Make Your Own Compost Tea for the Healthiest Plants

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You’re probably pretty familiar with composting but you may also want to make make an organic liquid  fertilizer. Compost tea is one of the most powerful nutrients you can give your plants, and they will replay you in healthier plants and more abundant harvests! Solid matter compost takes a while to break down in the …

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Liquid Fertilizers – 4 Organic Solutions To Power Your Garden And Flowers!

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Do organic liquid fertilizers really work? You bet your all-natural, high-yielding, gorgeous plants they do! Ever since planting our first garden at the farm back in 2011, we have grown our crops using a 100 percent organic approach. We use

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8 Genius Uses for Buckets on the Homestead

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Life on the homestead requires a lot of creativity and frugality. The “five R’s” seem to be constantly in play: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, Repurpose, and Repair. Nothing ever goes to waste—today’s trash simply becomes tomorrow’s resources.

When buying something new is necessary, I usually try to make sure the item fits at least one of the following criteria:

  1. First, does the item have more than one alternative use or purpose?
  2. Second, does the item take up minimal space?
  3. Third, is the item inexpensive?

My Favorite Homesteading Tool

My absolute favorite “tool” on the homestead actually fits all three criteria: none other than the five-gallon plastic bucket. Not only do these wonder tools nest neatly into a tidy stack, they also have a seemingly unlimited number of uses.

Whether you are into homesteading, preparedness, or permaculture, five-gallon buckets are essential tools of the trade!

Getting Buckets for Free

A note about price: If purchased from a hardware store, you can expect to pay anywhere from $3 to $five-dollars per bucket. But you can acquire them for FREE from your grocery store’s bakery department. All you have to do is ask nicely for the buckets that their icing came in. Other free sources include pickle buckets from hamburger joints, soap buckets from car washes, and lard buckets from Mexican restaurants.

Of course, be prepared to clean them!

Uses for Buckets

The Bucket List

So, what exactly can you do with a five-gallon bucket once you procure it? I thought you’d never ask! Below, I showcase some general ideas that I use quite frequently. (If you’re keen on any given idea, more detailed tutorials can be found all over the Internet.)

1. Container Gardening

First and foremost, five-gallon buckets make for outstanding container gardens when you drill drainage holes in the bottom of the buckets. While some permaculturists might frown on the idea of container gardens, they are quite useful if you want to keep invasive (opportunistic) plants such as mint from taking over your garden. Additionally, in a grid-down situation, you can easily secure your food indoors overnight to protect from potential looters. That brings a whole new meaning to the words “food security!”

2. Growing Mushrooms

Another clever use for buckets is growing edible and medicinal mushrooms in them. Just drill staggering holes in the sides of the bucket, fill the bucket with free coffee grounds from the local corner coffee shop, and inoculate with the spawn of your favorite mushroom.

3. Organizing Your Tools

A five-gallon bucket also makes for a great tool bag. Either online or at your local hardware store, you can buy organizers that are specifically made for buckets and have all kinds of compartments. The outside sleeve compartments of the bucket are ideal for your smaller tools, such as screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers. On the inside of the bucket, you can store your heavy-duty tools like your hammers, axes, and saws.

Read More: “No More Disappearing Tools With This Simple Trick!”

4. Making Wine

You can even make wine with a five-gallon bucket. Simply pour in some apple cider (sans preservatives), sugar, and yeast. Drill a hole into the lid, insert a rubber grommet, and then insert an airlock bubbler (available for a dollar at most home-brew stores). The Big Bird/Cookie Monster–style explanation is that the “yeasties” eat the sugar and essentially poop out carbon dioxide and alcohol. The airlock bubbler allows the carbon dioxide to escape, but prevents oxygen or other contaminants from entering your wine. There are a few more specific steps and ingredients that go into producing quality wine, but this is basically how wine is made! People drink alcohol in both good times and bad. Wine making can prove to be a very valuable and profitable skill in a grid-down scenario.

Uses for Buckets

5. Feed the Worms

One of my favorite uses of a five-gallon bucket is as part of a vermicompost system (a.k.a. a worm bin). Red wiggler worms are voracious eaters. I feed them my shredded junk mail and food scraps. In return, they give me “black gold.”

If mushroom compost is the Cadillac of compost, worm castings are the Rolls Royce!

6. Make Compost Tea

In addition to vermicompost, compost tea happens to be the secret of success for many master gardeners. And with a five-gallon bucket, you can brew your own compost tea right at home. All you need is an air pump for aeration, some worm castings (compost), non-chlorinated water, and a few other ingredients. After two days of brewing, it is ready to spray on your crops using a pump sprayer. Your plants will grow twice as big, twice as fast!

Read More: “Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Your Compost”

7. Make a Mousetrap

Have a mouse problem, but don’t have the heart to set out a traditional mousetrap? Well, you can make a catch-and-release mousetrap out of a bucket and a few pieces of wood, plus peanut butter for bait. The contraption reminds me of the board game Mouse Trap that I used to play as a child!

8. Filter Water

Lastly, you can make a heavy-duty water filter from two five-gallon buckets stacked on top of each other. The top bucket has a ceramic water filter that filters out the dirty water dumped into it. The bottom bucket has a water spigot that allows you to extract the newly filtered water.

I hope you enjoyed some of the examples I’ve provided of why five-gallon buckets are the absolute best and most versatile tool for homesteading, preparedness, and permaculture. Five-gallon buckets not only serve as a container to grow your food in, they can be used in creating the fertilizer that enriches your garden. To top it off, you can use buckets to collect and ultimately store your bountiful harvests!

What about you? What’s your favorite way to use a five-gallon bucket? Leave me a note in the comments!

