By Carey Restino
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo on Facebook of my first eggplant successfully grown in my hoop house. To say I was proud of this eggplant would be a huge understatement. But rather than gushing praise from my fellow gardeners, I got a single comment from a growing sage. “Feed that plant,” she wrote. “It’s hungry.” I looked at the photo again. The lower leaves of the eggplant were yellow and spotted with brown. The entire plant was lackluster. The eggplant was lovely, but the observation was right on. This plant needed sustenance. Every year there are plants that for one reason or another fail to thrive. Each plant likes different soil conditions, moisture levels, etc. to do its very best, and despite our efforts to create the most nourishing soil, sometimes they just need more. Malnourished plants not only produce less, they are also more susceptible to disease and less able to resist attacks from bugs. In much the same way that My first tactic in this sort of case is to turn to the power of all-healing compost. Last year’s compost pile still has a couple buckets left in it and I’m portioning it out to the plants that seem to need help the most –
cucumbers, for example, can’t get enough. I put a couple of cups of compost around the base of the plant, and mix it in with the top couple inches of soil. Then I water well, so the nutrients steep into the plant’s roots. Sometimes, however, more rapid intervention is needed. That’s where compost tea comes in. Given that a liquid gets to the roots and thus the plant far more quickly than something that must be absorbed from the soil over time, if a shot of nutrition is in order, liquid is where it is at. Trundle down to your local store and you’ll find some ready-made potions that are likely to provide the Red Bull equivalent to your plants. Or, you can mix it yourself. Get a small garbage can or a 5-gallon bucket. Mix compost into water at a ratio of about 1:4. Stir thoroughly every day for at least five days, but I like a week at Alaska temperatures. Strain liquid and pour, undiluted, at the base of plants. It shouldn’t smell bad or be bubbling. It shouldn’t get too hot, either. But that’s how I do it – simple. You’ll know when you’ve hit the spot because malnourished plants change color, literally, in a matter of days. I’ve done little experiments on starts that are hungry, and it is remarkable. Some recipes you find online will say you need to get a fish tank pump and aerate the mixture. That might work better, but it’s too complicated for me. If you have the time, give it a whirl. Throw in some fish guts (ground up) too if
you want to really have some fun. Theoretically, the microbes in the compost tea will eat it right up and produce all kinds of yummy stuff for the plants. Me, I like simple. If you are a little braver, and perhaps have a slightly less sensitive nose, another fun potion to experiment with uses the everpresent nettle as its base. Nettle tea is not for the faint of heart or nose, but it is, like the plant it is based on, highly nutritious. The recipe I follow calls for filling a 5-gallon bucket with nettles – no roots or flowers – and chopping them up with whatever you can find (don’t forget the gloves, folks. There’s nothing fun about tingling hands.) I like scissors. Once they are diced up, add water. Put on a lid (this is more for your neighbors than for you). Once a day, take deep breath, remove lid, stir well until you run out of breath, replace lid and take breath. After two weeks, you’ve got a wonderful tea.
To use, apply clothes pin to nose, filter out nettles (they can go into the compost) and dilute the mixture with a portion of 1 part tea to 10 parts water. The gardening world sings its praises, saying it is high in all the good stuff — phosphorus, potassium,
nitrogen, calcium and magnesium. Some gardeners like using an even more diluted for, 1:20, to spray on the plant leaves, and say it is beneficial at fighting off powdery mildew. I can almost hear the stampede of hightunnel growers to their nettle patches right now, after last summer’s August mildew explosion. One word of caution — if you are selling fruit or vegetables, and
your compost is manure-based, you might consider erring on the side of safety and applying your compost tea a week or two
before harvest and no later. So say the worry-warts. The nettle tea, however, is worry free in that regard.
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