Alchemy for a Healthy Garden
We are right around the corner from Halloween and as I mix my garden concoctions, they make me feel like I am whipping up a witches brew!
So in the spirit of these upcoming Fall festivities, I want to share some of the ingredients that I use to maintain a healthy garden. This list is extensive, so if you are a beginning gardener, just try a little at a time.
The first group of ingredients I am going to touch on are called “biostimulants”. They do exactly that, they stimulate the biology on the plant or in the soil. Some ingredients in other groups may cross over into this one, but I will stick to my major ones here. First off, why do I even want to stimulate my soil biology?
There is something called nutrient cycling that should be taking place in your soil – if you are taking care of it (insert blog post about supporting soil life). Nutrient cycling, put simply, is when something eats something else and poops. Very similar to the microbes in our own gut, or the probiotics that predigest fermented foods, these tiny soil organisms provide the plants with a “bio-available” source of nutrients, which means they are easy for the plant to absorb and utilize. In the area around the plants roots, the rhizosphere, you want lots of nutrient cycling so that your plant can become fat and happy.
Plants, as we learned in high school, photosynthesize, which means they take carbon from the air, turn it into sugar, and release oxygen. But, what we don’t hear much about, is that healthy plants will pump anywhere from 50% – 70% of that sugar into the soil! Why would they dump all that hard earned energy into the ground?
Because the microbes love sugar and the plants know that. What happens is that the microbes get excited and are attracted to the rhizosphere. Then they put up house and decide to stick around and start families with all that food abundance. The microbes cannot just live off of cakes and cookies, so they seek out and chomp on some minerals and since they are so tiny, they can really get in there and break them down to absorb and build their own bodies – just like we want healthy bones.
But then with all these tiny families in the area, bigger microbes come in to crash the party and eat everyone – like a Godzilla movie. Then those attract other microbes to eat them and so on. So there is a whole soil food web happening to spoon feed your plant and keep it strong and healthy! But sometimes you are not dealing with a super robust and healthy soil or plants. Maybe your land has been put through the ringer and is far from the stuff we all dream of? No worries, this is where biostimulants (in combination with good practices – insert link) come into play.
Molasses is rich in minerals and nutrients and is used often in my gardens. It is high in calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. In addition to those, it also contains sulfur and micronutrients. The mineral component is great, but it also provides plants with a quick source of energy and encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
Try to go for an unrefined and unbleached sugar. You want minerals and other nutrients present. Back in the day, women would sneak sugar from the house to sprinkle around their tomato plants, saying it makes the fruit sweeter. This makes sense because the sugar provides a quick source of energy to the microbes to break down and provide the plants with more nutrition that allows them to produce more robust and flavorful fruit.
Fish Hydrolysate and Fish Emulsion
Fish hydrolysate contains trace elements, nitrogen, amino acids, vitamins, hormones, and enzymes. Fish Hydrolysate is basically blended up fish remains that have been cold fermented and processed with enzymes. It contains more complex compounds that encourage beneficial fungi. Fish emulsion is made by using a heat process that denatures the proteins. Since the compounds are broken down smaller, it acts as a bacterial food source. I like to use fish hydrolysate from Neptune’s Harvest as they have good practices.
Where did all the nutrients in our soil end up? Yes, the ocean. Sea salt, whether from a current day ocean, or mined from deposits of ancient oceans, is a source of trace elements all plants need. Some good options include: Real Salt, Sea-90, Pink Himalayan Salt, Celtic Sea Salt, etc. Try to avoid cheap refined sea salts. You can also bring back some ocean water from your next vacation, dilute it, and spray your garden for a boost!
Neptune’s Harvest also makes a great liquid Seaweed product that I add to my garden concoctions. (Insert the crazy benefits of seaweed.) Kelp contains over 70 minerals, vitamins, chelating agents and amino acids. It also has growth hormones called cytokinins and auxins. Cytokinins improve soil tilth, regulate cell division and cell wall formation, increase photosynthesis and chlorophyll production, improve root and shoot growth, and extend the growth season in the fall. Auxins regulate cell elongation, stimulate rooting, and promote fruit development. Seaweed also helps reinforces cell walls for frost hardiness. You can also responsibly harvest seaweed from the beach to mulch your garden or add it to your compost pile for a nutrition boost! Have a back up mulch plan though because it breaks down fast.
There are also other products out there already made you can use. I like the Garden Package by Advancing EcoAg.
A recipe with these goodies to pump things up – link to primer?
So, if you are stimulating the biology and increasing nutrient cycling, this is also a good time to add slower releasing minerals for the surge in microbes to munch on and provide to your plants!
Rock dust is exactly what it sounds like, ground up rocks. Rocks are the origins of minerals in our soils. Plants take minerals from the soil to build themselves, and when they are harvested and removed, those minerals do and go back into the soil. Restoring these minerals leads to more nutritious crops, bigger harvests, healthier plants resistant to disease. Diversity is key. Find a local Basalt or Granite rock quarry to get some for your garden. Usually you can get a few 5 gallon buckets for free. The waste product you want will either be called rock dust or pond fines. You want the smallest particle size they have, as that will be more readily available to your plants. You can also order awesome “rock flour” from Rock Dust Local in Vermont.
