Organic Fertilizer vs Chemical Fertilizer: Which One to Choose?

A gloved hand sprinkling fertilizer in a garden

If you’re trying to figure out how to feed your garden or lawn, you may be wondering what’s the difference between organic and chemical fertilizers. Knowing the positives and negatives of both options is the first step to deciding which choice is right for you.

And while it’s probably obvious that organic fertilizers are better for the environment, does that mean they’re the better option overall? Are there any instances when a synthetic fertilizer is the right choice? Skip ahead to find out. Or read on to learn what exactly organic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers are.

First up, what is organic fertilizer and how does it differ from chemical fertilizer?


What is organic fertilizer?

Five pairs of hands holding compost

Organic fertilizers are typically made from plants, animal products and minerals and have been minimally processed compared to synthetic fertilizers. The intent of organic fertilizers is to feed gardens, lawns, trees and shrubs in the same manner and with the same nutritional content they would receive from nature. 


What is chemical fertilizer?

A pair of hands holding white fertilizer pellets

Chemical fertilizers, also known as inorganic or synthetic fertilizers, are widely used and readily available at most gardening centers and greenhouses. They are manufactured through a process that includes the refining of materials in order to gather nutrients and often contain chemical fillers.


Chemical fertilizer vs organic fertilizer: what’s the difference?

Three different kinds of fertilizers lined up next to each other

What exactly is the difference between a chemical fertilizer and an organic one? For starters, you can think of chemical fertilizers as synthetically made because they do not occur naturally in the environment. Of course, some organic, chemical free fertilizer options are also processed and thus they encounter a bit of human interference before making their way to your garden. But regardless of the production process, organic fertilizer is still derived from natural sources.

In this table you’ll find a breakdown of the two different types of fertilizer and how they compare to each other across categories such as nutrients, availability and environmental impact.


Chemical Fertilizer

Organic Fertilizer

Examples

Ammonium chloride, ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, urea.

Animal manure, blood meal, compost, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion. 

Overall Pros

Easy to tailor to your specific needs as you can purchase them with a balanced NPK ratio or with a higher level of only one nutrient if that’s what your garden requires.

Not only feeds plant life but also heals soil and helps it to retain moisture and provide a slow and steady release of nutrients to your garden.

Overall Cons

Known to negatively impact soil quality and aquatic health in nearby water sources.

Can take too long to release the nutrients your plants need and often have an imbalanced NPK ratio.

Nutrients

Nutrient levels are usually highly accurate to package labels and blends can be purchased depending on what your garden needs.

Vary depending on type used, but also tends to carry additional beneficial micronutrients to boost soil and plant health.

Nutrient Release Rate

Gives a quick boost of nutrients meaning you may see results in one to two weeks, but requires further application to maintain rate of growth.

Release rate is slow and if soil is particularly depleted it can take a long time to repair, but plants are able to only consume what they need and are not overfed.

Manufacturing Process

Made from synthetic materials often in very large batches so products can be restocked quickly.

Made from natural materials, which sometimes requires smaller batches or lengthier production times.

Availability 

Readily available anywhere you buy gardening supplies and often in larger containers and bags.

Can be harder to find and sometimes only available at specialty stores or online and often come in smaller containers and bags.

Affordability

Tends to be very affordable, but remember you may need to buy it more frequently.

Tends to be more expensive, but remember you may only need to apply it once or twice.

Application Process

Easy to apply, however care must be taken not to overfeed plants or spill excess fertilizer as it can burn plants and some brands may burn skin.

Sometimes comes in a “raw” form and thus needs to be prepared before application, but there’s little risk of overfeeding or burning plants.

Impact on Soil

Contributes very little to the soil’s overall ecosystem and can even disrupt its natural balance.

Helps strengthen soil’s ecosystem, which not only has shorter term seasonal benefits, but long term benefits as well.

Impact on Plants

Can cause excess top growth and stressed roots, which may lead to a decline in plant health over time.

Targets soil and roots of plants first, so plant stems and leaves often take longer to grow.

Impact on Waterways

Excess chemical fertilizers can leach into waterways and disrupt aquatic life.

Because plants tend to use what they’ve been fed, very little leaching occurs.


Organic vs synthetic fertilizer: which one is better?

A small green plant in soil with fertilizer spread around the base

Even though there are both pros and cons to organic fertilizer, it’s clearly the more environmentally friendly option. But how do you know if it’s the better choice for you and your garden or lawn’s needs? Keep reading for a more in-depth comparison of organic fertilizer vs synthetic fertilizer.


Reasons to choose organic fertilizer over synthetic

Aside from its green factor, organic fertilizer also has a whole host of other benefits from its ability to heal unhealthy soil to the fact that you can make it yourself.

