Friday, August 28, 2009

Compost Tea

Compost is wonderful stuff. It increases the health and vitality of your soil, thereby increasing the health of your plants. It does this primarily by feeding the beneficial microbes in the soil. When they become active, they make all kinds of good things. Add to this all of the major and minor nutrients that compost contains and it is practically the perfect supplement for your plants. There’s just one problem. Compost takes a long time to make. Okay, two problems. For every pound of raw material you put in, you only get a few ounces of finished compost. So you work hard all summer collecting table scraps, lawn clippings, and garden trimmings and you work hard all fall collecting all those fallen leaves. You fill the compost bin several times over, yet somehow by spring you only have enough to provide a sparse top dressing to your garden. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make some sort of “compost concentrate” that you could apply or even get something that you can apply weekly? Well, it turns out that you can. It’s called compost tea.

Compost tea is a liquid version of compost that you spray on your plants as a foliar spray as well as pour on the soil around the plants. It is full of both beneficial nutrients and beneficial bacteria. Compost tea increases overall health of the plant and increases the thickness of the cuticle of the leaf, helping the plant better resist fungal and bacterial diseases. It also helps the plant better fend off insect predators. Best of all, it’s easier to make than you might think. There are many recipes out there, but after some research and experimentation, I have come up with my version that seems to work quite well for me.

First of all, you need materials:

5 Gallon Bucket
Aquarium air pump with hose and diffuser
Filter (I use knee-high nylons)

Water (Rainwater or filtered tap water. Chlorine=Bad)
Finished Compost
A few tablespoons of molasses

Fill the bucket with the water. Fill the nylon with compost. I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule about how much, but a cup of compost per gallon of water is probably a good rule of thumb. Put the compost filled sock in the bucket and add the molasses. Hook up your pump, put the diffuser in the bucket and turn it on. After a half hour or so, you will start getting some foam on the top. This is a good thing. Soil-borne bacteria produce all kinds of by-products that act as a glue to hold the soil together. My guess is that these compounds are what is causing the foam. At any rate, it is a sign that you have good microbial action going on. Let it sit and brew for about 24 hours. A little more or a little less is fine, but I would let it brew at least 12 hours and probably no more than 48 hours. When it is done, spray it on your happy plants. The used compost can go back in the compost bin or straight on the soil.

There is one very important thing to remember about compost tea, though. It’s alive! If you let it sit around more than about 24 hours, the good bacteria might die and the bad ones might take over, so use it quickly.

For the sufficiently advanced bioneer, compost tea seems like an ideal medium for applying other supplements, like maybe a little garlic to help fend off herbivores. I haven’t begun experimentation of this yet, but it is on the docket. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Try, Try Again

I recently moved from a home with a big back yard to an apartment with almost no yard at all. As a result, I went from having a third of an acre that was landscaped mostly with edible landscaping and a 2,000 square foot garden to a container garden. At the old house, which I am still trying to sell, I have a very healthy raspberry patch which keeps trying to claim the strawberry patch next to it. When I put together my container garden, I dug up a couple of those errant raspberry canes and planted them and the strawberry plants that came with them in my new container garden. My assumption was that a combination of excellent soil, mycorrhizal fungus and abundant water would be enough to protect my canes while they tried to grow a new set of roots. In full sun. In Arizona. In late June. I was wrong. It was apparently good enough for the strawberries, though, as about two-thirds lived. My raspberries, though, withered and died.

Humbled by my earlier failure, I decided to try again. I grabbed several more raspberry canes plus an errant blackberry vine that survived an earlier cull. Again, I have given them excellent soil, mycorrhizal fungus and abundant water, but this time I did a few extra things to help. For the plants that lost most of their roots, I treated what was left with rooting hormone. I also put them in temporary pots and placed them on my patio in a place that gets little to no direct sun and trimmed off all but a foot of the cane, thereby reducing leaf surface available for evapotranspiration. Only time will tell if my efforts were successful. If they aren't, I'll just try again, and again, for as long as I still own the house.

I often read comments by people who really want to start a garden but don't know where to start and are afraid they will fail. To those people I say this: Yep, you probably will fail. And you'll probably do it more than once. But you will also succeed. A garden is a big thing. There will be some failures and some successes. You learn more from the failures. But if you don't try, you'll never learn and you'll never succeed. So get out there and try!

Friday, August 14, 2009


Often in nature the line between saprophytic (decomposing) fungus and parasitic fungus is blurred, with some mushrooms being classified as "facultative parasites," which means that they will move in on a sickly tree and finish it off. They will kill the tree and then decompose it.

However, the line between saprophytic fungus and mycorrhizal fungus is also often blurred. Many species of mushroom are endophytic, which means that they actually live within the tissues of the tree, helping it survive. Some of those are also decomposing mushrooms. Elm oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius) have been shown to increase the growth of garden vegetables that they are growing with, even though they are primarily a decomposing mushroom.

Maybe that's just nature's way of calling dibs.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Making a Spore Print

Identification of wild mushrooms is tricky business. As mushrooms grow and mature they change in size, shape and often color. While some change color from brown to buff or dark yellow to light yellow, some turn from blue to brown or red to buff, changing completely and making accurate identification tricky.

So you are thumbing through the field guide and have narrowed the search to two or three mushrooms, but can’t really decide for sure which one it is. The only thing left is a spore print. According to the book, one mushroom has a white spore print, while the other has a green spore print. Sounds easy enough, right, but what is a spore print? A spore print is a mass of spores deposited on a surface, usually a piece of paper. Having millions to billions of spores in one place allows you to determine overall characteristics of the usually microscopic spores, such as color. As a bonus, making them is easy and fun to do with the kids.

First of all, select a mushroom, preferrably one that is mature enough to be producing spores. In other words, if you can’t see the gills yet, you won’t get any spores. If it is a polypore mushroom (little holes on the bottom instead of gills all lined up), the pores should be open. Lay the mushroom with the gills or pores down on a piece of glass or a piece of paper. If the field guide says the spore print is white, you won’t be able to see it on white paper, so pick a different color of paper. Then just cover it with a bowl to keep air flow out. Any moving air in the room will carry the spores off. Then just let it sit for somewhere between 2 and 24 hours. The longer you let it sit, the more spores you will get, and the darker it will be. You can pick it up and check it periodically if you want, but that will ruin the cool pattern you will get from the gills of the mushroom. That’s it. you have made a spore print.

If it turns out to be a mushroom you want to keep around, you can let the spore print fully dry and then fold it up and keep it. The spores will remain viable for 3 years or so.

Some mushroom hunters will make spore prints of choice edibles on tops and brims of their favorite hiking hats. That way the spores will be spread from their hat by the breeze as they hike, helping spread the tasty mushrooms.