This is another guest post, this time by my good friend David The Good. David is an author and a gardening expert living in the tropics. Here he’ll teach you how to feed your crops and get good yields in case of an emergency.
If you can’t fertilize your gardens, your gardens will eventually fail.
There’s only enough fertility in the soil to last through a crop, or a few if you’re blessed with excellent local conditions – but after a time, your roots, grains and vegetables will simply refuse to feed you.
I once planted a row of corn in some infertile sand to see what would happen. The resulting stalks were ridiculous miniatures, looking as if they were created to complement someone’s model train collection. Worse than that, they failed to bear a single kernel. After lifting a few tiny blooms to the sky to scatter a few anemic grains of pollen, they died.
If I had decided to plant a nice big garden in that space, it would have done terribly… unless I had a way to feed it.
Ideally, a gardener would build up his soil first, then plant later. Sometimes, though, we just want – or need – to obtain a yield quickly.
If the grid collapsed tomorrow and the grocery stores closed, which option would you choose?
Option 1: Take a year to dig beds, observe the land, make compost, sheet mulch and improve the soil… and starve
Option 2: Say heck with the soil, till a huge area, throw down some 10-10-10 and plant a big plot so you can eat
Organic purism often gets thrown out the window when we face a crisis or an economic reason for gardening.
All we really want is food!
Yet the two choices I gave you aren’t really fair. Sure, you can’t build the soil into rich, high-nutrient loam with a perfect amount of organic matter and a wide range of beneficial microorganisms and fungi in a quick period of time… but you CAN feed your crops organically and get good yields with a lot less material and time than you might think.
Do I Have to Buy Creepy Things Like Blood Meal?
When we think of fertilizing organically, we often think of going to the local farm store or garden center and grabbing some weird, musty smelling bags of amendments such as blood meal, kelp meal, bone meal or, if you’re really hardcore, cottonseed meal.
These are all great for the garden – but they’re expensive! They’re also not sustainable additions to your own farm because they rely on outside agriculture, labor and slaughterhouses for their raw materials.
You can certainly buy and use these organic amendments if you wish. I have in the past and had great results with them. Now I no longer bother for the most part. I’ve found all the fertility I need for the gardens can be found on my own farm – and it’s a lot cheaper than buying expensive organic amendments.
Spread High-Nitrogen Fertility Over a Large Space
Have you ever spread manure or compost over your gardens? Did you have enough?
Unless you bought some or run a farm with livestock, chances are you can’t stretch your home compost or manure far enough to feed a big survival garden or a market garden.
You’ll transform your garden forever!
It’s all well and good to talk about how you “make more compost than you need” when you only have a few little beds to feed. It’s another thing when you’re growing a 10,000 square foot plot of field corn.
I did just that a few years back, as I share in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting
I had a variety of corn I wanted to test and a sandy field in which to grow it. The soil humus was low and the area lacked irrigation but I pressed on regardless, knowing that the farmer using the rest of the field had grown corn without irrigation many times with good results, though I was sure he used chemical fertilizer on his crops.
I planted my rows three feet apart so they wouldn’t fight for water, then I added a 55 gallon drum to the field. In the bottom I added a few shovelfuls of chicken manure and then filled it about ¾ of the way full of water via a hose I ran out from a neighboring house. Then I threw in some Epsom salts, some fish emulsion (there’s a chapter on making your own in my book), some compost and some urine.
Next to the barrel I left a couple of cheap watering cans with their roses removed so they wouldn’t clog as I watered.
It sat there and rotted down as I waited for the corn to emerge.
After the corn germinated and grew a few inches, I walked down the rows, splashing the anaerobic compost tea around the infant maize.
They grew like crazy. Rain was intermittent but the corn didn’t seem to mind. Every couple of weeks I repeated my watering with the tea. The stalks grew thick, green and tall, reaching for the sky.
Looking at the sandy soil I was quite impressed by their progress. Instead of model-train-sized corn, I had a field of tall, green stalks, laden with ears. When I finally harvested, I was quite pleased: I had managed to raise a crop of corn without making a ton of compost or spending much of anything on fertilizer.
Normally I would have spent lots of time turning piles and making compost, buying in amendments, working the soil or, even worse, time-wise, I would have been gathering piles of mulch for the ground.
Instead, I had good success with just a few shovelfuls of manure and other materials, spread across the corn via about 5 applications of some stinky compost water.
No 10-10-10 required.
My Anaerobic Compost Tea Recipe
I was asked a while back for my compost tea recipe and I must confess – I don’t really pay a lot of attention to ratios and ingredients when I make compost tea. Instead, I look around for things I know the plants need and want as well as looking for ingredients I know have a lot of mineral content.
If you live near the ocean, you can harvest seaweed and sea water to add to your compost tea barrel as I do in this video.
If you have manure you know isn’t contaminated with long term herbicides (Karen Land recently shared on my site how she lost most of her garden beds due to contaminated manure – it’s a must read post that can save your hide) then add some of that. Goat, rabbit, cow and chicken manure are particularly good.
Urine is another excellent fertilizer that isn’t often used due to the “ick” factor, but it’s loaded with minerals, potassium and nitrogen. If you can stand it, add that too.
Other great ingredients include weeds, spent garden plants, comfrey, moringa, nitrogen-fixing tree leaves, Epsom salts, leaf mould, rotten grains, roots and oatmeal to feed fungi, ashes and even fish guts.
Once you have those materials in the bottom of the barrel, top off with lots of water and let it sit for a couple of weeks to rot down, stirring it around when you think about it. After it’s a nice, dark soup, put a couple of quarts or so in the bottom of a watering can and thin it out with water (preferably not water containing chlorine) and use it to water your gardens.
You can see just how crazy I get with my compost tea recipe here :
It’s never an exact recipe, but what I’m looking for is a lot of nitrogen and a lot of minerals so the plants will get what they need to grow and what they need to make very nutritious vegetables for the table.
Don’t worry about the terrible smell. It is indeed amazing but one man’s stinking soup is another plant’s treasure.
Caution: Don’t apply this “tea” directly on anything you intend to directly consume. It’s great for establishing plants and building up the microorganisms and minerals in the soil, but it might make you sick if you poured it on your lettuce and then made a salad. Then again, you wouldn’t want to eat 10-10-10, right? It’s best for getting the plants growing or for plants that bear fruit or grain you can avoid watering directly with anaerobic fertility soup.
Though I used to spend a lot of time gathering big piles of leaves and mulch, tilling manure into the ground and carefully mixing up compost piles, I no longer bother. I have a family to feed and a large area in which I grow crops so I don’t have the time, energy or even materials to add a lot of biomass to the ground over large areas. By concentrating high fertility in my compost tea barrels, I can use a lot of ground that would otherwise sit fallow and I can skip the concentrated chemical fertilizers that do more harm than good in the long run.
If you’re worried about fertilizing off grid, if you’re short on time, or if you’re just plum tired of sheet-mulching big areas and finding proper C/N ratios to get hot compost, give my compost tea recipe a try. It’s been done for generations in Korea and it’s high time we start putting this knowledge to work.
Sign up for my newsletter here and I’ll send you my booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost for free. It contains all the info you need to say goodbye to chemical fertilizers and hard work… and hello to beautiful gardens!
Finally—thanks for reading. I’m honored to have the chance to post here on Permaculture Apprentice. It’s one of my favorite sites and William is the real deal. He’s inspired me ever since we met last year and I enjoy the expert knowledge he shares in each and every post.
Catch you online, folks – and until we meet again, keep growing.
David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of four books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and latest bestseller Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. Find new inspiration every weekday at his popular gardening website TheSurvivalGardener.com.