Fertilizers Gardening Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Bone Meal: Much Ado about Nothing

20180414A www.amazon.com, depositphotos.com & www.clipartpanda.com .jpg
Ground up bones don’t make for a very good plant fertilizer … at least, not once the nitrogen is extracted! Source: www.amazon.com, depositphotos.com & www.clipartpanda.com, montage: laidbackgardener. blog

Bone meal used to be a quite decent fertilizer. That’s when it was made from cattle bones full of marrow that were ground whole into powder, giving a good quality fertilizer rich in nitrogen. But modern bone powder is no longer made the same way. Now the marrow is extracted and then the bones are steamed to remove their nitrogen and most of their other minerals. The extracted products are used for purposes other than horticultural ones: for gelatin, glue, etc. What remains is reduced into powder and sold as an organic fertilizer under the name of bone meal.

Modern bone meal is quite a variable product and its NPK ratio changes according to the type of bone used and the manufacturing process: 0-12-0, 2-22-0, 4-10-0, etc. However, it always contains little or no nitrogen (first number), no potassium (third number) and a great deal of phosphorus (second number). However, the soil in most home gardens is already rich in phosphorus and it is almost never necessary to add more. Why then add a product to your plant’s soil that is already abundant?

Add to that fact the one that the type of phosphorus found in bone meal is pretty much insoluble except in very acid soils and thus largely unavailable to plants. What use comes of adding to your garden phosphorus plants can’t readily absorb.

Fertilizer companies still market bone meal though, in spite of its high percentage of nearly insoluble phosphorus, largely because it has such a long history that home gardeners trust it. Among others, they recommend adding bone meal to planting holes for seedlings and young plants, claiming bone meal “promotes rooting.” But the concept that a high percentage of phosphorus is necessary for rooting was disproved a long time ago. Yes, for good rooting, it takes some phosphorus in the soil, but also nitrogen, potassium, calcium and pretty much all the other minerals used by plants for growth. Studies show no benefit whatsoever from the use of massive amounts of phosphorus.

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Bone meal: really not a very useful product! Source: pixabay.com, montage: laidbackgardener. blog

The claim that bone meal stimulates bloom (another common claim) is just as preposterous. The phosphorus in bone meal that is supposed to encourage bloom is simply not available to plant roots.

Not Good for Beneficial Fungi

Another major downside to phosphorus-rich fertilizers like bone meal is that they negatively affect mycorrhizal symbiosis, the beneficial association between mycorrhizal fungi and the plants we grow. In soils acid enough that the phosphorus provided by bone meal is available, applying the product at the recommended rate prevents the mycorrhization from taking effect: the beneficial fungi spores remain dormant and simply don’t attach themselves to the plant’s roots. So even if you decide to apply the bone meal to a plant, ideally you should reduce the dose recommended on the packaging by at least half. As to adding both mycorrhizae and bone meal together as you plant or sow, that’s downright wasteful: the mycorrhizae will simply not take.

And finally, a last problem with bone meal: it tends to attract vermin. Humans may not notice it, but it has a bit of a dead animal smell that other animals do pick up. If you apply it, it’s not uncommon for animals (rats, dogs, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, etc.) to dig your plants up.

Pretty Much Useless

I consider bone meal to be essentially useless as a fertilizer and it’s surprising to me that garden centers still recommend it so enthusiastically. If you want to enrich your soil, prefer compost or a good all-purpose organic fertilizer that is not too rich in phosphorus: the second number on the fertilizer label should always be less than the first (nitrogen) or at least, nearly equal.

However, if you already have bone meal on hand, don’t simply toss it in the trash: it would even more environmentally friendly to find some way to use it up. You can still use it as a fertilizer, but at half the recommended dose. And only on established plants, not seedlings or transplants, so as not to harm mycorrhizal fungi associations. Even better: add it to your compost pile where it will be diluted to a safe level … and where microbes will aid in rendering the phosphorus more soluble.

Bone meal: inexpensive, but pretty much useless!20180414A www.amazon.com, depositphotos.com & www.clipartpanda.com

For further information, read The Myth of Beneficial Bonemeal..

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

8 comments on “Bone Meal: Much Ado about Nothing

  1. Pingback: Fish Bone Meal Fertilizer

  2. Pingback: Organic Bone Meal

  3. danielphillipsdaniel

    you can get it from bone meal manufacturers

  4. Markus Mueller

    Wow. Kind of a bummer, but glad to have learned this! I do actually have bone meal in my shed and bought it because it was reccomened as adding to my lilac when I first planted it. I was going to mix the rest of it into my vegetable garden this year to help promote growth. But now…
    I’ll just add it to my compost as you suggested.

    What are your thoughts on using shredded year old oak leaves in compost/ garden soil. Everyone says they are to acidic but after reading your pine needle post I wonder if that’s an old wives tale also .

    • Yes, old wives tale. The key is shredding them. They contain a lot of tannins and those are slow to decompose in entire leaves… but chopping the leaves up allows them to break down quickly.

  5. Pingback: Spring-Flowering Bulbs: So Easy to Plant! – Laidback Gardener

  6. It is true that bone meal available in the market is useless as well harmful for the plants as it attracts fungus.

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