I'm seeing a lot of recent on fungi and bacteria along with organic matter in relation to the soil and agriculture.
I've done a lot of experiments over the years with organic matter and have gone off the traditional ways of composting organic matter and then adding it to the garden.
The reason for this is that if you start with a huge heap of say grass and leaves you will have very little bulk at the end of the composting cycle to add to the soil. If you start out with something like hardwood chip then at least you can get a top class mulch material to add spread over your topsoil to cut down on weeds and make weeding easy. However even with hardwood clip the life of your mulch is only good for about 8 months.
Now getting down to good soil. What is good soil? I expect that you will all tell me that a good soil is a soil with high biological activity. A good soil that has a good biological activity will automatically have a high protein / nitrogen content as this is what makes up the bodies of bacteria, fungi and other soil life organism. Adding organic matter to such a soil results in its rapid breakdown unless it is old sawdust or peat that is straight inert carbohydrate.
If you add compost as mulch around plants you will see the plants put on new growth for a couple of week and then stop. The reason is that the minerals will have leached out of the compost into the soil leaving just inert carbohydrate behind. The inert carbohydrate material left will slowly be broken down due to the mineral content of the top soil and available nitrogen within the top soil. If you bury the compost then it will breakdown much faster.
Say I add 100 kilos of sawdust to the garden; will it build up the soil life? No it won’t it might help maintain the current soil life but it will do little to assist it soil life buildup. Now say I add a few kilos of fishmeal or meat meal will I build up the soil life? Yes very quickly but only for a short time. In fact by increasing the nitrogen contend in the soil I will assist the soil life to breakdown the organic matter that is present in the soil thereby reducing the water holding capacity of the soil. If I keep adding such a good nitrogen source to the soil I’ll deplete the soil of soil life after a time as all the organic matter will be burned up (as energy) in bacterial respiration.
So I tend to go with say crushed bricks and sand to open up (aerate) the soil. And then to add compost tea to the soil watching the carbon nitrogen ratio to maintain biological activity.
You need about one pea to maintain high biological activity in a gallon of water for about two weeks. Protein content of peas is about 22% and the remainder is carbohydrate. This will give you an idea as to how to keep your moist topsoil biologically active. Remember also that you want the biological activity in the soil not in the compost bin.
Plants take up some vitamins and sugars and amino acids etc from soil water as well as minerals. So yes you need biological activity in your soil for plant health and in turn human health.
However making say your own fish fertilizer and buying molasses by the 44 gallon drum is a much cheaper and easier way to keep your soil biologically active. Kelp meal is great for trace elements of course. Buying a high grade dry hydroponic mineral mix to mix and use by foliar fertilizing is also good to maintain production of your garden.
I am not saying not to use available organic matter to incorporate into your garden I am just saying that it is not always the practical way to maintain a biologically active soil.
Origins: Infusoria (a menage of one-celled or equally teeny multi-celled animals) get their name because they originate from vegetable infusions – pulverized vegetation in water. Don't forget spontaneous generation. Lots of tiny critters live in infusoria. Some of the better known ones are paramecia (pic above) and rotifers.
Use: Aquarists feed infusoria to their tiniest fish fry. Example, gouramis start life too small to eat most foods. Even newly hatched brine shrimps are too big for gourami fry. (Betta fry are a little more aggressive in that some will rip the legs off newly hatched shrimp.) If you intend to rear the smaller egglayers (including bettas), you will need infusoria. You can start most anabantids on green water (mostly Euglena), but your yield drops considerably. You also get tremendous variances in size.
Size: About a 100 of these critters could line up across the diameter of a skinny human hair -- skinny hair not skinny human.
Starting Comments: Your aquarium contains plenty of little critters to get your infusoria culture started. However, if you can get a start from an established culture, you will get better results faster. Established cultures contain a larger percentage of paramecia.
Starting Instructions: Make an infusion (instructions later) and add it to six quart jars half-filled with aquarium water. Let stand in an out-of-the-way place for several days. (Window sills in the sun can get too hot.) You will need about a week to determine whether your cultures are a success. Set aside a gallon of aged water for later use. Tap water contains chemicals designed to kill infusoria. For some strange reason, humans prefer to consume water with less nutrition in it.
Select Your Best Culture: Shine a penlight through your water. Look for “dusty-looking water.” Those dust-size particles are your infusoria. (Infusoria also make cloudy water in new tanks.) Not every culture establishes itself at the same rate. Pick your best culture and clean out the others. Start new cultures and inoculate them with your most successful culture. (If you use plastic or opaque containers, you cannot check which of your cultures are successful.) Selective breeding at its finest. Or you can start 100 cultures and grade them on the curve. Sign up the two best for MENSA.
