Why Is Fertilizer So Expensive? 10 Cheaper Alternatives

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According to the US Department of Agriculture, the prices of fertilizers increased sharply in 2021. However, the price hike is a synergistic effect of several factors. In an interconnected world, it is interesting to note that myriad developments in different corners of the globe have led to skyrocketing fertilizer prices.

Fertilizer is so expensive because the price of natural gas, used to make fertilizers, has increased in the UK and continental Europe. Power outages in plants and the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns in China, one of the largest exporters of fertilizers in the world, have reduced supplies. 

Fertilizer prices are not likely to decrease any time soon. In this article, I will provide you with a list of 10 cheaper alternatives to fertilizers that will reduce farming costs without compromising yield. These alternatives are organic, and they are readily available in garden centers.  

10 Cheaper Alternatives to Fertilizer

There is an increase in the demand for fertilizers. However, production cannot be ramped up quickly to meet rising demand.

Fertilizer production is expensive, and a plant cannot be constructed overnight. For instance, it takes several years and billions of dollars to build a nitrogen fertilizer plant. Phosphorus and potash are mined using specialized and complex mining equipment, making extraction expensive.

So, fertilizer prices are not likely to come down very quickly. If fertilizer prices are hurting your bottom line, consider some cheaper alternatives.

Depending on your farming goals, plant requirements, and soil conditions, you can use one or more of the following cheaper fertilizer alternatives. These natural alternatives can completely replace synthetic fertilizers and provide comparable yields when used correctly. 

1. Compost

Compost is a plant-based fertilizer made from kitchen waste, yard trimmings, dried leaves, and grass clippings. It is a balanced fertilizer with an average N-P-K ratio of 2-1-1 and several micronutrients that support plant growth and health.

Compost not only feeds your plants but also provides the following additional benefits to the soil:

  • It increases organic matter in the soil.
  • It feeds the beneficial microbes in the soil that, in turn, help plants grow.
  • It makes the soil light and well-aerated so that plant roots can grow unobstructed. 
  • It makes the soil porous and increases its water-retention capacity.

Making your own compost helps the environment by keeping waste out of landfills. Keep the following in mind when preparing and using compost:

  • Do not put infected plant clippings in the compost bin. Some pathogens might survive the composting process if temperatures inside the compost bin do not get high enough. 
  • Do not use unfinished compost in your yard.
  • Finished compost is crumbly and has an earthy texture. It is not smelly. 
  • Do not use compost that smells like ammonia. Let it decompose till the smell disappears.
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2. Composted Manure

Composted manure is a complete, balanced fertilizer. However, its exact nutrient content depends on its age, source, and the presence and amount of bedding materials in it. 

Cattle and horse manures usually have an average N-P-K ratio of 1-0.5-0.5. Poultry manure has a higher nitrogen concentration with an average N-P-K ratio of 3-1-1. Besides containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, animal manure also contains several micronutrients needed by plants. 

The nutrients in manure are released into the soil slowly. Usually, only half the total nitrogen is available to the plants in the first year of application. It can take several years for the manure to break down entirely in the soil. 

Garden centers sell finished composted manure. However, if you have animals, you can make your own. Here’s what you should keep in mind while preparing and using manure:

  • Use manure only from herbivorous animals. Do not use dog and cat feces.
  • Do not apply fresh manure directly to plant roots. The high nitrogen content of animal manure will burn the roots. 
  • Use manure that is a minimum of 180 days old. Preferably, use only fully composted manure. 
  • Keep in mind that you may have to use more manure or supplement it with other fertilizers to promote plant growth because all the nutrients in manure are not immediately available to plants.

3. Bone Meal

Bone meal contains animal bones obtained from slaughtered animals, which are steamed and pulverized to prepare the final product. It has high phosphorus content and a significant amount of calcium.

However, keep in mind that the phosphorus in bone meal becomes available to the plants after a few months from application. Phosphorus is essential for strong root development and flowering, so you have to time the application of bone meal to ensure that your plants receive the phosphorus when they need it the most. 

Phosphorus is most available to plants when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.0. Do a soil test and adjust the pH accordingly. 

The Espoma BM10 Organic Bone Meal, available on Amazon.com or here at Walmart, is a pure product with no additives or fillers. It has an N-P-K ratio of 4-12-0 and is an all-natural source of phosphorus and nitrogen.

4. Blood Meal

Blood meal is a by-product of animal slaughtering and has a high nitrogen concentration with an N-P-K ratio of about 12-0-0. 

Blood meal stimulates green growth in plants and makes them lush. It also makes the soil acidic, so it is ideal for fertilizing acidity-loving plants like blueberries, camellias, and azaleas. You can also use blood meal when you want to grow blue hydrangeas.

However, you must use blood meal cautiously. Too much nitrogen in the soil can burn plant roots and deter fruiting and flowering. 

The Down To Earth Blood Meal (link to Amazon.com, or also available on Growgreenmi.com here) Fertilizer Mix is high in nitrogen and is ideal for heavy feeders like corn, broccoli, and leafy green vegetables. 

This product is listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). You can use it if you produce for the organic market and have to adhere to stringent farming guidelines. 

5. Cottonseed Meal

Cottonseed meal is a by-product of cotton production, and it has a high nitrogen content of about 7%. It contains potash, phosphorus, and several micronutrients. The following are the benefits of using cottonseed meal in your garden or farm:

  • It is a slow-release fertilizer that feeds your plant throughout the growing period. Because it releases its nutrients slowly, there is no danger of foliage and root burn or runoff into nearby water bodies. 
  • It promotes lush green growth, vibrant blooms, and increased crop yields. 
  • It has a high concentration of organic matter that improves the drainage of bulky and compact soils.
  • It makes the soil light and well-aerated and encourages root development.

