Having sufficient soil nutrients for fertility is always an on-going challenge when growing plants for food and medicine. Likewise keeping the soil texture light, good drainage, decompressed so the roots can negotiate around in the soil and absorb those nutrients is a very important part of a healthy and productive garden or farm.
Here at Hillside Gardens we use a lot of various techniques to keep our plants happy, productive, and strong, so they pass on to us all the good things we need for health and nutrition. These techniques include waste free gardening, organic growing, Permaculture Design, Korean Natural Farming, and Biochar. Articles on these are available in the archives of this blogsite and doing a little Google research (which I think you wild find interesting and helpful).
It is late summer here in NE Georgia, and as always because our soil is so rich, it is also a terrific place for volunteer plants (sometimes called weeds) to grow. This presents a challenge in terms of maintenance. Many people with organic gardens just throw these used plants on their compost pile or God forbid, in the trash. But here in our garden we don’t waste organic matter unless it is so infested with nasty bugs (nasturtiums are the sacrificial plants here that attract aphids which we don’t want in our compost, so they get tossed) that we can’t afford to reinfest.
But what about when those weeds are loaded with seeds. If you put them on the compost pile, unless you get and keep the pile at 150 degrees F, those seeds will wait for the perfect conditions and germinate, in your beds. I try not to be a grower of weeds if I can help it as it means lots of extra work. But often those weeds can be a significant volume and I view the product of weeding as a resource. “The problem is the solution” is a Permaculture saying. If you have a problem it contains the solution so in this case, using weeds to make for a better garden is just a matter of how you look at them. Those weeds contain an awful lot of good minerals and plant chemicals that new plants need to grow, why waste them or not make the best of them. After all, they are already at hand.
Solution: Weed Tea.
We have a dedicated 55 gal. barrel, food grade plastic, where we toss all the weed bearing plants we pull out of the beds and pathways. Into this we siphon rain water from the rain barrel next to it, then cover it closely and put a cinder block on top. We fill these barrels pretty full and the weeds can get quite buoyant and float enough to push the lid up allowing mosquitoes in. This becomes a major nursery for the buzzy little critters so you have to weigh down the lid sufficiently to keep a good seal on that barrel.
If you don’t have rain water, fill your barrel half way with city water, cover with screening fabric and let it outgas for a few days to let out the chlorine which kills off the good microbes. And keep some rainwater handy to fill the barrel as it needs more water.
The plant matter needs to be in there long enough to rot down pretty well, killing the seeds, and releasing the nutrients in the leaves and stems into the water. We usually keep it in there a full season, adding to it as we weed the beds but making sure we keep the lid well sealed between opening it.
After a few months the plant matter actually ferments, further being of benefit to the soil as the microorganisms in the ferment help build the beneficial microbe population. The microbes in good soil are required to break down the minerals there so they can be absorbed by roots.
Once the decomposing process is complete, we usually use a pitch fork and lift the matt of plant matter that has risen to the top and deposit it directly in the compost pile nearby. There will be some loose plant matter in the water but not much.
You can use this “Weed Tea” directly on your beds as it is now loaded with the minerals and vitamins that are dissolved in the water and of course a little debris won’t make any difference if used this way. You don’t have to dilute it.
But if you want to go further with it, and make spectacularly nutritious liquid fertilizer (and you will because the next step is amazing) and want to spray it on the foliage of your plants for uptake directly (where it also can be used as bug protection or anti-mildew), it has to be cleared of debris.
I discovered a little trick to filtering out the debris and any mosquito larvae that manage to get in there when it comes time to use it. I’m an herbalist and I use a lot of vodka in plastic quart bottles. These have handy indentations on the sides for easy gripping when pouring. If you cut the very bottom off, leaving the majority of the length of the bottle on, it is a perfect funnel shape for volume pouring.
Sherwin Williams paint stores sell white inexpensive filter bags for paint in two sizes – 1 gal. and 5 gal. – which have elastic around the top. These are very handy for a number of uses in the garden. Taking the 1 gal size, setting it inside the inverted vodka bottle funnel, folding the elastic top over the rim (the bottom of the cut vodka bottle) and securing it further with a rubber band, it makes the perfect filter and funnel when transferring the weed tea to another large container. When the bag starts to fill up with debris, it’s a simple matter of holding the neck of the bottle and whacking the bag down releasing the debris. If it fills up too fast and won’t flow, just grab a little edge of the filter in the funnel and lift, letting the liquid flow thru.
