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A Magical Organic Elixir Goes High-Tech
By HENRY HOMEYER
ROWING up in the 1950's, I helped my grandfather in his garden. He was a believer in organic gardening long before it became popular. By the age of 5, I was responsible for the daily stirring of a concoction made from hen manure and rain water, Grampy's magical organic elixir for the tomatoes. Now, 50 years later, a high-tech compost tea has been developed that only vaguely resembles the primitive solution we made.
Four years ago, Mark Fulford of Monroe, Me., an organic farmer and orchardist, paid $2,400 for a compost tea brewer. It resembles something from a brewery, perhaps, a 12-gallon polyethylene tub with a compressor, air injectors, filters, pipes and hoses.
Mr. Fulford and his wife, Paula, make their living selling vegetables, garlic, herbs and fruit, and they are as careful with their money as most farmers tend to be. But he believes his compost tea has more than paid him back on his investment.
They have three acres of fruit trees under intensive cultivation, growing apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries in his Zone 4 garden.
And although many people think you can't grow apples without spraying toxic chemicals, Mr. Fulford does it. In the orchard at harvest time it was obvious that apple scab, the bane of organic gardeners, was not a problem. He reduces scab by timely spraying of a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide, followed by sprayings of his special compost tea.
Mr. Fulford has improved the health of his trees by spraying their leaves with an all-natural concoction that some might say resembles a witches' brew. Into his brewer goes water, good finished compost and fresh worm castings from his worm bin. He adds dried kelp powder, naturally produced humic acid and a variety of powdered minerals. Lastly, he adds a little molasses.
In the brewer, the solution becomes a roiling stew of air, water, minerals, bacteria and fungi. His tea will agitate for 18 to 20 hours before it is ready to spray on the trees. During that time aerobic bacteria will reproduce.
The scientific theory behind all this has largely been developed by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a soil ecologist formerly of Oregon State University and now an independent research scientist (her Web site is www.
soilfoodweb.com). The theory is that plants can benefit from this foliar spray because it supplies a healthy dose of microbes that create a living biofilm on leaf surfaces. These microorganisms and their exudates provide nutrition to the plants that is absorbed by the leaves. Aerobic bacteria and beneficial fungi living on the leaves and fruit also claim the sites where harmful bacteria or fungi might attach themselves - if they had the opportunity.
It has long been understood that a good healthy soil full of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms is important for the development of healthy plants, and that microorganisms nourish plants in symbiotic relationships. Dr. Ingham, Mr. Fulford and others believe that the chemistry and biology of the above-ground portion of the plant is just as important as what occurs below ground.
Mr. Fulford's apple crop was munificent this year, despite a severe drought, and he attributes much of this to compost tea sprayed four times during the growing season. In dry years, he explained, there is not always enough water to carry up needed minerals from the soil. By spraying on bacteria that have predigested essential minerals, the foliar application saved the day.
Manufacturers are starting to produce inexpensive brewers for use by home gardeners. A simple unit that uses a five-gallon plastic bucket with a pump, hoses and aerator, along with the ingredients needed to make three batches of tea, is available for $100 or less. Alaska Giant (www.alaskagiant.com) and KIS (www.simplici-tea.com) are two companies recommended by Dr. Ingham. Alaska Giant even makes a one-gallon brewer that could be used by urban gardeners. Both sell all the ingredients needed for brewing, too.
Dr. Ingham estimates that currently there are 3,500 commercially made brewers in use, and perhaps 10,000 homemade units. The word is spreading that compost tea may be a miraculous organic alternative to chemical fungicides and fertilizers.
But the jury is still out on compost tea. There are scientists who disagree with the theories of Dr. Ingham. Some say that the tea doesn't always work because homemade composts vary tremendously, so the mix of microorganisms present in homemade compost varies from batch to batch. Others fear that E. coli from poorly made compost - if it contains animal wastes - might present a hazard.
In the meantime, Mr. Fulford can see increased disease resistance and higher fruit quality in his crops. Most serious farmers know what works, and what doesn't. Mr. Fulford says compost tea works. "
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From: NEW YORK TIMES, Home an Garden, January, 5, 2003