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Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification

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In the course of preparing for our Texas Master Gardener Worm Bin Workshop, I came across a lot of inconsistent information. Among the most confusing issues was that many sources both online and in print seem to confuse the terms referring to leachate and worm tea. The same sources also seem to blow it again when talking about worm tea versus aerobic compost tea. It’s easy to find yourself hopelessly confused!

In this article, I hope to demystify the subject a bit and provide clarity on a confusing topic.

 

Myh Worm bin

 

Let’s start with leachate, the liquid that comes off the worm bin.

What is Leachate?

One of the most contentious issues in worm composting is what to do with the leachate. The most common definition of leachate is any liquid that, in the course of passing through matter, extracts soluble or suspended solids, or any other component of the material through which it has passed.

Leachate is a widely used term in the environmental sciences industries, where it has the specific negative meaning of a liquid that has dissolved environmentally harmful substances that may come to enter the environment. But for the purposes of this article, we are defining leachate as the raw liquid runoff (or seepage) that settles in or below the vermicompost or worm castings in a worm bin.

The controversy stems, in large part, from the debate over aerated compost tea versus non-aerated compost tea. Fans of aerated compost tea do not like the fact that worm bin leachate is anaerobic, which they believe encourages the growth of microorganisms unfavorable to plants. They like to point out that worm bin leachate is not aerated compost tea.

This is completely true, but I am not so convinced that this is a big problem. Those critical of using this “worm juice” do make valid points, and I, too, recommend using leachate with care, but I did find two peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of unaerated worm compost leachate: “Vermicomposting Leachate (Worm Tea) as Liquid Fertilizer for Maize” and “Vermicompost Leachate Alleviates Deficiency of Phosphorus and Potassium in Tomato Seedlings.” I also found several Extension Service publications that tout the use of worm bin leachate.

It is not at all unusual for folks to be a little hazy on what to do with their “worm juice.” One lady I spoke with the other day said, “We just changed our bins to add a drainage system. I just pulled the cork out and got nearly two cups of worm juice. My husband is trying to convince me that I should go ahead and feed it to my house plants, but I’m worried that adding this cocktail to my basically inert potting soil might stir up problems. Is it safe to use this stuff as a fertilizer?”

Another person said, “I get this dark liquid from my worm bins. I’m thinking most of the juice came from the castings and might have some great stuff in it, and not a lot of rotten stuff, and that’s why I kind of want to give it to the plants. Is that a bad idea? I just want to know what the heck to do with it. It’s winter here, so I can’t put it on my garden beds outside. I really don’t want to waste it, though! What do people do with it? Do you put it on your house plants, and have you gotten a good reaction from it?”

These are excellent questions. I’ve talked and written about this topic a number of times, but it’s definitely one that continues to confuse people and deserves to be revisited from time to time.

Unfortunately, there seems to be misleading information provided by some worm bin manufacturers (and website owners). The terms “worm tea,” “worm compost tea,” “castings tea,” or “vermicompost tea” should actually refer to the liquid fertilizer created by steeping (soaking) quality castings/compost in water (often aerated) for a period of time.

The problem is that many people refer to the liquid that drains out from a worm bin as “worm tea.” This is incorrect. The proper term for this is actually “leachate.”

Obviously, we’re only talking about semantics here, so it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but keeping the distinction between these terms is actually quite important.

While leachate can certainly have value as a liquid fertilizer (especially when drained from a mature worm bin and diluted), it should be treated with a lot more caution than good-quality worm tea.

As water passes down through a worm bin, it can pick up all sorts of unstable metabolites (various products/intermediates of the decomposition process). If, for example, you have some fairly anaerobic zones in your worm bin, you can end up with various phytotoxins (toxins that can harm plants and humans). Some of these toxins are created by bacteria.

Every worm bin has good and bad microbes. This is perfectly fine and is even expected—provided, of course, that the good ones outnumber the bad ones.

Some leachate can contain harmful pathogens because it has not been processed through the worms’ intestinal tracts. It is often recommended that it should not be used on garden plants you plan to serve to your friends and family.

During decomposition, waste releases liquid from its cell structures as it breaks down. This leachate seeps down through the worm composter into the collection area. The leachate should be drained regularly, and if you are getting more than 2-4 ounces of liquid in a week, the worm composter is probably too wet!

If your composter has a spigot attached, I would recommend leaving the spigot open with a container underneath to catch the leachate. This will prevent it from building up in your system. Just keep an eye on it to make sure your container doesn’t overflow!

If, like me, you have a homemade worm bin, you can keep a drip pan underneath to catch the leachate.

 

worm castings

 

Finished composts are much better to use for brewing worm tea because they are much more uniform in composition, and the vast majority (if not all) the potentially harmful compounds have been converted into something more stabilized.

The microbial community present in these materials tends to be more beneficial, as well.

I’m not trying to scare you here, and I am not implying that leachate is “poison” and should never be used. I’m simply saying that while leachate can have value as a liquid fertilizer, it should be treated with caution. For every story extolling the benefits of using leachate, there is one lamenting problems from having used it.

If you decide you want to use leachate, I recommend taking some extra steps:

1. Do not use it if it smells bad! It should smell like earth (and not gross) when it comes out of the worm composter. If it smells bad, pour it out on an area like a roadway or driveway where it cannot harm living plants or animals.
2. Dilute it at a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate (10:1).
3. Aerate it with an air pump if available.
4. Use it outdoors on shrubs, ornamentals, or flowering plants only. Do not use on plants you intend to eat.

What Is Worm Tea?

Now let’s move on to the next confusing liquid: worm tea. Worm tea is about what it sounds like—worm castings steeped in water for a certain amount of time.

“Fresh earthworm castings contain more organic material—nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium—than soil itself,” according to Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Worm castings and the tea you make from them also ward off root-knot nematodes—a parasitic creature that causes deformed roots and drains nutrients out of plants. Plants like strawberries that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew.

