Organics and Chemicals

Organics and Chemicals


The word out in the market is, the customer is confused. There are too many plant food products, organic, chemical, some in-between. I say nonsense, consumers like choice, when they have the ability to choose. The consumer's knowledge to make an informed buying decision is incomplete and disorganised. Let us then build a complete, balanced picture around the organic and chemical concepts, equipping the consumer with a structured information base. He will then have the security of power of choice when selecting plant food for his garden or his veggies. Confusion removed.

The framework:

  • The wish for "organic", a wish for natural. One can grasp the true meaning of "organic" by understanding the natural feeding process, (the food chain), using it as benchmark.

  • Actions by mankind introduce an artificial element, an element of incomplete synthesis, disturbing the natural balances. "Organic" farming and horticulture's aim is to regain and maintain these balances as close to natural as possible. (100% organic i.e. 100% natural in this context is a fallacy.)

  • Organic in this sense means produced (synthesised) by a living organism, not by a man-made factory.

  • Green plants unique role in the food chain is to extract the minerals (inorganic) from the soil (mineral dissolving process), carbon dioxide from the air (inorganic) and, using the sun's energy, to produce sugars and starches (carbon based, i.e. natural organic molecules, as opposed to man-made organic molecules) through photosynthesis.

  • Plant produced sugars and starches (and other plant components), serve as (organic) food for the rest of us (man, animal, micro-organism) who can not photosynthesise.

  • Our goal is to see to it that nature's factory is supplied with all the raw materials it needs, in the right format at the right time, to produce our food to the specifications that our bodies need.

Raw materials - nature's way

  • Soil is the main source of essential minerals (at least eleven) needed by green plants. They dissolve into soil water at very low concentrations, assisted by organic acids (fulvic acids) from soil organic matter (compost), and are constantly available for uptake. Compost is a secondary source of recycled minerals.

  • Nitrogen comes from air, via nitrogen fixing bacteria hosted by legumes, into soil water, in inorganic form. Overlooked "legumes" are members of the good old Acacia family!

  • In nature plants feed continuously (when they transpire), very little at a time.

  • The water soluble part of compost (the black tarry stuff and the honey coloured compost tea - humic and fulvic acids), the organic acids, are nature's keys to a good soil structure (loose and crumbly - water and minerals can move) and plant nutrient availability, transport and uptake. Compost plays an important supportive role in natural feeding processes.

  • Fertilizers are specialised mineral sources in artificial environments where nature's processes are unable to function properly and adequitely.


If one wants to go "organic", one must measure one's actions against nature. Compost remains one of the key components of the everyday "organic" plant nutrition program. Rightfully so, as compost plays a much broader role in nature's nutrition cycle as what is generally accepted.

Nature's toolbox

  • Compost is much more than a source of recycled minerals that originated from the main mineral source, the soil.

  • Compost is food to living organisms that can not photosynthesize and therefore can't produce their own food (sugars and starches) from basic building blocks - minerals from the soil, carbon dioxide and nitrogen from air and sunlight.

  • During this feeding process plant material is broken down (decompose) and becomes water soluble and consists of two parts.

  • The black, tarry part of compost (humic acids) is Mother Nature's tool with which she opens up the soil for the water to move and to carry the dissolved minerals to the roots for uptake.

  • An organic deficient soil closes up and becomes like a block of cement, you can't get your fork in anymore. A rich, fertile soil is loose and crumbly.

  • The honey coloured "compost tea" part assists in minerals dissolving into soil water for uptake by the green plants, every day continuously at very low concentrations.

  • An unknown fact is the compost tea that is also absorbed to play a "vitamen" type function, strengthening the plants immune system. Healthier plants when you plant with compost.

Managing your garden nature's way

Keep in mind that your garden is an artificial environment with disturbed, at times deficient soil into which you are planting plant species most probably foreign to one another and your specific soil type. The task becomes one of managing towards a more natural environment, accepting that you will not have veldt around your house.

  • Your soil needs at least the black tarry part of the compost for good soil structure. In liquid form you can spray it out when you water. Proper mulching will support this.

