Here are 15 simple and inexpensive natural fertilizer options to DIY using common household items—plus 5 recipes for homemade plant food.
Homemade Natural Fertilizer—15 Simple and Inexpensive Options
There was a time when people gardened because backyard produce was far better and cheaper than anything from the store. To tell the truth, it still is, or at least it still can be. The trick is knowing that, back in the day, people used their own compost and homemade fertilizer.
Yet some are convinced that you have to spend a bundle of money to have a really nice, healthy garden. I think that this misconception grew out of the fact that most people have backyards that are filled with really poor/weak soil.
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The reasons for this are complicated—a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that if the soil is weak, your plants will also be weak. And so it follows that weak plants have poor production, leading to more time and money spent on a low quantity of low-quality vegetables.
Healthy Soil Equals Healthy Plants
This means that you need to enrich your soil. Because most people are not making their own compost at home, they need to buy fertilizer. Plant fertilizers purchased from the local garden center often contain chemicals that may harm your plants and are not environmentally friendly.
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In addition, fertilizer can be a bit pricey, and this is most likely why the myth that home gardens are expensive continues. This is not necessarily true. You needn’t spend a bundle of money because, believe it or not, you are full of fertilizer!
Kudos for Compost
It should be noted that most people understand that the best way to get good garden soil is to use compost to amend the soil. Of course, that is true. Compost can be made at home out of leftover food scraps and lawn clippings, so it is virtually cost free.
Composting may be all one needs for a successful home vegetable crop. If, however, the soil is still lacking in nutrients or if you are planting a more demanding vegetable garden, augmenting with another type of homemade plant food may be advisable. So why spend good money on store-bought fertilizer when you can make a natural fertilizer yourself with just a little information?
Homemade Plant Food for Prolific Plants
As we’ve established, the key to a good garden is good soil. Of the essential nutrients plants need to thrive, most of them are found in soil. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and (to a lesser extent) calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are called macronutrients, and these are the nutrients that plants need most.
The remaining micronutrients can be supplied in smaller amounts even by some of the poorest soils out there.
While it may not be the most exciting of gardening topics, nothing is more important than having a basic understanding of fertilizer. Just like you and I need nourishment—so do plants. Understanding just a small bit of information about fertilizer can go a long way toward helping your garden grow big, strong, healthy plants on a light budget.
Before we look at some inexpensive homemade fertilizer options, let’s look briefly at the subject in general.
Natural Fertilizer Versus Synthetic Fertilizer
All fertilizers fall into one of two basic categories: chemical/synthetic or natural/organic. Chemical/synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using synthetic substances that usually contain highly concentrated forms of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (these are the N-P-K values listed on the fertilizer packaging).
These fertilizers work quickly because they feed the plants directly. But they do come with a downside—they do not improve the soil itself, and they can, over time, even destroy the beneficial organisms needed for healthy soil. When you use large quantities of this inorganic stuff over and over again, its byproducts will actually build up in the soil and can eventually hinder plant growth.
Organic/natural fertilizer often uses alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, or fish emulsion to provide nitrogen; bone meal or rock phosphate to provide phosphorus; and kelp meal or granite meal to provide potassium.
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The downside here is that they work much more slowly, first breaking down in the soil into forms that the plant roots can more easily absorb, then making their way up the plant roots to your hungry plants.
Organic/natural fertilizer, then, doesn’t feed the plants directly but rather adds essential nutrients to the soil, where they become available to the plants, more slowly, over time.
Understanding the Basics of N-P-K
While there are many important nutrients in good fertilizer, it is understanding the “Big 3” (a.k.a. N-P-K) that is key to making your own effective fertilizer at home. The N stands for nitrogen, the P for phosphorus, and the K for potassium. Each has an important role to play in the health of your garden.
Nitrogen is the nutrient plants use most to grow large and lush, with tall stems flowing with lots of good, leafy growth. If you examine the N-P-K content of commercial products that advertise “miracle growth,” you will find there is no real miracle at all. The amazing growth is simply due to a balanced, but high, N-P-K ratio with a hefty amount of nitrogen in the mix.
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Phosphorus is needed to grow strong, healthy root systems and to promote vigorous flowering. Commercial “blooming” mixes are usually high in phosphorus.
Potassium helps with plant growth, protein production, plant hardiness, disease resistance, insect resistance, and efficient water use. Plants without enough potassium grow slowly and can have yellow leaves.
