During our Permaculture Design course at Rak Tamachat we learnt that, just because food looks beautiful and fresh in the supermarket, doesn’t always mean that it’s full of all the nutrients and minerals that it should have. Food will only be complete with the necessary nutrients and minerals if the soil is organic and contains what the plant needs. We learned how to ensure that the minerals we need for a healthy diet are present in the soil and therefore, in us.
Plants grown in non-organic soil are not high in nutrition, and just because food is grown organically doesn’t mean that it’s always the most nutritious. Humans need many nutrients and trace minerals to be healthy and we need healthy organic soil to ensure optimum health. If the minerals are not in the soil to begin with, then they won’t be in the plants. To get all the nutrients we need, we must use many methods in order to make organic composts and bio-fertilisers that contain the nutrients and minerals that we need.
Here are some of these methods:
Layered Compost, Lasagna Compost or the 18 day Berkeley Compost
This is a common method to quickly create compost. We layered carbon (we used corn husks collected from a nearby corn field), cow manure, a starter with microorganisms (we used some already made compost and food scraps), nitrogen (anything from the garden that’s green or food scraps) over and over again like a layered lasagna. This is repeated until it is around 1.5 meters high and around 1.5 meters in diameter. We watered it thoroughly as we were layering, and then it is watered daily for the remainder of the process. It is also turned every 2 days for the next 18 days, by which time it should be ready.
Lasagna Bed – Thai Composting
This is a method used in Thailand to make a bed for planting. Instead of making a compost pile, they make a bed of soil. We made the bed with a base of carbon (we used corn husks), cow manure, food scraps and lastly sugar (we used molasses liquid) then covered it with some more carbon to mulch it. The sugar activates the microorganisms and then it will turn into soil in no time at all. This just had one layer of each.
Worm Composting aka Vermicomposting
This is such an easy method and is something that we did in our home in Singapore. Worms eat food scraps which in turn makes compost and worm tea, quickly and odor free inside the home or in your garden. Worm tea is a brown liquid that comes out of the bottom of the wormery and is mixed with water for an organic bio-fertiliser. At Rak Tamachat they have many of these worm bins which are fed with manure and plants that are rich in nitrogen. The worm tea is collected into a bucket and pumped into a water source that automatically waters the garden and nursery. The worm castings are then used to make potting mix. We made a huge worm compost bin at Rak Tamachat as they have been raising worms for a few years now. We took half the worms and castings from all the compost bins around the farm and placed it near the kitchen so that food scraps can be put in with ease.
This is a method for speeding up the composting time to get some carbon charcoal mixed with the soil. Biochar is applied to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. To make Biochar, you need to start a small fire under a pipe or chimney for airflow and then cover it with carbon (we used rice husks) and ensure it doesn’t catch fire but just burns underneath. After a few hours, the Biochar will be ready to add to potting mix and compost.
Why chuck human waste away! The best method we have learnt here is the long drop system where you don’t have to touch the human waste at all, which is definitely preferred. Long drops collect the waste underneath and you cover with sawdust each time it is used so it doesn’t smell. The waste then falls through a container that should be at a 45 degree angle and at the bottom is a hold where you can take out the final product. Once it gets going, the bottom half of the system can be filled with soil and worms. The final product is then odor and parasite free worm castings that are ready to go straight onto your soil. As we won’t turn the compost it will take around a year to turn to soil.
Once we have fertile land, there won’t be such an urgent need to make compost quickly. It can just be piled up at the back of the farm where we will put all of our garden waste, and it will turn to compost over a longer period of time. We can have many piles going at one time, so there will always be one maturing and ready to use.
Liquid Fertilizer – Aerobic vs Anaerobic
There are two different ways to create an organic fertilizer; aerobically and anaerobically. Aerobically: we are trying to grow bacteria and microorganisms to add to our soil. This is because the microorganisms are what help transfer minerals into the plants by exchanging them for sugars with the plant. The microorganisms also continue to break down the organic matter in the soil. Anaerobically: we are trying to create organic fertilizer to add nutrients and minerals to the soil for the plants which have broken down minerals that we add to the fertiliser from rocks, bones and shells. These minerals must be broken down by microorganisms to make them absorbable by plants.
