Today I was finally happy with the seedlings planted in the garden. The lettuces, for instance, have been in the ground for three weeks and in those weeks hardly put on any weight.  The peas are pathetic. The cold and rain would be fine for those, but for being followed instantly by heat wave weather. The up-and-own has been holding back everything, except for the weeds. (And the mushrooms have all turned to sludge.) But on my morning tour of the garden today, everything looks perked up. Must be yesterday’s perfect 70F, perfect mix of sunshine and clouds, a not-too-cool night and this dewy, overcast morning. And yesterday’s dose of this KNF!

Hail the ugly Homer Bucket! In went harvested rainwater, OHN (Oriental Herbal Nutrient), FAA (Fish Amino Acids) and FPJ (Fermented Plant Juice), the inputs for stimulating basic vegetative growth during the plant’s consumptive stage and egging new organs towards maturity. At 500:1 dilution (FAA) and 1000:1 dilution (OHN and FPJ), these went into each 5 gallon bucket at respectively 2 tbsp + 1 tsp  and 2 tsp. A little goes a long way.

I also added a tablespoon of micronized Azomite, a splash of liquid kelp and of EM1. Six buckets of this went out onto the veg garden as a foliar and soil soak. I still have three “unsettled” garden beds waiting for the squashes, zukes and cukes to harden off. Once those are in, and once the plants are bigger and need more, I’ll need to figure out the irrigation. I enjoy the watering and face time with each seedling in this perfect weather, but when it gets to 90F, I’d rather open a valve. More on irrigation soon!

My KNF/biochar trial partner and I also planted tomatoes and peppers into our Community Garden beds. I tucked in some lettuce, chard, celery, and scallions. We ran out of time to apply KNF (same as above) to half those beds, but I’ll run over there and do it today.  The sun exposure int that plot is out of this world, as are the massive amounts of worms. And weeds and pests… can’t have it all perfect. Those seedlings were the same batch as the ones I planted here. I’m curious about the difference between the trial beds and the difference between the Community Garden plot and my own garden, where I apply biochar/KNF throughout.

 

Cross-post from the Transition Wayland website

Today we started the carbon/biochar and Korean Natural Farming inputs trial at our plot in the Community Gardens. Andrea and Kaat divided two beds in half. All halves received biochar (“pre-loaded” with compost – never apply pure biochar by itself!) and straw. Two of those halves (one in each bed) received the first Korean Natural Farming inputs.

According to Wikipedia, Korean natural farming (KNF) takes advantage of indigenous microorganisms (IMO) (bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa) to produce fertile soils that yield high output without the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or industrial fertilizers. A result is improvement in soil health, improving loaminess, tilth and structure, and attracting large numbers of earthworms. This practice has spread to over 30 countries, and is used by individuals and commercial farms.

In Wayland, the main student and advocate of KNF is Kaat,who has studied the techniques, makes the inputs herself (this is fundamental to KNF: all inputs can be made at home from “indigenous” materials), and is in the second year of applying them. Last year she saw great improvement, especially in her berry bushes and fruit trees, but of course that is anecdotal. She is for that reason very curious about this side by side trial.

The first inputs, which aim to load the soil with the right organisms, were Kaat’s home-made Fish Amino Acids (FAA) and Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), and EM-1 (not home-made and not traditionally a KNF input, but entirely in line with KNF).

The first seedlings (hardened-off broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Tom Thumb lettuce, arugula and pac choi will receive more FAA, as well as Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ) and Oriental Herb Nutrient (OHN) once they’re over the transplant shock.

The idea of the trial arose when NOFA Mass invited farmers and gardeners to participate in biochar/no biochar trials. According to NOFA Mass, for centuries, biochar has been used throughout the world as a natural and easily-obtained soil amendment that builds microbial communities and long-term fertility in soils. Created through a process known as pyrolysis, biochar adds stable carbon to the soil, functioning to sequester atmospheric carbon, retain moisture, sweeten soil, and build rich habitat for microbes, nematodes, and fungi that aid in plant nutrient availability.  (More here).

All those sounded good to the Transition Wayland Community Gardens group. They accepted the invitation and worked with NOFA to fine-tune the experiments. One group will test biochar / no biochar in the two established raspberry beds. Kaat and Andrea wanted to try annual veggies, but they decided to take it one step further. They asked, what if the biochar – also called “condominiums for your micro-organisms” – doesn’t work so well, or even at all, if there are no micro-organisms? You can build it, but what if they dont come? So let’s see what happens if you add the char and the micro-organisms. A good way to do that is through KNF.

Keep an eye on this space to see!

What a day. Pouring rain for the first part of the mushroom cultivation workshop at Allandale Farm with NOFA-Mass Dan Bensonoff. Good for the fungi, and because it was pretty balmy, not harmful too humans. I am ready to start growing some mushrooms other than Garden Giant.  After that, potting up tomatoes, and sowing squash and zucchini (indoors, in peat pots).