Natural Fertilizer or Not—Less Is More
Always remember the one basic rule that applies to the use of all fertilizers—”Less is more.” If you use too much fertilizer or too strong a concentration, you could do much more harm than good. Plant roots can be harmed, and you will soon see the tell-tale symptoms of fertilizer burn—brown, curled leaf edges and leaves that wither and fall from the stem. Always err on the side of caution. Less is more!
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Now, with a simple understanding of the information above, you are ready to get out and make your own natural fertilizer. For my purposes, I needed a good, effective, general-use fertilizer. Here are a few of the solutions that have brought me success:
15 Go-To Sources for Homemade Fertilizer
Making your own organic natural fertilizer is easy and fun. There are quite a few common items found in your kitchen and elsewhere around the house that can be used as homemade plant food!
Water your plants with the aquarium water taken right out of the tank when cleaning it. The fish waste makes a great plant fertilizer. Fresh water only please; do not use water from a saltwater tank.
Bananas are not only tasty and healthy for humans, but they also benefit many different plants. When planting roses, bury a banana (or just the peel) in the hole alongside the rose. As the rose grows, bury bananas or banana peels into the top layer of the soil. Both of these approaches will provide the much-needed potassium that plants need for proper growth.
Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of many different nutrients that plants use. These include carbon, iron, sulfur, potash, calcium, manganese, potassium, copper, and magnesium. What makes this an excellent natural fertilizer is that it feeds beneficial bacteria, which keep the soil and plants healthy.
To use blackstrap molasses as a fertilizer, mix it with another all-purpose fertilizer. A good combination to use is 1 cup each of Epsom salts and alfalfa meal. Dissolve this combination in 4 gallons of water, and top it off with 1 tablespoon of blackstrap molasses.
Or simply mix blackstrap molasses in with compost tea. Do this only after the compost tea has steeped.
Used coffee grounds contain about 2% nitrogen, about a third of a percent of phosphoric acid, and varying amounts of potash (generally less than 1%). Coffee grounds are particularly useful on those plants that like things a bit more acidic, such as blueberries, evergreens, azaleas, roses, camellias, avocados, and many fruit trees.
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I recommend that you allow the coffee grounds to dry, then scatter them lightly, as a mulch, around your plants. Avoid scattering them thickly when they are wet because clumps of coffee grounds have a tendency to get moldy.
Many different nutrients are released into the water that food is cooked in. Water that is used to boil potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and even pasta can be used as a natural fertilizer. Just remember to let the water cool before applying it to your soil.
Corn Gluten Meal
Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the wet-milling process for corn. It is used not only as an organic pre-emergent herbicide but also as a fertilizer that is 10% nitrogen. To use as a homemade fertilizer, simply spread a thin layer of corn gluten meal and scratch it into the top inch of soil.
Plant veggie starts inside the treated area for optimum nitrogen benefit, and do not worry about accidentally harming your plants. Corn gluten meal only works as an herbicide before seeds germinate—not after—so it won’t hurt plants that have already sprouted.
Egg shells contain about 1% nitrogen, about a half-percent phosphoric acid, and other trace elements that make them a practical natural fertilizer. Calcium is an essential plant nutrient that plays a fundamental part in cell manufacture and growth. Most roots must have some calcium at the growing tips to grow effectively.
Plant growth removes large quantities of calcium from the soil, and calcium must be replenished, so this is an ideal way to “recycle” your egg shells. Simply crush them, powder them in an old coffee grinder, and sprinkle them around your garden soil.
Combine 1 tbsp. of Epsom salts with 1 gallon of water, and put into a sprayer. Apply once a month, directly to the foliage, for a quick dose of magnesium and sulfur.
Wood Ash (From Your Fireplace or Fire Pit)
Ashes can be sprinkled onto your soil to supply potassium and calcium carbonate. Hardwood is best—and no charcoal or lighter fluid, please, as this can harm your plants.
Don’t use ash in areas where you are trying to maintain acid-loving plants, however. The ashes are alkaline and can increase alkalinity in the soil.
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Gelatin can be a great nitrogen source. Dissolve 1 package of gelatin in 1 cup of hot water, and then add 3 cups of cold water. Pour directly on the soil around your plants once a month. This is great for houseplants!
A weak solution of green tea can be used as a natural fertilizer to water plants every 4 weeks. Use 1 teabag to 2 gallons of water.
Hair is a good source of nitrogen, and it does double duty as a deer repellent. A good source for this hair is not only your hairbrush but also the local barbershop or beauty salon. Many of these establishments will save hair for your garden if you ask them for it. But do not limit yourself to only human hair. Dog hair, horse hair, and cat hair work just as well.
