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Nitrogen is actually a very important element that plants depend on and require to be found in the soil in order to grow. Nitrogen helps produce chlorophyll which assists plants to photosynthesize. A lack of nitrogen will produce very weak, fragile plants that don’t grow to their potential.
Nitrogen-deficient plants have small leaves, tiny stems, and short roots that might not be strong enough to support the plant, overall. Not the kind of plant you want to grow in your garden.
To avoid nitrogen deficiencies, gardeners mix soil with nitrogen-rich fertilizers to restore the natural equilibrium. What happens when you add too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer or if the soil is naturally producing high levels of nitrogen? Does it pose a risk to your plants? The answer is yes, it does cause harm, but nothing that can’t be fixed.
High Nitrogen Levels Cause Other Wildlife Risks
Before getting into what will happen to your plants if they are exposed to high levels of nitrogen, it is important to know that the damage can go beyond your garden. If you live near a stream or river, nitrogen can get into the water systems and cause a number of issues for the wildlife.
Nitrogen from the soil can run into the water systems through the ground and contaminate the soil around river banks. This causes vegetation to build up and grow at a rapid pace, blocking drainage systems and causing floods. Algae can build up in areas where you wouldn’t usually find it.
All of this excess greenery may sound like it is actually helping the environment, but the truth is, unfortunately it doesn’t. The water pollution and overgrowth of foliage can harm fish and interfere with their breeding habits or even their food supply.
As you can see, it causes a chain of detrimental effects to both your garden and the surrounding areas. Your plants will give you plenty of signs to indicate their state. You will notice changes in your plants regardless of whether you are a hobbyist gardener or an expert, so trust your instincts.
Dehydration Due to Nitrogen Exposure
High levels of nitrogen in the soil result in high levels of salt, which is a serious plant issue. High salt levels in the soil stop the plants from getting enough water, no matter how much you water them. You will know if your plants are dehydrated from nitrogen exposure as they will look wilted and a little burnt.
Short Roots, Large Leaves
When the plants are first exposed to excess amounts of nitrogen, you may think they are at their peak. This is because they grow larger than usual, luscious leaves and foliage.
Over time, you will notice that the plant isn’t producing fruits or flowers and it would appear to have stopped growing. This happens because all of the plant’s energy is being redirected to the leaves for photosynthesis leaving none left for growing the roots, flowers, and fruit; so they suffer tremendously.
Using Other Plants to Lower Nitrogen Levels
If you have room to squeeze a few more plants in your garden, then it might be worth planting some nitrogen loving plants to naturally lower nitrogen levels in the soil. Leafy green plants tend to require more nitrogen than gentle flowers. Here are a couple of nitrogen loving plants you could go for:
Lettuce requires a lot of nitrogen to grow. In fact, gardeners add calcium nitrate and ammonium nitrate in large doses to grow good quality lettuce. Between 1 and 2 pounds for every 100 feet is needed for lettuce growing.
Brussels sprouts need to be planted in soil with lots of nitrogen. They need high doses of nitrogen early on in their growing stages, so you should see a drop in nitrogen levels in the soil early on.
Are you sensing a theme here? That’s right, veggies love nitrogen. If you want to use this method to lower your nitrogen levels follow these steps:
- Choose a leafy nitrogen loving vegetable to plant in your garden.
- Clear the soil of any debris that may interfere with the growth of the vegetable.
- Plant the vegetables in the desired area, making sure the soil is packed tight on the roots.
- Keep the plants hydrated, they will need watering when the top 2 inches of soil is dry. This might not be every day, or it could be twice per day. Every area and climate is different so it’s always best to check soil conditions first.
- Do not use fertilizer. A lack of fertilizer will force the plants to extract nitrogen from the soil.
- After 3 or 4 months, dig up the plants and test the soil.
Mulching to Lower Nitrogen Levels
Mulching is a great solution to a lot of gardening issues. If the soil is too dry, use mulch. If the soil is too hot, cover it with mulch. Watch out for mulch that is organic as it could contain weed seeds and start a whole other issue in your garden.
Sawdust and wood chip mulch is the best for reducing nitrogen levels in the soil. Here is our step by step mulching guide:
- Cover the soil with 2 inches of mulch.
- Leave the mulch undisturbed on the soil for 3 to 4 months.
- Till the soil after a few months.
- Send a soil sample for testing.
Please note that this process is only effective in the winter.
There are chemical methods of reducing nitrogen in the soil, this should be the very last result as you may find that incorrect applications of the chemicals could ruin the soil completely. If you catch the nitrogen issue in time, natural methods will work quickly and effectively to bring back the soil to its optimum conditions.
Have you recently had a nitrogen issue in your garden? If so, how did you fix it? Test the soil in your garden every few months to make sure everything is as it should be.
My name is Isis Loran, creator of the Family Food Garden. I’ve been gardening for over 10 years now and push the limits of our zone 5 climates. I love growing heirlooms & experimenting with hundreds of varieties, season extending, crunchy homesteading and permaculture.