We use 33 gal. kitchen waste bins for making our fertilizer. We use enough of it to need two of them.
Making Manure/Compost Tea fertilizer and serum
Instead of using a commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer that is basically dead chemically and which actually can decrease the microbe population, to build true soil fertility it’s important to make an alive organic formula solution and build a healthy microbe population because these babies are critical to the uptake by the plants of nutrients. Not only do they affect the breaking down of organic matter in the soil for good texture and drainage, but when hard minerals present can’t break down into organic forms, they aren’t up-takable. Think of trying to eat a nail. Then think of iron in food that your blood needs to be red. That’s what microbes do to help us.
You can just simply use rain water but you get more cluck for your buck if you use the weed tea as the base of your M/C Tea. The minerals and nutrients in the plant matter from your garden then get recycled.
Don’t use city water with chlorine immediately. You have to let the chlorine and other volatile gasses out or they will kill your good microbes. It takes about 2 days open to the air for chlorine, chloramines and other of the chemicals cities put in water to sanitize the water for consumption to escape. If your water smells like bleach, it’s not ready, and won’t be for a couple or three days. But be sure to cover your water with permeable cloth or screen material so the mosquitoes can’t get in there while the out-gassing is occurring.
We siphon the weed tea out of the bin thru the vodka bottle filter gizmo into buckets and transport the weed tea over to the kitchen bins, filling them about ¾ full.
Now here’s where those paint filter bags come in handy again.
They make perfect giant tea bags for the nutrient rich compost and other ingredients for your super fertilizer.
Here’s the recipe:
1 shovel full of well broken down compost. (You can use commercial compost but home made is better) in a 5 gal. bag, tied off with heavy twine (we use the orange twine they tie off bales of straw and pine straw because it doesn’t rot, and we like to use everything a couple of times and repurpose stuff where we can). Tie them off with a slip knot so they are easy to open later. Leave a long tail that is long enough to reach out from the bin and down the side so it won’t fall in, requiring you reaching down in this stuff once it’s done. You’ll thank me later.
1 shovel full of fresh manure – this is a great way to immediately use manure that you don’t have to compost for 6 months. Because you dilute this, it won’t burn your plant’s roots. We use horse, cow, chicken, or pig manure (the ‘hot’ kinds of manure i.e. very high in nitrogen in the form of ammonia which will burn roots unless composted). Finding manure in a city situation may be hard but if you can get it, it’s powerful fertilizer. Out here in the country someone will trade you poop for something if you don’t have your own from critters. You can also use alpaca, goat, or sheep manure but you can immediately dig those kinds into the soil and they aren’t ‘hot’ so we usually just use the ‘hot’ manures instead of waiting 6 months. We don’t use cat or dog poop because it may contain parasites. Using a 5 gal. bag as above, tie it off with a slip knot. Long tail.
Other optional ingredients:
1 one gallon bag with several handfuls of worm castings if you can find them, or include this in with your fresh manure.
About 10 leaves of comfrey, yarrow, if you have them growing in your garden in a 5 gal
Feeding the microbes:
2 cups molasses or organic sugar – you must include this (important).
Providing oxygen to the microbes:
Get a bubbler device from your local pet store in the fish tank department. These usually are between $15 and $20. Because we use two bins we got the bubbler that had two tubes on it. This provides oxygen to the microbes so they can breathe. They are living creatures so they need oxygen just like we do, or like fish do. Weigh down the tube so it drops to the bottom of the bin. We use a rock held on by more of the orange baling twine or feed the tube thru a hole in a brick and loosely tie it in a knot so it won’t come out. This is important because otherwise the tube will rise to the top and won’t get oxygen into the water where you need it. Lower the weights with the tubes down and turn it on to make sure it is bubbling.
Add the molasses or sugar into the water and stir to dissolve.
Now lower the bags of manure, compost, herbs etc., into the liquid in the bins. This will bring the level of the liquid up but not enough to fill it. We then add more water or weed tea to fill it about 1″ from the rim.
