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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener, Unexpected Nutrients.

Updated on January 23, 2015

Orchids at the San Diego Zoo

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Call the Zoo to find out when the orchid house is open. I believe it is once each month.
Call the Zoo to find out when the orchid house is open. I believe it is once each month.
Call the Zoo to find out when the orchid house is open. I believe it is once each month. | Source

Ammonia or Ammonium?

Ammonia added to water for nitrogen works in organic settings, but not inorganic because bacteria make ammonium from ammonia. Ammonium is what plants need to help them meet their need for nitrogen.

There are a few other forms plants can uptake and if the mulch in your garden is moist enough, some of these will be created also.

Here is an interesting point with organic gardening, or allelopathic gardening, biodynamic, whatever term you care to use, ammonia provides organic gardens with useful nitrogen, but not inorganic gardens. It is the bacteria and fungi that do this, so, if you run the mulch through an oven and the ammonia will not work, if your soils are dry, this doesn’t work very well.

Run this through your organic calculator and understand that natural processes need natural elements for a healthy system to function.

We talk above about how to respond if you have to recover land after a fire, and the short answer here is, don’t bother using ammonia, it is only going to waste until the bacteria have returned in high numbers. Dump a lot of organic compounds onto the soils and give it some water, then you can use the ammonia.

And, yes, we are talking about the ammonia under the sink or in the garage simple household ammonia. This works better than, say, synthetic ammonium sulfate or nitrate simply because it requires an organism to convert it to a useful form and normal biological feedback mechanisms prevent over dosing the ammonium and burning plants. The ammonium nitrate works faster because the nitrate only needs water to be useful in a plant, leaving the ammonium for the bacteria and fungi to turn into nitrate and nitrite.

Don’t over apply, ammonia itself if in excess becomes a plant toxin until broken down. This can also be done with mulch piles to increase the nitrogen content, assuming, as above, the mulch is moist, which any good mulch or composing person understands.

Ammonia on Compost?

Preposterous you think? Well, at least it will keep the skunks out.

Thinks about it, if nitrogen is used in compost to help break down the carbon compounds and reuse them, and if some of the same bacteria that break down, say, sulfur can use the ammonia to make ammonium, then, yes, ammonia added to your compost can help it break down.

Remember the composting process where you add green materials? The difference in green and dried plant materials is the nitrogen content. Nitrogen is returned eventually to the air around us.

Don’t worry about polluting the air, it is already nearly 79% nitrogen. Actually it is officially 78.084% nitrogen, 20.946% oxygen, .934% argon, and carbon dioxide comes in next with .0383%. Yes, there is water vapor but that is suspended in the air and at the surface ranges normally between 1-4% by volume.

So the nitrogen you release is normal cycling of nitrogen. But remember, the liquid ammonia you buy in the store is simply dissolved in water, it is actually a gas but forms a nice strong bond with hydrogen in water so dissolves readily.

In nature it does occur in some volcanic vents, but most is the by-product from amino acids breaking down.

Bacteria, lighting, and fungi “fix” nitrogen into products bacteria, fungi, and plants can use for amino acids, then animals concentrate those to make more complex amines, amino acids, poly amines, and proteins.

What do we mean by “fixing” nitrogen? Well, the air stores huge reserves as N2 or nitrogen molecules, but living things need to fix this situation, as it were, and lightning breaks these apart, which, of you have not guessed by now, takes a little energy. The N2 is broken into two nitrogen ions then quickly attaches to other gasses such as nitrates (NO3-) or nitrites (NO2-) and, if rain is present, then ammonia (NH3) is also produced.

What do we mean by “quickly?” How quick is “quickly?” Well if you are thinking 1/40,000th of a second you would be a little slow, but that works for now.