Infusion Recipes: Standard recipes involve boiling hay or grass in water and using the cooled “tea.” One rabbit food pellet per jar is about the same thing. Other infusoria growers blenderize lettuce leaves. Some just grab a handful of aquarium plants and squeeze the juice (and infusoria) from them. In other words, you can invent your own formula.
Infusoria Snails: Apple snails and Colombian ramshorn snails eat prodigious amounts of plants. Their digested waste products will also jump start and feed an infusoria culture.
Powdered egg works very well as a bacteria/infusoria food. Use tiny amounts.
Powdered Eggs: A tiny dab of powdered eggs also makes a great infusoria food. One packet of powdered eggs should last you a lifetime. Once you open it, store your excess in a sealed jar.
Compost Tea Ingredients
1 Pound worm castings (or a suitable compost)
1 Tablespoon molasses
1 Tablespoon humic acid (for example, Turf and Garden Pro)
1 Tablespoon fish hydrolysis (for example, Neptune's Harvest Fish Fertilizer)
5 Gallons of water
Let the tea aerate for 3 to 12 hours and use within 8 hours. This makes a concentrated tea that can be used in a variety of ways as described in the references below.
The following sites provide additional information on compost tea recipes, uses, and building aeration devices:
Dr. Elaine Ingham's article in Fine Gardening Magazine, Brewing Compost Tea
Texas' Bruce Deuley's Compost Tea Method
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Compost Tea as Easy as 1 2 3
Compost Tea Uses
One of the uses of compost tea is to make a fertilizer like Howard Garrett's Garrett juice that can be sprayed onto your plants:
1 cup concentrated compost tea
1 ounce molasses
1 ounce natural apple cider vinegar
1 ounce liquid seaweed
1 gallon water
Compost Tea is a nutritionally rich, well-balanced, organic plant food made by steeping aged compost in water. The water is then diluted and used as a root and/or foliar feed. It is also noted for its ability to control various plant diseases (blights, molds, wilts, etc. when used as a foliar spray), to repel and control insect pests and their damage when used on a regular basis, and to encourage the growth of benefical soil bacteria which results in healthier, more stress-tolerant plants.
There are several different recipes for compost tea but the basic one most often recommended here calls for the following:
1 large container with lid (plastic trash can works well)
Enough aged, completed compost to fill an old pillow case 1/2-3/4 full
Sufficient water to fill the container
Fill the container with the water. Place the compost into an old pillowcase (cheese cloth bag or pantyhose also work well), tie off the top and submerge in the container of water. Cover (to prevent odor and insect problems) and let steep for a MINIMUM of 2 weeks.
This steeping time is crucial to the formation of benefical bacteria and the required fermentation process.
When finished, dip out the "tea" and dilute it to the color of weak iced tea (3 parts water to 1 part tea) and use as root food for any and all plants on a weekly or as-needed basis.
To use as a foliar spray or on young seedlings, most recommend additional dilution. The remaining tea can continue to steep until needed.
The following factors will determine the quality of the finished tea:
Use well-aged, finished compost - Fresh compost can burn the plants or contain harmful pathogens and that which is too old is nutritionally deficient.
The contents of the compost - It should be balanced and of good quality if using purchased compost. That which contains some portion of aged animal manure apparently remains active longer than that composed only of plant matter but it isn't required.
(It is important to note that COMPOST TEA AND MANURE TEA ARE NOT THE SAME THING. Manure teas can be made in the same way but are not generally recommended as foliar sprays and are not as nutritionally well-balanced.)
Method of application and weather - A pump sprayer or misting bottle works better than hose-end sprayers for large areas or for foliar feeding as they don't plug up as easily. Re-application after rain is necessary and one should avoid applying to the leaves during the heat of the day. Root feeding is not affected by the weather.
I see I don't get any bites. What I am saying is that to get high productivity out of a garden it needs to have a very active soil life which in turn means a high nitrogen content in the soil. Instead of adding compost which is an end product that no longer has much to offer in the way of food for the life of the soil you can add live bacteria in small amounts.
Even compost tea the way most use it is an end product.
If you keep water with a food medium warm enough for rapid growth of bacteria you will have a bacterial soup within twenty four hours that is safe to add to the soil of your garden. This way you are getting the maximum potential out of your raw materials.
