help you make some of those decisions.

Fertilizers can turn your garden into a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables or your yard into a golf course putting green. Here’s how and what to use for fertilizer.

Soil Conditions

Plants generally prefer moist, soft soils with lots of organic material mixed in a well draining substrate. So, to simplify this, sand with 8-12″ of organic compost on top in theory is ideal. sandy soil and gravel are excellent for draining. If a soil does not drain well, plant roots can rot from too much water retention.

So, dig up some of your soil and see what it looks like. Is it dry and hard or moist, dark and soft? Or in between?

Generally speaking, it’s always a good idea to add an organic compost to the soil around plants and grass. It will revitalize the soil, add nutrients, modify the texture and increase water retention. Mixing compost with soil also increases aeration. All of these are great for plant life.

Compost does many great things to soil. However it is a slow fertilizer and works over the long haul. It doesn’t change plant growth or health overnight. For rapid fertilization, you may need a non-organic fertilizer like 5-10-10.

Some plants like strawberries prefer acidic soils. If your strawberry garden does not have acidic soil then you might have to add some Ammonium Phosphate 16-20-0 and a soil sulfur. The ideal pH is around 6.0 – 6.1.

A general all-purpose fertilizer would be something like 5-5-5. It’s a well balanced fertilizer. It comes in organic and non-organic flavors. It’s always best to select Organic.

Organic Fertilizers


Compost is the most popular organic fertilizer and is always a safe bet when in doubt what to use. It’s available at any nursery or home improvement store like Lowes and Home Depot.

Compost is decomposed plant material like leaves, grass, wood chips, pine needles and shrub clippings. It’s very easy to apply. Just mix it with the soil around your plants and then add a 2-3″ layer on top of the soil. You’re done for 6 months. It does not matter how much you use. You can never use too much and harm plants. Compost is ideal for vegetable gardens, trees, shrubs and flowers.

For grass, I recommend Composted Steer Manure. It’s finer and works better on a grass yard. Make sure you buy composted steer or composted cow manure. You don’t want raw manure.

Oak Tree + Composted Steer Manure

I have a small Oak tree in my front yard. For years it always had sparse foliage. It was never full of leaves. It kind of looked like the Charley Brown Christmas tree. I watered it regularly buy no change. One year I applied some steer manure compost to the root line. After about 6 months it took on a new life. It grew about 1 foot and is full of bright green leaves. It never looked better.

What a difference!

Spot Composting

Another method of fertilizing a garden or any area is to bury plant material in the soil. It’s better known as Spot Composting. I gather kitchen produce like cucumber ends, carrot peelings, old lettuce, tomatoes, etc and bury it in my backyard or in the garden. It will decompose slowly and condition the soil. It will also attract beneficial microbes, insects and worms. Just dig a hole and throw some veggies in it and cover it up. Done.

Mulch as a Compost

You can buy compost or you can make it yourself like I do. The simplest compost to make is grass clippings from your lawn. I layer the grass clippings 1 inch thick over my garden bed. It will decompose slowly, turn into compost and feed my vegetable plants. Grass mulch helps the soil retain moisture which will prevent the soil from getting dry and rock hard. You’ll use less water in your garden too. Mulch will help prevent weeds from growing in your yard without using herbicides.

Worm Castings

Another all purpose and completely safe organic fertilizer is Worm Castings or worm poop. Plants do extremely well with very little amounts of worm castings. Worm castings provide more nutrients than any compost or fertilizer like say…10-10-5 fertilizer.

Worm castings provide thoroughly broken down nutrients, beneficial bacteria, microbes and enzymes not found in any other fertilizer. It is the Perfect diet for all plants. Think of it as Baby Food for infants…easily digestible with a perfect balance of nutrients.

If you use worm castings, you can spread it around your plants in any amount you like. It will never harm your plants no matter how much you apply. You can use it on top of the soil or mix it in with the soil. Usually you can apply about a tablespoon of worm castings around in each plant in a vegetable garden or several tablespoons around trees and shrubs. A little goes a long way.

You can buy worm castings at some nurseries and home improvement stores or online. It’s usually $20 for a small 2 lb bag.

When to use a compost and when to use a non-organic fertilizer

Compost should be used every 6 months to a year as maintenance. It will continue to fertilize for many months after applying. Once you have healthy plants or grass, this is all you need to do.

If your garden or grass need attention quickly to prevent dying then you might need to use a non-organic fertilizer. Non-organic fertilizers are anything that is produced in a chemical factory like ammonium nitrate or urea or ammonium phosphate. Usually non-organic fertilizers only contain 3 elements,  NPK or Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium and are designated by three numbers aka 5-10-10. This is 5% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorus and 10% Potassium.

A non-organic fertilizer will release its nutrients quickly, like in hours to a few days. Changes can occur very fast but you need to be careful how much you apply. Too much non-organic fertilizer can burn or kill plants because it “dumps” the nutrients all at once. There is no “time release” to it. Always follow the directions on the fertilizer bag.

How to Apply Fertilizer

You can apply fertilizer to the top of the soil or mix it in the soil. Either way will work since water will pull the fertilizer down through the soil. If using compost, it is beneficial to mix it with the soil. It will help aerate and increase water retention of the soil.

Granular fertilizers, compost and worm castings are easy to spread by hand while liquid fertilizers need to be mixed with water and then sprayed on the soil.

When using any non-organic fertilizers, always follow the directions on the product bag. Too much can be harmful. I recommend using gloves when applying non-organic fertilizers.