Slower that this is the fixation of nitrogen by certain organisms working with plants. Mostly legumes, or pea family plants, and, again, usually or at least most commonly with an organism in the Rhizobium genus. Now if that sounds like a root, it ought to, they were discovered in rhizomes, roots, of plants, again, usually pea family plants. In this case, the bacteria actually needs to be inside the root of the plant to fix nitrogen through a very complex process.

Other soil bacteria can fix nitrogen by themselves. These are the Azotobacter and the do not need to legume to fix nitrogen. So you understand when we discuss brewing manure tea or compost tea to create organisms for the soil we are actually creating the organisms needed for a health soil and healthy plants by creating nutrient cycles helpful to both.

Animal waste contains amino acids and urea, which breaks down into ammonia, the most common source in nature. At least some people think that is so, however, as described earlier, lighting fixed nitrogen which then falls in rain turning everything green. I have to assume that mulch and composted materials on the ground also create a reasonable large volume of ammonia but I don’t know that this has ever been measured.

So, yes, ammonia on compost is a good idea. You don’t need too much, but then again, the ammonia you buy in the store is already diluted, so a cup in a gallon of water ought to do it.

Apples for Bromeliads!

Why, yes, that does work.

Pineapples and many other bromeliads are grown as house and yard plants and many are quite spectacular.

Apples and other fruits like strawberries and bananas, give off ethylene gas. Many fruits and vegetables generate ethylene gas while they ripen and this helps them communicate their ripeness to other plants.

Sounds like a hormone, doesn't it?

Well, there are lots of things other than hormones that are chemical communicators including the very components of your own DNA when they are broken into smaller units, specifically the purines, but I digress.

Why would plants want to communicate with other plants?

Actually they influence other plants, which is what the word allelopathy means.

Most people who know this word use it to mean a negative plant interaction much like the herb chaparral (“creosote”) prevents other plants from invading its root zone, but actually, it is a neutral term that just means the plants influence each other.

Well, pretend you are an apple and you are ripening better than the one next to you. Along comes a cow and wants a snack. Which apple is going to be eaten? The ripe one, of course, so, if I can convince the other apples to ripen at the same time, the chance that my seeds get into the ground as opposed to being chewed increases.

Pretty cool, huh?

One thing we have gotten away from is another big word, teleology. Teleology means purpose, so, the teleological aspect of ethylene gas is to help other fruits ripen. This is the same as saying, the purpose of ethylene gas is to help other fruits ripen.

Sometimes it is helpful to ask yourself about the teleological aspects of things. Why are they there? So when you hear of a new gas or chemical a plant or animal makes or something if found in the bold, ask yourself what the purpose of that might be. I have found it useful to understanding how things interrelate in this intricate world wide web of life and inorganic earth we live on.

You can use this to ripen bananas or avocados by putting a fruit that does produce ethylene in a paper bag with the unripe fruit to hasten its ripening. Broccoli, apples, apricots, blueberries, cantaloupe, citrus fruit (oddly, not grapefruit), cranberries, figs, guavas, grapes, green onions, honeydew, ripe kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, papayas, passion fruit, peaches, pears, peppers, persimmons, pineapple, plantains, plums, prunes, quinces, tomatoes, avocados, bananas, melons, they all produce it and are influenced by it.

This is the reason those green bags are so useful in keeping your fruits and vegetables from spoiling. In this case we can use this to make a bromeliad bloom also. Putting a piece of ripe apple or even banana skin into the plant will help it bloom. Try it sometime when you have a ripe apple, or banana, something that will not smell too much or attract too many bugs unless it is outside where it doesn't matter.

Ashes in the Compost! Ashes in the Garden!

Ashes have been used for millennia in gardens, orchards, and agriculture, not to mention in gunpowder, and for the same reason, potassium and carbon.

Yes! Ashes have carbon, which is useful for plants, but they also have minerals, especially potassium. The primary mineral constituent of fireplace ashes from wood is potassium bicarbonate, from paper products it is carbon. Your plants need carbon, potassium, and bicarbonate, and, if the ashes are from wood, other minerals will also be there is varying degrees. Remember, if the plant takes it up, it will either be in the leaves and/or in the wood.

