Fancy a cup of compost tea?

Having our morning cuppa - of tea, not compost!
Having our morning cuppa – of tea, not compost!

We’re always banging on about soil being the foundation of your entire food growing system, and how important it is to be constantly improving it.

So one of the common questions we’re asked, is “how?”

There are lots of techniques available to help you improve soil, like adding aged chicken manure, and compost (and we’re big fans of them). However one of the most useful (though least understood) is brewing your own compost tea.

We brew it on a big scale (as you can see in the photo below), but it’s also easy to make on a home garden scale.

Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop
Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop

So, what is it? It’s probably easiest to start with what it’s NOT, which is compost extract.

Compost extract is made by putting compost in water and swishing it around or leaving it to soak. You can do a similar thing with weeds to make a weed tea or weed extract. They’re both fantastic things to do, but all they do is to put the nutrients and any microbes present into solution.

This method doesn’t increase the number of microbes in the brew, and that’s the point of compost tea.

Hugh showing off his bathtub full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea
Hugh showing off his bathtub full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea

To brew compost tea we start with a small amount of something that’s rich in microbes, e.g., good compost, worm castings, or leaf litter from under a mature gum tree are all perfect for this. Then we put the source material in water, agitate it to knock the microbes off, then add microbe food and oxygen for 24-48 hours and voila! The microbes breed like…well, like microbes (that is, REALLY fast when conditions are right).

Components for the compost tea brewer
Components for the compost tea brewer

This turns a small amount of healthy microbes (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa) into a huge number in a very short time.

On the farm we always check the brew to make sure we’ve actually got the right kind of microbes, but that’s not necessary in a home-brew situation, as long as you follow the guidelines.

Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it's full of microbes (and not just brown water!)
Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it’s full of microbes (and not just brown water!)

Then we just put the tea on the soil under our fruit trees, and let the microbes go to work. 

If you want to know more about this simple and very effective method of quickly building healthy soil, we’ve designed a short course just for you! It’s called The Art of Compost Tea, it includes plans for making a home-sized brewer, and you can download it here.

3 Ways to Love Your Soil

Do you think about soil much, or is it just something you walk around on, or maybe try to grow something in?

Dark, rich, healthy looking soil
Dark, rich, healthy looking soil

If you’re a farmer or gardener (as we know many of you are), you’re probably already aware of how important the soil is, and (like Hugh) may even revel in the smell, look and feel of beautiful soil.

Hugh sprung smelling rainforest soil
Hugh sprung smelling rainforest soil

But soil is so much more than most of us realise – for example, did you know that one-quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives in the soil!

How incredible is that?

Rather than being an inert, dead thing, it’s actually a thriving community of more microbes, worms, arthropods and other insects than we can even imagine, let alone count.

That is, if you’re looking after it properly!

Treating your soil badly by using chemicals, allowing compaction to develop, letting it get waterlogged or too dry, or consistently removing organic matter without replacing it can all create conditions that don’t help your fruit trees and other plants to thrive, and in fact encourage diseases to get established.

Filling new beds with soil at our farm shop to create a native garden
Filling new beds with soil at our farm shop to create a native garden

So, what to do? Well it’s pretty simple. We love busting the myth that “it takes 100 years to make 1 cm of soil”, because in fact if you do the right things, you can build healthy soil much faster than that.

The keys are:

  1. Consistently add organic matter to your soil (i.e., anything that used to be alive: compost, manure, mulch and worm castings are the most common)
  2. Add microbes to your soil, and then feed them regularly. Compost, compost tea, or worm juice are easy ways to add microbes, and they love to eat organic matter, liquid fish, and liquid seaweed.
  3. Have live groundcover plants under your fruit trees.

It’s also important to make sure there’s enough water (but not too much), and that the soil gets enough oxygen.

If you’re not sure whether your soil is healthy, we wrote a course just for you!

Fat juicy worms with lots of food in our worm farm
Fat juicy worms with lots of food in our worm farm

There are LOTS of techniques available to help you take these key actions in your garden. One of the most useful (though least understood) is by having a worm farm, which is much easier than most people realise!

Providing frost shelter

We’ve written about frost and fruit trees before and noted the importance of providing shelter for some fruit trees in spring, which is the danger time when a heavy frost can damage flowers, tiny fruit, or even drop-bears.

Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning
Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning

So today we want to talk about a few different options for providing that shelter.

The first one is to build a frame over the tree. This is a great option, because you can use the same frame for bird netting, fruit fly netting, or frost cloth, depending on your need and the season.

Frost cloth is a special, fine cloth that keeps the frost from settling on the ground, protecting the trees, vegies or other crops under it. It’s not very tough and is easy to work with – and even sew with, as you can see in the photo below where an industrious Win (one of our Grow Great Fruit Home-study Program members) is sewing the cloth to fit the frame.

Win hard at work at the sewing machine
Win hard at work at the sewing machine

You can avoid the expense of frost cloth by using old sheets. A word of warning if your cover completely covers the tree to the ground – it’s best to put it on when a frost is forecast, and take it off again (or lift it up) mid-morning or when the frost has disappeared.

A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection
A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection

Another way to provide the protection your trees need is to use assets you already have in the garden. Here’s a photo illustrating how a shed and a couple of tall trees provide a wide frost shadow.

You often won’t notice these micro-climates unless you go looking for them, so next time you have a big frost, check out your garden carefully.

Look all around for the influence of buildings, sheds, fences, water tanks and other physical assets, and also notice how vegetation like trees, grass and vegie patches can determine where the frost lands, and how it flows.

Other things you can do to protect your trees from frost include putting sprinklers on your trees, using frost fans, keep your soil moist, keep the ground cover plants under your trees short and don’t mulch (because it keeps the ground too cool).

Interestingly, all the things we recommend for soil health (like increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil) can also make your plants more resistant to frost.

This is for two reasons:

  1. Plants with a high Brix level have a lower freezing point;
  2. Soil with higher organic matter levels hold more moisture, which makes them less vulnerable to freezing.

Frost is just one of the factors you need to think about when planning your home orchard (our Home Orchard Design short course has 19 different units in it, and frost only accounts for two of them!).

It can definitely make it harder to grow some fruits in a cold climate, but with understanding and planning, it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.