As it pertains to gardening, the “Holy Grail” would be that elusive condition of perfectly balanced soil in which our plants will perform at their peak As we study we find that Nature is much like a swinging pendulum that is only in the middle half the time while moving either to the right or left the rest of the time. However, as we seek to improve soil structure and health we do find that the pendulum swings become less drastic. At present we understand that we can get to the point where our input becomes minimal once that balance is achieved.
Back in the 1970’s most of us were of the notion that we had to “feed” our plants with some store bought fertilizer. Somewhere along the line we finally became educated to the idea of “feeding” the soil and working on soil health which in turn makes our plants healthy. Lately we have learned more about the beneficial microbes that associate with plants so now we are feeding the microbes that create healthy soil and healthy plants. In fact we have discovered that the plants themselves actually exude through their root system a fair percentage of sugars and carbs from chlorophyll production to keep these beneficial organisms well fed so they can continue in their symbiotic relationships. We have progressed from feeding plants, to feeding soil, to feeding the critters that live in the soil which in turn do the job of digesting organic matter and increasing the availability of nitrogen, increasing root fines, plus keeping disease organisms in check and performing myriad duties, some of which are yet to be discovered.
For me personally, things were a lot less complicated back in the 70’s and 80’s. As I learned about organic gardening I found that the basic principle was built upon compost. This one ingredient could either directly or indirectly cure all of the problems inherent with soils and plants. Compost could improve water retention in sandy soils while in tight clay it would serve to improve percolation. It contains all major and micro nutrients. It feeds all plants in all situations and the final stage of the decomposition of compost is that dark spongy material we call humus. Soils rich in humus grow healthier plants which are more resistant to insect and disease organisms. The practicality of this life/death/decay/new life process and the fact that it had worked so well in Nature since the very beginning of time was not lost on me. Composting was simply a way of speeding up the natural process and concentrating that energy to improve soils. So whatever problem I faced in my landscaping business I knew that I could improve the situation with compost. Simple, easy, effective. I had found the Holy Grail or so I thought.
Early on we knew that the rapid decomposition of compost was due to microbes which were capable of reproducing at phenomenal rates. Lately we have discovered that the main decomposers in open sunny areas (open range, your lawn) are bacteria, but in shady areas (forest, shrub beds, north side of your house) the main decomposers are fungi. Besides the various fungi and bacteria we also find microscopic algae, protozoans, nematodes, arthropods, and larger critters which include a multitude of insects and worms. All of these organisms are essential to healthy well balanced soils.
The latest technology involves brewing a “tea” from well made compost and adding various water soluble ingredients such as seaweed or molasses and perhaps some rock powders like greensand or humates. These “super compost teas” contain very high levels of microbial life. This liquid is then aerated or agitated to introduce high levels of oxygen into the brew. This extra oxygen input has the exact same effect of turning a compost pile. The microbes increase dramatically. After 12 to 24 hours of aeration the liquid is drawn off and sprayed on your plants. This method has shown much merit, especially when it comes to large areas like your lawn or a field. Compared to spreading compost by hand, using aerated compost tea has the same basic effect with a fraction of the cost in labor.
There are two drawbacks. First of all, the microbes will begin to decrease as soon as aeration stops. The brew must be applied as quickly as possible. Some folks that make these aerated compost teas commercially have been able to keep their microbes at high levels for as many as five days by adding more sugar (molasses) to the brew after aeration. Secondly, although the microbes themselves will quickly break down organic matter and provide nutrients after application, it does take time to physically provide humus that creates stability for a truly balanced soil. For soils that are low in organic content, some type of vegetation or manure must be present to keep the decomposing microbes busy.
Is this the new Holy Grail of the industry? Quite possibly. I have personally felt for many years that agriculture will move toward the use of living organisms for fertilizer plus pest and disease control as well. Economically it does make perfect sense. Why mess with bulky materials when the proper array of organisms can be delivered in a much smaller package? Also, these organisms are capable of increasing on their own (given the right conditions) so conceivably the number of applications compared to conventional fertilizers will decrease.
This new technology does give us the ability to improve large areas of soil very quickly and cost effectively. In fact, we have been shown that the aerated super compost tea method actually costs less than conventional fertilizer applications. This should be very appealing to farmers, ranchers, and homeowners who live on large properties. Aerated compost tea can deliver useable nitrogen, dissolved minerals, plus an amazing number of beneficial microbes and that all important humic acid complex in one quick application.
Personally, I still think that delivering compost in bulk form has some advantages as it can contain all nutrients, plus microbes, and the humus itself in bulk form. Also, the various particles delivered in bulk compost will help improve water penetration and retention. While being more labor intensive, bulk compost will produce immediate results. The spray method may take several applications and more time for the decomposers to do their work. Still, I am going to take what I have learned and experiment with it. As I write this, my son PJ is working on expanding our rainwater collection barrels (the chlorine in tap water kills micro-organisms) so we can begin making our own brew here at the nursery.
You can do this at home by simply adding compost, molasses, seaweed, and other organic products into a bucket. After this mix has had a chance to brew, pour some into a pump sprayer and aerate using an aquarium air pump with a bubbling stone. Let this aerate overnight. Then you will be ready to spray the next day. Early morning is the optimum time to do this. Wet your plants and the ground as well. Try doing this on a portion of your lawn or garden while leaving some to whatever conventional methods you currently use. You should be able to notice a difference after two or three applications spaced a week or so apart. I can tell you I did. Now I am willing to take it a step further. See you next month!