(This is a cross-post with the Transition Wayland blog)

It’s been over a month and our carbon/biochar and Korean Natural Farming inputs trial at the Transition Wayland plot in the Community Gardens has been running smoothly. Yesterday we harvested for the first time and the differences between the four beds are already noticeable!

Check out the five lettuces we transplanted in May.

Bed 1 (loose soil – biochar – no Korean Natural Farming inputs):

Bed 2 (loose soil – biochar – Korean Natural Farming inputs):

Bed 3 (tight soil – biochar – no Korean Natural Farming inputs):

Bed 4 (tight soil – biochar – Korean Natural Farming inputs):






I harvested the largest of each bed’s lettuce as well as some chard leaves (blue – KNF inputs):

Bed 1 Bed 2 Bed 3 Bed 4
Largest lettuce 5 7.3 0.5 5.3
chard leaves 5.7 4.5 0 0.9

The nice, loose soil in the long bed that makes up beds 1 and 2 is obviously much better than the tight soil in beds 3 and 4. The KNF has been of benefit in both, a smaller benefit in the loose soil beds (2.3 ounces heavier), and a much larger benefit in the tight soil beds (the KNF lettuce there was a whopping 10.6 times heavier than in the no KNF bed). So the KNF overcame whatever the deficiencies are in that soil.

This larger benefit is less pronounced, but still visible for all the other plants (chard, beets, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli, onions and parsley). Those in Beds 3 and 4 (tight soil) are obviously smaller than in Beds 1 and 2 (loose soil). There is less of a noticeable difference between Beds 1 and 2, but again more of a difference between 3 and 4. So again the KNF shines in overcoming a tight soil.

Of course, these are only our first data points! We’ll keep measuring and recording – and eating – all season long.

Can you see we’re having fun?

I checked on the nucs we took off the big Sam hive and one after the other they turned out queen right with laying queens. 100%! One hive became seven, just like that. The chickens are robust and healthy and laying too many eggs to keep up with, and the six chicks are thriving too (and starting to croak instead of cheep!). The garden is perking up now that the weather has shifted to warm. The ferments on my counter top are abounding.

Big jar of LAB, and the five ingredients for OHN, fermenting in their brown sugar.

You can imagine the smell of the cinnamon bark just by looking at it’s color.

These milk curds are so rich! They’ll be paneer tomorrow.

I had ordered the KIS aeration compost tea brewer ($290 + $30 shipping), having read the glowing recommendations by Dr. Elaine Ingham and Jeff Lowenfells of Teaming-with fame, but unfortunately something is up with their manufacturing process and they’re on back order until July (or indefinitely?).  I cancelled my order and settled on Mr. Tim J. Wilson’s new and improved Mini Microbulator. Also check out his website, full to the brim with info on brewers, brewing, complete with microscope assays (this one for the mini microbulator).

Here is his Mini Microbulator – love that name! – at work.

This one is also for sale, but I just bought the plans ($7 – thanks Mr. Tim!). I got the Elemental O2 Commercial Air Pump (951 gph) from my local hydroponic store – this cool place, it’s like a candy store! In the end it cost me: $7 for plans, $33.43 for the pump, $38.08 for the fittings and hose (and tax) = $78.51.

Though in his plans Mr. Tim uses a 3/8″ ID (inner dimension) hose (with a 3/8″ barb) I followed the advice he gave in a comment on this video:

Your airlift will run with extreme more efficiency if you use a larger diameter airline. Just eliminate the little brass nipple which screws into the pump and use an airline which goes over the nub on the pump, * score the nub with a hacksaw to create something for the airline to grip * clamp the airline securely,  * use a similar size air input nipple into the base of the airlift. This way you will get full efficiency and higher capacity dissolved oxygen from the bioreactor.

So I used a 1/2″ ID vinyl hose (and a 1/2″ barb) instead. I didn’t score the nub on the pump because it probably voids the warranty. I clamped it tightly and will keep an eye on whether it pops out.  HOWEVER

{IMPORTANT UPDATE 6/9} The pump cannot handle the difference between the intake/output ratio if you eliminate the brass adapter. It becomes MUCH louder and the short-circuit-like noises it makes indicate it’s not working properly. At first I thought it was the pump malfunctioning, but when the second one also did this, the store cleared up the mystery for me (thanks, guys!). So, the brass nipple went back in, and I went back to the hardware store for the 3/8″ ID hose…

The base of the airlift fits very tightly (almost not) into my bucket, but it’s a good thing. It makes it super stable and wedges everything together, which means I don’t have to glue any of the fittings together and will make for more through cleanup after each brew.