Soil life starts with carbohydrate / sugar and nitrogen along with minerals. It doesn't start with compost which is an end product where all the carbohydrates and nitrogen have been used up / burned as energy by the bacteria etc.
Compost offers a small amount of minerals and the left over hard to digest carbohydrates that can add increased water holding capabilities to the soil for a while until it is broken down even further.
Think on this for a while: besides wood most of the organic matter you add is 95% water of the remaining 5% less than 5% will be mineral / ash content normally.
You want me to put it more clear then look at a huge stack of straw then burn it at high temperature and see how much ask you end up with. Stick the ash in water and the minerals will leach out of it straight away. Yep that is what grows your plants. The sugars can help the plant a bit but the plant makes its own sugars through photosynthesis.
Feed the bacteria and fungi in your soil and they will mine the soil for minerals for you plants. Learn how to feed the bacteria and fungi in your soil. Remember your plants are adding organic matter to the soil all the time through their root systems.
Want a sick soil or sick water then keep your nitrogen content down so the water clogs up with carbohydrates and have your plants starved for nitrogen.
Soil microorganisms decompose organic matter in the soil, so any condition which decreases the population of microorganisms contributes to thatch. Pesticides decrease microbial populations. Earthworms are active in organic matter decomposition and some insecticides are lethal to earthworms. Fungicides not only reduce the population of beneficial microorganisms, but they also encourage vigorous turf growth by controlling turfgrass diseases.
Environmental factors can decrease the microbial population and therefore increase thatch. The optimum pH for most soil microorganisms is 5.0 to 7.0. If the pH falls below 6.0, microorganisms are unable to decompose plant tissue.
Compact, poorly drained soils 1ack the oxygen necessary for these microorganisms. Extreme high temperatures and dry conditions also decrease microbial population. Soils with very low organic content can't support an active microorganism population.
High maintenance programs that stimulate rapid growth contribute to thatch buildup. Excess fertilization, irrigation and chemical applications are all contributors. It sounds ironic, but the higher the maintenance level the greater the likelihood of a thatch problem.
It is often assumed that grass clippings contribute to thatch. In fact, these clippings decompose rapidly and do not usually affect thatch accumulation. However, if a thick layer of thatch builds up and clippings do not come in contact with the microorganisms in the soil, they may contribute to the thatch layer.
I like to mulch as it kelps to keeps the top soil from drying out
I like to mulch as it kelps to keeps the top soil from drying out and makes weeding extremely easy. But as I said some things like hardwood clips have to be composted first to degrade stuff in the wood that if allowed to leach onto garden soil will force your worm population out for a time.
Oak leaves are perfectly fine compost ingredients, although they are quite acidic. Don't worry, though, the microbes will take care of that without liming. You may, however, find your oak leaf pile breaks down slowly without additional nitrogen from rabbit food, manure or another source. This is especially true if you make a pile in early spring from leaves that fell the previous fall.
Pine needles are often sold as "straw mulch" in the South. However, they are not ideal for composting, since they take a long time to break down. Some compost recipes call for "straw," and, it's true, spoiled bales of oat, wheat or pasture hay make great compost layers. Just don't try to substitute pine "straw" for these materials. Pine needles should never be used as mulch near wood frame structures, due to the hazard they pose from fires. Pine needles may also cause problems for mulching in landscape situations. In general, hardwood mulch works better, lasts longer and is more cost effective.
Using a shredder-grinder will help your leaves break down faster. If you are in a hurry, this tool may be worth it. You can use it to turn leaves and tree trimmings into mulch. They can be rented or shared by neighborhoods. Consumer Report has reviewed both shredders and mulching mowers.
To Lime or Not to Lime
As you may know, the soil in the Piedmont tends to be so acidic that annual applications of lime are often recommended for lawns. How about on compost? There is much debate on this point, and Sir Albert Howard, father of modern composting, did use lime in his "Indore" compost piles.
It is recommended to not apply lime to most compost piles. Your compost's pH (acid/alkaline level) naturally swings toward neutral due to microbial action as a pile breaks down, even if you start with acidic materials. Also, excessive lime combined with excessive nitrogen and moisture (as in an anxious composter trying too hard to get a "hot" pile) can cause release of ammonia gas, which not only stinks but lowers the amount of valuable nitrogen in your compost.
Some experienced Southern composters, like Blackley, have found that a handful of hydrated lime (not pelletized lime for use on lawns) can help cut odors caused by lots of fresh food scraps in a summer pile. The lime also adds calcium. Blackley recommends including all the crushed egg shells you can get, as an excellent calcium booster.
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