Sustainable Fertilizers


Dr. Claudio Pasian
Floriculture Extension Specialist
Department of Horticulture and Crop Science
, OH 43210


Some definitions

Organic, inorganic, natural, artificial. . . These and similar, popular terms like chemical, mineral, synthetic, sustainable, etc. can be confusing due to the use of many undefined words or words with dubious meaning.

Chemically speaking, organic compounds include the carbon atom in their chemical composition regardless of their source.  Inorganic chemicals, then, are those without carbon. For example, propane gas is an organic compound because its molecule is composed of three atoms of carbon and eight atoms of hydrogen.

Are “organic fertilizers” those that contain carbon?  Not necessarily.  Things have become more complicated than that.  Years ago, the term “organic” meant that something was pesticide free but government regulation has created a whole new bureaucratic vocabulary.  For example, limestone, mined rock phosphate, and Chilean saltpeter are inorganic chemicals whose use government regulation permits in organic agriculture.

Sustainable Fertilizers

Table 1.  Non-branded materials that can be used as sustainable fertilizers and their estimated analysis (N-P-K).  Nutrient levels are approximate because they can change from batch to batch and from year to year.

Of Plant Origin

Of Animal Origin

Alfalfa meal  2-1-2

Bat guano  10-3-1

Corn Gluten meal

Blood meal  12-1-0.5

Cotton seed meal  6-0.5-1.5

Bone meal  3-15-0

Dried manure  variable

Crab meal  10-05-01

Kelp powder  1-0.5-8

Feather meal  12-0-0

Soybean meal  9-0-0

Fish emulsion  5-2-2


Fish meal  10-5-1


Guano  12-11-2.5


Worm castings  1.5-2.5-1.3

For the purpose of this Fact Sheet, we will use the term sustainable fertilizer to describe those derived from animal and plant byproducts such as manures, blood, bones, compost, cottonseed meal, etc., produced in manufacturing and farming (Table 1). 

All these materials are chemically organic regardless of being approved by federal government's Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI at  Fertilizers derived from animal and plant byproducts are only minimally processed and their nutrients remain in their natural forms as opposed to being industrially separated and purified.

Sustainable vs. Organic Growing

It has been shown that individuals interested in buying products that have been grown in a sustainable way comprise a substantial portion of the ornamental market.  Furthermore, these customers are even willing to pay slightly more for these products.  Greenhouse growers do not have to be “organic growers” to use sustainable fertilizers.  Growers can simply replace the water soluble mineral fertilizers (e.g. 20-10-20) of a portion of their crops with sustainable fertilizers and still continue with their traditional cultural practices.  It is important, however, to let consumers know which plants were grown with what fertilizer in order for them to choose. It is also good marketing to let consumers know when crops involve sustainable practices and materials.

Nutrient Ratios

Sustainable fertilizers tend to have smaller nutrient ratios.  Examples of sustainable fertilizers are: Sustane 8-4-4, Scotts Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Plant Food 7-1-2, and Daniels 10-4-3.  A list of commercially available sustainable fertilizers can be seen in Table 2.  On the other hand, ratios of mineral fertilizers tend to be larger, such as the case of one the most-used fertilizers in greenhouse containerized floriculture: Peters 20-10-20 water-soluble fertilizer.

How do sustainable fertilizers work?

Sustainable fertilizers sold under a brand are, most likely, the result of a high quality compost process.  When applied to substrates, these products are degraded by micro-organisms making the nutrients available to plants.  As a consequence, these fertilizers can be classified as slow release fertilizers because they supply nutrients in small quantities over a longer period of time.  Companies producing and selling sustainable fertilizers should provide information about their longevity (the time it takes for all nutrients, at a given temperature, to be totally released).  Unfortunately, longevity of sustainable fertilizers is not always provided.  Anecdotal information indicates that longevity of sustainable fertilizers is shorter than for controlled-release fertilizers.

Factors, like temperature and water availability, influence microbial activity that in turn will influence nutrient availability.  In fact, temperature and water availability are crucial: soils that are too dry or too wet, to cold or too hot will reduce microbial activity and hence nutrient availability.  Some of the products used to produce sustainable fertilizers may increase the substrate salt levels above acceptable levels making electrical conductivity (EC) monitoring very important.

Numerous brands of sustainable fertilizers can be found on the market.  Each fertilizer responds differently than the water soluble fertilizers used in the greenhouse industry.  As a consequence, there are no clear standards for managing nutrition when using sustainable fertilizers on soilless growing mixes.

Table 2.  Some examples of commercially available sustainable fertilizers, their analyses, and material sources used in their production.  Some of them may only be sold at retail stores for the home gardeners.



Source Material

Bradfield Organics All Purpose


Meat meal, alfalfa, potash, molasses, soft rock phosphate, fish meal, blood meal



Organic base of soybean extract that is fortified with NPK and micronutrients



Caged layer manure

Espoma Garden Tone


Hydrolyzed Feather Meal, Pasteurized Poultry Manure, Cocoa Meal, Bone Meal, Alfalfa meal, green sand, humates, Sulfate of Potash, and Sulfate of Potash Magnesia

Miracle Gro Organic Choice All Purpose


Pasteurized pelleted poultry litter and feather meal.

Miracle Gro Organic Choice Steamed Bone-meal


Bone Meal

Organica Plant Booster


Feather Meal, Steamed Bone Meal and sulfate of potash

Pearl Valley


Composted caged layer manure

Perdue Agricycle w/ masking agent


Broiler litter crumbled pellets

Sustane 4-6-4


Aerobically composted turkey litter, hydrolyzed feather meal and sulfate of potash

Sustane 8-4-4


Aerobically composted turkey litter, hydrolyzed feather meal and sulfate of potash

Mode of application

Most sustainable fertilizers are dry and are applied as powders or small granules to the growing mixes either before or after planting.  Other fertilizers are applied as liquids (e.g. Daniels) or liquid emulsions (fish emulsion). Liquid fertilizers can be applied using injectors making multiple applications during the life of the crop possible.


There is the potential for variability between batches of the products used to make sustainable fertilizers (Table 1) because many of them are derived primarily from waste materials.  Only companies selling consistent products will be successful because greenhouse growers expect consistent sustainable fertilizers.


Bio-reactions can occur during the storage of these materials. Sustainable fertilizers with high carbon-to-nitrogen ratios and adequate microbiology in the presence of moisture could begin to decompose. Should decomposition occur, the macronutrient content as well as other key attributes of the organic fertilizer could become altered.  Sustainable fertilizers should be stored in a dry environment and in containers that protect the fertilizers from the vermin that can feed on these materilas. 

How to Start Using Sustainable Fertilizers

It is a good idea, for growers who have limited experience with sustainable fertilizers, to start small.  Selecting a crop or a portion of a crop, and becoming familiar with the new cultural practice would be prudent.  After that, slowly expand to more crops/areas.

Always read the label of the product and consult your fertilizer sales representative or your Extension Educator if you have any doubts. 

At The Ohio State University, we have grown numerous bedding and container floriculture crops and some herbs with a single (initial) application of sustainable fertilizers (Figures 1-4).  We were able to show that these fertilizers can be used to produce quality crops.  In some cases, with sustainable fertilizers, the plants were slightly smaller but still marketable.  Under certain circumstances, smaller plants may be desirable to avoid the application of plant growth regulators.

Click here to see Figure 1

Click here to see Figure 2

Click here to see Figure 3

Click here to see Figure 4