Cover the bins and secure them against mosquitoes. We use plastic sheeting that covers the tops of the bins and falls down to the floor, then secure with weights around the floor so air can escape but mosquitoes can’t get in. We usually use the cover of the kitchen bins on top secured with a rock so they can’t be blown off by wind. Ours are on the bottom deck of our house and rain can come in. We would use just screening but you don’t want rain to fill the bins too much and overflow. That’s why we use plastic sheeting.
In two or three weeks of bubbling, your tea is ready.
Remove the bags and squeeze as much liquid out as possible. The plant matter is usually pretty well deteriorated stuff so if you want you can mix it up in a bucket and apply it as fertility soil dug into a bed, or thrown on the compost pile. We sometimes add crushed egg shells to this for tomatoes so they get enough calcium.
We save our cat litter containers – the ones that have a screw top, not the ones that are buckets because mosquitoes can get in the bucket type – for putting in the finished product. We again use the filter in the vodka bottles because invariably some debris gets in there as it decomposes in the bags. We often use the fine sprayer so if you don’t filter, they get clogged up and are a pain to clean out.
This yields a LOT of what is now concentrated serum tea. Keep it out of the sun, outside in the shade someplace.
To use this serum either as a spray or drench for your plants, dilute it 50:50 at least with rain water or city water (left to outgas as above). It’s pretty powerful and condensed.
If using as a foliar (foliage, leaves) spray, to keep the microbes alive, do so before the sun comes up in the morning or after sun down. Sunlight kills the microbes.
It also works as a bug repellent so you can add some garlic concentrate to this for better effectiveness.
You can also add fish emulsion – a couple of tablespoons full in the cat litter container if you want to increase the mineral content.
OK, on this one you might either laugh or be grossed out but it works: In Permaculture we are told that human pee (not poop, just pee) is an excellent source of nitrogen and other nutrients. You can collect your own in a 5 gal. bucket, with an empty plastic gallon milk inside topped with a funnel made of a plastic liter soda bottle with the top cut off, with an old toilet seat on top of the bucket to sit on to collect it, then take the seat off, replace the lid, and keep it out of sight someplace for collection. The kidneys are a very efficient filter and unless the donor is ill this is free of microbes but loaded with the cast off nutrients from the body. It’s just about the most perfect fertilizer for plants. We collect this (me actually) and fill up the gallon milk jug, to use later for fertilizer. You don’t have to do this but it’s really a super source and free. Always dilute pee 9 parts water, 1 part pee if using directly.
Ever wonder why bears pee in the woods? The trees like it. (Sorry, a little garden humor thrown in there.)
If you want to use pee in your compost tea, about ½ to 1 cup per 2 gallon litter container, or 4 or 5 cups in the finished product in the kitchen bin before bottling it.
When using it to drench, fill a watering can about 3 or 4 inches deep of the serum and the rest with water, mix it up a bit then drench around the roots of your plants. This is a good dilution for young plants. You can increase the serum amount for well established plants. But do a little test on one and leave it a day or so before increasing the solution. It is powerful stuff so you don’t have to use much.
We use the tea 2 or 3 times in a summer or when heavy feeders like tomatoes or specific corn, which like more food, look like they need a bit more fertilization. I like to water the beds first or after a rain so the soil is already moist. This will allow the tea to go further into the soil around the roots.
Another use for this serum is in making BIO CHAR as the infusing material.
I have written another article about making Biochar in the archives of this blogsite which you can bring up. In that article I talk about using the ‘soup’ which is basically this serum with more pee than we use for usual fertilization, to infuse activated charcoal. Then layering the infused charcoal with compost and fresh mulch under a plastic sheet for about 2 weeks to increase the microbe population. Never use activated charcoal in a bed unless it has been ‘satisfied’ by infusion with nutrients or it will grab all the nutrition in its area away from your plants. This can make it look like biochar doesn’t work, when in fact it isn’t “BIO”, it’s just charcoal. It must be fermented and the micro pockets in the charcoal well filled because activated charcoal has a negative charge that will attract the nutrients which are positive charge right out of the surrounding soil.