Bio fertiliser is an anaerobic compost. The microorganisms lock in all the nutrients into liquid so it can be added to soil. A barrel, bin or bucket is filled with cow manure and water. You also add some minerals from various rock dust and phosphorus from crushed bones or sea shells. Then a sugar, such as molasses, is added and then yeast. Instead of yeast you can add some bio fertilizer which already has microorganisms, to kick start it. It is then mixed up and sealed. An airlock is added with a tube with a little water in the bottom of the curved tube (sort of shaped like a sideways S) so that the carbon dioxide gas can escape without any air containing oxygen getting into the barrel. Without this tube, there would be a build of carbon dioxide and possibly an explosion of cow manure which wouldn’t be pleasant! Another advantage for making Bio Fertilizer is that it kills off parasites and seeds which means that the compost doesn’t need to be turned when things grow. This fermentation usually takes around 3 months and is ready once most of the manure has broken down. Water can always be added if the manure has not been fully broken down yet.
Weed tea aka Vegan Organic Liquid Fertilizer
This is fermented nitrogen and a great way to use weeds and overgrown plants, similar to the bio fertilizer. Fill a container with green matter, vegetables from the gardens, or weeds are also fine. Then fill it with water and add some sugars and yeast. Next, put some bricks on top to make sure everything is under water so flies don’t get at the plants, and then leave to ferment. We added sugar to all of these fertilizers as the microorganisms prefer to consume sugar. They will eat the sugar, multiply, then when it has run out they will start to eat all the plants or whatever it is that you are fermenting.
This is how to breed microorganisms for us to add to our soil. We want more microorganisms in the soil so that they can provide plants with more minerals. To create compost tea, heat some water with sugar and add these to a bucket of water to create lukewarm water. Then hang some cow manure or worm castings in a net inside the bin. The microorganisms from the manure will eat all of the sugar and multiply in around 18 hours. The result is liquid full of microorganisms that you can add to compost piles to speed the process up, soil beds or Permaponic systems. Compost tea is also good to spray on plants as the microorganisms ward off insects.
Feeding to Compost Carbon
Compost always needs carbon and mulch and carbon is essentially brown matter, left over hay from grains or dead leaves are ideal. Whilst at Rak Tamachat, we experimented with corn husk and grasses. We learnt that it would be better to put it through a wood chipper first as its quite dense and takes longer to break down than hay.
Feeding the Compost Nitrogen
Compost needs lots of nitrogen which is obtained from anything green in the garden. This means we need to grow plants for the compost as when you cut a plant it dies, and the nitrogen is released into the air. Coppicing and pollarding trees are two methods for this. Trees that can be coppiced or pollarded, will quickly grow back new green branches.
Growing Nitrogen in Water
Creating potting mix can be from worm castings, biochar and biofert or compost tea. The biochar creates drainage but if it’s not available you can use sand instead. Then also add biofert and compost tea. Mix altogether and let it dry out a little and the result is a highly nutritional potting mix ready for seedlings to be planted.
After you have grown a large tree or a plant in soil, and then remove it, the soil will still weigh the same. This is because the tree takes trace minerals from the soil which only weigh a small amount. The tree gets these trace minerals by swapping sugars with microorganisms that live in the soil. Healthy organic soil is full of microorganisms. Any pesticides and herbicides will kill these microorganisms and you end up with food without all the trace minerals. This is the kind of food that we all buy from supermarkets.
Overall, these methods of organic farming ensure that the soil is full of the nutrients and trace elements that are needed for a healthy plant to grow. This can only be done with organic farming. However, even within the organic farming industry, to ensure all the trace elements are present within the yield, incurs costs and is a lot of extra effort. To ensure that we are getting all the nutrients and minerals that we need daily, then we need to know exactly what our food has been grown in.