Shiitake on oak, 1 inch deep holes
Shiitake on oak, plunger action
Shiitake on oak: sealing with wax
Elm Oyster on wood shavings
Oyster in totem | lady in pink jacket wearing Dan’s mushroom hat

In between juggling three loads of laundry, baking four “pumpkin” pies with the last root-cellared butternut squashes, and watching the home yard hive for swarming (better go in tomorrow and have a look!), I finally got the Michael Philips Holistic Spray onto the garden today. A bit late: the sour cherry, currants and jostaberry are flowering, the elders, blueberries and grapes are about to pop. But no insect damage yet, anywhere, so I may have caught it in time.

I use the Home Orchard Rate recipe in my 4-gallon backpack sprayer. One gets me through the entire garden, and it takes me about two hours (admittedly because the filter on the sprayer wand needs unclogging so often).

  • 2.5 ounces of pure neem oil with a generous teaspoonful of soap emulsifier (achieves a 0.5 percent neem concentration; more would burn the leaves)
  • 10 ounces of homegrown FAA
  • 6 ounces of mother culture of effective microbes (I use EM.1)
  • half a cup of Brix molasses
  • 5 tablespoons of liquid kelp

I also added a tablespoon of home-made OHN, and a tablespoon of WCa… that is, Water-soluble Calcium, another Korean Natural Farming input I’ve not explained yet (basically, eggshells dissolved in vinegar).

I also sprayed the assortment of indoor plants, mostly ferns, (pictured) while I was at it. The largest fern adorns our bathroom and it’s great only… it is growing exponentially! They’ve been with us throughout winter and we’ve not had a bug problem, and have 0bviously thrived, thanks to a mini-holistic spray once a month.

 

 

I’m in good shape for this growing season with the KNF (Korean Natural Farming) applications.

The FPJ (Fermented Plant Juice; explained here, along with OHN) is a beautifully thick and deep chocolate brown, sweet-smelling syrup. My only worry here is that I don’t have a lot, but I’ll be gathering a lot of the meristems of the fast growing (“hormonal”) weeds soon and making more.

My two jars of OHN Oriental Herbal Nutrient) had molded over. The issue was that I had left the cloth on, hadn’t closed the jars, and of course the alcohol that preserves it evaporated. They both looked like this:

OHN is pretty costly to make in terms of $$ and time, so I was a bit worried, but then I saw the mold formed a thick mat that I could scoop up, and the stuff underneath looked as nice as the FPJ. So that’s what I did, carefully. And looks at what these mats looked like underneath:

Wild, what? Wacky landscapes both on the up and the undersides! I added some alcohol to the juice to squash any more mold growth and closed up.

Then it was time to filter the FAA (Fish Amino Acids), of which I had two batches, assembled on 5/6/2016. They had been sitting in my basement till now (so 10 month), with an air lock on them so they could off-gas (though I never smelled a thing). I had checked on them in June and found mold, but Philip Ang (on the invaluable Korean Natural Farming group on Facebook) writes that “molds are normal in FAA. there are fungi which produce protease enzymes which break down protein. the goal of FAA is to reduce proteins to amino-acids which is absorbable by plants. protein hydrolysis can be done via enzymes or acids. microbes produce enzymes to do this while we use hydrochloric acids in our stomachs to do the same. the same principle is used to produce soy sauce by fermenting with the mold aspergillus oryza.” I love that stuff!

When I opened the buckets today it smelled sweet – mostly of the apples I had added, with only a whiff of sourness. When I pushed the mold on top to the side, I found an oily, syrupy juice. I scooped off the mold and set it aside, then strained the juice from the fish bits that hadn’t yet been dissolved and fermented.

It doesn’t look appetizing, but it smelled great!

When I assembled them, I did something slightly different with each batch: in one I had just put fish, brown sugar (each 29 lbs of fish, 7 lbs of sugar), and apples. In the other, I had added some water, because the slurry wasn’t wet enough, and then some kefir. The latter was not as far dissolved as the first: more, and also more recognizable fish bits, less juice. The first also yielded a greyer emulsion, the latter a more yellow one.

My strainer quickly clogged up and needed frequent rinsing. I collected the mold and the thick slurry in a new bucket, and added more brown sugar for a second round. A quick stir leave the lid open a little, and it’ll go back in my basement for a couple of months.

I did most of this in the back yard. The rinse water I offered to the currants, hazels and the cherry tree.  Don’t I look happy?

This jar is for my ready-to-go KNF potions box. We’re ready for the growing season!

