Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Compost Tea: Put a Bit of Magic in your Garden!

What is it?:  Liquid fertilizer
What is it made from?: Organic waste
Why use it?:  How long have you got?
NOTE:  This is a fun gardening activity to do with children

A bottle of the good stuff - undiluted, homemade, compost tea.
The tradition of using compost tea to feed the garden is centuries old and each community has their special way of making it that is steeped - like tea, in collective, shared and ancient knowledge.  This next bit makes me feel very ancient, but I was brought up in inner-city London in the era of horse drawn carts that brought bread, milk, coal and the rag and bone man (scrap stuff).  We used to keep a coal shovel by the front door so that we could race out and scoop up the horse poop, after these tradesmen have been around, before our neighbour 'Old Fenton' got to it.  He wanted it for his prize dahlias and my father wanted it to make compost tea for his allotment. Simple pastimes before the days of television and computers.

When I came to Sydney in the mid-seventies we moved to an area with lots of Greek and Italian migrants that had abundant edible gardens. I paused in wonder at seeing for the first time things growing that I had only ever seen in books - like aubergines and fennel with oranges and lemons hanging over the garden walls.  Most of these gardens had a large barrel that contained their special liquid 'brew',  with a recipe brought from Kythera or Calabria.  It also helped that around them, in every back lane, were the stables for Randwick racetrack and mountains of free horse manure. 

1 Simple Compost Tea:
  • You will need: A bucket, an old hessian bag or cotton pillowslip for your tea bag and a good few handfuls of compost.
  • Put the compost in the bag, secure the top and dunk it in the bucket filled with rain water.
  • Soak for a week, jiggling the bag a few times a day.
  • Dilute to the colour of tea and pour directly onto the soil.
NOTE:  This is a very good brew for activating a 'tired bed' or a new no-dig bed.  It is loaded with micro-organisms that gets organic matter breaking down and subsequently soils revitalized pretty quickly.

2 My Compost Tea:  3 things - SEAWEED (brown kelp), ANIMAL MANURE and fresh COMFREY LEAVES.  Why these three?

  • Seaweed enriches the soil: Seaweed is a broad spectrum fertilizer that is rich in beneficial trace minerals and hormones that stimulate plant growth. Seaweed is high in carbohydrates which are essential building blocks in growing plants, and low in cellulose so it breaks down readily. Seaweed shares no diseases with land plants. Boosts lethargic plants: Seaweed fertilizer contains an abundance of fully chelated (ready to use) micro-nutrients which can be readily absorbed by plants without any further chemical decomposition needed. Seaweed is high in potassium - essential for the production of healthy roots, flowers and fruit.
  • Animal manures contain a multitude of beneficial organisms and nutrients that biologically activate your brew and subsequently your soil. They are usually high in the three essential plant macro-nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. By composting them this way you eliminate any 'nasties' in them like weed seeds, animal pathogens, chemicals and drugs that may have administered to the animals to make the ideal liquid fertilizer.
  • Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator - that is it 'mines' nutrients from the soil so adding it to your compost tea will boost it's macro and micro nutrient levels - essential for plant growth. It is very high in nitrogen and contains 2-3 times more potassium than farmyard manure. Comfrey is fast-growing, herbaceous, perennial plant of the borage family with a thick and tuberous root system, allowing the plant to 'mine' compacted soils for minerals and other nutrients which are often difficult for other plants to obtain. It is an essential addition to any garden.
  • What you will need:
  • A container with a lid for mixing your brew in - I use a garbage bin.
  • Some seaweed.  (You are not supposed to collect any from the beach, but I figure that by making my own compost tea, and not buying manufactured fertilizer in a plastic container, that collecting a handful of seaweed is doing very little harm - discuss?)
  • An old pillowcase with a rubber band for sealing it - this is your tea-bag - just make sure it is made from a natural fibre - like cotton!
  • Some comfrey leaves.
  • Small bucket of manure.
  • Rainwater for mixing it - chlorine in town water harms biological activity.
  • Somebody who knows how to make spells.
  • How to make it:
  • Put the comfrey, seaweed and manure in the pillowcase and seal it with the rubber band.
  • Soak it in the bin that is three-quarters full of rainwater.
  • Chant your spell while giving it a good stir. (Suggestion below)
  • Leave it to soak for a couple of weeks  giving it a stir now and again.  NOTE:  You can keep on using it over a few months until it is used up.  The comfrey will make it smell!
  • How to use it: 
  • As a liquid fertilizer for the soil:  Scoop out some of the brew into a bucket or watering can, dilute to the colour of weak tea and water into the soil for a fast and fantastic nutrient boost.
  • Directly applying the diluted compost tea brew to the leaves as a  foliar spray has a multitude of benefits – it is a gentle tonic for the plants that is absorbed straight away – a liquid fertilizer boost (it takes more time via root system) also the micro-organisms help to protect the plants against disease. This is particularly beneficial against fungal attack e.g. mildew on zucchini/peas and beans. NOTE: You will have to strain the brew if you are using it in a sprayer.
  • I use it to give plants a potassium boost when they are in bud (eg. beans and strawberries - in fact anything that is going to flower and fruit) to encourage the production of flowers and fruit set.
  • Seedlings and young plants will also benefit from a compost tea spray every 3-4 days for a phosphorous boost, which they need for the development of healthy roots.
  • Stress relief!!  You need it and so do plants, particularly when you are transplanting seedlings.  By giving them a spray with dilute compost tea you are giving them a boost of vitamin B1, which is a constituent of seaweed, and reducing transplant shock.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake; 
Eye of newt, and toe of frog, 
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, 
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, 
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,— 
For a charm of powerful trouble, 
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. 
Double, double toil and trouble; 
Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 
Macbeth, William Shakespeare