  • Using a water soluble fertilizer as mineral source, together with nature's carriers (the compost tea), on a regular basis. Applying very little every time you water with your watering can, a spray applicator or your irrigation system, is the closest you can get to the natural nutrition process.

  • Do companion planting, as well as companion composting. Remember companion plants are adapted to one another's compost.


Let us equip ourselves with the enabling knowledge to choose between the wide variety of excellent garden care products available. Organising this knowledge into a basic framework makes it simple and easy to use. Organic fertilizer has two components, the compost (organic) part and the mineral (fertilizer) part.

Green plants extract the full range of essential minerals (12 including nitrogen) from the soil. View this as the "dry pap" part of plant food. The water soluble part of compost is the "sauce" part, helping the minerals to dissolve in the soil water and improve their availibility to and uptake by the plants.

Clear to see then that applying fertilizer alone is like eating dry pap. Using fertilizer with one mineral (eg. superphosphate), or three elements (3:2:1 or 2:3:2, etc.) is only part of the plant's requirement, like eating meat all day. On the other hand, sauce alone hasn't got enough nutritional value.

Plant nutrition rule 1: Feed your plants all 12 minerals through the year, supported by at least a liquid compost and good mulching practice.

Plant nutrition rule 2: Plant's absorb their food continuously in minute amounts in liquid form. Feeding them frequently, very little at a time when watering, is much more efficient and economical.

In practice

I experience one or more of the following:

  • In places, like under my lawn, the soil has become as hard as a block of cement. I can't get my fork in anymore. The water doesn't penetrate, it stays on top.(Your soil has become extremely deficient in organic material, nature's tools that open up the soil structure for the water and the minerals to move - spray out a liquid compost high in humic acid)

  • Although I fertilize, my plants don't respond as expected - no flowers, yellow leaves, stunted growth, dropping of fruits and flower buds.

    (Your fertilizer program is lacking in some of the minerals and/or your soil has become deficient in organic material - apply a trace element product at the end of the season, and support this with a liquid compost spray and mulching)

Remember to feed with the next season in mind, plants need time to grow!


The discussion on organics and chemicals is an emotionally charged one at times. It needn't be. Let us use some simple logic and explore it from the plant nutrition angle.

Green plants need primarily inorganic minerals from the soil, carbon dioxide, oxygen and sunlight. The movement of these minerals from the soil into the soil water, into the plants, are supported by the soil organic matter, the water soluble part of compost (a crucial element).

When we plant foreign, exotic plants (a synthetic action) the soil or growth medium into which we plant will tend to be deficient in some of the minerals and the organic matter (or too much) too which these plants are adapted in nature. Hence we need to fertilize and apply compost. 100% organic (100% natural) is a fallacy!

This brings us to the thin ice. What do we fertilize with? Volcanic rocks? Pulverised soil? Compost or manure? Fertilizer granules?

Undisputable facts

  • Once the minerals are dissolved in water, the plant won't know the difference between one coming directly from the soil and one coming from a fertilizer. The molecular structure are the same. The concentration, and the fillers used, is the main issue.

    (Handy hint: Use water soluble fertilizer (minerals) frequently at very low concentration. Liquid fertilizers, where the filler is water, is even better and much more convenient for frequent application)

  • Compost or manure alone is not enough from a mineral content point of view.

    (Handy hint: Even better than liquid fertilizer is liquid organic containing fertilizer, i.e. where the base is the water soluble part of compost, the black, tarry part (humic acids) and the honey coloured part (fulvic acids)


Slowly but surely, micro organisms are getting their rightful recognition for the major role that they play at various points in the plant nutrition process. Unseen to the naked eye, they've been main victims of the disinfecting effect of herbicides and pesticides, and the chemical burn effect of high concentrations of infrequent fertilizer applications. Two groups of micro organisms are of special interest.

Firstly, better known to the public as compost activators, are the guys driving the composting process. Taking the nutrition angle, they feed on the plant material produced by the photosynthesising plants. Different ones are feeding at different stages of the composting process. Compost is food for the micro organisms!