Now think about that for one second. The word potassium came from the root word ‘potash,’ which is simply a compound word from the words pot and ash, ashes under your cooking pot. People making soap used pot ash from hard wood fires to make the soap. Then it was found to be useful for gun powder and fertilizer. The initial “K” is the chemical symbol because in Latin the word is Kalium, from an Arabic root word, which means plant ash, a derivative of the word alkali which is also Arabic, so both the Latin word and the English word came from the same source, plant ashes, and yes, it was the first alkali substance used because you could get it by burning wood. Before about 1800 there was chemically no distinction between sodium and potassium until Potassium was separated via electrolysis from wood ash.

Now before you go off thinking alkali is all bad, remember, you can’t contract a muscle without it. It is critical in both the muscle contraction, then relaxation, and the nerve transmission that orders this, as well as other nerve functions. So alkali and acids are our friends, but we need them in balance. The kidney’s help to balance any excess of either.

So what is the easy way to use ashes in the garden? Just dig the ashes into the soil and it will enrich the mulch or soil and that is it! All done! Wasn’t that easy?

Now here again, it is helpful for you to have a good layer of mulch or good organic soils with bacteria and fungi that can use these and make them fit for use by plants, and help neutralize the alkali with organic acids, but this is good for the soil. Be sure to water it, that speeds up the process of breaking it down into useful things like carboxylic acid, simply CO2 in water, which plants can use to make more of the plant.

Yes, some complain that in alkali soils too much ash can aggravate that situation and that is true until it rains or they are in contact with other ground moisture then the bicarbonate breaks into carbonate, then carboxylic acid and the potassium is absorbed into plants or other soil organisms. But plants are complicit in this also.

You see, plants are not simply taking things out of the soil, the put things into the soils as well. Have you ever wondered why plants help to break down rocks, or how a plant can grow into a crack of a rock? Many visits to Yosemite caused me to wonder about this. Plants simply growing out of the rocks. Not weeds, those also, rather, small trees, natural Bonsai. How do they do that?

Well, it seem that roots also put things into the soil and some of the things they put into soil help them grow by helping to maintain soil organisms that help break down minerals and carry them to the root. Grayston, Vaughan, and Jones wrote in 1996 that the area around the roots contain carbon compounds, sugars and others that increase microbial activity which in turn increases nutrient availability. Pretty cool, huh?

Then Sandnes, Eldhuset, and Wollebaek in 2005 published a paper in Soil Biology & Biochemistry that noted some of these root exudates (things that are exuded, or pushed out of the roots) included organic acids. Acids help break down rocks and minerals.

Well these same sugars and acids help to neutralize the alkali in the ashes also. The plants need the carbon, the acids neutralize it so the roots can take it up and microorganisms do the rest of the work for you.

Yes, life itself can be described as a pH balancing act where keeping things in balance maintains health and letting things get out of balance throws things off. Having said that, water is a great mediator, solvent, and buffer of acids and alkali. Plants, believe it or not, are largely acid loving, some more than others, and there are those that prefer alkali, but the majority love some acid, or at least a balanced pH, that is a perfect balance of the two.

Mulch and compost both help soils by acidification of the soil. Ashes can be a part of that and, when mixed with a good mulch or compost, add needed carbon and potassium. Remember, everything in ashes was once found in the plant.

Now, if you are worried about the alkali, say your ground is dry, and you have fewer plants, you can always mix in a little phosphoric acid or Epsom salt into the ash. Where do you get phosphoric acid? Well, soda pops usually have a good mixture of sugars and phosphates, that is, if you are a plant. By doing so you can neutralize the alkali before mixing it into the soils or adding it to a potted plant.

