Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Natural Fertilizers

Natural fertilizer... What exactly am I talking about here? Well its not something that comes out of a bag that you buy. It is something that you make yourself or grow yourself to nourish the soil, give structure and create a great deal of organic matter to enrich next set of plants. You can buy some of these preparations but I just prefer not to unless I know the supplier and their practices. I tend to visit/investigate places before I buy anything; it pays to be an informed consumer.

In this post I will be focused on discussing the following topics which are so vast they each deserve their own thorough post (coming soon):

  • Vermiculture
  • BSF - Black soldier fly larvae
  • Composting
  • Green manure
  • Manure tea
  • Animal manures
  • Plant teas
For those of you who know a lot about this... PLEASE do comment and add to the list! I love hearing other people's ideas and opinions.

So here they are:

  • Vermiculture!!!! I need to update the post I wrote about this as we started new bins and they are doing really well! Basically in a nutshell you feed these specific worms your food scraps and they eat them and turn them into black gold. You can use their 'castings' (essentially their poop) as a soil amendment which holds water really well and is full of bio-available micro nutrients and all sorts of living bacteria that insert life and vitality into your soil. You can also collect their 'juice' either in a special bin system or just put some castings in water, I get constant questions about ratios, I use about a cup to a gallon for a strong solution. I like to use wet castings for this purpose. You can foliar feed your plants with this liquid solution to give an instant boost to your plants. Some people like to plant their seedlings directly into the castings. I am not terribly fond of this idea as I think its a bit overkill and just mix some castings in at planting time and do some watering with the tea to add nutrients as the plants grow.

  • BSF - Black Soldier Fly Larvae; DISCLAIMER!!!! When I have mismanaged my worm bins I have found their grubs and got them just on accident especially when the weather heats up here in Central Florida. These insects are officially named Hermetica illucens and they look a little bit like a small black wasp with wings along the body. Their larval stage is what we are interested in for composting purposes and their presence will ward of houseflies by preventing them from laying eggs in the manure or compost they inhabit. These incredible bugs will process a large amount of decomposing matter like manure, animal wastes, and rotting food; they are not regularly seen as pests. The adult flies do not bite or sting. Essentially the flies can process almost any kind of waste product and turn it into bio-available nutrient rich compost much faster than worms. An excellent choice if you have a ton of waste you need processed in a short time frame. In addition to this if you have chickens the larvae are an excellent dietary supplement for them! I found a great post here about how this gardener processes and uses her BSF. There are many design styles and options when it comes to creating a system for these bugs.

  • Composting! Dont get wrapped up in the HYPE composting is simple and easy... You have two ingredients: nitrogen and carbon AKA green and brown. Its simple you have brown which can be leaves, straw, or any other organic matter which is brown. The larger and denser the particles are the longer they will take to decompose and they will require more nitrogen... The 'green' is going to be green matter such as food scraps, grass clippings, general vegetable waste from the garden and more. Here is a nice chart from The Suburban Garden giving an explanation of what can be included. I dont follow all of those 'rules' I do include some meat, fish and dairy in small amounts and deep in the pile. There are many different designs and systems that you can consider depending on how much space and waste you have. I wrote a brief post, here, about what we are using which has just turned into a simple one pile system. I will be doing a specific post about composting soon! The green and brown are mixed in a 30:1 ratio... Everyone says things differently and gives different options so you will need to monitor your pile to see what is going on. In the end if you do well you will have ample organic matter to spread all over your planting areas.

  • Green Manure: WHAT IS IT???? Well quite simply they are plants that you grow to nourish the soil and at the end of their growth cycle they are chopped and dropped, integrated into the planting bed to add structure and nutrients for the following crop or some people will chop them and then compost the waste. You can be as simple or as complex as you want to be with these. Many of the common green manure crops are legumes or nitrogen fixing plants. Many of these legumes are edible which are a 2 for 1 because you get an edible yield from the area while doing good for the soil!!! Many of the plants used will dig roots deep in the ground  pulling up nutrients from deep in the soil making them available for your next set of plants and efficiently 'tilling' the soil for you. Common green manures are: alfalfa, rye, mustard, vetch, cowpeas, fava beans, soybeans, sunnhemp, sorgum, millet, clover, velvet bean and many many more depending on region and season. Using green manures is an excellent way to work the soil with little effort.
  • Manure tea: I do not have too much experience with this soil conditioner and concentrated fertilizer! Basically you take composted manure soak it in water and then use the liquid to feed your plants. Just like everything else in this gardening adventure everyone has a different opinion. I really like the ideas in this Mother Earth News article; they have been thorough and made a simple looking system. I have seen farmers just plop a 20-30lb burlap bag of fresh manure in a 50gal barrel and then add water. They let it steep for days until the liquid is a golden brown color and then just siphon it off and feed it to the plants. Again I am a novice in this but have heard rave reviews about this technique. I will be trying it in the fall and will make sure and update you on the progress.
  • Animal Manure: This has been one of the most versatile fertilizers I have found. It does nto just fertilize but adds organic matter to the soil and structure over time. If you happen to know anyone who has horses, cows, rabbits or other farm animals that they feed well then you will usually find a surplus of manure which many small farmers are more than happy to share unless they have been able to use it all. We have been lucky enough to find a local horse boarder who feeds the horses with organic feed and has a 3 year old pile of composted manure that we have been using to amend our planting beds. You must always make sure that the manure you are using is well composted or be ready to apply it and wait several weeks possibly a month or two depending on how 'hot' the manure is. if you apply raw manure and then plant into it you will end up burning your plants which is no fun! The amazing part of animal manures is that there are many ways to use it to produce a range of different types of solid or liquid amendments that are sure to make your plants happy. I will be working on a different post just talking about these different preparations and uses.
  • Plant teas: Similar to manure teas you can make nutrient rich solutions with plants. I like to use comfrey leave and steep them in water for several days; covered with a cloth so that bugs and lizards don't choose to drown in it. You can use a mixture of any type of plant matter! Ken Peavy of the Farm Whisperer wrote a great post about how he uses his grass clippings to make a nutrient rich drench for his plants. Another local farmer I have interacted with online has talked to me about how they use any type of green plant matter in a barrel with water soaked for several days to create a lovely tea that helps to feed their plants. You can take a look at what is happening on the Carey's farm here: Sundew gardens.

The rules are that there are no rules! You make the rules and only you know your plants, property and soil! You will want to carefully observe and preferably record you findings in a journal. Be ready to harm some plants at times. Experimentation does not always work and you might find that with some of these soil conditioners you need some experience to know when and in what quantity to apply. In addition to that I have talked with Ben Walter over at Hermitage Farm several times about the nutrient profile of the soil and being aware of what is in your soil. There is a balance to this science and adding too much of one nutrient could cause other nutrients to be 'tied up' and not readily available to your plants.

Talking to other local growers and farmers is an amazing way to really understand how to make things work for your benefit and to learn about methods that are working in your area. Do not be afraid to connect with others either online or by visiting. I have had excellent experiences reaching otu to the community and have learned much more than I thought I would be able to from just talking to farmers and visiting their properties.

Happy gardening to you all!