 

Worm tea

 

Making simple worm tea is really nothing more than steeping—much like making any other tea you would drink yourself. It is very easy, and it is good for your plants, too.

In the process of steeping, water is added to the earthworm castings to simply extract the microbes from the castings into the water. The resulting liquid solution is then applied to plants or soil in various ways.

Many bottled teas you see on the shelf use this method.

To make your own, just take a bunch of worm castings and put them in the bottom third of a bucket. Fill the rest of the bucket with rainwater or non-chlorinated water (or tap water left out in the sunlight for 24 hours if you must). Let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Strain out the solids, dilute with water at a 1:1 ratio, and apply directly to your plants or soil.

What is Aerobic Compost Tea?

 

aerobic worm tea

 

Aerobic compost tea is also known as aerobic worm tea, and it is known mostly for its ability to boost microbiological activity in soil by adding beneficial bacteria, fungi, acinomycetes, and protozoa to the soil. It is brewed either by soaking a porous bag full of worm castings in water or by simply dumping the castings into a container of clean, chemical-free water. Molasses, corn syrup, or another microbial food source is then added to the water as a catalyst to stimulate growth of the microbes. And finally, an air-pumping system is installed to create an aerobic (or oxygenated) environment for the multiplying microorganisms.

Aerobic compost tea is beneficial in many ways. The microbes delivered in aerobic compost tea help plants by out-competing anaerobic and other pathogenic organisms within the soil. These beneficial microorganisms can also move in to occupy infected sites on plants’ root and leaf surfaces. Brewing aerobic compost tea speeds up the growth rate of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, and multiplies their numbers exponentially. As a result, this method populates your garden with beneficial microbes more rapidly than applying worm castings alone.

When you spray or pour the tea on the soil, you are not only feeding the plant, but also increasing the number of beneficial microbes in the soil, thus crowding out the bad ones. It has been proven that the tea, along with the castings, can significantly increase plant growth, as well as crop yields, in the short term (a season) and especially in the long term over a period of several seasons.

Along with these great benefits come a boost in the plant’s own immune system, enabling it to resist parasites like the infamous aphid, tomato cyst eelworms, and root-knot nematodes. Plants produce certain hormones that insects find distasteful, so they are repelled. Aerobic compost tea also helps a plant to resist diseases such as Pythium and Rhizoctonia.

When either worm tea or the more effective aerobic compost tea is sprayed on leaves and foliage, detrimental and disease-causing microbes are again outnumbered and cannot grow their numbers to dominate any single plant. The teas also aid the plant in creating the “cuticle,” a waxy layer on top of the epidermis, or plant skin. This waxy surface protects the leaves from severe elements and reduces attacks by certain harmful microorganisms and insects.

Making Your Own Compost Tea

Making any type of organic compost tea involves a few key steps:

  1. Choosing the right compost
  2. Choosing the right nutrients
  3. Brewing and applying the tea correctly

Please note that the instructions below are only meant to give you some background about tea making, not a step-by-step guide on how to make the teas. We provide information on that elsewhere on the site, such as in this article by David the Good:

Read More: “Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Compost”

The compost used in making tea is like the starter you use in making yogurt. The compost inoculates the tea with organisms. Thus, you want the compost you begin with to have a good diversity of beneficial organisms. Worm castings are super for this purpose!

Keep in mind that different plants differ in their soil preferences. Some need a bacteria-dominated soil, others want a fungi-dominated soil, and still others like a soil that’s somewhere in between.

When making an organic compost with more fungi, mix in larger amounts of cardboard, paper, sawdust, wood shavings, and heavy stalk plant material as you prepare the compost. For bacterial dominance, use food waste and green plant waste. Whatever compost you use, be sure it is finished, well-stabilized compost, and that it’s fairly fresh. Again, worm castings are ideal for this.

As I mentioned above, I really like to use rainwater whenever I can, but you can always use dechlorinated water. One old-timer I talked to said he only ever uses pond water to make his compost teas. I have seen his garden, and I can tell you it looks to me like using pond water is a good way to go!

The nutrients you introduce while brewing also influence the finished tea.

To encourage the development of fungi in the tea, you can mix two parts humic acid; two parts yucca, saponin, or aloe vera; and one part fish hydrolyzate or other proteins into the water.

For bacterial dominance, you can feed one liquid ounce blackstrap molasses per gallon of tea and and an equal amount of cold-water kelp. For the molasses, you can also substitute brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup if you like.

 

Raised bed results

 

Go to the library or search online for information on leachate, worm tea, and aerobic compost tea and you will find many sources of conflicting information, mainly over the terminology involved in determining what is actually leachate and what is a worm tea (be it aerobic or simple tea). The main thing to remember is that while any form of worm tea may not sound too appetizing to you and me, our plants will really love it.

Worm tea lets you fertilize without adding bulk to your soil, and water your garden with something really healthy for your plants. Trust me here, your garden will practically jump up and shout “Hallelujah!” when fertilized with either worm tea or aerobic compost tea, and you will be amazed at the growth, flowering, and fruiting that results.

Spray your plants liberally on the leaves, stems, and surrounding soil. Use teas on clay soil to begin its transformation to humus. Use them on your flowers indoors and out, and on your other house plants to feed and nourish both the plants and the soil.

Read More: “Fertilizing Container Gardens: A Beginner’s Guide”

Use teas on your compost pile to introduce the microbial activity and hasten the compost pile’s beneficial breaking-down process. Inoculate the ground surrounding your fruit trees. Use them on manure piles that stink and marvel at how fast the stink and flies go away! A properly brewed worm tea is child, pet, and wildlife friendly.

