Stillwater News Press


May 31, 2014

Seed to Table 06-01-14

Proper feeding of your garden

Besides watering, weeding and controlling pests, you will want to consider fertilizing your garden. I typically apply, at the time of planting, the rates of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) recommended by a soil test.  

However, because nitrogen is unstable, I come back about halfway through the growing season and apply a little extra in the form of urea.

The instability of nitrogen results from several factors, some of which are more pronounced when using urea as its source.

We used to have another, more stable, source of nitrogen (Ammonium Nitrate); but that all changed on April 19, 1995 with the Murrah Building bombing.

Nitrogen exists in several different forms in the soil: nitrogen gas, ammonia, ammonium ion, nitrate ion, nitrite ion and as a structural component of organic matter. Of course, in nature, nothing is simple. Intricate and complex pathways exist, which interconvert between these forms.  

The most stable of these forms is organic matter, but it is also the least readily available to plants. Large and complex molecules like proteins and nucleic acids must first be decomposed by microorganisms to release the nitrogen – ultimately in the forms of either nitrate ion or ammonium ion, the only forms a plant can take up and use. So, most gardens will benefit from the addition of a more nitrogen rich material such as urea.

Urea must also first be broken down into nitrate ion or ammonium ion. However, in this case the breakdown occurs much more rapidly; and. unfortunately, with a large portion being converted into ammonia. If that happens deep in the soil the ammonia will become dissolved into water and/or bound to soil particles and retained.  However, if it occurs at or near the soil surface the ammonia, which is a gas at normal temperatures, will volatilize off into the air and be lost. And therein lies the problem with urea as a fertilizer; if applied inappropriately a large fraction of it can be lost.

Most resources suggest it is important to apply urea in a way which insures that it gets incorporated deep into the soil mass. This is most effectively done by mechanically working it to a depth of an inch or more, which is why I typically apply it when I am tilling the garden for weed control. An alternative is to “water it in,”either naturally by rain or artificially with irrigation water. It takes at least a quarter inch of rain to move it deep enough to minimize loss – and more is better.

The worst thing to do is spread urea out on the soil surface, when the weather is hot, the winds are up and dew can develop. Under this “worst case” scenario the urea will be dissolved into the dew, which is insufficient to carry it deep into the soil. Once dissolved, the breakdown to ammonia begins, which is enhanced by the high temperature. The wind will now blow the volatilized ammonia gas away.

This is just as true for your lawn as for your garden.

Richard A. "Dick" Ortez earned a doctorate degree from Creighton University in microbiology. During the past 40 years, he has taught elements of food science at the university and medical school levels, operated a café, and run a truck farm and food processing business. He writes the Seed to Table column at his farm near Glencoe and welcomes questions, comments and suggestions sent to

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