I have a confession to make. As a ‘professional gardener’ I haven’t used good old-fashioned farmyard manure in years. No trailers of stinky muck have been deposited on the driveway, there have been no sorties to stables with a shovel.
Now, if you read old gardening books this would be something of a heresy. After all, I love growing vegetables and roses. Victorian gardeners used to order manure not by the bag, but by the ton. However, times change and methods with them.
If you’d visited my allotment on a few windless summer evenings last year you’d have been forgiven for thinking you were next to a stable yard. A distinctly… how to put this…. animal scent wafted on the air. But I promise, gardener’s honour, no muck. Just vegetable alchemy.
The secret to huge crops of tomatoes, luscious raspberries and more sweet peas than you can pick? Comfrey. The abandoned plot behind mine is covered in the stuff. Rot the leaves down in a barrel of water and you have a fantastic home-made, if slightly whiffy, fertiliser. For a step-by-step guide on how to make it, click here.
I find that liquid feeds such as this, plus pelleted feed such as poultry manure or granulated cow manure and a generous application of home-made garden compost is more than enough to keep even the hungriest plants happy.
Comfrey is dead easy to grow, and is rich in all sorts of goodness, not least potassium, one of the holy trinity of elements when it comes to fertilisers – known by three letters: N, P and K. To break down the science I find it handy to think about them in terms of colours:
N: Nitrogen – think of nitrogen as green; bright green leaves and lots of growth
P: Phosphorus: think of phosphorus as brown – roots and soil
K: Potassium (potash) – think of this as red – bright flowers and ripe fruit.
As science reveals more about the chemistry of soil, gardeners are becoming less concerned about adding extra phosphorus. But nitrogen and potassium are still really important and valuable allies in getting the most from your garden.
So, back to the colours – if you want lots of lush growth, apply a fertiliser high in nitrogen. Spring lawn feed, and manure are high in nitrogen.
If you want lots of flowers and fruit, use a potassium (also known as potash) rich fertiliser, such as tomato feed.
And if you just want to generally perk up your garden, go for a so-called ‘general’ or ‘universal’ fertiliser which will contain balanced amounts of N, P, and K.
Slow release feeds are really useful, especially for container plants. The tablet forms are easy to use – just push a tablet into the soil and your plant is fed for a month, easy peasy.
Artificial versus organic
Personally I feel that it’s best to feed the soil with an organic fertiliser for the most sustainable and healthy way to garden. However, many other gardeners value the ease of use and quick results of inorganic (artificial) fertilisers. Whichever you pick, your plants will repay you many times over.