How to Feed Your Plants For Free | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Feed Your Plants for Free


Make your own organic fertilizer at home

The Editors

How and what you feed your plants is important, especially if you garden organically. Many of us prefer to avoid using commercial non-organic fertilizers and opt for organic ones, and fortunately there is a way to make your own organic fertilizers for free. We’ll take you through the key steps.

Plant Nutrition Basics

Plants require three main elements for good health:

  1. Nitrogen (labelled on fertilizer packaging with an N) is for green, leafy growth.
  2. Phosphorus (P) is for healthy root and shoot growth.
  3. Potassium (K) is for flowering, fruiting and general hardiness.

Commercial fertilizers, both organic and non-organic, provide these elements in precise amounts; just look carefully at the label to find the NPK ratio. A balanced fertilizer will have an equal ratio (7:7:7 for example), whereas a specialist product, such as one for feeding tomatoes or strawberries, will have a higher potassium (K) content. Ratios will differ between brands, but will be indicated on the packaging as something like 2:2:6.

Different Types of Homemade Fertilizers

There are several different organic fertilizers that you can make yourself.

Comfrey is the wonder plant of the home-made fertilizer world. It grows prolifically in places that many other plants wouldn’t, and contains high levels of all the essential nutrients for plant growth as well as a number of trace elements. 

A popular way to use comfrey is to make a liquid fertilizer:

  1. Harvest a large bag of leaves. It’s advisable to wear gloves as the hairy leaves can cause a rash.
  2. Squash them into a large container, preferably with a lid to keep out the smell, and weigh them down.
  3. Leave for a few weeks, and pour off the liquid into a clearly labelled container, keeping it out of the reach of children.
  4. When required dilute 15:1 with rainwater. Aim to water the soil rather than the leaves or stems, as fertilizers can cause scorching of foliage.

Stinging nettles are high in nitrogen and can be used in the same way as comfrey to make a liquid feed. You’ll definitely need gloves when working with this plant! Scrunch up the harvested plants and weigh them down in the container. Dilute the liquid as before with rainwater until it looks like a weak tea solution.

Grass clippings can be easily added to a compost pile, but in large quantities often make a slimy mess. They are high in nitrogen and potassium, and can be used as a mulch on your vegetable plot. After a light weeding, apply dry clippings in thin layers which barely cover the surface of the soil. Adding further thin layers at two-week intervals will ensure they break down quickly without going slimy.

Wood ash contains useful amounts of potassium and trace elements, depending on the wood burnt; young wood is better as it contains higher amounts of potassium. It can be added in small quantities to the compost heap, where it can be blended with other materials.

When adding wood ash direct to the soil, it’s best to apply it in autumn or winter so the remaining compounds can break down without causing harm to your plants. Wood ash is alkaline so avoid using it around plants that prefer acidic soil, such as raspberries, or where potatoes will be grown, as alkaline conditions can encourage potato scab.

Using Home-made Fertilizers

When you’ve made your own fertilizer, it’s tempting to use all of that home-grown goodness, and add it liberally to your plot. This should be avoided as it will often do more harm than good – too much nitrogen in particular can cause lots of soft, leafy growth which is susceptible to aphid attack.

Timing is also important. It’s better to add small regular quantities when your plants need it, such as when they are flowering or fruiting, rather than single, large applications.

It’s a good idea to add generous quantities of nutrient-rich compost to your garden and containers in the autumn, top up with mulches which will slowly release nutrients throughout the growing season, and to use liquid feeds for your fruiting crops. The Grow Guides in our Garden Planner provide detailed information on how to grow healthy plants.

Making your own fertilizers is not only good value for money and in most cases free, but it’s also sustainable—using plants from your plot to feed your own veggies.

Learn more about making your own organic fertilizers—free of animal waste, chemicals, and great expense.

Did you find this advice useful? Plan your next garden using the online Almanac Garden Planner and we’ll guide you with more of these tips and techniques. We’re offering a free 7-day trial to test it out. Learn more about the online Almanac Garden Planner


Katie Walling (not verified)

2 years 10 months ago

I really did enjoy this video it helped me to know how to make my own fertilizer!!!!

Kim Schmidt (not verified)

4 years ago

I save my egg shells and crush them. I mix them with my coffee grounds and the tea from used tea bags. I sprinkle it all around my yard and garden. I don't have any specifics on the benefits. It seems to control pests.

Randy (not verified)

4 years 2 months ago

I use manure tea made from old chicken manure. It smells awful, but my plants love it. Start with some dry manure in a 5 gallon bucket. Fill with water. Cover the bucket. In a week, your will have a strong solution. Dilute this solution in your watering can and sprinkle on the ground around your plants. As the solution in the bucket gets lower, add more water. When the solution looks pallid, dump it and the manure in the bucket on your compost pile and start again with fresh manure.

Catherine (not verified)

4 years 10 months ago

I make a "tea" out of worm castings. I add some of the castings to a 5 gallon bucket, fill the bucket with water and put a small hose hat is attached to an aquarium pump for aeration in the water and turn it on. The hose has a tendency float so I tape it around the end of a 3 foot stake so it stays on the bottom of the bucket. After about 4 or 5 days I water my plants with it. A 4 lb bag of the worm castings will last all summer at a very reasonable price.

Eileen Atkinson (not verified)

5 years 9 months ago

You are to weigh down the comfrey or the nettles but do you add water or just squish it; before it blooms, after or doesn't matter? How long does it sit? How often is a good schedule to use it? How many leaves [or plant amount] to use?

Karen (not verified)

4 years ago

In reply to by Eileen Atkinson (not verified)

You can use as many leaves as you like, 20 or more is good. And enough water to cover leaves for a stronger tea. Leave covered for a week. A little goes a long way. 2 tablespoons in a regular water can. look up 'uses for comfrey as it can also be used as a aid in your compost and also in a bath to help when you have sore muscles, or even to help if you have a sprain or bone break.

Willow (not verified)

5 years 9 months ago

I had no idea that nettles had a use beyond being a pain! Weed them out and feed them in sounds good to me.
I usually save my egg shells, rinsed and dried off, then I crush them down and sprinkle them around my plants on the soil top. Calcium may not be one of the big 3 elements as discussed here, but my tomatoes and peppers really like it.

Jamie (not verified)

5 years 9 months ago

As a former licensed state sprayer I really enjoyed this video. Too much commercial fertilizer is causing problems because of run-off into lakes and streams. This video of using a common plant to procure a fertilizer from it is a very cost effective as well as common sense approach to home fertilization. Thanks for this video.

Greta Taylor (not verified)

5 years 9 months ago

I have grown carrots for a few years now and understand they do not like much nitrogen. I have been using the Gaia organic fertilizer, but this year I could only find a 4-4-4 version. My carrots this year have an abundance of green tops, but the carrots themselves seem to be very slow to mature. Is this too much nitrogen and is there a god way to make my own fertilizer with less nitrogen please? I love your video and will try to make the comfrey one as I have very few stinging nettles. Thank you.

If you are seeing lots of foliage at the expense of roots, it could be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil. Comfrey fertilizer is normally pretty well-balanced, so it could help.