A few things to keep in mind:

Foliar Spray/Wash: It’s best to spray all surfaces of your plants in the early morning or late afternoon when the suns angle is low and less intense. When possible, do your foliar spraying on clear days, since rain may wash away some of the microbial activity.
Soil Inoculant/Drenching: Always apply teas out of direct, intense sunlight. Use them pure or dilute them (10:1 is a suggested maximum dilution rate). Dilution ratios vary for different application techniques and equipment. An ideal time to apply is during periods of mist or fog, but not heavy rain. Alternately, irrigate a little before your application to ensure the microbes will survive and can travel more quickly and safely to their new job locations. Always use nonchlorinated water.
Smell: If a tea stinks, do not use it on your vegetables, as it is demonstrating anaerobic properties and may contain pathogens. Some suggest you use this stinky mix on an undesirable weed bed!

In Summary

Leachate–The correct word for the dark liquid that comes out of the bottom of your worm bin. If your bin is maintained correctly, you should have very little leachate and what you do have can be used safely (in 1:10 diluted form) on your ornamental plants. Sometimes leachate is incorrectly referred to as “worm tea.” Some sites refer to it as “worm wee,” but even that is technically incorrect.

Simple Worm Tea–A mix of worm castings and water. Useful if you don’t have an air pump but still want some liquid fertilizer from your worm bin.

Aerobic Compost Tea–An aerated mixture of worm castings, nonchlorinated water, and molasses or another microbial food source. It contains an active culture of microorganisms and should be used immediately, otherwise the benefit of aeration is all but lost.

I really hope that this article helps clear things up. I know that many of you may not agree with the terminology I have used in this article, but I think that using the above will help to demystify an area of gardening that can be of great benefit to all of us!

(This article was originally published October 2, 2015.)

 

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Simple & Effective Worm Composting (VIDEO)

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While traveling in the Pacific Northwest, I met Peter Paul, who showed me the most amazing—and amazingly simple—idea for an outdoor worm composting bin. Using the help of worms to break down food matter (even meats!), Peter shows you a couple of simple methods for making great homemade compost.

Not only that, this method creates a vibrant compost tea that gave Peter 7-foot-tall tomato plants! He also sometimes trades his “worm juice” for different items … even once for iPhone (LOL).

This is a sample of the kinds of things you’ll learn when you take The Grow Network’s “Instant Master Gardener” certification class. Chock full of useful, doable information for taking your garden to the next level, “Instant Master Gardener” is available to our Honors Lab members as part of their monthly subscription. Click here to learn more!

(This article was originally published on May 19, 2015.)

 

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Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Your Compost

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Don’t Kill Yourself Making Compost!

Long ago, I used to spend a lot of time making big piles of greens and browns—carefully mixed, watered, turned, and sifted…. And yet I never had enough compost to go around.

I’m sure you know the feeling!

I still make piles, since I like to have fine compost for sprinkling on new garden beds and making my own potting mixes; however, I no longer rely on finished compost for the majority of my fertilizing.

Instead, I’ve got a much easier system: compost tea.

Read More: “How to Make Composting Easy”

Watch Me Make Compost Tea

This is my favorite way to make free fertilizer. I use moringa leaves, manure, urine, compost, weeds, and other nitrogen-rich materials. I put them in a big barrel, top it off with water, and then let it rot on down into liquid fertilizer for my gardens. I’ll also add a cup or two of Epsom salts if I have them available for the extra magnesium and sulfur.

After a couple of weeks of sitting in the sun and rotting, you’ve got a compost tea with some serious fertilizing power. Take a look:

How to Use Compost Tea

I’ve fed big plots of corn and other crops effectively with very little trouble and very little material after discovering how well this anaerobic composting method works. It’s similar to Bokashi composting, but without having to buy Bokashi starter. Just let nature take its course, and you’ll have a rich, green garden like I do.

Warning: You don’t want to pour this stuff on your greens or on other crops you’re going to eat right away, as it is most definitely not safe for consumption!

I cover this method in my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, and I’ve had people write in and share their own successful experiments with the “big stinky barrel o’ fertility” method. Give it a try. Aside from the smell, I think you’ll like it.

A Quick Update

Here’s another video I made that offers specifics about my anaerobic compost tea recipe … even more stinky goodness from my “tea pot”! Won’t you be my neighbor?

(This article was originally published July 8, 2016.)

TGN Bi-Weekly Newsletter

 

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‘7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free’

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Last year, David the Good filmed a fun (and funny) presentation for The Grow Network’s Home Grown Food Summit on how you can keep your garden fed and maximize the nutrition in your food without spending a dime.

Well, we’re a Community of sustainability-minded DIYers who like to find ways to turn trash into garden treasure, so is it any wonder that David’s video on “7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free” ended up being one of the event’s most popular presentations? (Plus, you know, David is just a likeable, funny guy, so that probably helped, too. 🙂 )

Read More: “Homemade Fertilizers—15 Simple and Inexpensive Options”

Anyway, David posted this video on YouTube on February 4, aaaaaand it’s already got more than 10,000 views. Translation? You should watch it now, too! 🙂

Here it is:

As David says, “The presentation clocks in at about 45 minutes long and should be a great inspiration for your spring gardening plans.”

Amen to that!

Then, let your TGN Community know in the comments: What are some other ways you like to feed your garden for free?

 

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Mustard Greens: What You Need to Know Before You Grow (With Recipe)

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When I think winter, I think of lush, green garden beds. I know that might come as a surprise to some of you, but my garden is full of copious swaths of varied and vibrant delicious, nutritious, winter edibles. And by far, mustard greens are the most prolific.

Most of the growing guides say mustard can tolerate light frost, but in my experience, it can take a whole lot more cold than that description suggests.

Now, I do have a few tricks I use to keep mustard happy over the long winter. And I’ll share those with you shortly.

First, though, let’s talk about why you really ought to think about growing mustard in your fall, winter, and early spring garden. 