The riser sits in the middle of the bucket, which prohibits the formation of that vortex everyone likes (Mr. Tim’s 50 gallon microbulator does create a vortex). From what I could see from my first test runs, a lot of air gets pumped into the water/tea, though. Mr. Tim writes that “the dissolved oxygen (DO2) of a finished batch has been over 7 ppm for us with water TDS at around 75 ppm but as high as 9 ppm DO2.” Elaine Ingham writes (here for  a pdf of the best scientific primer on compost tea ever) that the tea should remain in the aerobic range at all times, that is, above 6 ppm or 70 to 80% dissolved oxygen. At some point I’d love to buy an oxygen probe to do my own tests. After I get my microscope!

But first, I can’t wait to make my first brew {UPDATE: I did!}. But I’ll have to find a good place to locate this operation first. The pump is pretty loud, as well as all the splashing, and as a brew usually take over 24 hours, preferably 36 hours, I’m not sure I can get away with it in the basement under our small, one-story, house…

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!

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.



All my ducks in a row: FPJ, LAB, rice water, kombucha.

I use LAB primarily in the  chickens’ water, their bedding, the compost pile and my garden’s soil. It’s versatile. The large jar I made last year is almost finished, so  it is time to make some more, and to introduce it. LAB is one of the easiest Korean Natural Farming (KNF) inputs to make, so maybe that’s why I forgot to write it up. But it’s a fascinating input.

This is how I make LAB

  1. After I’ve soaked rice in non-chlorinated water for making IMO for 24 hours, I pour off the water into a jar. I sterile all jars, utensils and my hands with vinegar. I put a paper towel over it so it can attract the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) from the air, and so that it can vent. This rice water is nutrient poor, so only the strongest bacteria will colonize it and thrive.
  2. After a week or so (it depends on temperature), the lactic acid bacteria start to propagate and start to give off a sour smell (this is the lactic acid, which has a PH of 2). At that point you add 1 part of the sour water to 10 parts whole milk (organic is best, as antibiotics in the milk will kill the bacteria). Milk is nutrient-rich, so  the bacteria will have a feast!
  3. In about five days there is a separation between the curds (which float on top) and the whey, a yellow liquid (remains at the bottom). The liquid is the lactic acid with the LAB in it. Once the separation is complete, carefully scoop out the curds – make them into cheese, or feed them to the chickens (they too love it). Keep the LAB liquid in the fridge, where they will keep for months.

How does it work?

  1. Yeasts (which are fungi, not bacteria) consume sugars (carbohydrates) and produce alcohol. Hence beer, wine, mead… Bacteria also consume sugars and starches (carbohydrates), but they produce acids. Some of these bacteria also consume alcohol. My favorite, acetobacter, thrives in the air and if it gets its hands on your brew, it will convert it into acetic acid… vinegar! That’s why you want an airlock on your carboy, to let the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeasts produce escape, but to keep acetobacter out. (*) Acetic acid preserves food by lowering the pH (raising the acid level) and making an environment that is unfriendly to harmful bacteria.
  2. But  with the rice starch we washed off into the water we are catching a different set of bacteria. Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) too are readily available in the air (should that surprise anyone?). As they digest carbohydrates (sugars, starches, etc.), they produce lactic acid. This process is called lacto-fermentation, which is usually anaerobic (not open to the air).  This lactic acid is what produces the sour flavor in yogurt, raw lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, etc.
  3. As the LAB go to town on the sugars in the milk, the rising acidity causes the milk proteins (casein) to tangle into solid masses, the curds. The remaining liquid, the whey, contains only whey proteins. In cow’s milk, 80% of the proteins are caseins, 20% are whey. Human milk, by the way, is 60% whey and 40% casein. The LAB themselves are present mostly in the whey.
  4. In the fridge, the LAB go to sleep (it’s too cold for them, plus you’re not feeding them anymore). When you take them out and add them to drink water or spray them on manure or soil, they wake up again, start feeding, and multiply.
  5. You can pair up LAB with other organisms in AEM (Activated Essential Micro Organisms). More on that here and here.

