By Mike Fedison and Doug DeCandia
Small, well-cared for pieces of land have the potential to feed and heal the world. One of the hurdles to realizing this potential is the inadvertent stress we as growers impose upon the plants in our gardens and on our farms. There’s much we can learn from the wild spaces surrounding and within our fields. There are plants and organisms that have the capacity, when collected and spread throughout, to regenerate the inherent vitality of the soil, of the plants and of us as human beings.
Most farmers struggle with depleted soils. Often, new farmers have even fewer resources at their disposal to improve soil and plant health. There are numerous simple solutions to some of these problems, and we thought we’d share how we’re working to address our own soil deficiencies and improve our farms, using locally available materials wherever possible. In an ideal world, soil tests are done regularly, and mineral deficiencies are addressed each fall, to give soil biology time to mineralize these nutrients over the winter into plant available forms. There are other in-season practices that we use on our farms to keep plants growing as healthily as possible, build carbon reserves, and produce nutrient dense food.
A farm operates quite differently from nature, and many of the hardships we face on the farm are due to the clearing of land from its natural tending ecosystem. Cover cropping and mulching reduce the stress on the soil and the plants by re-introducing the groundcover that naturally exists in a forest or grassland. In a healthy forest, the soil is always covered by either plants or leaves. Exposed soil dries out, leaches nutrients and shortly becomes lifeless. Shredded leaves, hay or straw are available in most places to use as mulch, but a more effective and often easier and cheaper form of “mimicking” the native ecosystem is sowing many seeds of many different plants. Mixing soil from the forest with the seeds of clovers, grasses, vegetables and other species inoculates the seeds with a diversity of native microorganisms and works well to mimic the functioning of a healthy natural ecosystem. This allows seeds to germinate surrounded by the symbiotic microbes they need to begin growing well.
In his book, The Farm as Ecosystem, Jerry Brunetti cites a recipe for a home-made, fermented plant and soil food using the leaves of Comfrey, Stinging Nettle and Japanese Knotweed. It is recommended to make each batch with one of these three herbs, then use them either separately or mix them after fermentation. The smell of the final tea is sweet and, from what we can see at the Food Bank farms, after applying it as a foliar spray, the plants and soil are enjoying it.
Fermented Plant & Soil Food Recipe
- 20 # – fresh leaves (comfrey, nettles or japanese knotweed)
- 10 # – compost or worm castings
- 4 oz – Epsom Salts
- 10 # – molasses
- 1 oz – sea salt
- 5 – gallons milk
- Add to fifty-five gallons of water.
- Let ferment in a vented container, and stir daily for 3 weeks.
- Use at 2-3 percent dilution.
These three plants grow vigorously in gardens and in the wild, and their deep, venturing roots carry a diversity of nutrients into their leaves, which we then use to make this tea to feed the soil and plants.
Compost tea is an important weekly amendment that we apply to the crops at Farmer and the Fish. By inoculating the soil and leaf surfaces with beneficial microbes, we are both boosting disease resistance through diversifying the micro-ecology, and improving availability of nutrients by increasing populations of the creatures that transform minerals into plant-available forms. There are lots of ways to make compost tea.
Simple Compost Tea Recipe
- 5 gallon bucket, filled with water
- fish tank aerator (Mine cost about $20 from a pet store.)
- scrap of old row cover material to use as the tea bag
- bit of string to tie the teabag
- 1 cup homemade fish hydrolysate
- 1 cup homemade kelp extract
- Tea ingredients:
- a large handful of compost (diversity of species)
- a handful of garden soil (preexisting species)
- a handful of forest soil (fungal species)
- straw (food for amoebas, which earthworms love to eat)
- fresh healthy plant leaves (full of enzymes and plant growth hormones)
Brew the tea for about 36 hours, and then dilute it to a 3 to 1 ratio before spraying. It’s important to spray either early or late in the day, in order to avoid burning leaves in the midday sun. Fish hydrolysate and kelp extracts are great additions to this tea.
Fish hydrolysate is expensive to buy but can be easily made at home for an easy and plant-available source of nitrogen for your crops. At Farmer and the Fish, we have access to all the fish heads and skeletons we could want, so there is always a batch going. You can typically get fish parts for free with a bit of asking at a supermarket. Use whatever carbon source is readily at hand to balance out the recipe.
To make the fish hydrolysate, use one part roughly chopped fish parts, one part wood chips, and one part leaves. Mix them together in a barrel and add water. A bit of molasses works well to give the bacteria something to eat right away. In a few weeks the fish have pretty much disappeared, and the liquid is strained through another piece of old row cover so it doesn’t clog the sprayer. Commercial products will include phosphoric acid to lower pH and extend shelf life. If you start to see aphids, however, cut out all applications of nitrogen. The aphids are a signal that the plant is not converting nitrogen into complex proteins, and the aphids are feasting on all that available nitrogen in the plant.
Seaweed and kelp products are great sources of trace minerals. Just about every element on the periodic table is present in a teaspoon of seawater. Plants growing in the ocean have access to all those trace minerals and store them in their tissues. A simple kelp tea can be made first by washing excess salts off of the kelp and then submersing it in a bucket of water for a few weeks. Again, strain the liquid before putting into your sprayer. Seaweed is often used to pack seafood and can often be found at fish markets and other places dealing with seafood. Or just buy some of the edible varieties from the store and use those.
We hope more farmers start using these types of locally available inputs to improve plant and human health on their farms.
About the Authors
For the past 4 years Doug has been growing vegetables for the Food Bank for Westchester, which distributes the produce to people experiencing hunger in Westchester County. The “Farm” is a collection of 5 gardens, about 3 acres total, in urban and rural areas throughout the area. The work is done by hand, and relies very much on what nature provides to fertilize the gardens and maintaining their integrity. Before starting these gardens, Doug managed a small organic vegetable farm in Putnam County, NY and before that attended school at Warren Wilson College where he studied sustainable agriculture and worked on the college’s vegetable farm.
Mike Fedison has been growing food for over ten years in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Republic of Palau. He is currently the farm manager at the Farmer and the Fish, a truly farm-to-table restaurant in Westchester County. Though the farm is only about 2 acres, by focusing on soil health and companion plantings they are able to intensively grow food to supply a busy restaurant, small CSA, and new retail market on the property. Mike also teaches sustainable agriculture classes at Westchester Community College.