The Goods on Mustard

Ridiculously Nutritious

100 grams or 27 calories worth of raw, chopped mustard greens contains more than your daily requirements of Vitamins K, C, and A.1)https://www.nutrition-and-you.com/mustard-greens.html

That makes it a powerhouse for building and maintaining strong bones; a great source for flu and cell damage prevention; and a promoter of strong teeth, healthy mucous membranes, and good eyesight.2)https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002400.htm Those same 27 calories also give you 11% of your daily dose of calcium, 18% of copper, 21% of manganese, and 20% of iron.

Regular use of mustard greens in your diet may also prevent arthritis, osteoporosis, iron deficiency anemia, and high cholesterol, while offering protection from cardiovascular diseases, asthma, and colon and prostate cancers.

Delicious

A lot of people find mustard too peppery or bitter. However, that is often because the mustard they have tried is grown in spring or later and never receives the sweetening effect of a few light frosts.

Winter mustard still has a bite, but it is much more palatable than the warm-weather stuff. And besides, an appreciation for a bit of bitter is easy to cultivate.

Cook your mustard greens in bacon grease and apple cider vinegar with dried fruit or a spoon of honey to turn them into a decadent treat.

Then listen to your body and see how that green goodness makes you feel. After a couple times of doing that, you might find yourself munching on raw leaves before those greens even make it out of your garden.

Easy to Grow

You can have sprouts in days, baby greens in just a couple weeks, mature plants to cut from in 45–50 days, and your own seeds to save and replant in 90 days.

They are vulnerable to certain pests and diseases, but these can be almost completely avoided by growing mustard during cold-weather months.

Mustard can grow in almost any soil type, withstand drought conditions almost as well as wheat, and self-seed to produce a continuous crop with almost no work on your part.

Help Control Pests and Diseases in Your Soil

When chopped and incorporated into your soil just prior to flowering, mustard greens act as a biofumigant. They suppress pests and diseases through the release of inhibitory chemicals created when water and soil enzymes break down the glucosinolates in the greens.3)http://www2.gnb.ca/content/dam/gnb/Departments/10/pdf/Agriculture/GrowingMustardBiofumigation.pdf

(For more details on mustard as a biofumigant, check out this publication.)  

When Allowed to Flower, Make Great Winter Forage for Pollinators Like Honey Bees

Until I discovered the wonders of growing mustard, I had a shortage of bee food for our coldest winter months.

Now, by starting mustard in waves about every two weeks, cutting greens until my new plants come in, and then allowing my old plants to flower, I have another pollen source for those brave foragers that venture out on sunny, slightly warm days.

Oh, and did I mention that mustard can also be grown for seeds to make…

Recipe: Homemade Mustard

Here’s a basic ratio recipe that you can adapt to use for whatever flavor profiles you like. Personally, I use an herbed vinegar infused with sage, thyme, and rosemary as my base and I sub in whey for water. But this is your personal mustard mix, so go crazy!

Mustard Ingredients

Easy Homemade Mustard Recipe

2 parts mustard seeds, finely ground (use a coffee grinder to make into powder)
2 parts mustard seeds, whole (for “L’ancienne” style)
1 part your favorite vinegar
2 parts water (or other liquid—beer, cider, etc.)
Salt and pepper
Whatever other stuff you want to add—tarragon, sage, thyme, rosemary, honey, etc. 

Mix ingredients in jar. You can put this in the fridge to meld for a couple days. Or better yet, if you like to ferment stuff, use live vinegar (i.e., with the mother) and go ahead and leave it on the counter with a coffee filter or cloth over the top of the jar, secured with a rubber band, for 3–4 days. 

If the mix is too thick after a couple of days, add a bit of water, or other liquid, until you get the right consistency. If you don’t love the whole-grain texture, then run it through the food processor or start with 4 parts ground mustard seed instead. If you accidentally make it too thin, add more ground mustard seed. Mustard is pretty hard to mess up, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

A Few Cautions About Mustard

Now there are also a couple of things to be aware of before you make mustard part of your garden and your diet. 

It’s a Cole Crop

If you are using rotational planting as a method for limiting pests and pathogens and managing nutrients in your soil, then even when you use mustard as a biofumigant cover crop, you should still count it as a cole crop in your four-year (or longer) rotation plan just as you would cabbage and cauliflower.

Health Concerns

Be cautious about eating mustard if you are taking blood thinners, need to restrict oxalic acid, or have a thyroid condition.

Those high levels of Vitamin K can be an issue for people taking drugs like warfarin.4)https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/12/vitamin-k-can-dangerous-take-warfarin

Mustard contains oxalic acid, which can lead to oxalate urinary tract stones in prone individuals.

Components of mustard greens may be contraindicated in people with thyroid conditions.

Nutrient Overload?

You can have too much of a good thing. If 27 calories of mustard greens contain all that goodness we covered above, eating lots of mustard greens, such as by juicing them, might result in nutrient overload.

Most dietary recommendations for mustard greens include eating a couple of cups a week, on a daily or every-other-day basis. 

Concerns With Reheating

Reheating mustard greens should probably be avoided. Vegetables contain nitrates. Nitrates may convert to nitrites if you cook, cool, and then reheat your vegetables.5)https://www.nutrition-and-you.com/mustard-greens.html

Since mustard greens are great raw or cold, and are easy to cook, skip the reheating to eliminate potential health risks. 

I love and eat mustard regularly, but I do so in moderation and I don’t have any special health considerations that would make it problematic for me.

Since I can’t possibly be considered qualified to make decisions or recommendations for you, as in all things, I trust that you won’t blindly follow mine or anyone else’s advice on what you put in your body (or even in your garden, for that matter).

So with the pros, cons, and necessary legal advisement that I am not telling you want to do behind us, if mustard is right for you, then I encourage you to get growing using the info and ideas below. 

