Looking back on the year with the benefit of the harvest, I'd estimate that July has always been the month for speediest growth for my garden and allotment. It's a month where the plants grow so quickly that you can almost see it happening. So this July just gone, I tied a marker onto a bean pole just to measure how fast my beans were sprouting at the time of their optimum growth. Twenty four hours later, it had added four inches - that’s an inch every six hours. Incredible!
July as it happens is also the month when I start brewing compost tea - a magic formula which not only increases the speed of growth but also increases the health of plants and the size and quality of the produce. And now as we push toward the end of September, I'm still using compost tea in order to help me squeeze every last ounce of growth from the 2011 season.
I was first introduced to compost tea by John Evans, a Waterford born gardener who has used it to clock up nine giant veg Guinness world records as well making it the subject of an international business venture.
|John Evans (right) the nine time Guinness World Record Veg man|
Compost tea making is a bit like making yoghurt, where a base culture is "amplified."
In the same way as bringing on a yoghurt culture, compost tea brewing involves taking a sample of good soil microbes and increasing their numbers a thousandfold by artificial means - in this case by injecting oxygen through them.To make compost tea you need a couple of things. First a five gallon bucket. I use catering mayonnaise containers. Next you'll need an air pump of the sort commonly used in aquariums. You'll get a basic model at the pet shop for under twenty quid. Next purchase a length of plastic tubing to go with it - this costs about twenty cents a foot. Get a length of about six foot. After that you need an airstone. This is the heavy air distributor through which the air is blown to dissipate it into hundreds of little bubbles rather than the large single bubbles you'll get from the end of the tube on its own.
|An aquarium airstone for the bubbles|
|Let the water bubble for at least three hours before adding anything - especially if it has been chlorinated|
One expert suggested that the population of "good" microbes in the mix doubles every seven minutes thanks to the aeration pumped bubbles and the "food" they're given. Next you'll need to find something to feed that microbe population explosion. Evans preferred microbe nosh is molasses. Last year I used a few good squirts of squeezy bottle honey per batch, this year I'm using a few ounces of ordinary white sugar.
|John uses molasses, I use sugar to feed the microbes|
You leave the mixture to bubble away, stirring it every so often to agitate the culture from the bottom and prompt it to release microbes - enabling them reproduce even faster. It's important to stop the process after 24 hours. Don't let the brew bubble for any more than 30. Once this point has passed the microbe population begins to change and the aerobic or beneficial microbes which initially manifest themselves start to get replaced by "bad" anerobic microbes.
If anerobic microbes have taken over you'll know because the mix will stink. A mix dominated by beneficial microbes should smell slightly sweet with no nasty odour.The next important factor is to ensure that you use the mixture straight away because once the bubbling stops the microbes start to die and once again anerobic microbes which are damaging to plants (and people) begin to take over. So valuable is my compost tea that I use a soup ladle to dole it out to my plants. Wear gloves or else wash your hands directly after doling out the mixture because it's superrich in bacteria.The earth's soil has been historically rich in beneficial microbes which work with plants in a mutually beneficial way.
|In with the compost to help provide the "starter" microbes|
They break down soil nutrients into a form which plants can digest easily. They also protect the plant from fungi and strengthen it against attacks from pests.Tilling land has killed off these beneficial microbes and the use of artificial fertilisers has finished off what populations remained in many commercial soils. This in turn has weakened food plants and taken flavour from the resulting produce. Compost tea is fast becoming recognised as an organic and environmentally friendly way, of returning these beneficial microbe populations to the soil in an instant.To see these microbes up close, go online and scour youtube for compost tea samples shown under a microscope. Microbes are tiny animals and the samples shown are manic soups of thriving and quivering biodiversity.
|Great lads! There they are, the soil microbes all going mad for a decent brew of tea.|
For his part, Evans believes the microbes not only stimulate the roots of the plants but that large numbers of dead microbes (their life cycle is short by our standards) also provides additional ideal food for the plants.Deployed in the rapid growth month of July, the effects of my first batch of compost tea are immediate. Some late cauliflower plants put in at the end of the garden have been struggling to establish themselves in the corner of the garden which gets the least sunlight. Within two days they have noticeably perked up and expanded.
The two chilli plants in the greenhouse which have weakened and drooped because a colony of ants nested under them and undermined their roots, are suddenly perky and solid again and have burst into flowers. My four aubergine plants in the greenhouse which have also been slow to put on size have noticeably surged. Outside in the garden, the tea-ed up beans have gone interstellar and those corn plants in the "Indian garden" which have lagged behind their brothers in sunnier positions are now catching up thanks to selective tea application. Meantime the blueberry bushes in planters are suddenly producing double sized fruits.
|Make a magic beanstalk with compost tea|
|Whoah!!! There go the beans after a cuppa.|