Feed the soil
May 11, 2020
The “secret” to healthy plants is feeding the soil, not your plants.
But what does soil like to be fed?
Here’s a few things that you might have lying around that your soil will love. These will put you well on the way to happy soil, and we’ll dive into specific nutrients another time.
Here we go, in random order…
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Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) – enjoy a bath, then recycle the water onto your soil. Tip, a small fountain pump attached to a garden hose is great at emptying a bath. Australian soils are low in magnesium, and our immigrant food plants need it.
Also known as potash, will feed your soil with potassium and a bunch of other essential minerals. It is mildly alkaline, which is useful here with our soils tending to be acidic. Ash from hardwood generally contains more nutrients than ash from softwood, but both are worthwhile. In my experience, plants do not appreciate more than a light dusting on the soil at a time. It seems to choke their leaves quite easily. By light dusting, I mean if the ground has turned white, that’s blanketing. Also to note, only wet the wood ash after it goes on the soil otherwise most of the nutrients end up in a clump at the bottom of your bucket and not distributed throughout the ash.
Basalt rock dust aka magic dust
If you’ve done everything else right by your soil and your plants absolutely do not respond to all the compost and manure food you’ve added, your soil may lack minerals and trace elements essential for the plants to use all this food. Because we haven’t had volcanic activity in forever, our soils in Australia are low in minerals. This was a problem I had and after adding basalt crusher dust I decided it is better called magic dust.
I know Biodynamic Agriculture Australia here in Bellingen sell this. Not a paid plug!
Feed the microbes in the soil. Give them a carb boost, especially at the end of winter / beginning of spring (Aug / Sept). It helps get them going sooner. The greater amount of microbial activity in the soil, the healthier plants will be. Blackstrap molasses is high in calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. It also contains sulfur and a host of micronutrients. 1 to 3 tablespoons (15 to 45 ml) molasses per 4L of water or liquid fertiliser.
Despite what a lot of people seem to think, it is currently perfectly legal to collect seaweed from the beach in NSW. The rules are: for personal use (no selling), maximum 20 kg per person per day (no specification on dry or wet!!) and the seaweed must be unattached (it’s a plant with roots. You can only collect it if it’s come adrift.). Also, not from a national park or marine reserve.
When I track down the seriously elusive link to these rules from DPI, I’ll add it in.
Wash the salt off the seaweed beforehand, you’re trying to feed healthy food, not chips.
Seaweed contains about 60 trace elements and plant hormones. This helps to improve the thickness of plant cell walls which makes them much more resistant to pests and diseases and frost. It’s great for preventing transplant shock for plants. It’s also useful for improving the germination of seeds. Over time it acidifies and adds iron to the soil.
Don’t waste the nutrients in your weeds! This is how I use my green bin.
Drown your weeds. Park your bin in the sun where it will get nice and hot and cook them. Put your weeds in this bin and cover them with water. Use this liquid to water your plants. As a precaution, I do like to leave this bin for a good few months to make sure the pesky weeds, their roots and their seeds are all completely dead and decomposing. So in practice there are always a few bins on rotation in the yard. But it’s soooo easy.
In the interest of keeping this article to a readable length, there will be a second part to ‘Feed the Soil’, all about composting.
In short, compost is gold. You want to be making use of your kitchen scraps by composting or in a worm farm.
These are my favourite. They make fabulous compost (in this case worm poo) and liquid fertiliser all in one and easily. Water this down 1 part worm tea to 9 parts water. It’s strong stuff.
Worms don’t like: large amounts of onion, garlic or citrus; corn cobs, corn husks, avocado stones, hair / fur, mango stones only because they take ages to break down. Crush eggshells. Small amounts of meat are ok, if the worm farm is rodent proof. Worms love kitchen scraps and office paper work. They actually need some non kitchen scraps like paper, and a bit of grit (sand or dirt).
There are a number of plants you can grow that make a high nutrient tea for soil. Comfrey, dandelion, stinging nettle, yarrow, tansy, borage, chamomile (not convinced this one does that well here), lovage, fennel, dock. Add leaves to a bucket or bin of water, let it sit for a day or a week or more. Give the soil a drink. Or add any of these to your compost, your worm farm, your weed tea, epsom salts bathwater or your seaweed tea. Mix and match!
Add all the poo*!
Sheep, horse, cow, chook, pig, alpaca. Get shovelling.
Freaked out by handling poo? There are sanitised, pelletised, civilised versions of manures that you can buy in plastic bags from a store. Rooster Booster is one.
Whatever you do, do not put fresh manure near a plant you care about. It will give it a chemical burn. Let the manure age. It won’t be green inside any more. It won’t smell very much either.
A note on chook poo in particular. It’s very strong. Most vegetables don’t want more than one dropping or a few pellets. Serve it like an expensive whisky. Just a wee dram at a time.
* Except yours, your dog’s or your cat’s because you can catch diseases from these unless you treat them first AND know what you’re doing.
Pee around your fruit trees, especially citrus. It’s full of nitrogen. They’ll love it. If the area starts to smell, you’re overdoing it.
Anything that was once alive can be turned back into soil. The smaller the pieces the faster this will happen. Things like coffee, woodchip fines, mulch & leaves are all food for soil. The ideal soil is loaded with decomposed organic matter.
Catch you next week for part two, on compost.