Growing Mustard Greens 

Soil Preparation

Mustard is pretty forgiving of poor soil quality. However, if you want faster growing times and really tasty mustard, then plant mustard in loamy garden soil with a pH of about 6.5-6.8.

If you don’t have that, don’t fret—just incorporate a few inches of good compost into whatever soil you have, add a handful of granite or other stone dust, and water deeply a few days before you transplant or seed. Note: This will not give you the best garden soil ever, but since mustard is much less picky than other cole crops, it will get you started.

Seed Starting

Mustard can germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40°F. That means that, depending on your climate, some of you may even be able to start some in your garden now.

Keep in mind that things grow slower when days are short, so you may have to wait a while for seeds to sprout and plants to mature.

For those who live in marginal climates, you can try to start seeds under cloches or cold frames.

Failing that, starting under grow lights and growing out until plants have a few true leaves, then transplanting and protecting under cloches or row covers can also work. If it is just too cold where you live to grow winter mustard, then consider using mustard seed for microgreens to tide you over until you can grow some in the garden. 

Read More: “Grow Microgreens and Sprouts Indoors All Winter Long”

You can start your seeds in planting, potting, or straight-up ground soil. As far as I can tell, mustard doesn’t care as long as your seed-starting medium is disease free, loose enough for young roots to grow in, and kept moist.

Young Plant Care

If you are growing mustard in cold conditions, juvenile plants may need some additional protection during extended cold or frost periods. Cold frames, cloches, or row covers can all help protect plants until they develop strong roots and even after if you live in extra cold areas. 

Though mustard is drought resistant, for the best results in winter, you really want to water regularly until the plants are at least 6 inches tall.

I water the root zone of the plant until the soil is moist to about 3 inches down—which, conveniently, is about the length of my pointer finger.

I check the soil moisture every other day by sticking my pointer finger into my soil near my plants to make sure it’s still moist.

I can’t tell you exactly how much or how often to water because it really depends on your soil type and weather conditions. But by using the 3-inch rule, you are giving young mustard roots a good start.

Mature Plant Care

For best flavor and frost resistance, continue to water mature plants. Water at the root rather than the leaves for best cold resistance. Harvest leaves regularly and cut off any flower shoots that form until you are ready to let your plant flower and seed.

Harvesting

You can cut baby greens for use in salads with a pair of scissors. Be careful not to disturb the roots. You can also cut mature greens to chop up and eat raw, sauté, or steam. In addition, flowers can be tossed into salads.

Dry your seed heads in a paper bag, then shake the bag until the seeds fall out of the pods. Sift or use a fan to blow off the chaff. 

Varieties of Mustard

There are quite a few varieties of mustard available. Versions like Mizuna and Tatsoi tend to be a little higher maintenance than the Southern Giant, Green Wave, Florida Broadleaf, or Old Fashioned. There are also different seed colors—yellow mustard (called white mustard in Europe) is the most common variety used for seed and cover crops and is mildest in taste. Black or brown mustards are a bit tangier. 

Unconventional Growing Tips for Adventure Gardeners

Mustard is one of those plants that readily self-seeds if you let it. So, in addition to planting mustard intentionally, I also scatter seeds directly in my garden after they dry on the plant. Then I just let nature take its course—as in, don’t water or fertilize to force germination. Literally just let them lie until they eventually get buried in soil and are triggered by the right conditions to grow on their own. 

Some seeds will inevitably germinate in summer, and since I know they will perform poorly in my hot, humid conditions and be eaten by harlequin bugs or host the dreaded cabbage moth, I pinch those plants out and give them to the chickens or toss them into my salads.

I only allow the plants that germinate in fall or winter to continue growing. If I don’t like their initial location, I’ll transplant them to a bed of my choosing while the plants are still young.

Then, the plants that do well all winter long get to flower and seed. Those plants, rather than my intentionally planted mustard plants, become my seed stock for next year.

By doing this, I have created mustard plants that are adapted specifically for my growing conditions here and are more cold hardy than my initial seed stock.

I also use a cheap season extension trick to get the most from my plants until I let them seed:

  • I take a dark-colored 5-gallon bucket with a 1-inch hole drilled in the bottom and fill it with uncomposted materials like chicken manure, straw, late-season grass clippings, and kitchen scraps.
  • I put the filled bucket in the center of my mustard bed.
  • The mustard grows around the bucket and, as the materials in the bucket compost, they heat up and warm the plants.
  • Also, when it rains, the rain water trickles through the hole in the bottom of the bucket and makes a kind of compost tea that feeds the plants.
  • The dark-colored bucket also draws heat from the sun and cuts down on frost on the plants.
  • If stuff composts too fast, I just add more goodies to keep it composting all winter long. 

Mustard Bed with Bucket

The photo above shows a mustard bed planted in September 2016, that was still growing like mad in February 2017 when I turned over the rest of my garden for spring planting. (You can see my blue season-extending compost bucket in the picture, too.)

It was growing so well, that I harvested from that bed until May when I finally let it seed. That’s 9 months of prolific mustard greens during some of the most difficult growing months. While I can’t swear you’ll have the same results, if you are an experimental gardener like me, I hope you’ll give it a try!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on mustard and if you have any tricks or tips to share with all us winter-green growers. You can use the comments section below to share your experience and ideas. Thanks!

 

References   [ + ]

1, 5. https://www.nutrition-and-you.com/mustard-greens.html
2. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002400.htm
3. http://www2.gnb.ca/content/dam/gnb/Departments/10/pdf/Agriculture/GrowingMustardBiofumigation.pdf
4. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/12/vitamin-k-can-dangerous-take-warfarin

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Fertilizing Container Gardens: A Beginner’s Guide

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When you’re new to growing vegetables and herbs in pots, figuring out the how, when, and what of fertilizing container gardens can feel overwhelming. This article is the second in a three-part series that offers a beginner-friendly guide to feeding your potted edibles.