What makes horse feed irresistible to horses is also what makes it an excellent homemade fertilizer. The magic ingredient is molasses.
To use horse feed as a fertilizer is simple and easy. It can be used as a soil amendment just by sprinkling it on top of the soil. Alternatively, it can be dissolved in water alone or combined with another organic fertilizer and applied as a soil drench.
The old-fashioned, easy-strike matches are a great source of magnesium. To use this as a homemade plant food, simply place the whole match in the hole with the plant, or soak the matches in water. The magnesium will dissolve into the water and make application easier.
Powdered milk is good both for human consumption and plants. This source of calcium needs to be mixed in to the soil prior to planting. Since the milk is in powder form, it is ready for use by your plants.
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4 Easy Recipes for Natural Fertilizer
These are some slightly more complex recipes for homemade plant food that I like to use. My favorites are the Simple Tea and the Quick Fix, but each of these makes regular appearances in our garden fertilizing schedule:
Recipe #1—Simple Tea Fertilizer
This simple recipe has been used for thousands of years. Give it a try in your garden for a quick and inexpensive dose of nutrients for your plants.
• In a 5-gallon bucket, mix 1/4 cup of Epsom salts, 2 cups of urine (yes, good old pee pee), and 2 cups of wood ash (again, no lighter fluid or charcoal, please).
• Fill the rest of the bucket about half way with grass clippings, pruned green leaves, or even green weeds pulled right out of the ground.
• Fill the bucket to the top with water and allow the mix to steep for 3 days.
• After steeping, strain the tea or decant into empty milk jugs or old 2-liter bottles.
• Before use, dilute by 50% by mixing half water and half tea into your favorite watering can.
• Apply this wonderful mix by pouring it directly onto the soil around your plants.
If your results are anything like mine, you will see a noticeable difference in just a few days.
Note: Only steep for 3 days. By the third day, most of the soluble nutrients will have seeped out into the water solution. Stopping now prevents fermentation, which you want to avoid. Fermented materials will smell bad, and their pH can change rapidly, so it’s important to stick with a 3-day steeping, and then use the concentrate within a day or 2.
Recipe #2—Homemade Fish Emulsion Fertilizer
Fish emulsion is a natural fertilizer made using fish waste—such as fish parts and guts—and water. This organic, all-purpose fertilizer has also been around for thousands of years and it works great, but it takes weeks to make, and the mixture must have time to rot before you can use it. Yes, there is some bad smell here … it is made from rotting fish, after all!
• To begin the process, fill a 55-gallon drum about one-third full with a ratio of 2 parts water and 1 part fish waste.
• Allow this mixture to steep for 24 hours.
• After steeping, add more water to the drum until it is completely full.
• Cover loosely, and let the drum ferment for several weeks. We usually allow about 3 weeks for fermentation.
• To use, apply the fish emulsion fertilizer to the soil around your plants at a rate of 3 gallons of liquid for every 100 square feet of yard or garden.
Check out this recipe: How to Make Fish Emulsion Fertilizer
Recipe #3—Seaweed Fertilizer
Another fertilizer with a thousand-year pedigree. Not only is seaweed an all-purpose organic fertilizer but it also contains mannitol. Mannitol is a compound that increases a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients in the soil. Either fresh or dried seaweed can be used to create the all-purpose fertilizer. However, whether you use fresh seaweed or the dry, salted version, ensure it is thoroughly washed before using.
• Add 8 cups of chopped seaweed to a 5-gallon bucket, and fill halfway with water. (Rainwater is always best if it’s available.)
• Loosely cover the container, and let the seaweed steep for about 3 weeks.
• After steeping, strain the seaweed and transfer the liquid to a container to store it for up to 3 weeks.
• To use, mix half water and half seaweed tea into your favorite watering can and apply it to the soil around your plants. Your plants will thank you for it within just a few days.
Recipe #4—The Quick Fix Fertilizer
If you haven’t got time to wait 3 days to make the Simple Tea, you might want to try this idea. Most of the ingredients can be found around your home.
