What does “Natural” mean, and what does “Synthetic” mean? And exactly what makes synthetically produced fertilizers, if there is such a thing in the first place, any worse for your garden than naturally produced ones? This is one area in which a lot of balony gets thrown around – and regrettably believed by many good people.
The simplest and most natural of the commercial fertilizers is probably lime. It’s also almost universally recognized as important, and used by every kind of gardener who knows what he’s doing and has access to it. The world has an inexhaustible supply of limestone (calcium carbonate), and it’s simply ground to powder in powerful rock crushers, bagged, and sold to the public. We even receive much of our magnesium from the same process, when the raw material is dolomitic limestone (labeled as dolomite lime).
All twelve of the other nutrients man can control are also mined from the earth. However, we have learned over time how to remove impurities, such as heavy metals, and increase the concentration of the individual nutrients, by running them through a simple concentration process. This is often just a sulfuric acid bath, which leaves us with a much higher concentration of the original nutrient, plus sulphur, which is itself a very important nutrient. This is one reason most of the nutrients come as a combination with sulfate (zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, etc.).
So, we benefit by getting a much higher concentration of the nutrient we want, plus sulphur, with no heavy metals, and it costs MUCH less to ship to our locations, because it weighs only a fraction of the original raw material.
Are those fertilizers synthetically produced? I don’t think so, but perhaps they are by some peoples’ definition.
Did you know that even nitrogen is mined out of the ground? This may surprise many people, but it actually is – in Chile, South America – where huge mines of sodium nitrate exist. But can you imagine the cost to get it to the USA, though? And what would we do with the sodium salts??
Thank goodness we have found a better, more efficient, and therefore far less costly way to produce nitrogen fertilizers.
About 105 years ago two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch, discovered and commercialized the process by which nitrogen could be separated from other elements in different compounds and made available as fertilizer. This discovery arguably served as the single most important component leading to exponential global agricultural growth, and the Haber-Bosch process is still the benchmark process used today.
I believe the world owes much of what we have agriculturally today to the use of nitrogen that has been produced by the Haber-Bosch process, and whether or not it’s synthetic is, to me at least, irrelevant.
I do believe there is a valid and important argument against the uncontrolled “synthetic” production of chemicals having to do with the garden, but I believe it should be limited to pesticides and herbicides. This is a more complex issue that will take more time to discuss, and we won’t go there at this time.
I do hope that readers of this article are able to understand and appreciate the value and importance of mineral nutrients in helping us grow strong, healthy plants, and that you will not spend your time worrying about “natural” or “synthetic” fertilizers.