In part 1 of the series, I talk about fertilizing basics, including the special challenges plants face when growing in containers and why feeding them is essential to their health.

This article, part 2 of the series, provides my four-part recommendation for fertilizing and offers three sample schedules you can follow depending on the plants you’re growing and your gardening goals.

Part 3 of the series is designed to give you in-depth information about the four types of fertilizers and supplements: liquid fertilizers, liquid supplements, granular fertilizers, and granular supplements.

A 4-Part Recommendation for Fertilizing Container-Grown Vegetables and Herbs

All of the following recommendations can easily be classified into one of four main categories:

  1. Liquid fertilization
  2. Liquid supplements
  3. Granular fertilization
  4. Granular supplements

For a basic beginner’s approach, you can get by doing only the first one, liquid fertilization. I think this is the bare minimum if you want to grow healthy food in a pot.

If you’re overwhelmed by this information, or if you’re just too busy to fuss with it, simply pick up a bottle of liquid organic fertilizer and start there.

That alone will probably take care of most of your problems, and greatly improve the quantity and quality of the food you grow.

An ideal fertilization regimen for container plants would include all four of these categories. If you have a special baby in a container, do all four. Your plant will thank you for it.

I do all four of these for some edibles that I grow in pots—especially fruit-intensive plants like tomatoes.

There are a few key exceptions that I’ll talk about below.

As you learn more, you’ll figure out which bits and pieces are most important for different plants, for different problems, and for different uses.

  • When I first noticed the visual difference in my aloe plants after they got a handful of mineral sand, something clicked, and I haven’t planted aloes without trace minerals since.
  • When I saw how much resin accumulated on a calendula plant that grew in a tomato pot with regular high-potassium fertilizer, something clicked, and now I always use high-potassium fertilizer on calendula.
  • When I first saw the visual difference in my strawberries after they were treated with liquid seaweed, something clicked again. I don’t grow strawberries anymore, but if I see someone else’s strawberries suffering, I know that a little liquid seaweed will probably fix them right up.

This is the learning curve, and with each new experiment, you’ll add another piece to the puzzle.

Schedules for Container Plant Fertilization

As I said above, I think the best basic, beginner’s plan for fertilizing container plants is to use a simple, well-balanced, organic liquid fertilizer. There is more information on specific fertilizers below.

The Basic Schedule

Regarding the schedule for using fertilizers, I generally would recommend one application every two weeks.

So, a basic schedule would look like this:

  • Week 1: Liquid fertilizer
  • Week 2: Skip
  • Week 3: Liquid fertilizer
  • Week 4: Skip
  • Repeat indefinitely

An Intermediate Schedule for Certain Situations

If I notice that the soil smells off in a certain pot, I will often apply aerobic compost tea to restore healthy microbial life to the container. I apply this on the off weeks when I am not giving liquid fertilizer.

If I am growing a crop that specifically appreciates some liquid seaweed, like strawberries, or leafy spring greens that have survived into the heat of summer, I will also apply the seaweed on the off weeks.

So, an intermediate schedule might look like this:

  • Week 1: Liquid fertilizer
  • Week 2: Liquid supplement
  • Week 3: Liquid fertilizer
  • Week 4: Liquid supplement
  • Repeat indefinitely

An Advanced Schedule for Special Plants

If I am growing tomatoes in a pot, I go all out. I use all four categories, and I give the plants everything in my arsenal to ensure a healthy life and a good yield.

An advanced schedule for special plants would look something like this:

  • At planting: Granular fertilizer and granular supplements
  • Week 1 after planting: Skip
  • Week 2 after planting: Liquid supplements
  • Week 3 after planting: Liquid fertilizer
  • Continue to alternate a week of liquid supplements and a week of liquid fertilizer until fruit set, then:
  • At fruit set: Granular fertilizer and granular supplements
  • Week 1 after fruit set: Skip
  • Week 2 after fruit set: Liquid supplements
  • Week 3 after fruit set: Liquid fertilizer and liquid supplements
  • Continue applying liquid fertilizer and liquid supplements each week until the end of the growing season.

Any time I’m applying a lot of fertilizer and supplements, as in the example above, I cut back on the dilution strength of the liquids and the volume of the granular. The general idea is to give less, more often.

A Few Key Exceptions

I distinguish between leafy annuals and woody perennials in my fertilization schedules.

Some woody perennial plants don’t appreciate the extra nutrients, and you can cause more harm than good by overdoing it with regular fertilization.

Woody herbs like rosemary and lavender are especially sensitive to this. I fertilize rosemary about half as often as I fertilize other plants, and I fertilize lavender rarely if ever.

Blueberries benefit from special treatment in a container. They love seaweed, iron, and acidity. Watering with vinegar is beneficial here. Give your potted blueberries some extra love and they will pay you back with plenty of tasty berries.

When I’m growing tomatoes in a pot, as I said above, I go all out. I use everything in my arsenal to get the plant as productive as possible. I normally don’t worry about burning plants with too much fertilizer, because I only use mild organic fertilizers and I dilute them well. In this case, however, I always keep a close eye on the leaf margins to make sure that I am not overdoing it with the tomatoes.

 

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(This is an updated version of a post that was originally published in October 2015.)

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Fertilizing Vegetable Gardens Organically – When, How And What To Use!

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When it comes to fertilizing vegetable gardens, nothing can top good old, time-tested organic solutions! Not only are they safe to use on the plants that will feed your family, they are extremely economical. Organic fertilizers, with their natural nutrients,

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The Simple, 7-Ingredient Compost Tea That Will Revolutionize Your Garden

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The Simple, 7-Ingredient Compost Tea That Will Revolutionize Your Garden

Image source: Pixabay.com

 

Earth, by its very nature, is in a partnership with microbes of all kinds. From the deepest seas, to the highest mountains, microbes such as bacteria, yeast and fungi are a key part of our planet’s ecosystems, performing vital functions like making nutrients bio-available to plants and animals, and helping our soils maintain structure and moisture.