If you had a two gallon bucket filled with ashes, three or four cups of cola, a half cup of scale cleaner, of a cup of Epsom salts should do the trick and all will help the oil in different ways. You really don’t need to be precise with the garden, the natural processes will take care of most imbalances.

Frankly it is a bit unusual for a soil to need potassium, but very common for soil to need carbon unless your soil is simply very dark color from organic matter.

Carbon is often the limiting nutrient for plants. Remember, it is carbon that forms the sugar backbone in photosynthesis, and these sugars used for metabolism in plants and animals, as made into more complex carbon structures, such as lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose.

It is known by oceanographers that carbon is the limiting nutrient in the oceans. Plankton take up all they can get, and this forms the base of the food chain in the oceans and provides that 28% oxygen in the atmosphere we need to breath.

Remember that composting also creates a lot of organic acids. Adding ashes to this naturally neutralized the ash and makes the carbon available to the plants.

Have you ever wanted that rich dark soils organic gardeners have? Well, stop throwing your ashes in the trash can, they only take up space in the dump and you need the carbon.

The USGS published the 2006 Minerals Yearbook and said of potassium that 93% of the world’s production is used as fertilizer, but we throw our ashes out in the trash. This puts ashes in a whole new category.

Back to the carbon in the mulch.

Carbon degrades into two primary compounds based on whether you have oxygen present or not. The first, desirable compound is CO2, carbon dioxide. As the word sounds, it is one carbon with two oxygen atoms. If there is not enough oxygen, then it degrades into methane. This is not good.

Now, if you are concerned about carbon dioxide, realize however carbon cycles, it is going to degrade into CO2. In the ground or in mulch, and in the presence of moisture, it will be converted into very useful carboxylic acid. Plants love this, so do soil microorganisms. So, left in the field, it does the same. If it burns it does the same. But here we are putting most of it back in the soil where it does the most good.

There is a real concern about nitrogen if you are dumping too much ash into the garden, and this can be changes, especially in mulch my simply pouring a little ammonia into the pile before mixing it up, Bone meal and feather meal are better choices for the garden, or even the mulch, especially if you are close to using the mulch.

Microorganisms working for you on the mulch and in the soil need nitrogen. If your carbon to nitrogen ration is above 25:1, you will be pulling nitrogen out of the soils to feed the organisms.

Again, this is why using proteins in the garden works. They provide slow nitrogen to those organisms. It works in mulch, it works in the ground.

At this writing a bone is on the mend in the writers right arm. Yes, it was a gardening accident, a ladder I was on left. The first few weeks it is mostly protein that is being used to stitch those bones, then the calcium phosphates (hydroxyapatites) fill in the bone. This to say, protein is why bone meal is good for the plants, it provides nitrogen as well as minerals.

Ashes to Ashes

How about you? Have you every dumped ashes into the garden?

See results

Baking Powder for Flowers

Baking powders come in two types, fast acting and slow acting.

If you have the slow acting kind, it is made with sodium aluminum phosphate and/or sodium aluminum sulfate. In either case you are consuming aluminum, which, in my humble opinion, is toxic as it competes with calcium for absorption (and so reduces calcium absorption, something that is very important in the body), becomes deposited in the bone and central nervous system, but has no function anywhere in the body (the calcium it replaced does have a specific ionic function in the nervous system). Some researchers think it is associated with an increase in breast cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, but this link is not proved, but why take the chance?

What is proved is that at high dosages it is a neurotoxin, and stresses the kidneys.

A better use for this is as a fertilizer for hydrangeas, in particular and other flowering plants in general.

Why Hydrangea? Aluminum added to hydrangea soil causes them to add a blue pigment to the flower. Now, there is a white variety that doesn’t change, but in general, aluminum turns the colored varieties a delightful blue color or, when iron is added also, the colors can be mixed or blended.

Other plants can use the aluminum also, it does have uses in plants, but not animals.

