Get that Fertilizer Monkey off Your Back!

I recently attended a Soil Food Web Workshop taught by Dr. Elaine Ingham and to pharaphrase Dr. Ingham:

There is no sand, silt, or clay on this planet that doesn't have the nutrients that your plant needs to grow.

Folks, I understand that it can be difficult to accept, so let me repeat it:

There is no sand, silt, or clay on this planet that doesn't have the nutrients that your plant needs to grow.

So, why do nurseries carry so many fertilizers in bags and bottles? Why do gardeners and  landscapers recommend fertilizers? Why do so many of us have boxes or shelves with fertilizers?

Let’s go back in time for just a moment.

Please forgive this extreme oversimplification if you familiar with all the ins and outs the history of fertilizer use, the mechanization of farm work, the drive to lower food costs, farm consolidation, and the soil food web.

We have to purposefully restore the beneficial biology that has been lost…learn how to return health to soil, and therefore, to the food you eat.
— Dr. Elaine Ingham, Foreward in Teaming with Microbes

With an inexpensive microscope and a little attention to morphology you can assess your soil's health!

Once upon a time, we tilled by hand, sowed seed, and harvested once a year. It was very hard work. The tractors arrived and made the work faster and easier so we tilled more often. Fancy fertilizers in bags arrived! The plants grew big and lush, so we applied more fertilizers and tilled more frequently and deeply. We didn’t know how or why the fertilizers worked, perhaps soil is an inert medium and in order for the crops to grow we needed to add fertilizers. We didn't understand what the tillage and fertilizers were doing to the soil.

Over the last hundred years or so tractors destroyed the soil food web and we have become addicted to the routine of applying fertilizers.

We understand now that it’s the microbes in soil that are vital to our plants’ health above and below ground. It's the soil food web! We continue, however, to bypass the microbes by applying fast foods and quick solutions—the fertilizers plus herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides.

Think about it. Forests flourish without bagged fertilizers! Meadows flourish without bagged fertilizers! Rainforests flourish without bagged fertilizers! Damn, that vacant lot seems to move along fine without us or fertilizers!

But we can fix our garden and farm problems! It's the soil.

If the biology is right, then you don't need fertilizers or herbicides or pesticides or fungicides. No more trips to the nursery in order to enjoy lush growth and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Kiss most disease and pests, goodbye. You may need to purchase initial inputs, such as worms for a worm bin, compost tea from a reputable source, mulch, or build a compost bin or two, but after a few initial inputs, you can rely on your own compost building skills.

Compost and mulch are your garden allies.

To apply compost or mulch, we don't need to wait for the wind to die down or early morning or late evening. We don’t have to wear a dust mask and gloves, send the dog inside, shield hen house, or protect the goat enclosure.

We can apply compost and mulch whenever needed!

So, as we all head out to our gardens, let us consider building a quality compost pile, starting a worm bin, or purchasing/making a quality compost tea.

We can fix the soil and feed the soil food web under our feet that we rely on for our very existence.


  • Mary Appelhof (1997). Worms Eat My Garbage. Flowerfield Enterprises, LLC. ISBN: 9780977804511.
  • Soil and Water Conservation Society—Dr. Elaine Ingham is the author of six of the eight chapters (2000). Soil Biology Primer. Soil and Water Conservation Society.
  • Jeff Lowenfels (2010).  Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. Timber Press, Inc. ISBN: 9781604691139
  • Carole Ann Rollins and Elaine Ingham (2011). 10 Steps to Gardening with Nature: Using Sustainable Methods to Replicate Mother Nature. Gardening with Nature. ISBN: 0979756146.
  • Nature’s Solution. Soil food web supporting products including compost tea and mycorrhizae.