For information on COMPOSTING(cold)  and HOT COMPOSTING got to previous posts - simply use the SEARCH box.  Di

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Spring in Sydney

Vaucluse House

I have been down in Sydney for a few weeks being with my youngest daughter while she waited for the birth of her first child. It wasn't an arduous task for me (she probably has a different viewpoint!) - because November has always been my favourite month in Sydney.  Winter  has finally blown away, the ocean sparkles, the scent of star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) fills the air and the harbour foreshores are given a 'blue rinse' with the magnificence of flowering jacaranda trees. Every now and again you catch an accidental/inspired collection of flowering plants that just puts a smile on your face.  Try a jacaranda next to the scarlet of an Illawarra flame tree, next to the golden yellow of a silky oak, next to the creamy white of a melaleuca with crimson bougainvillea spilling over a sandstone wall? Nature, weaving magic.

Ladies Baths, Coogee
Debate raged in the daily paper while I was there when one correspondent suggested that all 'exotic' plants should be removed from Australian gardens and replaced with 'natives' picking on , in particular, the jacaranda tree a-native of Brazil. Well, he almost started World War III.  His argument just doesn't make sense.  Gardens everywhere have always been an eclectic mix of plants from all around the world whether they be trees, shrubs or vegetables.  My garden, for one, would be empty- no frangipani, gardenias, citrus, papaya, bougainvillea, tomatoes, gingers-the list is endless. Of course in difficult climates and conditions it makes sense to grow whatever plants are best adapted to those conditions - usually 'natives'.  

I would agree with him though with regard to street tree plantings.  Very often the choice of  trees gives no sense of place at all - look around you in most cities and you could be anywhere in the world.  This puzzled me until I was employed by Waverley Council in Sydney in the 1980's and realised that almost up until then they had no horticulturists/arborists working at Councils and street trees choices were made by the Chief Engineer who worked from a list of about 6 trees.  Then I went to Barcelona, visiting a landscape architect friend of mine, and looking around you could have been in Sydney with their gum trees, Canary Island date palms and London plane trees.  He said they had a list of about 7 trees and only two were different from the Sydney list!  It's a personal thing but for me the beautiful lavender blue of the tropical jacaranda enhances the Sydney streets capes in a way that the London plane tree just doesn't, contrasting so well against the warm sandstone buildings of Sydney (e.g. along Oxford Street, Paddington outside the Barracks).

Parsley Bay, Vaucluse

So we are bequeathed often inappropriate, boring, street trees that have usually been amputated by poorly trained tree loppers because they have to try and grow amongst an ever-expanding tangle of overhead power-lines. What a different place Sydney would look if the then Premier, Bob Carr, had got his way in 2000 and, as a lasting new millennium project, had put all power lines in Sydney under the ground.  How wonderful it would be to drive around Sydney with avenues of trees arching above you. Go around the harbour-front at Rose Bay and see the magnificent arbour of'local' fig trees (power lines under the ground!) and you will get a glimpse of what we could have.