  1. It’s eco-friendly: We all know that organic fertilizers are the more sustainable option due to the fact that they’re derived from things found in nature. Instead of adding the chemicals in fertilizer that were synthetically produced, which in turn gets into our water systems, you’re simply adding plant and animal-based nutrients that are biodegradable and much safer than chemicals.
  1. It’s safer: When inorganic fertilizers are added to gardens and lawns, there’s a safety risk for pets and children due to the chemicals present. Ingestion of chemical fertilizers by pets can lead to vomiting, seizures and even loss of life, while studies have shown children exposed to such chemicals can experience neurological effects or develop cancer.
  1. It improves soil structure: How amazing is it that depleted, unhealthy soil can actually be repaired through the use of organic fertilizers? Soil and plants are living organisms just like us, and just like us they need specific nutrients to thrive. Soil that has been over fertilized by chemicals can lack what it needs to grow healthy plants, and adding organic fertilizers to it can help return it to its natural state.
  1. It’s a long term solution: One of the main complaints about organic fertilizers is that they take too long to work, but there’s often a reason for that. As mentioned above, often the soil and plant roots need to be repaired before they’re able to function properly, which can take longer. But if you’re planning on using the same soil year after year, then repairing it first makes sense as adding chemical fertilizer every season isn’t a long term solution.
  1. You can make it yourself: Another major complaint about organic fertilizer is that it’s too expensive. Certainly, pound for pound store bought natural fertilizers tend to cost more than chemical ones. But the great thing about organic fertilizers is that you can make many of them yourself. From manure, to finish emulsion, to Lomi dirt, to good old-fashioned compost - many of the DIY fertilizer options only require an upfront investment, while some of them are totally free!


Reasons to choose chemical fertilizer over organic

Even with all the amazing benefits of organic fertilizers, there are still some who feel the advantages of chemical fertilizers outweigh the negatives. Here are a few reasons why the use of a chemical fertilizer still remains a popular choice.

  1. It’s readily available: Perhaps the main reason people choose chemical fertilizers is that they’re easy to find. Head to any home hardware store or gardening center during the growing season and you’ll find shelves lined with multiple synthetic options from a variety of brands. Much like in other product areas, there’s a chemical fertilizer for pretty much any situation you can think of.
  1. It works fast: When you’re taking the time and putting in the effort to cultivate a garden or a lush lawn of grass, you want to see results quickly. This area is where chemical fertilizers tend to excel. Many brands even use the fact that their product will show quick results as its main selling point, drawing in gardeners who want to enjoy the fruits of their labor sooner rather than later.
  1. It stimulates top growth: The main reason synthetic fertilizers lead to such fast results is because they’re formulated to stimulate the growth of the top of the plant, meaning the part we can see. Of course, that usually means that the plant’s roots are not developing at the same rate, but there may be times when top growth seems more important than root growth - such as with a seasonal floral plant.
  1. It has standard labeling: It’s understandable that when we go to the gardening center to pick out a fertilizer, we want the process to be simple. This is another reason why inorganic fertilizers are so popular. They all tend to be similarly labeled with a clear breakdown of what kind of nutrients and minerals they contain, so it’s easy to pick out what you need and go.
  1. It’s affordable: As mentioned, organic fertilizers - particularly those carried at garden centers and greenhouses - tend to be more expensive than synthetic ones. Because chemical fertilizers are produced and sold on such a large scale, brands are able to offer them at lower prices, which is appealing to those who don’t want to spend a lot to get a beautiful, flourishing garden.

7 types of organic fertilizers that are better than synthetic ones

If you want to use an organic fertilizer that works just as well – even better – than a synthetic one, check out these seven choices and their benefits.


1. Manure

A person shoveling manure

Manure is a time-tested and highly-valued organic fertilizer thanks to its beneficial nitrogen content and availability - especially for those who also raise farm animals. Of course, living with chickens and cows isn’t as common as it used to be, but that doesn’t mean you too can’t apply manure to your garden.

Manure can be purchased in bags at a garden center or bought in larger quantities from a nursery or a local company that sells other yard products such as topsoil, gravel and so on. And if you can have animals the process is even more direct, just make sure you compost the manure first as raw manure has a high acidity.

Top benefits of using manure as a fertilizer:

  • It increases soil aeration.
  • It improves soil structure.
  • It’s high in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

2. Lomi Dirt

Top view of Lomi filled with nutrient rich dirt

Want the ability to easily produce a natural fertilizer at the touch of a button? If that sounds too good to be true, rest assured that it’s not! The Lomi electric composter is small enough to sit on your countertop, but powerful enough to quickly break down your food waste, resulting in nutrient rich dirt you can add to your garden.

