What is soil?
Organic gardeners know that it isn’t what you put on your plants that really makes them thrive, it’s starting with a healthy, nutrient-rich medium – the soil. Soil is more than just dirt. It is teeming with life. There are many different levels of decomposition occurring in healthy soil, and within all of those layers are organisms ranging from bugs and earthworms to nematodes, bacteria and fungi. The best soil is dark in color, which indicates soil that is full of organic matter. This decaying matter helps the soil maintain a texture that is most beneficial to plant life and also helps retain moisture.
The soil used in our beds starts as a mixture of 35% loam, 40% compost, 10% bank sand, 10% granite sand and 5% composted manure. When working up the soil at any point, we add fresh compost. We also mulch with compost. To help keep the soil aerated and teeming with beneficial bacteria, nematodes and fungi, we also utilize compost tea. For example, compost tea helps stimulate mycorrhizae fungi, which attaches to and wraps around plant roots to increase nutrient uptake. The fungi also spreads through the soil and aerates it, keeping it from becoming dry and compacted and helps it retain moisture longer.
Our seeds are started in sterile organic Jiffy Mix – or a similar product. We also utilize Burpee pellets for starting plants, an all-natural blend of soils, including compressed moss and shredded coconut hulls. We use no Miracle-Gro products, except products from their Organic Choice line.
To better understand plant nutrients and what the plant utilizes each nutrient for, read this helpful primer re: plant nutrients. All fertilizers will indicate three main nutrients as NPK (Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium). For example, if you see a number like 5-1-1, the fertilizer contains a ratio of 5 parts of Nitrogen to 1 part of Phosphorus and 1 part of Potassium.
In addition to starting with excellent soil, we utilize the following organic and safe fertilizers:
1. Side dressings of worm castings (1-0-0). Worm castings have low NPK value, but provide gentle nitrogen levels as well as beneficial bacteria. I also put a small amount of castings in the bottom of a transplant hole before dropping the plant in. Aerated worm castings tea is also great for supplying beneficial bacteria and can be used as a foliar spray or watered in. See recipe below.
2. Liquid Seaweed (0-0-1)(We use Maxicrop). Liquid seaweed is beneficial for macro and micro nutrients as well as natural plant hormones. It provides low NPK value, but is beneficial because of the safe potassium levels.
3. Fish emulsion (5-1-1)(We use Alaska deodorized emulsion – you will want to get a deodorized emulsion, too, trust me!). Fish have long been used as fertilizer. Native Americans used to drop a couple of fishes in each hole to help corn plants grow. Emulsion is liquid-ized fish that can be diluted and used as a general fertilizer without burning plants.
4. Texas bat guano (11-4-1). Farmed from caves in Texas, this natural fertilizer is obtained from fruit and insect consuming bats. Bat guano is teaming with bacteria and fungi. It is not actually raw “bat poop”, but bat poop that has been composted by a number of bacteria and insects.
5. Organic blood meal (12-0-0). This is a very high nitrogen fertilizer great for promoting quick, abundant growth. It can be overdone, however, and will burn the plant if overused due to its high-level of ammonia release. I use less blood meal than any of the other organic fertilizers. Its scent is also attractive to carnivores (i.e. dogs and cats).
6. Hardwood fireplace ashes for potash (potassium = K). This gets added to the compost pile as opposed to direct application on plants. Make sure you are not using ashes from any other source as they will contain trace levels of harmful chemicals.
7. Organic bone meal (6-9-0). Along with an abundance of phosphorus and nitrogen, bone is a great source of calcium and magnesium. It is ideal for bulbs and roses.
8. Superthrive. While not a fertilizer (no NPK value), I think this stuff is terrific for all watering applications and transplanting. The natural plant hormones and vitamins it contain are helpful in preventing transplant shock, for revitalizing plants and for general health maintenance.
None of these products leach harmful chemicals into the soil or destroy the soil ecosystem like synthetic fertilizers.
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Compost tea has received a lot of attention the past several years, and rightly so. As more and more gardeners “go organic”, there became a need for a truly effective and inexpensive soil conditioner. Compost tea is like magic in this regard. Compost contains millions of beneficial bacteria, nematodes and fungi, and compost tea also provides these same beneficial organisms to the soil. HOWEVER, compost tea provides these organisms in far greater numbers – into the billions! In fact, I read that a five gallon bucket of properly brewed compost tea provides the same amount of organisms as a ten tons of fresh compost!
Compost tea is easy to make and inexpensive, too. Sure, there are kits available for purchase online for $50, but you can make your own brewer at home for the cheap. In fact, if you have a five gallon bucket laying around, you can build a brewer for less than $20 that you can use over and over and over again.
