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Microbes and plants need nutrients.
We can supply most of these nutrients through good mulches and well-made compost, but not only do we need the nutrients, we need them in specific amounts in relation to each other.
The old paradigm.
That’s where a small amount of specific fertilizers come in, to move towards these ratios. Organic matter generally can’t do it alone, so this is a vital step.
There are several definitions of the word fertilizer. In many countries, in order to be considered a fertilizer, a product must have a certain amount of total nitrogen, available phosphate and soluble potash, often written as NPK.
Notice that it’s available phosphate and soluble potash, not total.
This has an unfortunate consequence for organic fertilizers.
Dr. Teruo Higa started studying microorganisms in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly at Ryukyus University in Okinawa, Japan.
By the early 1980s, he was perfecting his liquid culture of specific “facultative anaerobic microbes” that provide amazing benefits when combined together in specific proportions.
Kefir is also made with fermenting microbes.
Facultative anaerobic means microbes that can live both in air with oxygen and also in low oxygen conditions.
They’re also called fermenting microbes and some of them are responsible for making your bread, beer, wine and yogurt.
Do you have too much compost?
I know I don’t. It’s always in short supply. Most of us don’t have too much organic matter in our soil either. In fact, most of us don’t have nearly enough.
Microbes are the most important element of healthy soil.
The same goes for microorganisms. We generally need more of them.
That cause of their deficiency may be that we don’t have enough organic matter for them to eat, we have big monocultures in our landscape, we’ve used pesticides or chemical fertilizers, we’ve used drip irrigation or otherwise withheld water from the landscape, we’ve been tilling our soil, or even because of the generally toxic environment we live in with pollution, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals around.
Perhaps you don’t have the room or inclination to make a full-sized outdoor compost pile.
Fortunately, even a small amount of compost can be highly beneficial.
This article outlines two methods of composting your food scraps that can be done right in your house.
Bokashi made from bran of some kind, sprinkled on food scraps.
Bokashi is a fermented material, often rice bran or wheat bran although it can be made with many other kinds of waste materials such as sawdust, grain mash from breweries, and other grain scraps.
Bokashi is fermented by mixing it with the liquid microbial inoculant called Effective Microorganisms (EM). It’s done today because it makes some of the most incredibly beneficial organic matter possible for the garden, but traditionally, it was also a method of making use of waste products.
Cover crops are traditionally thought of as plants used when the garden or field is empty, such as over winter and sometimes over summer.
But I like to broaden this definition to also include plants used during the growing season, inter-planted with food crops or even in ornamental beds where they’re sometimes called groundcovers or living mulch.
Crotalaria or “rattlepod” is a leguminous green manure often grown in the tropics. It’s great for fiber and building soil, but poisonous to large mammals.
They’re also referred to as green manures, generally when they’re going to be incorporated into the soil after a certain period of growth.
A good goal is to make sure your soil is always covered with plants, and cover crops help achieve this goal.
There’s been a lot of excitement in the last 15 years about the benefits of compost tea and nearly as much confusion about what it is.
The benefits are all the same as those things microbes do in the garden that were listed in the soil food web lesson, with insect and disease control and plant health being the main reasons people use it.
Nice with biscuits, but it won’t do much for your garden.
The confusion happens because of the name.
Gardeners have been making a form of compost tea for centuries by putting a small amount of compost in a pail of water, sometimes inside a burlap sack, stirring it once in a while for a few days, and then applying that water to the soil.
The last post was an intro to compost and now it’s time to make it.
There are many composting methods, but the most common is probably the outdoor, above-ground compost pile, and it’s a good method.
The size of the pile is important. Too small and it won’t heat up properly, but too big and it won’t get enough air. The best dimensions are three to five feet long, wide and high.
This enclosure is a good size. I just hope there’s a way to get the compost out of there!
Although it isn’t always necessary, an enclosure can keep out critters, prevent the pile drying from wind and look a little tidier.
That can be made of used wood pallets or fresh wood, concrete blocks or anything else that holds the compost in place.
Some gardeners have two or three such enclosures for different stages of the pile, such as raw materials, in-process compost, and finished compost.
Compost is our way of mimicking nature, yet speeding it up substantially.
Whereas nature slowly decomposes animal manure, leaves and other organic matter, we put a large amount of these things into a pile in specific combinations and ratios to make it happen quickly.
The forest floor is continually covered with moss, ferns, leaves, needles, tree branches and trunks in various stages of life and decomposition.
Compost is not natural. I love making and using compost, but it’s worth remembering that.
Nature makes humus by covering the ground in plants that continually grow and die throughout the seasons and years.
Masanobu Fukuoka points out in The One-Straw Revolution that we don’t need to compost if we maintain plant cover and mulch.
Despite some claims, plants and microbes really do care about the source of their nutrients.
They often do better with organic forms of the elements rather than synthetic chemical forms.
Compost is valuable for far more than its organic matter, as we’ll see later on.
While I definitely recommend using products such as lime in certain circumstances, the thing most of us need to do before all of that is start a regimen of deliberately increasing the organic matter content of our soil.
We can do this with leaves, compost and other organic materials, even cover crops.
In the last century, we’ve burned up more than 90% of the organic matter in many of our soils through tilling, applying chemicals, and clearing plant residue without allowing organic matter to decompose.
We can’t look at soil management without also looking at water management.
This lesson isn’t a complete summary of strategies, but it does cover some of the most important points we need to know.
Seedlings in the rain
While perhaps not as exciting as say, the latest fertilizer or microbial inoculant, water is more important.
Proper water management comes before these other topics and is one of the most important things we do.
Water is essential to life.
Not only do we drink it — we are made of it. Throughout the course of our life, our bodies contain between 50 and 80% water. We know our plants are made of water, too, and they need it for photosynthesis and cooling.