Both fast and slow varieties of baking soda have an acid reaction that produces our old friend CO2. This is what causes your cake to rise, it is what makes it light and fluffy, so the slow variety, Disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate or Sodium acid pyrophosphate, often with monocalcium phosphate added is a good source of acid for the soils, but also adds phosphates which enhance blooms.

Simply because of the cost, I don’t recommend this as a regular fertilizer, but, say, you spill it on the floor and don’t know what to do with it, simply spread it around the flower bed.

Here is another principle: If you have a variety of different types of chemical compounds in the soil, in this case, two types of phosphorus, but other also exist there and, say, you have added bone meal, and compost, then different phosphates will be used at different times in the soil and, for different purposes. So, again, the organic complex is important for a slower release of nutrients.

How about for a pond? If you have a pond with water lilies (please make sure there are fish to eat mosquito larvae) this second, fast kind, that without the aluminum, can be added to the pond as well and will help water lilies bloom as well.

That reminds me, I need to go sprinkle some around my Martha Washington Geraniums!

Cream of Tartar for the Soil?

We really don’t pay much attention to what is in the cupboard.

Cream of Tartar is actually potassium hydrogen tartrate or potassium bitartrate, and is very much three organic acids and a potassium molecule, perhaps a spare carbon left over.

Again, because of the expense of the food grade product, only use this on house plants, but add just a sprinkle to the water you use, put the houseplant into a bowl and water the plant. By recovering the water you can use it over and over.

This will help neutralize alkali in the soil built up from other watering and help make the calcium from your normal tap water more available to the plant. While you are at it, add a sprinkle of baking powder, not baking soda (too much sodium).

Last, it adds potassium. The baking power adds phosphorus which causes plants to bloom and ferns to multiply.

Platycerium, Staghorn Ferns

Well, when you know how to grow things, things grow.
Well, when you know how to grow things, things grow. | Source

Going Bananas

I love stag horn ferns. Stag horn ferns love bananas.

Anything that has protein has some nitrogen. There is nitrogen in the protein themselves and when bacteria or fungi break down the proteins into amino acids, another nitrogen atom is added.

Bananas are a high protein food as far as fruits are concerned.

Epiphytes are plants that grow on top of other plants but do not feed off of them. Stag horn ferns, some other ferns like the exotic Drynaria, and other plants like Tillandsia and some other bromeliads all get their nutrients primarily from things that fall into the plant from above.

Bananas and banana peels can be an important nutrient source for these plants. Overripe bananas are great for this, but before they get over ripe, try pealing them and freezing the fruit in plastic wrap. Then add to the blender with a little milk to make an incredible drink.

Failing that, your garden will happily accept any banana donations.

If you have a rabbit, make sure it doesn’t know where the banana is, they will eat banana to the exclusion of all other foods until they are quite sick. It is high volumes of banana that make it sick, not a small piece. A small piece of banana makes a rabbit your friend for life, or at least as long as you have the banana.

Why, I don’t know, but it is true.

Do you keep bromeliads? Try dropping a small piece of banana skin into the water bowl at the center of the plant when you water it. This will slowly deteriorate and feed the plant as it does so. Many Bromeliads prefer to be dry throughout most of the winter for the best color displays, so are rarely watered, but when you do they can use the nutrients in the banana skin, but especially through the summer.

Blood On the Saddle, Blood on the Ground. . .

Do you remember that old Disney song from the Bear Country Jamboree? The heavy set old cowboy bear with an undersized guitar or mandolin, strumming slowly, “There was blood on the saddle, blood on the ground.” He kept being cut off by the other bears, very cute.

I have to confess to not being perfect, though this might be more than obvious to those who know me. This morning I was out making much by trimming a large vine and snipping it into small pieces when suddenly a sharp pain went through my right ring finger tip. The pain was, of course, the plant sheers, which decided I needed to donate a bit of my blood to a rare plants nearby.


It really wasn’t that bad, but bleed it did and I let it bleed for a few seconds to wash out the wound before treating it.