Another bonus to being in Sydney at this time of year is that my favourite swimming spots are still relatively empty - the water still too cold for most folk. I love swimming. Swimming has saved me many times - it seems to have the natural power to cure and always lift my spirits.  When I swim in the sea I feel totally free - gravity suspended - and I have never had a swim that didn't make me feel better. Plus, it is exceedingly good exercise for gardeners!  So I just thought I would share some of my favourite swimming spots with you.

Then finally, after a long wait, our dear little grandson was born on 3 November.  After 5 grand-daughters he was a bit of a surprise, but a beautiful one.

Taj Felix 
My Favourite Things to do in Sydney No.1: Bondi to Bronte walk, Sculptures by the Sea (pack a pair of bathers and a small towel).

Start with a coffee at Speedos Cafe, North Bondi and say hello to the lovely Anna and her sisters who have being running this place for years. Get a seat by the window and take in the view. When my brother arrived for a visit from the UK after one trip to Speedos he said "just leave me here for two weeks and I will be a happy man". I have been going in this cafe since it started (about 25 years ago).  The building reflects a time when Bondi was a bit shabby (the original owner was 'colourful Sydney underworld figure' Abe Saffron) but Bondi has always been colourful itself with steady waves of alternating migrants. When I first came here in the 70's you heard the accents of middle Europe from Warsaw and Budapest - Holocaust survivors and their children.  I remember being chilled to the core seeing, for the first time, a  woman in a supermarket with a camp tattoo on her arm.  Wander around now and the accents of Durban and Minsk have mostly replaced them. 
Pumped with caffeine take time to have a look at the mosaic mural around the baby pool at North Bondi before you walk along the promenade south to Bronte.  The endearing joy of Bondi Beach, in any weather, is that you totally forget that the city is bustling on behind you and that you are less than 7km from the city centre.

'Admire' the graffiti on your way.  In particular the tribute to the Anzacs and those who died in the Bali bombing where flowers have been left every day since 2005.

'Buddha takes a a holiday'
Traverse around the Bondi Icebergs swimming pool and go back later for a cocktail in the iconic Icebergs Restaurant.  Dodge the joggers and step out onto the most easterly point at Mackenzies Bay to wonder at the Aboriginal carving of a stingray on the flat rocky outcrop.  By now you will be able to see some modern art from the always inspirational  Sculptures by the Sea, now in it's 15th successful year.  Don't forget to look out to sea because between June and November you often see migrating whales. A couple of years ago, walking along this track, I noticed a pair of leaping, spouting whales and pointed it out to a couple of young tourists walking by.  They looked, blinked, then looked again and said "Are they real"  - I smiled happily and replied "Yes, that's where they live"

Keep going past Tamarama Beach ('Tamaglama') home to the buffed and waxed beautiful young things.

Tamarama Beach - not Easter Island 
Leave plenty of time to look at the sculptures. The juxtaposition of blue sky, aqua Pacific and white sand just adds another dimension to my experience and enjoyment of others creativity.  

The surf at Tamarama is notoriously treacherous - so make sure you swim between the flags or in one of the ocean pools around the corner at Bronte Beach.  This beachside suburb maintains it's 1920's feel with landscaped park, model train for the kiddies, Norfolk Island pine trees and picnic sheds.  Day in and day out the benches around the ocean pool are lined with the same guys - they have designated this area 'Dr. Bronte' and I can see why.

They swim, yarn, go for a coffee, check out the racing'form' for the day, spend hours looking out to sea and doing the crossword in the daily paper   Beats staying home and watching the tellie.
If you have time - go for a walk in Bronte Park up the gully to the waterfall at the top and rest for a while of the big flat rock. A quiet place in a busy city that has special significance for local Aboriginal women going back thousands of years.
At weekends this park is crowded with with large groups of picnicers that looks and sounds like the League of Nations.

Now it's time for your swim.  Take your pick from the ocean pool, bogey hole and sea (if you are a strong swimmer - I learned all about rips at this beach).  Then have lazy lunch at one of lovely cafes (just don't go on a Sunday!)

If you have time keep walking round to the next beach of Clovelly.  In fact, you can pretty well walk along the coastline from Bondi Beach to Maroubra Beach - about 9km and you would not get any better views along the east coast of Australia or a better feel for seaside Sydney. Hooroo!