Are your plants green, thick, and thriving? If not, you may have a nitrogen deficiency in your soil.
This information will help you get on top of your spring garden and soil fertility early in the season and for years to come. No need to buy any products when you can get free organic fertilizer for all your plant needs.
In the air, there is plenty of nitrogen in the form of a gas, but most plants can’t use it in this form. However, there are a few plants that can. These are the ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants. These plants are able to take the gas from the air and store it.
If your plants are thin and growing slow, or if the older leaves are yellowish-green, read further.
Growing these plants on your property will provide you with a continual source of organic fertilizer because the nitrogen from these special nitrogen-fixers becomes available to your other plants through root die-back, leaf fall, and also when you trim back the plant and use the trimmings as mulch. With these special plants, you will be prepared to fertilize your vegetables, trees, and shrubs in the spring and fall using some of the methods to follow. One of the best aspects of growing your own nitrogen is that you avoid over-fertilizing and burning your other plants. From now on you can forget fertilizer numbers. For a more in-depth explanation of the biology and the nitrogen-cycle, see The Khan Academy at this link https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/ecology/biogeochemical-cycles/a/the-nitrogen-cycle. Or checkout this quick explanation that has a great image showing the cycle of fixation.
Below are a couple of images where you will see one shrub that was covered in vetch (a nitrogen-fixin’ legume) and another shrub that was not. Both shrubs are planted within about 10’ of each other in the same type of soil, but the one not covered in vetch is yellow and small. This is a great example on the results between two plants with different levels of nitrogen in their environments.
There are a variety of ways to use nitrogen fixing plants on your homestead or in your vegetable garden. Each method can be used for a different purpose and has a unique application.
Here is a quick explanation of a few methods –
- Cover cropping – this method is often used by farmers, but can also be implemented in other situations such as starting a garden patch or an orchard. This method uses a plant type that covers a large area of the ground and is then knocked down by weed-wacking, mowing, or tilling to put the nitrogen back into the soil. Some of the common plants used for this method are clover or alfalfa. A cover crop keeps the soil covered during off-season or in early preparation periods so that other plants, such as unwanted grasses, are less likely to take over. It’s important to keep the ground covered at all times and this is a great way to do that.
- Companion planting – this method requires combining plants that work together. One of the companion plants will be a nitrogen fixing plant. Sometimes the plant is for the sole purpose of serving the other plants around it. Or you can use a plant that also produces a harvest, such as Fava Beans, Scarlet Runner, or any other edible legume. Here are a couple of examples, but you can get creative with how you employ this method.
- Grow your beans at the base of your corn. When you’ve harvested the peas, also let the plant decompose back into the soil.
- Plant lupine or indigo flowers near or around your vegetable garden. They will die back in the winter and decompose putting lots of nitrogen into the soil for your spring plantings.
- Guild – a plant guild is really another type of companion planting, but is typically implemented around a fruit tree. The under-story plants would include a nitrogen fixing option such as lupine, snow pea, or white clover.
- Over-story Tree – for an under-story, that doesn’t mind shade, a nitrogen fixing tree or shrub may be a great option. Trees such as a Catalpa, Alder, or Black Locust are nitrogen-fixers. Or for a shrub use Sea Buckthorn, Wysteria; or Goumi Berry. Plant your other plants around the base and watch it flourish as the leaves fall down providing a continued source of nitrogen-dense mulch.
The above methods are broken down for ease of application so you can determine where and how to treat each area of your homestead, garden, or orchard. When you put them all together you have a Food Forest in the making. For a more in-depth understanding, this book on food forests is simple and provides very basic how-to information for all levels. Or see https://permacultureapprentice.com/creating-a-food-forest-step-by-step-guide/
One other plant that is worth mentioning here is comfrey. Although it’s not a nitrogen fixer it’s a great option for every-day applications and can be grown just about anywhere and is easy to start from seed. It will need to be cut down with a hand sickle or hedge shears (and should be cut often for maintenance) and used like mulch or made into a tea to access the nutrient. I recommend the chop-n-drop method or comfrey tea. You can use a compost tea maker for stronger tea or just soak the leaves in water for two days and pour it on your plants. Comfrey is a great companion plant. It may just be the best lawn fertilizer as well. I put at least one plant near every tree or fruiting shrub so that it’s close by for easy use and the bees love it as well. See ‘Grow Your Own Fertilizer for an Organic…’ and learn more about Comfrey.
While legumes are our primary nitrogen fixing plants, there are many others. See the link below for a full list of options. nitrogen-fixing-plants
When choosing your plants, take a look at the characteristics such as growth rate, how it needs to be maintained, quantity of available nitrogen that it might produce, and appropriateness for your climate. Also check to be sure that a plant is not labeled as ‘invasive’ or a ‘noxious weed’ for your area. Here is a great website for reference; Invasive Plant Atlas https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org/index.html .
Just for fun; check out this 1955 paperback book on cultivators, fertilizers, and harvesters! McCormick catalog.
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‘Whoever keeps company with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm’ (Proverbs 13:20)