During the composting process they help to produce humic acids (the black, tarry part responsible for the loose soil structure of rich soil) and fulvic acids (the honey coloured or compost tea part that assists in mineral movement from soil, into water, into plants).

Secondly, almost unknown to the gardener, are the nitrogen fixing bacteria. They are nature's workhorses responsible for bringing nitrogen out of air into the food chain and converting it into a plant digestible form. These bacteria need host plants, better know as legumes (plants that carry their seed in pods or pulses). The Acacia family is a good example.

Practical hints for your garden

  • Plant legume type plants in your garden, annuals as well as perennials.

  • Apply organic fertilizers at very low concentrations, frequently. Liquid fertilizers are usually available in concentrations from 16- 22%. Diluting them 1 part fertilizer to 4000 parts of water (for weekly application), will approach the concentrations in natural soil water that soil micro organisms and plants are adapted too.

  • If you remove plant material from your garden, start your compost heap with this material and recycle it back.

  • Improve on your mulching practice.

  • Go easy on the herbicides and pesticides, if at all necessary.


Let's take the bull by the horns. Viewing organics and chemicals from the plant nutrition angle we find that chemicals (fertilizers) are not all bad. They have a positive role to play in our human environment, albeit with several limitations. On the other hand, compost, manures and the pletora of "organic" products are not the be all and end all of plant nutrition. Both have upside and downside, with a balance point inbetween.

Plants have adapted themselves too their environment over millions of years. By removing them from their natural habitat, man is shuffling the deck too fast for this evolution process too keep up.

Fertilizing infrequently, with only some of the essential minerals, at high concentrations in water insoluble form are actions that disturb nature's balances and processes.

Applying huge amounts of compost from questionable origin to a poor soil, deficient in some of the essential minerals, tends to give a false sense of doing good.

Back to the thin ice. What do we fertilize with? Volcanic rocks? Pulverised soil? Compost or manure? Fertilizer granules? How do we prepare and maintain the soil in our garden? How do we ensure the survival of the micro organisms?

By imitating nature with a balanced approach, using compost and fertilizer in the correct form and manner.

Recipe for a simple garden nutrition practice

  • Spray liquid organic based fertilizer, using a simple applicator or your irrigation system, frequently at very low concentration. Ensure the fertilizer, or group of fertilizers, contain all 12 minerals.

  • Support this with a liquid compost and good mulching practice. This will also revitalise the essential micro organisms in the soil.

  • Last but not least, know your plants natural habitat, soil type, companion plants, climate (winter or summer rainfall area), forest, desert, coastal or hiveld plant.


We all go from cradle to grave, dust to dust. In more practical terms, and specifically from a plant nutrition point of view, understanding and seeing this growth cycle (rooting, budding, flowering, fruit formation) happening in your garden is an enriching experience. Linking this phenology cycle with the plant's mineral requirements, a gardener has the exhilarating opportunity to experience nature firsthand.

The second crucial cycle to be aware of is the food chain, where one's waste is the other one's food. Green plant's role can be seen as the starting point. They extract the inorganic minerals from the soil, carbon dioxide from the air and capturing the sun's energy through photosynthesis to manufacture other living organism's (micro organisms, insects, animals, humans) "organic" food. The micro organisms role in some instances can be seen as the end point, converting organic material back to "inorganic" form for recycling through different processes like composting, rotting and fermenting.

Imitating nature with a balanced approach, taking these cycles into account, becomes the most efficient and economical way to feed your garden.

Go organic in the true sense of the word

  • Get to know nature's cycles, specifically what the plant's needs are in respect of the 12 essential minerals, during the different stages of the growth cycle.

  • Respect nature's nutrition characteristics when feeding your plants by supplying the complete set of essential minerals (matched to the growth cycle), in liquid or watersoluble form, in an organic base, on an almost continuous basis at very low concentrations.

  • Last but not least, know your plants natural habitat, soil type, companion plants, climate (winter or summer rainfall area), forest, desert, coastal or hiveld plant.

Have a look at for more detail on phenology, lifecycle software and a public database.

Chris Potgieter

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