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Organic fertilizers may be harmful to pets

Apply fertilizer deeper down in the soil so wildlife and pets won’t be drawn to dig it up.
Apply fertilizer deeper down in the soil so wildlife and pets won’t be drawn to dig it up. TNS

I thought it was a good idea to make organic gardening easier. A company had packaged tea bags filled with a blend of organic fertilizers. It was to be placed in a deep hole beneath a seedling for a nutritional boost after roots reach this cache.

Clean, tidy and easy to use, it looked innovative enough for a test. As always, I want to be sure about any idea or product before advocating its use to others.

My test involved two groups of plants from the same flat planted together in the same bed so conditions were uniform. I forked compost evenly into both sides. On one side I dug a slightly deeper hole and dropped a tea bag in, then added soil and finally the plant. On the other side I planted normally. This control group would show me whether or not the tea bag group produced plants more vigorous and floriferous.

My rescued pit bull Lotus lay on the warm patio taking in the early season sun. She was a fixture in the garden and had seen me plant many times before, taking little interest in my efforts.

The next morning when I called her for breakfast, the food-loving dog didn’t appear as usual. Curious, I wandered outside to check on her. There, amid, a minefield of torn-up plants and empty tea bags, was Lotus, tail wagging, muzzle caked with dirt. Clearly she’d found the tea bags appealing enough to dig up the whole bed.

What had made this otherwise passive dog go ravenous in my flower bed? It was blood meal and bone meal in the fertilizer. These byproducts of the meat packing industry are rich in nitrogen and phosphorous used in many organic plant foods. Watering my plants had saturated the tea bags and their contents, which heightened the scent. To a dog they became hamburgers and fries. Lotus’ nose is vastly more sensitive than that of human beings, and this subtle scent is irresistible to dogs.

I’d used organic fertilizers before with no problem; it was the tea bag that changed everything. These materials were concentrated into a single potent packet. When I’d used significant amounts of loose fertilizers mixed into the soil, the earth diluted the scent so that there was not enough in any one spot to lure the dog.

While I learned something important about the concentration of organic fertilizers, there was another lesson, too. Lotus suffered from an upset stomach for days afterwards, making quite a mess indoors and out. I realized she’d ingested some pretty potent animal byproducts that could contain bacteria dangerous to pets.

These fertilizers. as well as guano and eggshells, will be highly attractive to dogs. Fish emulsion and amendments rich in fishing industry byproducts will also appeal to house cats. In rural areas, concentrations of fertilizers can lure scavenger species such as coyotes, bobcats and raccoons.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Keep using these beneficial organic fertilizers, but avoid concentrations. Work them into the soil deeply and thoroughly, which also ensures they are available to microbes and plant roots.

Be careful about storage, too. Keep them well away from pets and particularly young children who put everything into their mouths. Store in airtight containers in a locked closet or on a high shelf.

Accidents happen, so if your pet does get into organic fertilizer with animal byproducts, take steps to avoid poisoning. Find the container and its content listing, then contact the ASPCA Poison Control Center (www.ASPCA.org, 888-426-4435) to determine the best course of action.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.