We fill a large bucket or bin with the serum, pour a couple of pounds of the activated but naked (un-infused) charcoal in, let it sit about 15 minutes, then bring it up using a 5 or 6” ‘spider’ kitchen implement that looks like a metal basket on a stick found in oriental kitchen stores (for stir frying), and layered it on an empty plot with a thin layer of compost (see above). Each batch of the infused charcoal is layered until all of it is used up. You can pour some of the serum on it after layering but before covering with plastic.
We cook our own charcoal in a contraption made of metal bin, metal flu pipe, etc. and activate it by pouring cold water on it while it’s still very hot. For more information on making charcoal watch this video: Making Charcoal the Easy Way https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-R-8OPRJz4
We have found that making the charcoal with pellets that are used in pellet wood burning stoves is just about perfect if it is uncontaminated wood. You can also use dried wood chips from your chipper or fine chips from a tree service. Fine chips though, not big chunks.
When adding biochar to your soil, loosely cover a bed with about an inch layer of the fermented biochar, then dig it in with a simple shovel flip 6” deep systematically. Don’t till it, just let it get into the soil. It will continue to fertilize your soil for years. You can double dig it like in biodynamic soil preparation too. You can add more over the years to increase the texture and fertility of the soil.
It’s a great way to sequester carbon as it will not go back into the atmosphere once in this form, but it will continue to be a safe harbor for the soil microbes. Bio char in Africa and South American areas are 2000 years old, still so incredibly fertile that it is bagged and sold as fertilizer itself. Where beds of this are found, they sell for 10 times the regular price of land. It doesn’t stop being fertile.
NOTE: For those of you who don’t have all the ingredients in my recipe for compost/manure tea, you can make it with just manure, or just compost, or just comfrey and other nutritious herbs or any combination you wish, but remember to add some compost for the microbes and always give it some sugar or molasses.
If you are familiar with Korean Natural Farming techniques of adding microbial load – IMO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuByBHHHaGM– indigenous micro organisms – a preparation starting with soil from around a bamboo grove, mixed with cooked rice, allowed to grow white mold, soaked in milk, allowed to form a kind of cheese, and poured off after about a week. This is highly charged with beneficial micro-organisms. There are many YouTube videos on this subject. A few tablespoons of the serum from this process will charge a whole 33 gal. container of the compost tea serum.
You can make compost (or other fertilization teas) with just rainwater or get more into it with weed tea. The point of this article is that you can make your own liquid fertilizer from a number of sources, and have organically grown produce without using commercial fertilizers. By using what is already at hand, and what you make yourself, you aren’t dependent on outside sources, and in the event they aren’t available, you are still self reliant and can survive well using the organic matter you would otherwise not get as much mileage out of.
The Koreans knew 2000 years ago the advantage of making food and soil preparations by fermentation which increased beneficial the life forms. Out of this tradition came Kombucha Tea – the immortal elixir passed onto the Emperor of Japan and kept as a secret of the royal line there for hundreds of years. Kim chi, a food preparation made by fermenting vegetables which contain amazing digestive enzymes, garlic, and hot peppers is a mainstay of Korean cuisine and is responsible for their amazingly good health as a people. So, using many means to increase these microbes in the soil makes sense.
Here’s a factoid for you. The same microbes found in healthy soil are … exactly the same ones found in healthy gut microbes called the “micro biome” which we are now hearing is responsible for 85% of our immune systems. So, when consuming organic vegetables, fruits, and medicines from soil filled with these trillions of microbes actually feed your ability to fight disease and strengthen every cell in your body. The microbes prepare the nutrients in the soil to build in the food and medicine, and if you don’t use chemicals to wash off your organic vegetables and fruits, because the microbes are so small and hide in the surfaces and skins of these things, they go in and recharge your micro biome. So you’re getting probiotics with every bite. Not only that, but when you have your hands in this wonderfully boosted soil, the microbes actually enter your body and create a sense of well being per research which can lift mood and help brain function.
All because you knew how to treat the life in the soil with care and knowledge. We live in a symbiotic environment which is cross dependent. If we don’t go killing off the good microbes which form a complete eco system which we are part of (it’s called nature, and you are a member of that interdependency) it will greatly help us stay healthy and make us well fed because the plants benefit exactly the same way we do.
Diann Dirks, Auburn, Ga. 8-17-20
Certified Permaculture Designer, Organic gardener 55 years, educator, artist