With Lomi’s Grow mode, you can go from food scraps to soil amendment in 16-20 hours. If you compare that to the months it takes to make traditional compost, you can see why Lomi is such a beneficial addition to any household. Plus, it doesn’t smell like other organic fertilizers do.

Check out this article to learn about other ways to use Lomi dirt.

Top benefits of using Lomi dirt as a fertilizer:

  • It has a low carbon footprint.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • It gives you an unlimited supply of natural fertilizer.

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3. Compost

A paper bag filled with food scraps next to dirt

Compost is truly one of the best organic fertilizers because it’s simply feeding new plants with the remnants of old plants. Compost is also rich in a multitude of minerals and is easy to make, as long as you have a little patience. Thankfully, you can also purchase compost if you’re in need of it sooner rather than later.

Those who have the yard space will certainly benefit from a traditional compost pile. Although, calling it simply a pile isn’t quite accurate. If you want nutrient-dense compost to add to your garden, the best way to approach it is to have a few different piles side by side. One can be for brand new food waste and yard trimmings, another that’s on its way to becoming compost, and a third for the material that’s done.

Top benefits of using compost as a fertilizer:

  • It’s a zero waste method of gardening.
  • It improves soil structure.
  • Watching your scraps turn into usable soil over time is a rewarding process.


4. Bone Meal

A hand feeding bone meal to seedlings

Bone meal is derived from the bones of animals. Once the bones have been steamed, they’re ground up and the powder can then be used to fertilize gardens and lawns. And just like calcium is good for our bones, the calcium in bone meal is good for plants as it helps them develop strong cell walls.

Now, grinding up animal bones might not be your thing. But if you don’t mind the process you can make DIY bone meal at home. You can also buy it from many different sources, such as greenhouses and online.

Top benefits of using bone meal as a fertilizer:

  • It breaks down slowly, meaning it doesn’t need frequent application. 
  • It contains micronutrients like zinc, iron and magnesium. 
  • It won’t burn plants if you accidentally apply too much.

5. Weed Tea

Dandelion heads floating in water

Sure, weeds can be super annoying. But did you know they actually are full of beneficial nutrients? You just have to learn how to apply them properly as throwing a pile of weeds into your garden is more likely to cause harm instead of good. And the best way to apply them is by making weed tea.

Place weeds, including their stems and roots, in a 1:4 ratio of water. Seal it in a jar and then shake gently every few days for a period of four to five weeks. Once the water has turned dark brown, run the mixture through a cloth or paper filter. Last up, dilute the tea with more water at a 1:10 ratio and pour into your garden.

Top benefits of using weed tea as a fertilizer:

  • It’s an excellent organic fertilizer for small seedlings.
  • A little bit of weed tea can go a long way.
  • It’s packed with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur.

6. Fish Emulsion

A person cutting a fish with a knife

Fish scraps have been used for growing food for centuries, thanks to their high nutrient value. And while historically the fish parts were often buried directly in the garden, it’s more common nowadays to use a fish emulsion instead. You can either buy fish emulsion at a store, or you can go the DIY route.

To make it yourself, buy fresh fish from the store - or catch a few yourself. After you’ve eaten the good parts, place the scraps in a bucket and then add a dry material on top - such as brown leaves. Continue to alternate layers until the bucket is two-thirds full, then cover with water, add a lid and stir the mixture every few days for several weeks. Pour the liquid into your garden and watch it flourish!

Top benefits of using fish emulsion as a fertilizer:

  • It’s a great solution for waste from the fishing industry.
  • Sensitive plants can tolerate it better than harsher fertilizers.
  • It’s very high in nitrogen. 

7. Coffee Grounds

A person spooning coffee grounds into a potted plant

If you know anything about gardening and soil pH, you’ve likely heard that soil that’s too acidic can be a bad thing. However, there are times when soil needs its acidity bumped up - and in those cases, coffee grounds are the perfect organic option.

Aside from adjusting your soil’s acidic level, coffee is also high in nitrogen and it helps improve soil aeration. You can either spread grounds around the base of your acid-loving plants every few months, or you can make a liquid spray by watering down brewed coffee at a 1:3 ratio and then spritzing it on your plants.

Top benefits of using coffee grounds as a fertilizer:

  • Plants such as blueberries, tomatoes, hydrangeas and daffodils love it.
  • If you’re a coffee drinker, you already have it in abundance.
  • It deters pests like slugs and snails.

Now you know more about the difference between organic and chemical fertilizer, hopefully you’ll feel more confident choosing one or the other the next time you’re at the gardening center. Or maybe you feel ready to try one of the homemade organic options  - like compost!

To get started making nutrient-rich dirt, reserve your Lomi today! To read more about what others are saying about Lomi, check out our reviews.


Written by: Larissa Swayze