Monday, September 5, 2011

Magic Growth Formula - The Secret of True Record Holders

There really is a magic formula for growing giant sized food plants. But you'll have to read through the boring crap below to find out what it is. Te he.

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
All these can be acquired at a pet shop.Fill up your five gallon bucket with water. Set the airstone with the tube attached right to the bottom of the bucket and turn on the pump. Leave it to bubble for about three to four hours. This is vital for two reasons. First it aerates the water to a level which is perfect for microbe production. Secondly - and this is hugely important - the bubbling will help remove the chlorine from "city" water which would otherwise kill the microbes. It also removes heavy metals which can also impede the tiny animals. Next we need the "culture." This is simply a sample of matter which already has a microbe population in it. Microbes exist in a range of materials and the most commonly used for brewing compost tea include compost (obviously), dry farmyard manure, chicken manure, top soil, worm casts from a wormery and fish waste from an aquarium.

Let the water bubble for at least three hours before adding anything - especially if it has been chlorinated
I like to mix up a range of different matters on the grounds that it should also vary the microbe content of the tea so I take two trowels full of compost from our compost bin, two trowels of topsoil from the garden and one trowel of shop bought manure.These are spilled into the bubbling water and stirred in with a stick. The aeration of the water enables the microbes to multiply in the water at a phenomenal rate.

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.
When John Evans took me on a tour around his garden in Cork some years ago he showed me how firm and waxy the foliage was on his food plants - he described this as a protective "biofilm" provided by the microbes in the tea. This he induced by spraying or drizzling the mixture directly onto the foliage as well as treating the soil around the base of the plant.I ladle two or more measures of tea to the base of the plant and then I try to drench the foliage as well with a few more. Some people like to filter the tea and then spray it on the foliage - both above and under.

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
Properly made compost tea is truly a magic formula for gardeners and anyone can avail of it in the peak growing season at minimal cost. It's not just a good fertiliser, it's a complete beneficial bio system. The exact opposite of biological warfare for plants.Downsides? Well it's the courgettes you see. They need to be picked when they're young and tender. But these are fast customers to begin with and it's been said that a courgette can go from flower to full grown fruit in 24 hours. My problem is that they're now going further - turning into full blown marrows a foot long and four inches wide - before I can catch them for the table. Every time I look there's another inedible artillery shell hidden in the foliage which will have to be chopped up and thrown back into the compost.Just an example of a turbo charged garden in the fast lane when it's been fully tea-ed up in our fastest growing month.

Whoah!!! There go the beans after a cuppa.

My Big Old Annual Moan About the Council

Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit! But this time I have an excuse. There's been a massacre. The victims were butchered in their beds. The main suspect - let's call him Peter, Brer or Bugs - has just wiped out three plantings of juvenile cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants, about ninety in all. Yes I'm blaming a rabbit. Or a whole rabbitude of them. Proof? (a) Little roundy pellets in the vicinity (b) Buck toothed incisor patterns left in the deceased and critically wounded brassicas (c) I nearly caught one of the fat little gets a few weeks ago. He was so full he seemed to be having trouble hoppiting off and if the grab I’d made had been a successful one, he’d have ended up in a stew - one way at least of getting those filched nutrients back into my account.

No use hiding behind that stick!
Meantime, down the hill, raiding sheep long ago caused one harassed grower to turn his beloved plot into a chicken wire origami of Fort Appache. Think "Troubles" era RUC station. My rabbited plants might have recovered somewhat in this fantastic growing weather had I actually been able to water them. But on my last visit - perhaps the hottest of the year so far, the water was turned off - yet again and always in the heat.

Despite the recent rains, our windswept hillside site was bone dry and the bunny stripped plants would have fluffed up with a bit of water.The lack of water for me is the for-all-for-the-want-of-a horse-shoe-nail difference between thirty cabbages and none, thirty heads of broccoli and none, thirty heads of cauliflower and none. And I’m looking at bare blackcurrant bushes whose failure is also directly linked to the taps being dry during the hot period just before easter when these bushes went thirsty and raggedy because the water was also turned off. Meantime my competitive relations are boasting about blackcurrants the size of their heads.

Then there’s the bull with a face like Jordan's ex. I'd caught him hoovering my raspberry plant stems backwards through the fence on which they were supported, extricating the berries from the thorny branches with the oral finesse of a Jim Rose Circus veteran. However its attitude was more pre deregulation Dublin taximan. As it slewed off the last of my ripening raspberries and spat the bare stems right back through the fence, it looked at me as if to ask: "Alright bud?" Unlike the rabbit, I didn't attempt a wrestle.The infernal thing continued to hoover my raspberries even despite me ranting my tonsils raw and throwing half a pebble path at it whilst simulaneously holding back as many raspberry stems from the supporting fence as my tally of remaining fingers would permit.

Bad moos around an allotment. And it's no use hiding behind that stick!

I didn't have a bigger-than-the- bull, bull-barred jeep with the huge wheels and a great big blaring bull-horn which the farmer blares as he reverses and thrusts about in a motorised bull fight every evening in order to get Butthead and his accompanying herd of bovine raspberry blowers back to base - after they’ve chowed on our permimeter crops.

So the thing is this: Myself and a goodly number of my comrades in farms at our complex have now had quite enough of the bull. And the rabbits, and the sheep and the feral accountants. Because we pay the council handsomely (they increased our rents from E44 to E120 this year - 172% up that is) to keep the water on the land and to keep the local farm fauna from treating our complex like the salad snack counter at Fresh.

Because rabbit and livestock proof perimeter fencing is part of the deal on an allotment complex.Neglectful mother council has also banned us from having sheds to shelter in when it rains (we have dark shipping containers in the car park), and it seems to cut off our water when the rain stops. For more than a hundred people we have been provided with the single toilet bowl from Trainspotting located in the outhouse from the Texas Chainswaw Massacre. Previously used by thirty years of Dublin binmen (ours is a former tip head site) and without a window or electric light last time I was there - we have had to find the seatless and stained bowl in the dark with outstretched hands.

A gang of short shrifts yesterday.
The same council gives our representative - the one appointed to speak for hundreds of paid up allotment holders, short shrift each time we raise views on these issues. Their attitude: “we've a massive waiting list of people just dying to take over your plots. And did you know private plots cost E350?” Already some of us are murmuring about clubbing together to buy our own land.Based on figures they provide on their web site, it seems that our council earns roughly E17,000 per annum from our five acre site.

According to a recent survey by the Farmer’s journal, the average price of agricultural land in Ireland has fallen by 57% in four years. In Dublin the average is now E13,000 per acre.Thus our council earns E3,400 per acre per annum in rents - enough for them to reap the entire value of their land within four years. This is not providing an “amenity” - this a business.On the other hand it would take 32 of us paying E416 each to buy an acre of our own land which would allow us an average allotment each (120 square metres) and common land for parking and other facilities. Of course we’d have to pay for fencing, wc facilities, insurance and the sinking of a few wells. But a one of payment of E1,000 each would likely take care of the lot.

The alternative is that increasing council allotment fees combined with an increase in the cost of the hobby as compost and seed prices increase, are now turning allotment keeping into a paid-for fashion hobby akin to golf.In the same week as my robbing rabbit, a hardy old grower who disappeared from our complex some time back was finally replaced with one one who blocked off vehicle access to perhaps 20 allotments with a brand new sixty grand car. Wearing brand new designer wellies of the sort normally found at the backstage area in Glastonbury, he unloaded expensive trays of garden centre grown lettuces.

Soon it’ll be hired help to do the digging fchrissakes!!