Do Commercial Fertilizers Harm Soil Microbes or Make Nutrients Unavailable to Plants?

Q.  It is my understanding the microbes found in organic compost materials is what packages the nutrients for the plants. Sort of like the good bacteria that your body needs to maintian the right balance in the blood stream. I also understand that synthetically produced fertilizers will kill these microbes. This is the difference between a naturally packaged fertilizer and a synthetically produced one.  How can man’s synthesis be better for the plants than the Earth’s Natural processes?  When compared on other subjects, man’s synthetics cannot always produce safe results.

A.  What you’re describing, I would suggest, includes some hyperbole being spread by organic promoters.

Reality is somewhat different.  Nature provided us with large rock deposits containing one or more of the 13 essential plant nutrients, in many places around the earth.  In the past 100 or so years man has discovered these deposits, learned how to use them properly, and how to mine them.  In the mining process other elements are removed, including heavy metals, and sometimes the essential minerals are concentrated.  It is important to understand that the concentration process applied to natural minerals from rocks does not make the material “synthetically” produced, nor does it make it unsafe or harmful to microbes, plants, or humans.
The above described process is what has allowed our farmers to feed 250 million of us and allow us to do other things with our time (1 feeds 100), rather than slaving on the farm as our grandfathers did, using manure (organics) as our only fertilizer source (1 fed 4 or 5). 
Please remember that 90-95% of our food is produced using modern equipment and these same natural mineral nutrients from commercially produced fertilizers.
It is important to distinguish between potential problems associated with the mis-use and/or over-application of pesticides and herbicides, and the valuable, safe, and highly productive use of natural mineral nutrients, usually referred to as commercial fertilizers.

How to Grow the Healthiest Vegetables

Q.  I want to grow the healthiest vegetables possible. Isn’t organic gardening healthier than the Mittleider Method – tell me the truth!

A.  This is a very good question and it deserves a straight answer. I will therefore tell you some very important things about plant nutrition. First of all, plants receive nutrition only as water- soluble mineral compounds, through their roots. When we put compost or manure, etc. into the soil, the organic material must first decompose, and the nutrient compounds must revert to water-soluble minerals before the next generation of plants can use them. This takes time, and sometimes as much as half of the nutrients are lost in the process.

Secondly, there is no difference between organic, mineral, and chemical nutrients.  Everything in this world is a chemical!!  To the chemist everything in the soil is called chemicals, to a geologist they are called minerals, and to an organic enthusiast they are called organics, but they are the same substances.  To quote J. I. Rodale, “we organic gardeners have let our enthusiasm run away with us. We have said that the nitrogen which is in organic matter is different (and thus somehow better) from nitrogen in a commercial fertilizer. But this is not so.” And “actually there is no difference between the nitrogen in a chemical fertilizer and the nitrogen in a leaf.” (Organic Gardening)

Thirdly, there is no difference between soil and rocks except for the size of the particles, and 12 of the 13 mineral nutrients plants require are essentially ground-up rocks! There is really nothing “synthetic” about them.  So, you see there is no difference between “organic nitrogen”, mineral nitrogen and chemical nitrogen – except the nitrogen that is part of an organic substance must decompose and revert to the water-soluble mineral state before being available to plants.

This being the case, what should we do to assure we have the best garden and the healthiest plants possible? Give the plants the best combination of nutrition we possibly can.  Remember that 99% of us depend on 1% to feed us, and the big growers feed their crops! The big fertilizer companies use formulas similar to Dr. Mittleider’s and call them “The preferred horticultural mix.” Just check out Scott’s Peter’s Professional Pete Lite as an example.

Now, this is not to say that organic materials don’t have a place in the garden. You can improve soil texture and tilth by adding materials that have desirable characteristics.  However, improving the soil in that way is not necessary to having a good garden, and people often introduce weeds, rodents, bugs, and diseases into their gardens, or provide a haven for them with their organic mulching practices. It is for this reason that we do not emphasize and encourage composting and manure. 

Mittleider gardens qualify as “organic” because we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.  However, I suggest they are even “better than organic”, because the plants receive just what they need, they grow fast, and we almost never have insect or disease problems because they aren’t in the ground long enough for the pests to get established.