• In an empty 1-gallon milk jug, mix together the following:
1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. ammonia (a very strong source of quick nitrogen)
3 tsp. of instant iced tea (the tannic acid in this helps the plants to more quickly and easily absorb nutrients)
3 tsp. blackstrap molasses (this helps feed soil bacteria)
3 tsp. of 3% hydrogen peroxide (hydrogen peroxide is a powerful oxidizer because it combines with the air and water as it decomposes, freeing the oxygen elements and thus providing a supplement of oxygen to the plants and aerating the soil)
1/4 cup crushed bone scraps (this adds phosphorus—any bones will do, but I like to use fish bones myself as they also provide potassium)
1 crushed eggshell or 1/2 a dried banana peel for potassium (you can omit if using fish bones, but I would still add the eggshell for the calcium—especially for tomatoes, as it helps prevent blossom-end rot)
• Fill the jug the rest of the way with water (again, rainwater is best). Replace the cap and allow the jug to sit in the sun for about 1 hour to warm, then water your plants with this mixture at full strength.
Make Natural Fertilizer by Using What Your Animals Give You
Making your own homemade fertilizer doesn’t get much easier than using manure from your animals. For eons, man used “free” fertilizer from manure to nourish his crops. Manure can be used as is after drying or in the form of manure tea.
Before manure is used in the garden, it should be aged and dried and/or composted first. Age fresh manure for at least 6 months. Well-aged manure on its own makes a great fertilizer for garden plants.
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You can spread aged manure directly on top of your garden soil at a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Another option is to till it (or mix it by hand) into the top layer of soil in the fall or winter, prior to spring planting.
Composting manure is one of the best and safest ways to use this free fertilizer since it eliminates the possibility of burning your plants and controls potentially harmful bacteria.
Timing Is Everything
As mentioned, fall is the best time to use manure in the garden. This allows plenty of time for the manure to break down, eliminating the threat of burning plants in the garden come springtime.
As the soil absorbs manure, nutrients are released. This enriches the soil, which in turn helps the plants. One of the most important benefits of using manure in the garden is its ability to condition the soil.
Be Sure of Your Manure
Nearly any kind of manure can be used as a natural fertilizer. Generally, horse, cow, and chicken manures are the most commonly used. Some people also use sheep, rabbit, turkey, and more.
It is not recommended that you use manure from your cats, dogs, other household pets—or any other meat-eating animals. These manures are unsuitable for the garden or the compost pile as they are likely to carry parasites.
Making Manure Tea Fertilizer
I will leave you with one last recipe for homemade fertilizer. I use this tea regularly, and it works great—just make sure that your manure is well aged and comes from animals that have not been grazing on fields treated with broad-leaf herbicides, such as Grazon.
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Bonus Recipe: Manure Tea Fertilizer
Manure tea enriches the soil and adds much-needed nutrients for healthy plant growth. The nutrients found in manure tea make it an ideal natural fertilizer for garden plants. These nutrients dissolve easily in water so that they can then be added to a sprayer or simply used in a watering can. The leftover manure can be thrown in the garden or reused in the compost pile.
Manure tea can be used each time you water plants or just periodically. It can also be used to water lawns.
It is important, however, to dilute the tea prior to use so as to avoid burning the roots or foliage of plants. I fill my watering can halfway with the tea and then fill it to the top with rainwater. I use this every 3 weeks or so during the growing season.
• Place a shovelful of well-aged manure in a large burlap sack or pillowcase.
• Make certain that the manure has been sufficiently aged or “cured” beforehand. Fresh manure is much too strong for plants, and it can contain harmful bacteria.
• Suspend the manure-filled “tea bag” in a 5-gallon bucket, and add water to create a mix of 5 parts water to 1 part manure.
• Allow this mixture to steep for up to 2 weeks.
• After steeping, remove the bag, allowing it to hang above the container until the dripping has stopped.
• Skipping the tea bag and adding the manure directly to the water usually speeds up the brewing process. Without a bag, the tea is usually ready within only a few days if you stir it thoroughly during this period. Once it has fully brewed, you will have to strain it to separate the solids from the liquid. The remaining manure can then be added to the compost pile.
• To use, dilute the tea by half, as mentioned above, prior to use.
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What Do You Think?
Lately, before I toss anything into my trash, I stop and ask myself, “How else can I use this?” As often as not, the things I would have otherwise thrown away can help out in my garden. That said, this list of homemade fertilizers is by no means exhaustive. If I’ve missed any of your favorites, be sure to let me know in the comments below!
Finally, keep in mind that the most important thing you really need to understand about making your own natural fertilizer is that you control what goes into it, so you know exactly what goes into your garden and therefore what goes into your body. Making your own homemade plant food is also a great way to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”
This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on September 1, 2015. The author may not currently be available to respond to comments; however, we encourage our Community members to chime in to share their experiences and answer questions!
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