This guest post is by Phil Nauta, the Smiling Gardener.
Naturally Earth Friendly is all about moving towards a more sustainable future, so when I was given an opportunity to write about how to improve your soil, I decided to focus on two of the most sustainable methods.
There are other methods I still advocate, such as bringing in organic fertilizer in order to get your food garden producing healthier, tasty food more quickly than would otherwise happen, but I know we can’t keep digging up rock deposits and shipping them around the world as fertilizer forever.
We need more local solutions, starting in our own backyards. So here are my two favorites:
1. Cover Crops
You may have heard of them before, but perhaps not in the context of sustainability. Cover crops are seeded mostly during the fallow season in a vegetable garden, generally to improve the soil. Grasses such as ryegrass and legumes, such as vetch, are especially useful for this.
Once you figure out the best cover crops for your soil, and get good at growing and managing them (which may only take a couple of seasons to figure out), you now have:
- Fertilizer. A decent fertilizer supplying carbon and nitrogen to your soil, along with some other minerals, when you turn the crop in before planting your food plants.
- Mulch. An excellent mulch layer when you allow at least some of the crop to grow big before you cut it, and then leave it on top of the soil (grasses are great for this).
- Compost. A great source material for your compost bin, because otherwise composting can be rather unsustainable if you’re having to import materials all the time, or import compost itself.
So with a good cover crop, you have part of your fertilizer, your mulch and your compost pile growing for you right on site.
2. Homemade Microbial Inoculant
There’s always a lot of talk about supplying enough nutrients to the garden, which is important, but I’m excited to see that people are starting to refer more to the other side of the equation, which is supplying beneficial microorganisms.
These microbes are the ones who feed those nutrients to our plants, and also protect our plants from predators. And more often than not, these organisms are lacking more than the nutrients. Fortunately, we can bring them back into our gardens. The best way is well-made compost, but there isn’t usually enough compost around.
That’s why aerated compost tea is becoming more popular, which is when you put a few handfuls of good compost into a bucket of water and move air through that bucket with a pump. That physically removes the microorganisms from the compost and gives them air to breathe.
But I’ve written about compost tea elsewhere and I’m not going to get into it today because I’d like to offer another solution – it’s admittedly not quite as biologically diverse of an inoculant as compost tea, but it’s much easier to do well and certainly more sustainable because you don’t need any equipment. Anyone can do this if they have access to rice and milk.
What you do is rinse a small amount of rice and pour that rinse water into a container, leaving the container at least 50% empty and putting on a loose lid so that air can still get in. The rice can be used elsewhere, but is not needed anymore for this process. Keep the container at room temperature out of the sun for 7 days.
Once you see a thin film on the surface, strain the liquid into a bigger container and add ten times as much milk. In another week or so you may have some solids floating on top that can go into the soil or compost, and a clear, yellow fluid underneath that contains the bacteria. Separate this fluid into another container and add an equal amount of unsulphured molasses to keep the bacteria well fed.
You’ve now made your own microbial inoculant! You can store it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Mix it with 20 parts water and spray it on plants, soil and compost to inoculate them with these beneficial microorganisms.
These 2 methods go a long way to sustainably building up your soil fertility, organic matter and soil food web, so you can grow healthy plants and healthy food.
Sidenote: Phil Nauta is author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally‘, to be released by Acres U.S.A. this summer. He’s a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional who taught for Gaia College and operated successful organic fertilizer and organic gardening businesses prior to launching SmilingGardener.com in order to teach practical organic home gardening and organic vegetable gardening methods to home gardeners.
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