What is it good for?

  • For animals, LAB are nutritious. They make B Vitamins, Vitamin K2 and enzymes in fermented foods – all good things. LAB are also probiotic.. When you eat them (alive, as you should eat them), you are adding beneficial life forms to your digestive tract. Also, the lactic acid lowers the PH in the gut, and the other the beneficial life forms there like it acidic. Thus the thriving beneficials will crowd out the non-beneficials.
  • For plants, it’s the same. But where is the plant’s gut? It’s its rhizosphere, the soil all around its roots, and its phyllosphere, its leaf and stem  surface. So just as we introduce probiotic organisms into our gut with yogurt, we should introduce probiotics into the plant’s guts by adding it to the soil and spraying it onto its leaves.

What do these LAB do for animals and plants?

  1. Being probiotic to beneficials, lactic acid is also antibiotic to non-beneficial organisms. Its PH of 2 inhibits salmonella and e. coli. and most Gram-positive organisms including spore-formers such as Clostridia Botulinum and heat-resistant spoilage organisms”  (more on that here).
  2. LAB also keep a check on the alcohol-producing yeasts. Yeasts are anaerobes that make alcohol. We don’t want alcohol in our soil because it kills (most of that antimicrobial hand wash is alcohol, which dries out the protective cell walls of most organisms).
  3. We don’t want an anaerobic soil because the pathogenic organisms are predominantly anaerobic (more about that here). Also, roots need oxygen. LAB are facultative anaerobes. In aerobic conditions they breathe in oxygen, in anaerobic conditions they ferment and start bubbling (just like yeasts bubble inside baking bread), which creates pore spaces, which can then fill up with oxygen. So they ventilate a soil that is about to go anaerobic, and help a soil that already is.
  4. While they do this, they also eliminate bad odors. Usually, if it smells bad, it’s bad. The foul odor in a compost pile is due to anaerobic decomposition, which gives off corrosive ammonia. Better not  breathe that in too deeply. Same in the chicken coop: if it smells like ammonia, the bedding is too loaded with manure, or too wet. You can fluff up the compost pile, or change the bedding, but you could also try spraying some LAB. The LAB feed on ammonia. I use LAB in my coop, and they are also sprayed on pig stalls, smelly sports shoes, etc. So waste becomes food.
  5. As part of the plant’s gut, LAB digest minerals that are not easily dissolved, making them available in a form plants can absorb.
  6. If you use it to lactoferment animal feed (more here), that feed is already pre-digested, making it easier to digest, and it will add the probiotics to the animals’ gut. I would not feed only fermented grains to hens, because the bacteria in the gut need to do the work too. A healthy mix is best. Same for plants. You eat yogurt and you know it’s good for you. Let’s put aside this notion that humans are so different from chickens, and that animals are so different from plants. All should get a healthy dose of probiotics!

How to use

  1. Foliar spray
  2. Soil drench
  3. In animal water
  4. In animal feed (more on fermented chicken feed here)
  5. In animal bedding
  6. Spray on compost pile
  7. Clear clogged drains and keep the septic organisms happy
(*) When brewing kombucha you’re playing with the yeast-bacteria balance. Kombucha is the output of a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeasts. The yeasts make alcohol and carbon dioxide, which makes the kombucha bubbly, and the alcohol is immediately consumed by acetobacter, was turns the liquid sour. Too much yeast, and your kombucha turns alcoholic. Too much acetobacter, and it becomes too acidic, killing all the life in it and stopping the ferment.


Today I also gathered the meristems of the fast-growing weeds I could find for another batch of Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ). I still have half a jar from last year,  and one dilutes a lot when using it (1000:1 or 500:1), but it’s good to look ahead. Also, this is time when the nettles and comfrey are at that super-growth-hormonal stage.

2 jars of FPJ and 1 jar with the first stage of LAB (rice water)
1:1 compressed plant material:brown sugar and trusty stomping stick

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!