6. Fish Emulsion 

Fish emulsions are made from partly decomposed and pulverized fish, and they stink. However, the smell disappears after some time. 

This has an average N-P-K ratio of 4-1-1 and contains several trace elements like calcium, magnesium, chlorine, and sulfur. It is a fast-acting fertilizer that you can use as a foliar spray or soil drench. 

It has a high concentration of nitrogen and is excellent for leafy greens, but you must use it cautiously because excess nitrogen can cause root burn. 

You can also add fish emulsion to your compost pile to speed up the decomposition process. 

The Liquinox 7128 Fish Emulsion, available on Amazon.com or here on Walmart.com, is a formula made from seagoing fish. Besides its high nitrogen concentration, it also contains iron, manganese, and zinc to boost plant health and promote vigorous growth.  

7. Alfalfa Meal

Alfalfa meal is a livestock feed that can also be used as an organic fertilizer for plants, and it is an excellent fertilizer for blooming plants and perennial shrubs. 

The following are the benefits of using alfalfa meal for your plants:

  • It contains a high amount of nitrogen needed to promote green growth.
  • It contains several essential trace elements like magnesium and iron that plants need to maintain health, growth, and vigor. 
  • It contains a growth stimulant called triacontanol that promotes root and shoot development in young plants. You can use alfalfa meal to give your plants a headstart in life. 
  • Alfalfa meal breaks down quickly and improves the texture of the soil.
  • It improves the water-retention capacity of soils. 

Many large garden centers stock alfalfa meals. However, you can source them cheaper from animal stores than stock feed. If you live in a rural region, your local all-purpose animal supply store will likely have alfalfa meals.

8. Bat Guano

Bat guano or bat dung is an excellent fertilizer and soil conditioner, and it acts as a natural fungicide. It can have high nitrogen or high phosphorus content. The difference arises due to the method of processing. 

It is believed that the guano derived from bats that feed only on insects is high in nitrogen, while that derived from bats that feed on fruits is high in phosphorus.

Usually, bat guano that is high in nitrogen has an N-P-K ratio of 10-3-1 and is ideal for green leafy vegetables and foliage plants. You can also use this nitrogen-rich fertilizer as a compost accelerator to speed up decomposition in your compost pile.

The Down To Earth Bat Guano Fertilizer Mix, available on Amazon.com or here on Walmart.com, has high nitrogen content. A third of the nitrogen in this mix is water-soluble, making this fertilizer fast-acting. It promotes early fruiting and flowering and is ideal for early and mid-season applications. 

Bat guano high in phosphorus has an average N-P-K ratio of 3-10-1, and it promotes root development while encouraging budding and blooming. 

The Roots Organics ROPR9 Bat Guano on Amazon.com or here on Walmart.com is a fast-acting and potent natural fertilizer abundant in phosphorus and calcium. It has been carefully extracted from caves to prevent disturbing the bat colonies or harming the bats. 

9. Liquid Kelp

Liquid kelp fertilizer is obtained from seaweed and can benefit plants at all stages of their life. It contains an abundance of minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. 

The following are the benefits of liquid kelp:

  • Soaking seeds in liquid kelp before sowing reduces transplant shock in young seedlings, promotes vigorous root development, and improves the survival rate of the transplants.
  • It promotes faster rooting in cuttings.
  • It increases budding if applied just when the plants begin to form buds.
  • Fruits exhibit increased sweetness when the trees are fertilized with liquid kelp.
  • Vegetables grow larger when the plants are fertilized with liquid kelp.
  • It increases flowering.
  • Regular application makes plants resilient to diseases.
  • It enhances the capability of plants to draw nutrients from the soil. Applying liquid kelp increases the efficiency of other fertilizers. 
  • It keeps fruits and vegetables fresher for a long time after harvesting if applied 10 days before harvest.

You can apply liquid kelp as a soil drench, but it is 20 times more effective if it is used as a foliar spray. Liquid kelp is found in almost all garden stores, but you can make your own if you live near the ocean. 

Here is a video by YouTube user Project Diaries that provides a step-by-step guide to making your own seaweed fertilizer: 

10. Cover Crops

You can use plants to fertilize plants. It is called cover-cropping. 

Cover crops are grown to keep the soil covered and prevent erosion. They are also called green manure crops when they are grown to add nutrients to the soil to fertilize cash crops.

Leguminous crops like hairy vetch, winter peas, and crimson clover add nitrogen to the soil, which reduces the need for using expensive nitrogenous fertilizer for subsequent cash crops. Having a row of cover crops covering your soil also prevents nutrients from leaching out via runoffs. 

Here’s how it works: 

  • The cover crops take up the nutrients from the soil to grow. 
  • When they mature, or before you want to sow your edible crops, you can cut the cover crops, chop them into small pieces, and incorporate them into the soil.
  • Over time, the remains of the cover crops break down and release nutrients for the plants growing above ground. 

Keeping the soil covered with cover crops reduces erosion. This, in turn, prevents the nutrients from the top few inches of the soil from leaching out. 

Having plants growing in the soil also sustains the microbes and the earthworms living underground. These soil-dwelling organisms promote plant health by keeping away pathogens, helping plants take up nutrients, and improving the health of the soil. 

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