Many people believe that it’s necessary to spend a ton of time, money, and energy fertilizing their gardens. If you’re hoping to move to a more natural, organic way of gardening, consider using homemade fertilizers. These will cut down on the expenses of raising a garden, as well as help make your garden more productive.

Fertilizers fall into two categories–organic and synthetic. Synthetic fertilizers are made using non-manmade substances that contain highly concentrated amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These fertilizers work incredibly fast, feeding the plants directly, but they can damage the beneficial organisms that naturally occur in healthy soil. Most homemade fertilizers will be organic fertilizers.

Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, utilize natural substances such as fish emulsion, alfalfa meal, or other ingredients to provide the same nutrients. However, these work more slowly, breaking down the soil into pieces that the plant roots can more easily absorb. Ideally, you should work to integrate organic fertilizers into your soil over time so that the quality of the soil improves and you don’t damage your soil in the process.

Before you set out to fertilize your garden, make sure it actually needs fertilizer in the first place. While some people do have truly poor soil, very few soils are “unworkable” and simply need to have their balances of nutrients righted. Have your soil tested by purchasing an inexpensive homemade pH test kit, or bring a sample of it to the local cooperative extension and have them test it for you. This will help you pinpoint exactly where–and how–you need to fertilize.

  1. Use compost

Compost is the most tried-and-true methods of fertilizing your garden. It can be done in any location, with any amount of ingredients, and with very minimal effort. The type of compost you will have likely will vary based on where you live and how much material you have to compost.

If you live in a rural area with plenty of open space and limited access to neighbors, consider an open compost bin or a trench compost system. By far, these are the easiest to maintain. All you need to do is throw your ingredients in as you accumulate them (think kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, chicken manure, etc) and turn the pile every now and then. You can layer “brown” (carbon-rich) and “green” (nitrogen-rich) ingredients to make your pile more efficient.

However, if your neighbors live nearby, or if you have limited space, consider a more enclosed method of composting. Compost tumblers keep everything neat and tidy, but you do have to pony up the money for this expense. An indoor vermicomposting system (a bin with composting worms) also is a great way to keep your recycling and home-fertilizer-making going throughout the colder winter months. This also keeps it out of sight–and smell–of the neighbors if that’s a concern.

Compost takes anywhere from four to eight months to break down. The longer you let it sit, the better. It will yield nutritious soil that can be spread directly on your garden. If you opt to utilize a vermicomposting system, you can even process that soil into an even more nutritious additive–

“worm tea”–that can be sprinkled directly on your plants.

  1. Use fish—and their poop!

Aquarium water is a great source of nutrients for your plants, as it contains fish waste. While you shouldn’t’ use water from a saltwater tank, as this can dehydrate your plants, water taken from a fresh water tank is a great way to provide your plants with hydration as well as nutrients.     

Fish have been used as fertilizer for centuries, ever since the land was first farmed by Native Americans. You can use whole fish as part of your planting and fertilization efforts, but keep in mind that you want to bury them in their entirety so as not to attract pests like raccoons. Fish fertilizers provide burn-free nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and even calcium. Using an entire fish, pieces of a fish, or even just their waste is a great way to easily fertilize your garden. Just mind the stink.

You can also make your own homemade fish emulsion fertilizer mix. Combine fish parts, guts, and water to a barrel and allow it to steep for several weeks. Then, apply about three gallons of liquid to every one hundred square feet of your garden. Allowing the mixture to break down—and, yes, to rot—will help the nutrients be better absorbed when applied to your garden.

  1. Use kitchen scraps

As with compost, there are several kitchen scraps that can be used to help fertilize your garden. Bananas, for example, are high in potassium, making them a kitchen staple for many people. When planting, bury a banana or even just the peel in the hole. This will provide a direct source of potassium to the plant and it works especially well when planting roses (which require more potassium).

You can even use coffee grounds as a fertilizer, which contain necessary amounts of nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. Coffee grounds are beneficial for plants that require more acidic soil, such as blueberries, avocados, or azaleas. Let the grounds dry to prevent the growth of mold and then scatter them like mulch around the plants.

Egg shells are another excellent fertilizer, as they contain nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and other trace elements. They also contain high levels of calcium, which helps plants develop and grow cells. When you’re growing plants, they remove high amounts of calcium from the soil, depleting it over time. This is a great way to get rid of your old egg shells—yes, the ones you usually just throw out! Simply grind them or crush them into a powder and sprinkle them around the soil either before or after planting.

  1. Use manure to make “tea”

Since the start of civilization, humans have always used fertilizer from manure to help improve crops. In most cases, it should be used after drying, to help prevent it from burning your crops with too much nitrogen. This is especially true for animals like chickens, but less the case with animals like rabbits. Rabbit manure can be applied directly to the garden with no wait time, as it does not burn the soil. You should never use manure from meat-eating animals, as this can spread unsavory diseases.

In most cases, you should age manure for at least six months. This can be spread directly on the garden or made into a tea. Manure tea enriches the soil and adds necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth. The nutrients dissolve easily in water and the resulting mixture can be used any time you water the plants. To create this mixture, place a shovel full of manure into a burlap sack. Don’t use fresh manure, but instead aged manure. Suspend the bag in a five gallon bucket and fill with water. Allow it to steep for two weeks. If you have a vermicomposting system (vermicomposting) you can also use the worm castings to make similar sort of tea.

  1. Get creative

There are countless other ingredients that can be recycled to make fertilizer. If you have a fireplace or fire pit, save the wood ash and sprinkle it on your soil to add potassium and calcium carbonate.

It may be unsavory, but some people even add things like hair, powdered milk, or matches to their soil. Hair is a good source of nitrogen and also helps to repel deer from your garden. Powdered milk is good for you as well as for plants, adding a large amount of easily-absorbed calcium to the soil. Matches, on the other hand, are a good source of magnesium. Soak them in water before placing in the planting hole—you do nothing else.

For another quick alternative, consider adding a plant additive like PlantCatalyst®. PlantCatalyst® is an organic, nontoxic compound that helps plants absorb nutrients more naturally. While it doesn’t necessarily fertilize the soil itself, it helps make your other fertilizers more effective. When used in conjunction with a regular fertilizing routine, it can help increase your garden’s fertility and productivity. PlantCatalyst® is a tried-and-true solution, having been used by professionals and DIY-ers alike for over forty years. It can be added to the soil before planting, while planting, or during planting.

Making your own plant food should not be difficult. It should be simple and fun, and definitely shouldn’t break the bank. By making a few simple tweaks and adding some homemade amendments, you’ll have productive, delicious plants in no time.