The secret to brewing compost tea is providing aeration and food for bacteria.
Materials Needed for the Brewer:
(5) gallon bucket
2-port aquarium air pump ($10)
One 8-foot section of aquarium tubing (<$2)
Two 4-inch airstones (<$2 each)
Two mini airstones ($1)
and two T-splitters for air tubing (available in aquarium shop/section)(<$2)
Some sort of mesh bag (like a paint bag – you want it breathable but not too big to allow compost to escape)
Assembling the Brewer:
Cut the tubing into four pieces of the same length. Attach one tube section to each port of the air pump. At the end of each section, fit one of the T-splitters. Take the remaining two air tubes and cut each one in half. Attach two tubes to each of the T-splitters. At the end of two tubes (attached to same splitter), attach a small airstone. At the end of the other two tubes, attach the long airstones.
Place the large airstones in the bottom of the bucket.
Take your mesh bag and put the two small airstones into it with the air tubes sticking out and running to the pump via the splitter. Later, fill the bag with compost (and/or worm castings) then tie it off at the top using some string or twine, but don’t tie too tightly. You want the airstones to work properly.
(4) gallons of filtered water, de-chlorinated. You can use tap water if you allow it to sit uncovered for 24 hours. I aerate my water with all four stones overnight, which rids it of most of the chlorine. You just want to be sure that most of the chlorine is gone so that the bacteria and fungi have a chance to grow and multiply. (Chlorine is added to tap water to inhibit such growth!)
1 quart of fresh, premium compost (if making worm castings tea, omit the compost and use 2 cups of castings instead)
Two Tablespoons of unsulphured molasses (Brer Rabbit brand is what I use). You can also use corn syrup or maple syrup instead. Molasses is better, however, because it contains trace minerals like calcium and magnesium. Make sure it is unsulphured.
2 TB of lemon juice to make the mix slightly acidic – bacteria will consume the citric acid
1 cup of bat guano to add to compost and supply bacteria and fungi (I wrap mine in a couple layers of cheesecloth and then hang it from the side of the bucket so the aerated water bubbles through it)
1/2 cup of liquid seaweed as food for bacteria as well adding trace minerals and potassium (Note: add at the end of the brewing cycle)
1/4 cup of fish emulsion* (for best results, add at the end of brewing)
1 TB of Superthrive (Note: add at the end of the brewing cycle) for plant hormones and vitamins
1. Start with a clean five-gallon bucket. ALWAYS clean your bucket and hoses between uses. Soak airstones in diluted solution of hydrogen peroxide and water. After I am finished making my brew, I rinse out the bucket well with high pressure spray then put the hoses and airstones in the bucket, fill with water, add 1/2 cup of peroxide, turn on the air pump and let it bubble for several hours.
2. Assemble the bucket as noted above and fill the bucket with four gallons of water. Add molasses and stir well. I find that adding the molasses to a gallon of water and then shaking up the gallon is the best way to evenly distribute the sugars.
3. Add compost to the mesh bag with airstones. If adding castings or guano, put it in here. Tie off with airstones inside.
4. Drop bag into the water and let the string hang over the side and tie onto the bucket handle.
5. Turn on your air pump and adjust so that the water comes to a rolling “boil”. Too much aeration will destroy fungi.
6. Let the mixture aerate for 8-12 hours.
7. After aerating, remove compost bag and empty contents on compost pile (it’s a good compost activator!). I like to give the mixture a good stir at this point so there are no small pockets of anaerobic bacteria in the tea.
8. Put the two small airstones into the water and let the mixture continue to aerate for another 12 hours.
9. It’s ready to go when it’s foamy on top and/or has an earthy, yeasty smell. Foam will not always form, however, especially if you use fish emulsion.
10. IF IT SMELLS BAD (rotten or putrid), DO NOT USE. Continue to aerate and add a little more molasses until it smells earthy, yeasty and slightly sweet. The bad smell indicates anaerobic bacteria and pathogens that may harm your plant.
Use the tea as a foliar spray or water in. You can use it full-strength or dilute it up to 1:5, which will make your 4 gallons of tea stretch to 20 gallons. If using as a foliar spray, I strongly recommend using a paint bag to hold the compost – my method of reusing lemon or onion bags allows some finer compost to fall out and settle on the bottom, which can clog your sprayer.
Repeat application every two weeks. Important: USE THE TEA WITHIN EIGHT HOURS after removing aeration. It will turn from an aerobic mixture to anaerobic (harmful) quickly.
* Fish emulsion – even DEODORIZED fish emulsion – will affect the smell of your compost tea. It will smell slightly fishy (go figure!). Also, it likely will not foam in the same time frame as compost tea made without. In fact, it may not foam at all.