Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Get your garden growing!

This is going to feel like a bit of product placement, but bear with me!

Recently, I was making a return visit to Heronswood and wondering through the vegetable garden area when I heard a group debating what chemical fertiliser products must have been used to have everything growing so well in winter.

I couldn't resist pointing out that it was an organic garden and that the majority of their "fertilisation" was in actual fact the good old fashioned method of feeding the soil with lots of organic matter.

Half the group looked like I was making it up.  They just could believe it was possible to keep things growing so well in winter without using chemicals.  The rest were genuinely interested and asked me if I gardened organically at home and what I did.

Of course, this put me on the spot a bit, but I briefly explained about a healthy soil containing billions of beneficial bacteria, fungi and other organisms that control pathogens and how it was therefore essential to avoid the use of chemicals that would harm both the nasties and the goodies.  I explained (very briefly!) about symbiotic relationships between bacteria or mycorrhizal fungi and plants, and how plants exuded sugars to attract and feed these organisms to their roots zones in order to encourage the relationship.

I was amazed that these people, all keen gardeners, didn't have any concept of beneficial soil organisms - other of course than earthworms!

They asked how to go about encouraging these organisms in the soil and I gave them a bit of a 5-step plan:

  1. Stop using synthetic chemicals to fertilise or treat pests and diseases immediately.  This will allow both your soil organisms and the other beneficial organisms that come into your garden (bees, ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies, parasitic wasps etc etc) to multiply and get on with the job of keeping your garden healthy and controlling your pests for you;
  2. Grow as much variety in plants as possible and mix them up a bit!  Growing fruit, vegetables, flowers and various other ornamentals together   can prevent the pathogenic organisms in the soil from reaching levels that allow them to adversely affect your plants.  It also encourages different beneficial organisms to infiltrate through your garden and take over your pest control;
  3. Add as much organic matter to the soil as possible.  Recycling your household food waste... paper... cardboard... into compost along with garden wastes.  Using organic mulches.  This will eventually build up the levels of humus and organic carbon in the soil, and in the immediate short term will drastically improve structure, drainage, nutrient and water retention, soil health... This will benefit the soil microbiology and in turn the plants you grow there;
  4. Try to keep as much coverage over your soil with vegetation as possible, or organic mulches where not.  This prevents oxidation of organic carbon, which severely reduces the build up of organic matter in your soil.  You should also plant perrenials where possible.  These tend to have deeper root structures, which draw up nutrients.  They also add organic matter to the soil as their roots die and are replaced;
  5. Encourage microbial activity by making use of readily available, organic, garden friendly products and home remedies... such as...
(and this is where it felt like I was doing some free advertising!!)

Use it everywhere in the garden, throughout the year, both when watering and  as foliar sprays.  It has low levels of nutrients, so is classes as a plant tonic rather than fertiliser, but this makes it safe to use on everything - from the tiniest seedlings being potted up, to your Aussie natives and edible fruit and veg.  It promote the health of your soil and in turn your plants!

Seasols' big sister, Powerfeed is classed as a fertiliser as it has higher soluble NPK levels.  It also has humic acids, which are very stable and will remain in the soil for the long term.  These acids are essential for soil microbial life and are also necessary for the biological processes within plants - particularly those related to growth, flowering and fruiting.  Brilliant for your fruit and veggies :)

Dynamic Lifter
Slow release organic plant food in pellet format, can be used all over the garden when planting or as side dressings etc throughout the year.  I love this stuff as it's so easy to apply and my kids love being given the important job of chucking a handful in a planting hole, or filling a bucket and sprinkling it round.

As GoGo Juice is full of breathing microbial life, it comes in a snazzy tin can to prevent accidentally exploding bottles!  This adds microbial bacteria to your soil and gives it a boost.  Great for adding in spring as the soil warms up to help get the levels up to speed quickly, or for giving your compost a boost.  Try using it on everything, but my personal favourite is soaking cuttings and coir in it when propagating.  Works much better than rooting powders and gels - give it a try!

This is fantastic when planting trees and shrubs, particularly fruiting varieties and Aussie natives.  It adds mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, effectively inoculating the roots of new plants and giving a boost to established plants.  Use it to innoculate seeds before planting, add it in with your propagation mix, sprinkling over the roots of plants when transplanting, broadcast it or water it in.  Any plant which has a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi will benefit!  Check out this short list here to see which of your plants might get a kick out of it :)

And last, but by absolutely no means least...

Compost Tea / Manure Tea / Worm wee

Use these diluted in water when watering your garden, as part of a foliar feed or when transplanting.

Create your own mixes by combining yeast, molasses and your compost/manure tea and worm wee.  You can either mix this together, put a tight lid on and leave it to sit in a warm spot for a couple of days, or you can get more complicated and use a cheap fish tank pump to keep it aerated.  The different methods will allow different bacteria to proliferate, with aerated versions usually giving you much higher numbers, but both will work fantastically.

This mix can be used in the same way as all the above products and is particularly good for adding to new compost heaps, or rejuvenating ones that seem to have stopped working.

I have at times mixed pretty much everything on the list together (not the MycoApply!) just to see what would happen.  I left this bucket, loosely covered, in a warm spot in the garden.  Within a few days there was fungus growth on the top and within a week it was starting to escape.  From that I realised how much of a boost it must give to the garden and never wasted any again!

I personal favourite of mine is to mix some regular breakfast oats and molasses together.  Next prepare some live yeast.  Once the yeast is ready, mix this and some compost tea into the porridge and molasses mix, only enough to dampen the mixture, but not to the point where you can see any liquid.  Stick a lid on it and leave it for at least 48 hours.

You've now made your own compost activator! :)

Add a cup to new compost heaps, or better still, add a tablespoon to your kitchen waste bin every few days. Great way to actively compost kitchen waste, even meat scraps. ;)

Now, I obviously didn't say all of that when I was talking to the people because frankly there was a storm coming and I had flu coming on.  I did promise to write this post for them though, so that they could read it at their leisure and check out the particular products I mentioned.

So guys, if you're reading this, thanks for joining us and I hope you find it helpful - especially Archie, who was keen to give everything a try!


  1. It's really helpful and I can't waut to try the homebrew mixes. How long do these last?

  2. Hey Archie - welcome :)

    As they bacteria are live, these mixes do have a shelf life. Unfortunately, I've never done any scientific testing to see how long!

    The commercial products all have a recommended use by date and a period over which any diluted mixture should be used to get the best benefit from it.

    When making your own mixtures, adding molasses (where it's to be liquid) and oats (where it's a dry mixture like in the compost activator) gives the bacteria a food source and therefore increases the period you have before you need to use the mixture.

    I generally make up liquid mixes as I require them, but the dry compost activator mix I store in an air tight container and use it as required. Generally, I make up a 5l container worth (those plastic storage boxes with a lid that clips on) and, as I only use a tablespoon at a time when required, this lasts me around 6 months.

    It appears to work just as well 6 months down the line as it does when freshly made.

    Hope that helps! :)