This is also a rock dust, but differs from others in composition because it was formed from a combination of both volcanic and sea origin. It’s tiny particle size make it super available to organisms. It is a great source of over 70 minerals and trace elements. Myself and many of my colleagues have seen incredible results with this stuff, from larger produce to increasing flavor and shelf life of our harvests.
Yes, I do eat crickets (insert cricket over cows). The cool part is that the same people I get my organic crickets from also sells their waste product called Frass Forward – think cricket version of worm castings. This stuff is also awesome. It has a good balance of macronutrients that won’t burn plants and is also a great source of micronutrients as well! I add this to mineral blends or use it to top dress around the base of my plants for a nutrition boost. It is slow release, which is good for long lasting nutrition without losing it into our waterways. Cricket frass is also a plant-available source of chitin, which fortifies a plant from the inside out, causing an “autoimmune” response that signals a plant to produce natural toxins which fend off its natural enemies like pests and fungal pathogens while supporting beneficial insects and beneficial nematodes.
Humates are substances formed from the biological and chemical breakdown of animal and plant life over a period of time, usually a few million years. Humates are made up of compounds and materials that plant life on earth needs for healthy growth. They contain a mixture of organic acids, including humic acids, fulvic acids, macromolecules of amino acids, amino sugars, and peptides, the chemistry of humate is so complex it can’t really be broken down. I love this stuff. It really boosts microbial activity by providing food and shelter to microbes in the soil. It is also a great carbon source and should be added to mineral mixes to help buffer the minerals that might be a little harsh raw. It also invites microbes in to dine on minerals and break them down for the plant.
Now you know how to boost the microbial populations, but what if you want more diversity?
This is where good compost comes into the picture. When I say good compost, what do I mean?
Not all compost is created equal. The best compost is teeming with diversity of life and materials. I like to make my own so I know it is good (I am also a soil nerd and inspect all composts I encounter under my microscope). If you buy compost from a store or garden center, BE CAREFUL! I highly suggest avoiding “compost” from big box stores and opting for smaller, local garden centers. Compost bags do and should have an ingredient label or at least some kind of description as to the materials used to make it. Try to avoid commercial composts that contain manures, as these can contain many chemicals from CAFOs and other nasty things. Look for ingredients such as mushroom compost, composted leaves, and vegetable waste. Be aware of added fertilizers.
Effective Microorganisms, EM-1, was developed by Japanese scientist Dr. Teruo Higa. It is a liquid bacterial product comprised of mainly the photosynthesizing bacteria, lactic acid bacteria, yeasts, actinomycetes and fermenting fungi. It is a combination of specific beneficial microbial species that fill different niches and can live harmoniously with each other to provide tremendous benefits for soil and plants. They provide many awesome services to plants including suppressing soil-borne pathogens, increasing the decomposition of organic materials and consequently the availability of mineral nutrients and important organic compounds to plants, enhance the activities of beneficial indigenous microorganisms, improve soil fertility, and boost plant growth, flowering, fruit development and ripening in crops. It is a great microbial product that you can spread further my culturing your own. As opposed to aerobically brewed compost tea, EM is a ferment, which means it is anaerobic (lacking oxygen). In this controlled fashion, this is great to add diversity and extra digestion power for your plant.
Indigenous Microorganisms. A low cost addition everyone should try. This is a great way to harvest and spread the intelligence of the native land in your area to your garden. There are so many ways to introduce IMOs into your system. You can inoculate your compost pile by collecting samples from around your area and inserting a little pocket of them into your finished compost pile or wood chip pile. You can also find healthy wild plants, their leaves will be robust and shiny (fat and happy), and collect a soil sample from around its base, mix it in a bucket of water and apply to your garden. Or you can get more serious and go the Korean Natural Farming Method route and make your own fermentations to harvest the local strains of microbes indigenous to your area.
There are also great inoculants you can buy. Look for broad spectrum inoculants to coat your seeds before planting or to add to your transplants. Regardless of how you do it, it is important to do it. This is the colostrum for your plants as they just emerge into life. It is a good way to start their digestive abilities off right to give them the most robust future possible. There is a great product called Spectrum from Advancing EcoAg, as well as one called Biocoat Gold.
So, it gets really cool now because you can play with all kinds of concoctions to treat your garden! One of my favorite garden elixirs is compost tea. No, not that stuff that comes out of your worm bin. I mean good aerobically brewed tea! There are may 5-30 gallon systems on the market, or you can make your own with modified PVC pipe, a pond pump, and a 5 gallon bucket. Take your good compost and add it to a paint strainer bag. Add any of the above goodies to the concoction and brew on! I usually brew for 16-24 hours. Then I spray it on my plants or water it into my soil. It is simple and super beneficial!
One of my favorite parts of boosting soil biology is that it attracts hordes of incredible earthworms! These are your soil building buddies! They take care of creating that beautiful soil structure I cannot create with any tool myself. They are fast and will work for food. What more could you ask for?! Again, our job in the garden is to support. Once we have done our initial input of work to get the garden going, it is just support – and harvesting! This strategy makes gardening easy for everyone. Check out my other blog posts (insert links) where I explain how to support life in your garden.
If you want to dive even deeper and get step-by-step walkthroughs of my favorite way to garden, check out a course I designed called The Nourishing Backyard Garden Formula! I wanted to make this available to as many people as possible because I know how overwhelming it can be to try to do this on your own and get lost in all the conflicting information on the web. Go check out this incredible course and grow some amazing food!