That blood went onto a small potted plant, I made sure of that. But this isn’t the only blood my plants get, when blood drips out of meat, I will often catch it in a cup and throw it into a favorite potted plant. Blood meal is a regular we buy from the nursery.

Why, you ask?

Blood is a high nitrogen fertilizer, though I recommend buying it in the dried form as opposed to using your own. Even better, is some animal product pooling a little blood inside the wrapper before use? Try draining that into a glass, dilute it a little then pour it onto your plants. It provides much needed nitrogen and iron in the very useful heme form of iron. This is easy for microorganisms to take up and convert into iron the plant can absorb.

Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen and iron for your plants. I don’t know any plant, even the sensitive maidenhair ferns that don’t like this form of nitrogen. Hit this ferns with high nitrogen fertilizer and you may find yourself with a dead plant, but organic nitrogen releases slowly. They are really very complex proteins that slowly degrade into the soil.

No Bones About It

Well, we have drained our food of the blood in it to put into the garden, much better than eating it, but what about the bones? Bones and ever so slowly to the nitrogen in the garden, really so slowly it isn’t worth mentioning, but that add calcium phosphate. Bones has a big mixture of lots of different kinds of calcium phosphates all of which break down slowly in the soil. Bones can be added to the soils whole, in parts, or ground, cooked or raw, bones improve the soil.

Now, mind you, a bone is going to break down into the soil over dozens of years or hundreds of years according to how large it is and how cooked it is. Cooked bone breaks down more rapidly, but this is not to say they are fast decomposers, they are not, remember, dogs bury bones because they can come back later and find them, so don’t expect to dig the same spot and have it bone free in the years to come unless you crush it into small pieces or, even better, into powder. But if you follow other advice here and dig holes to bury garbage, bones make a great addition to deeper holes and help aerate the soil.

Boric Acid

Boric acid for ants & roaches, and vegetables makes for a great way to control pests.

Boric acid is simply a source of Boron for plants and garden uses such as killing ants. You can also use laundry borax as well.

There are many ways to use this to kill insects.

For both ants and cockroaches boric acid can be sprinkled on the ground in the area you have problems. Don’t do this if you have dogs or insect eaters as pets (yes, a friend used to have a Coati, an omnivore that will grub for insects but also get into your Borax or mixtures of them). Dog sniff this up and it can harm their smell.

Let’s take a look at ants. Make a mixture of any sweet syrup with about 1/8th part borax or boric acid and mix this up. Put this into something that won’t get wet when you water, say, a tablespoon full into a plastic container with some holes in it. The sweet syrup is the bait the ants are attracted to. They will pick this up and carry it back to their nests and in a few days, the next will die.

For cockroaches, mix your choice of Boron with bacon grease or other animal food fat say, 30-50% Boron according to how liquid your fat is at room temperature. You want to make a paste and then have that paste dry into a reasonably hard ball, say, 1” in diameter. Put these onto plastic wrap or wax paper and place them into the refrigerator to harden. When they are hard, and by this we mean simply hard enough not to fall apart or turn liquid when they warm up, put them throughout the house on a small piece of wax paper, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil. The roaches will smell this and come and eat it, and have their fill of their final meal.

Grease ants or fat ants will also find this and take it back (in their own bite size pieces) to their next and this will wipe out the next in three to four days.


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    • RonaldANewcomb profile imageAUTHOR

      Ronald A Newcomb 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, but actually part of a book I was going to do with long time San Diego News Weatherman, News Anchor, gardening author Loren Nancarrow, but he was quite suddenly struck with brain and died three months later. Great guy, greatly missed. We shared a love for gardening and planned several books. I often gave him tips which he then aired.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Great tips here, and interesting. I suspect this was an hour long lecture or class somewhere. I will have to read your profile and see if "that figures." Thanks. I can and will incorporate some of this into my gardening.


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