Well, almost… I never did catch my IMO (Indigenous Micro Organisms) last year. I tried several times, must have wasted a pound or two of precious (imported!) rice. Having taken several Elaine Ingham “Life in the Soil” classes, I now know why I always caught the colorful and black stuff, never the white hyphae that indicate the well-established, beneficial fungi. I was trying to catch them on my own property and the neighborhood I live in is pretty recent, and it just doesn’t have the good IMOs. By the time I caught on, the weather shut that down, and we spent the entire winter with a couple of bags of wheat bran in our bedroom (didn’t want to put it in the basement or shed due to mice). This year I plan to capture IMOs in my town, about a mile from here, in an older growth forest, undisturbed for a 100 years. Let’s see what happens!

 

After over a week of temperatures in the 90s and scorching full sun, it is cooler overcast with some mild rain (still not enough, though). I get to catch my breath. Today I weeded, pruned and trellised tomatoes. Tomorrow I may really get to the wood chip piles: add them to Wood Chip Heaven and (this will require carting them up our hill) as a mulch to the perennials up top and in the paths in the vegetable garden, all the while pulling weeds. If I have any oomph left I may even move some into the chicken yard, or I may start laying out some paths on our slope.

In the meantime one more critter has joined the menagerie of bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, and lots of birds in the clover:

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We are also seeing some interesting insects, like this one, which Amie called the cotton candy bug, literally on our doorstep:

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I’m finally harvesting tomatoes, peppers (hot and green) and zucchinis. I pulled all the garlic, 125 bulbs for about 6 lbs.

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For seed I am saving the largest heads, as well as the actual garlic seeds from the scapes I allowed to mature. These seeds are also planted in Fall, and make great bulbs. I also finished the disappointing potato harvest: 6.25 lbs of tiny potatoes for about as many of supermarket potatoes that I put in – I blame it on those seed potatoes, next year I may splurge on actual seed potatoes. This means I have two more empty beds for the Fall harvest plantings. This year will I actually have a Fall harvest?

It’s been hard in our neck of the woods. We had 0.69 inches of rain this month. Not even one inch. The Department of Environmental Protection has issued a “Severe Drought Warning” for my county. Thunderstorm after thunderstorm has  evaporated, glanced off or split around our area. The Wundermap shows their tragic course all too well: other places get the rain, here we get a drop or two, some damaging, desiccating wind, but no relief. I’m looking at the map now: a massive system is bringing rain in the west, but it will pass just south of us, again.

Our town has instigated a partial watering ban (irrigate between 7 pm and 7 am, every other day), which I suspect will soon become a full ban.  The farm three miles from us, from which we get our CSA box, is postponing further plantings until their irrigation ponds and brooks have been replenished. That means we may not get fall produce from them.

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My gardens, annual and perennial, are hanging on by their fingernails – it sometimes literally looks like that, with the leaves on trees and bushes standing up, showing their paler undersides, like hands reaching up into the sky, begging for a drop (they’re actually orienting their leaves for minimal evaporation and solar exposure). Even though I water every other day, all are thoroughly stuck in a vegetative state. Haricots verts have been harvested (2 lbs of beans smaller than I usually harvest them, but they failed to grow bigger) and this year there will probably not be a second harvest, which is usually more abundant, because they’re not making new flowers. The tomatoes plants which had grown so many large, plump fruits are not ripening them at all. We’ve been stuck at code green for weeks now and the tomatoes are starting to take on that bloodless, necrotic look. The equally thirsty critters, chipmunks and squirrels mostly, have been eating away at the sour fruits. Few flowers appear and they die off without setting fruit, and it’s not for lack of pollination as I shake them all the time, and the bumblebees have been abundant.

The gardener too suffers. I’ve never been good in the heat, and these 95F-100F (in the shade!) days are brutal. I hand water every other day, in the early morning or later evening and it’s about all I can do. And so my poor (or should I say, lucky?) bees have had to do without my constant interference. They beard or “hang out on the porch,” as we say, by the thousands, even at night to relieve the temperature inside the hive. The nectar flow seems to have slowed down considerably.

The chickens are doing quite well, finding shade and clean water. But for the broody one, who insists on sitting on a pile of straw in the hot nest box all day. Her comb isn’t full and dark like the other ones. During the hottest time of day I open the nest box and pour spoonfuls of cool water into her panting beak.  I hope she stops being broody soon. Egg production is down somewhat.

Rain dance, anyone?

I visited the two buckets of FAA today – they’re nicely tucked away in the cool, dark basement. Amazing how it doesn’t smell awful or even fishy at all, since it’s just fish and sugar, and some apples. The apple smell dominates, along with a sweet fermented smell. The top of one had a lot of mold, which I just scooped up and fed to my compost bin buddies.

