Tips From the Potting Bench (Weather, or Not)
By Rita Jacinto, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
Sometimes I am at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the weather, especially in spring and fall when the nature spirits of two seasons are playing tug of war. Several days of 80 degree temperatures and bright sunny skies can’t fool me. After all, it snowed just about a week ago. Even so, I am tempted to plant out an experimental row of tomatoes, cukes, and summer squash. All these are pretty hardy and can withstand a light frost with some protection.
I was talking to a fellow in Weaverville who plants his first round of tomatoes on April 15, using the wall of water thingies. He went into great detail about how he sets them up, plants the tomatoes, and how well they do even if it snows, and how early he can get his first tomato.
So I thought “what the heck, I’m going to give it a try.” Walls of Water look like plastic double walled teepees of interconnected channels. Each of the channels gets filled with water, which acts as a solar collector during the day and keeps the plants warm at night by slowly giving off its heat. Remember heat flows into cold. To set them up, first plant your tomato, cukes, or squash, then put an upside down five gallon bucket over the plant to act as a form for the wall of water. Slip the wall of water over the bucket and fill the channels with water using a garden hose on low flow.
Once they are all full, slip the bucket out. The walls will lean in towards the center like a teepee protecting the young plant and helping to create a mini greenhouse environment around them.
There are a number of creative ways this same effect can be achieved; simply using and over turned bucket on really cold nights can be enough. If you are going to tempt fate and try to plant a few things early I would urge you to stay tuned to your favorite weather station.
Last time I gave you a short primer of making fermented plant extracts. Now let’s talk about compost tea. The term has really changed in the last 10 years or so since Dr. Elaine Ingram described the soil food web. Back in the day compost tea was a burlap sack filled with cow manure and steeped in a bucket. Now, don’t get me wrong, this works only not in the same way and not as effectively as making actively aerated compost tea or AACT as it’s called now.
Ingram argued that soil microbes are what grow soil and keep plants healthy. When she first published her research she met quite a bit of opposition from other ‘soil scientists’. Today there is a whole booming industry based on her research. I digress…. simply put there is a whole web of microbial life living in the soil. Each of these critters has some special role they play in creating healthy soil and plants.
Real organic farmers have known this intuitively for years and have based their gardening and farming activities on producing quality compost. Quality compost is full of diverse populations of tiny critters. Compost tea is kind of a short cut to get the critters without having to produce loads and loads of compost. Mind you, it not a substitute for compost or the need to add organic matter to your soil. What it is a great way to jumpstart the biology of your soil.
Having a healthy population of diverse little critters can improve yield and quality of your fruits and veggies, increase resistance to frost, pest, disease and weeds and give you bigger and more flowers. They can break down toxins in the soil and increase the water holding capacity of the soil. The best part is that it is nearly free to produce after an initial modest investment in brewing equipment.
The process is simple, take some quality compost, a little food for the critters, dechlorinated water, and add lots of air bubbles. The air bubbles knock the critters off the compost in to the water; they eat the food and multiply. Then you use the water to spray on your plants.
Here’s what you need to brew five gallons of awesomeness, three cups of good quality compost or worm castings, unchlorinated water to fill the bucket, and an aquarium pump, some tubing and air stones, two tablespoons of powdered kelp meal, fish emulsion, and molasses. You will want to get as big a pump as your budget will allow and only use a round bucket so there are no places where water can stagnate. Constant and thorough aeration is crucial to ensure that the microbes you grow are beneficial rather than detrimental.
Hook two or more air stones to the pump using the tubing and drop them into the bucket making sure that they stay on the bottom. Some folks just throw all the ingredients in the bucket and let it brew away. After 12-72 hours the brew is done. Then it is strained and used to water or spray your plants. Other folks use a paint strainer or some kind of nylon bag to hold the ingredients so they don’t have to strain it later. The consideration here is to use mesh size that is large enough to let the microbes out and small enough to keep the ingredient particles in.
These are the fundamentals; once you have this down you can start experimenting with other ingredients.
A last note. This is a very new field and new discoveries are being made all the time. The experts used to advise that you tailor your recipe to either get a fungal or a bacterially dominated tea. The idea came because they discovered that annual plants seem to do better with bacterially dominated tea while perennials, shrubs and trees preferred a fungally dominated brew. The feeling now is to brew a tea that is as diverse as can be and let the soil choose what it wants.
Life! So many choices and we each choose differently depending on what we need just like the soil that supports us.