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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Ah–ahcronyms! That stands for Korean Natural Farming: Fermented Plant Juice and Oriental Herbal Nutrient. After weeks of prep, FPJ and OHN were ready to “decant” and use and store.

  • FPJ

DSCF7565On 5/2 (about a month ago), I went about in my garden in the early morning collecting the meristems of all the most vigorously growing plants that I could find. The meristems are the undifferentiated growing tips of plants, full of energy and growth hormones. These are the ones you want in your Fermented Plant Juice. I added comfrey (smallest, newest leaves), common and spear mint, and all kinds of mostly unidentified weeds reaching for the sun. This document from the University of Hawaii has a list of which plants to look for, to which Aaron Englander, who taught me this recipe, added the more readily available purslane, nettles, and mugwort. For the purists, each FPJ batch is just one plant – and that FPJ is then the best for that particular plant. I only make a one-plant FPJ wen I have enough of it on hand.

I packed these leaves and shoots into a jar, mixed them with a 1:1 ratio of raw brown sugar (by volume), leaving 2/3 of head space, adding a lid of sugar on top and packing it down. Then I covered with a cloth and let it sit at room temperature. After a week I found it didn’t make much juice, so I added a small amount of (non-chlorinated) water (a tablespoon) and that got it going really well. Today I poured off the liquid – amazing how much poured out after all. It is stored in the jar with a cloth, in a cool, dark place. FPJ, which is packed with growth energy, is used weekly at the growing stage of plants as foliar feed (at 1000:1 dilution) or a soil drench (at 500:1).

{UPDATE} 4/16: after almost a year, the FPJ is still looking good. I used a lot of sugar. If in the recipe you use only enough brown sugar to extract the juices,  then once you’ve poured off the juice you should add more brown sugar to preserve it, especially if you live in a hot, humid place.

  • OHN

DSCF7567Also on 5/2 chopped up and crushed the five ingredients for the OHN and put them each in their own jar:

  1.  2 parts (by volume) the root of Angelica acutiloba (which I had ordered from Mountain Rose Herb – I also ordered the seeds so I can start growing it myself). Because the quantity of angelica is double that of the rest, I filled 1/3 of a jar that is twice the size of the other jars. You can also just two jars the same size. Same difference.
  2. 1 part licorice root (Glycurrhiza uralensis), which I have growing in the garden, but the plant isn’t ready yet for harvesting, so I got this from Mountain  Rose Herbs as well (1/3 jar).
  3. 1 part cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum sp.), from Mountain  Rose Herbs (1/3 jar).

I added beer (the one I happened to have in my fridge, a hoppy honey beer; you can also use rice wine) to hydrate these and covered them with cloth.

After 2 days, I chopped and crushed the two wet ingredients:

  • 1 part fresh ginger root (Zingiber officinale), skins and all, organic from the store.
  • 1 part garlic cloves (Allium sativum), stem, skins and all, homegrown.

Then I added 1:1 raw brown sugar to all five so all the jars were 2/3 full and covered them with cloth. I let them ferment for 5 days, then I topped all of them off with vodka and closed the jars with lids. I shook them every day for two weeks. Then I strained the juices (but see *!) into two big jars and covered them with cloth (not sure if that’s necessary, but I guess some more fermentation may happen if not all the sugar has been converted yet, and if the jar is closed off, it might explode). Here’s a good fact sheet on OHN, it also uses turmeric.

{UPDATE} 4/16: after a little less than a year I found both OHN liquids had a thick layer of whacky mold on them. This is because I never capped it tightly. The preserving alcohol evaporated, and mold got in. I simply scooped off the mat of mold, added vodka, and capped.

OHN is used weekly at all stages of plant growth as a health elixir and immune booster, as a foliar spray, soil drench, seed soak, or compost booster. It has to be diluted 1000:1.  It is also one of the ingredients in IMO 4.

 

  • OHN marc compost tea

DSCF7563DSCF7568(*!) Now it turns out I should have poured off 2/3 of the liquid and kept the leftover liquid and marc for another round of extraction – you can use the separate jars up to five times. It was too late when I read that, I had already mushed the marc all together for one final press. Then I read you can use that marc for a compost tea, and so that’s where it went, along with the marc of the FPJ.

I have a small, rotating collection of buckets with filtered tap water that I leave open in the sun for 24 hours before putting on the lids to keep dust and animals out. I do this to let whatever the water filter didn’t get, evaporate out – a matter specifically to get rid of the biocide chlorine. I used one of the 5 gallon ones for the tea: wrapped the marc in an old cotton shirt, hung it to steep in the water. I’ll play this one by ear as it will depend on the temperature during brewing.

While I was at it, I also started a new kombucha (following this recipe) and a gallon of ginger soda (using this recipe).

Bubble bubble!