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Underneath that layer the liquefying action is well and truly happening. Basically, only the big fish heads are left. This is what it looks like after a stir:

 

 

 

Meanwhile, outside, this, in case you too were wondering where some of those sumptuous ripe peas went (click to enlarge):

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Another oft-used (and used in quantity) cohort of living allies in Korean Natural Farming is  IMO: Indigenous Micro Organisms.  The IMO “input” is made in several steps, from IMO 1 through 4.  IMO 1 is the “catch” of said microorganisms, and in each subsequent  step you get to culture these, growing their quantity until you potentially end up with a big pile. The first step, where you trap the organisms, is proving tricky for me. My first attempt got eaten and soiled by a mouse or some such; it went to the chickens. My second attempt at IMO 2 looked like this:

Closer, but that too isn’t going to cut it; it went into the steaming, youngest compost pile.

The recipe for the “bait” is pretty simple.

  1. First soak a carbohydrate like rice for 24 hours, then pour it off (save wash water which is now full of starch, for LAB).
  2. Hard-boil it with a ratio of 1:1.5 cups (rice:water), but this depends on the rice. In my experience basmati overcooks, so use less water. The rice should be dry and fluffy, not wet and soggy. Let cool.
  3. Put the cooked rice in a wicker basket like mine, or in  any container, wood, glass, plastic, porous like the basket, or not, as long as it is open up top and allows for half of its volume for head space. Place a cloth or old t-shirt or paper towel over it so no dirt can fall in, but it is not sealed, and optionally cover it with a metal  mesh to keep mice out.
  4. Bury this container in the leaf or compost pile, or under the duff in the forest, under an old tree.
  5. After 4 to 10 days, depending on the temperature (colder = less microbial activity), dig up the basket.

You can find anything in your trap. What you want to find are certain aerobic microbes – hence the need for a fluffy rice with air pockets and head space for them to colonize. When you collect in a forest, among the leaf litter, you will catch mostly fungal hyphae. Among grasses, you will trap a more bacterial crowd. If you want to grow grass or grains, go for the latter. For growing veggies and perennials, the fungal stuff is the thing, because fungi are great companions for plants.

The fungal hyphae with which your rice is now “contaminated” should be white and fluffy and have a sweet smell. The stuff in my basket was predominantly red, yellow and black, and it smelled moldy, because I had caught mainly molds – which are also fungi, but not the kind you want (FYI, check out this amazing video on mold growth). I think this was because the rice was too wet.

The next steps, which I’ll write about as I get to perform them once I’ve managed to trap the IMO, are basically to feed  this handful of organisms so they multiply to greater and greater quantities. To summarize, the IMO first colonizes 1 cup of rice (IMO 1), then rice and as much brown sugar (IMO 2), then 150 lbs of wheat bran (IMO 3), then all of the above plus as much garden soil, totaling over 300 lbs (IMO 4), at which point it is ready to be brought, with much fanfare, into the garden. (Go here for a nice reportage, with photos, of a workshop by Aaron Englander, similar to the one I took. It covers IMO 1- through 4.)

The whole point of IMO is to trap indigenous organisms, because of the ecological and economic advantages of closing the loops by not using imports, and because these indigenous micro organisms are already acclimated to the general environment where you want to put them to use – though of course it would be more accurate to say that they made and make that environment. So if you can, it’s best to look for them in the duff in undisturbed areas under the trees, at the bottom of an old leaf pile, or in a mature compost pile on your own property, or in the vicinity. The farthest distance the IMO travel is, in my case, about ten feet.

Notice the words old, mature and undisturbed. If your garden is a place of disturbance by digging, tilling, and applications of antibiotic chemicals, then the soil there will be “young” or “poor” at best, dead at worst. You want to bring in the robust, mature, complex life that has evolved to the most it can be in nature, away from modern man’s interference. And once you’ve brought in this life, you want to keep welcoming it by minimizing disturbance by going no-till, chemical free.

Ideally, as you let the IMO colonize more and more substrates, the garden itself becomes the IMO 5, as it were. But even the least disturbing farmers, treading the most gently on their soil, still have to dig for those potatoes, tuck in a seed or  seedling, pull the occasional weed. Therefore IMO 4 is applied regularly on farms and in gardens. The poorer your soil, the more disturbing your gardening practices, and/or the further away your IMO was collected, the more it will need to be applied.

I made three more batches of rice and buried them in different places:

  • IMO 1 a. The same place as the failed one, just to try again with drier rice. It’s in a decomposing wood chip garden path where the King  Stropharia likes to show itself, the duff there is shot through with mycelium.
  • IMO 1 b. In the oldest leaf pile on the property: the leaves at the bottom are about four years old, with successive layers for each year.
  • IMO 1 c. Under one of our biggest trees, in a shady spot where no one but the chipmunks go, where the soil is dark and springy.

This way I’m hedging my bets and, in the spirit of diversity, it makes sense that combining microbes collected from multiple sites will make for a more robust culture. Stay tuned.