Nitrogen: The Elusive Nutrient

Choose an organic source of this essential element.

By Beth Hanson


Here are the most commonly used nitrogen sources, their pros and cons, and how they’re best used.

Animal By-Products

  • Composted manure
    The nitrogen content of manure from grass-eating animals varies, but it is a great source of both nitrogen and organic matter. Because raw manure can burn plants and may contain weed seeds and pathogens, compost it in a hot pile or age it for at least 6 months. To use fresh manure, spread it over the soil in fall and turn it into the top 6 inches a month before spring planting
  • Poultry manure
    Manure from chickens and other poultry is an excellent source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate. Fresh manure contains a lot of ammonia and is “hot,” so till it in at least 4 months before planting, or compost it first. Pelletized, composted poultry manure is commercially available.
  • Blood meal
    This fast-acting fertilizer, made from slaughterhouse waste, is a potent, easy-to-find source of nitrogen. Blood meal can burn plants, especially young seedlings. Mix it with water and apply it through your irrigation system or a watering can, or dig it lightly into the soil before planting.
  • Fish emulsion
    This liquid fertilizer is very fast-acting (and can be quite odorous!). Drench the soil with a solution of fish emulsion every month or so, or dilute it heavily and mist foliage lightly.
  • Crab meal
    This meal, made from shells and offal of blue crabs, is rich in the protein chitin, which enhances beneficial soil microorganism populations; it also suppresses pest nematode activity. Till it into soil in early spring.
  • Feather meal
    Dried pelletized chicken feathers contain keratin, a tightly structured protein that’s not easily broken down by soil bacteria, making this an excellent, long-term source of nitrogen. Incorporate into soil before planting in spring.


Plant-Derived Materials

  • Alfalfa meal
    This excellent source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium also encourages beneficial microbes. Alfalfa decomposes rapidly, generating heat, so do not use it directly in planting holes or in contact with fragile roots. Scratch it lightly into the soil surface.
  • Soybean meal
    This slow- to medium-release source of nitrogen is sometimes used as a lawn fertilizer.
  • Cottonseed meal
    The ground meal from cottonseeds provides nitrogen in a fairly slow-release form and is slightly acidic, so use on plants that require a low pH. Some organic gardeners avoid cottonseed meal because, unless the cotton crop was grown organically, it may have come from a field of genetically modified cotton or contain residues of toxic pesticides. The same can be true of other plant-derived fertilizers.

Mineral Sources

  • Chilean nitrate
    This soluble mineral salt, mined from a desert in northern Chile, is high in nitrogen (16-0-0). Unlike plant- or animal-derived nitrogen, the nutrient does not need to be biologically processed, so it is available even in cold soils. This salt is not for use in arid and semiarid regions, where soils are high in sodium. Readily soluble, it leaches easily from the soil and can damage water tables.