It turns out that we can take advantage of these symbiotic soil allies to great effect, and one of the easiest ways we can do this is by creating our own aerated compost tea. We’ll get into the how of compost tea, along with a recipe, in a moment, but first, let’s look at the why.

The main purpose of compost tea, besides adding a nice dose of pre-digested fertilizer to your garden, is to increase the number and diversity of beneficial microbes in the soil. How are they beneficial? Fungi, for example, help plants take up phosphorus, manganese, zinc, iron and copper, secreting digestive enzymes that dissolve and break down compounds so that plants can absorb them. They also dramatically increase the amount of water plants can take up, and act like a huge extension of their root systems. Other microbes predigest different compounds and help plants take up different nutrients.

In addition to the aid they give us below-ground, microbes on the leaves of plants also may be important allies, helping in the fight against disease by both filling an ecosystem niche that would otherwise be open to pathogens, and creating conditions that make it difficult for existing pathogens to live or reproduce.

Seamazing: The Low-Cost Way To Re-mineralize Your Soil

Many beneficial bacteria, for example, produce acids that make it difficult for pathogenic yeasts and fungus to thrive. Although there is less scientific study in this area, the theory that aerated compost teas help with above-ground diseases is borne out by my own experience. Last year, some haskap bushes on my farm had a nasty fungus infection on their leaves, so I mixed up an aerated compost tea and sprayed it on them. Within days the fungus had completely disappeared.

So, now that you know why it’s good to use compost teas, let’s get into how you can make your own. I’m going to go over making aerated and aerobic (oxygenated) compost tea specifically, but you can also make anaerobic (lacking oxygen) compost tea by simply putting a bunch of (ideally, deep-rooted) plants like comfrey into a bucket or barrel with non-chlorinated water, letting it sit for about a week until it gets really nasty smelling, and then putting it on your soil. (I would avoid plant leaves with this stuff). Another anaerobic mixture known as effective microorganisms is also incredibly useful and can be purchased online and then mixed up at home.

Aerated Compost Tea

The Simple, 7-Ingredient Compost Tea That Will Revolutionize Your Garden

Image source: Pixabay.com

Materials Needed

  1. Bucket or barrel. At least 25 gallons is ideal for anything but the smallest garden.
  2. Air pump sufficient for the amount of water. You can get good ones at hydroponic shops. Tiny fish tank aerators are not the best ones, although they may be sufficient for a 5-gallon bucket.

Recipe: Ingredients 

  1. Non-chlorinated water. Chlorine in the water will kill microorganisms.
  2. Vermacompost and well-aerated compost are best. The more diversity of compost, the better. It should smell good, like forest soil, and not stinky. 5 pounds per 25 gallons.
  3. Unsulphured molasses. Food for bacteria, etc. 1 ¼ cup per 25 gallons.
  4. Liquid kelp. Fertilizer and microbe food. ½ cup mixed into 5 cups of water before adding to the mixture.
  5. Humic acid. Microbe food and soil conditioner: 1-2 tablespoons per 25 gallons, mixed into 2 cups of water before adding to the mixture.
  6. Rotten wood chips, straw or hay (optional). Decomposing high carbon materials encourage fungal inoculation. 1-2 cups per 25 gallons will do.
  7. Steel cut oats. Food for fungus. 1 cup per 25 gallons.

Directions

First, put the water in, then the molasses, and then add everything else. Some people like to put all of the solid materials into a pillowcase or similar (like a tea bag), but I prefer to mix them directly into the water. If you’re a little off in the amounts, it doesn’t matter, as long as you have enough molasses to sustain the microbe populations for the amount of time you will be bubbling your brew. I should also note here that a compost tea recipe can be as simple as compost and molasses. The other things will take it to the next level.

The All-Natural Fertilizer That Can Double Your Garden Yield!

Next, stir the container well, and put in your air pump bubbler. It’s good to stir the mixture from time to time. Let it sit for 24 to 48 hours (the full 48 is better).

Once you’re done bubbling, remove the air pump and give it another good stir. Now it’s time to apply it to your plants. If you’re going to create a foliar spray for leaves (definitely recommended), let it settle and skim the liquid off the top so that it contains fewer solids and won’t clog your sprayer. To spray it, simply evenly cover the leaves on the top and bottom. For soil application, use buckets or other manageable vessels and dunk them into the stirred up mixture in order to get the solids as well as the liquid. Then, apply to the soil around the plants, ideally covering up to or beyond the drip line.

That’s all there is to it. You should notice a significant kick to your plant growth, especially if you do this every couple of weeks during the growing season. Just make sure not to fertilize beyond the first two weeks of summer in temperate climates, as this could prevent new growth from hardening off in time and you may lose it to frost.

Have you made compost tea? What recipe did you use? Share your compost tea tips in the section below:

3 Simple Organic Fertilizers That Can Power Your Garden!

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The Power of Organic Fertilizers! Let’s face it, sometimes your vegetable plants need a little boost. When it comes to the dirt in the garden, vegetable plants can consume a lot of the trace elements, minerals and nutrients in the soil that are

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How To Make Compost Tea – The Ultimate Organic Fertilizer

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How To Make Compost Tea – The Ultimate Organic Fertilizer Compost tea is the perfect way to boost your plants growth and obtain higher yields – naturally. Better yet, you can make it for free using your own compost!  We keep our garden productive year after year by following a simple and organic three prong …

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5 Natural DIY Fertilizers For Your Garden And Flowerbeds

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When it comes to our garden and the food we provide for our family, we like to keep everything natural – and that includes any and all types of fertilizers used on our plants. The simple truth is, when it comes

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