{UPDATE 6/13. This is what it looks like now, without oxygenation. Smells good too. Smells sweet.

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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.

A month ago I attended a workshop on Korean Natural Farming (KNF), led by Aaron Englander,  at the Natick Organic Community Farm, where they implement a lot of KNF techniques. I deeply appreciate many of the ground tenets of KNF: make it cheap (and so available for even the poorest), use as many inputs as possible that are already in the environment (for instance, capture indigenous microbes instead of buying laboratory microbes in a bottle), minimize waste, be objective and scientifically rigorous, and take the long road. Take care of the soil life and all aspects of plant growth. As Aaron said: instead of forcing short breaths on your soil, enable the soil to take long, deep breaths. In other words: don’t add short-lived, chemical fertilizers and refrain from disturbing the life – the lungs, as it were – in the soil by refraining from tilling and pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or anything that has the word “kill” in it.

The workshop was very demonstrative  and hands-on, and I came home empowered. I immediately started a LAB, IMO, FPJ, WCa, OHN and, last but not least, the FAA. I don’t much like acronyms myself, but in KNF they’re kinda fun :)

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So what is a FAA? It’s Fish Amino Acids – similar to the fish hydrolysate that costs $50 for a 9 lbs bottle at the garden center. You can make this stuff yourself, at home. All you need is a bucket, fish scraps and brown sugar. If you can’t get brown sugar, you can use just water and make the fish hydrolysate proper (*).

When I sourced the fish scraps from a local fish market I asked for all of it: guts, skin, bones, the lot. Apparently, the guts and even the skin are hard to get because they get removed on the boat, so I mostly got bones, tails, fins, some skin, and heads. I also  asked them to mix up kinds of fish, hoping for some fatty fishes like mackerel. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I got only one kind, an unidentified white fish. Still, I was in business with 40 lbs of it! I also got 14 lbs of brown, raw sugar – approximating a ratio of 1:1 (v:v) (in KNF, approximating is just fine). This made for two buckets, each 29 lbs of fish, each 7 lbs of sugar.

It’s a messy job and I don’t recommend you do it in your kitchen. Luckily the day I picked up the fish was sunny and relatively warm so I worked on the patio. I quickly exchanged the kitchen knife for the hatchet. The ancient blender was given to me by a friend and is now solely devoted to FAA. I added a little bit of rain water (avoiding the chlorine in the tap water), to make it easier on the blender, and it did a pretty good job. Liquifying or even blending the fish isn’t even necessary – you can just chop up the fish and layer it in.

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DSCF7281I chopped, blended, dumped the goop into the bucket, added a layer of sugar, and kept at it till the two batches were done and I had 1/3 of head space in each pail, in which I put some wet salt marsh hay – whatever is on hand is fine, to act as a smell filter. Then I put on the lids and put it in a cool, dark place.

 

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Several things happen in the bucket: extraction of juices from solids through osmosis by the sugar(it basically sucks the moisture out of them), and all kinds of fermentation. I put water locks on the lids, mainly to ensure that gasses could escape (and the whole thing not explode on me!), and not so much to keep oxygen out. From other reading it now makes sense to me not to aim just for an anaerobic ferment, but to encourage the whole diversity of microbes, anaerobic and aerobic. When we will use the FAA, we’ll after all use it both as a foliar feed and surficial soil drench (aerobic) and as a deep soil drench (anaerobic). The bucket is large enough to have both kinds of ferments doing the digesting. I propose to keep this diversity mind set in all my fertility measures.

This fact sheetDSCF7423 states that “after approximately 3 to 5 days, the fish waste will begin to break down and liquefy through fermentation and the osmotic pressure generated by the addition of brown sugar.” But after a couple of weeks nothing much was happening to my FAA. The top was pretty dry compared to the bulk of it underneath. I pushed the dry parts to submerge them, then topped off with a couple of chopped-up, organic, unwashed apples – which adds enzymes – and lastly some more raw cane sugar, so that no fish was left uncovered.

It takes 2 to 6 months to complete the fermentation and produce a mature FAA that will smell sweet and remain stable so keep for a long time.

FAA is high in nitrogen. As a rule, the higher the protein of the materials, when composted or fermented, the higher the nitrogen content. Mature FAA is applied in a dilution of 1:1000 (FAA:water) during the early or vegetative stage of development to boost growth and size. It isn’t applied to plants in the reproductive stages of their production cycle if you want them to flower or fruit, because the high nitrogen will stimulate leaf, not fruit or flower production.

(*) Fish hydrolysate involves not sugar but water. It too is minimally processed and cold-processed. Fish emulsion is a different beast altogether. It is heated, which represents a higher cost of production and which also denatures the proteins, carbohydrates and fats into simpler pieces, thus destroying many of the proteins, enzymes, hormones, amino acids and vitamins.