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Improve your garden: Take a hike

123RF.comGathering indigenous microorganisms from the forest can help improve your garden.
Master Gardener Sherri Morgan has created a peaceful space in her backyard where native and non-native plants co-exist harmoniously. Her garden will be included in the virtual garden tour.

“Cultivating indigenous microorganisms is an exciting and effective method to capture soil microbes and introduce them into the growing area.”

— Nigel Palmer, “The Regenerative Grower’s Guide to Soil Amendments,” 2020

At the beginning of this year, I pledged to increase biodiversity in my garden and landscape. Since then, some of my columns have focused on adding native plants to my yard, which will support indigenous insects and other native wildlife.

Nigel Palmer’s book has helped me to understand the importance of also increasing microbial diversity in my garden soil, including different species of indigenous bacteria, fungi and archaea. Adding indigenous microorganisms to the soil is particularly important to support native plants because they have co-evolved to communicate with one another.

I’ve heard some people say their native trees do not grow as robustly as the non-native trees in their yard. One reason for this is because indigenous species must compete with more aggressive introduced plants for available moisture and nutrients in the soil. If the soil is devoid of indigenous microorganisms, then native plants often vie unsuccessfully for resources. As the saying from “Cool Hand Luke” goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

When synthetically produced nitrogen fertilizers (such as lawn fertilizers) are added to the soil, the long-term result is diminished microorganism diversity and activity. This condition affects the health of all plants in our garden, not just native species.

How does a gardener go about adding IMOs to the soil? According to Palmer, “A handful of leaf mold from the floor of the local woods represents the broadest range of bacteria, fungi and archaea available.”

He describes a method for capturing IMOs in local forestland that has been used by Asian farmers for centuries. Get your hiking shoes ready!

Before you go, you’ll need to gather your supplies: a container with a porous cover to allow air to circulate, 3 cups of steamed organic brown rice, a clean towel, and a shovel. For the container, Palmer recommends using a 12-by-9-by-4-inch wooden box with a mesh screen cover, cut so it covers the top of the box and can be attached to the sides with screws. The screen keeps animals from getting into the contents of the box.

Cook the rice and fill the box two-thirds full when the rice cools. Cover the box with the mesh and fasten with screws. Go for a walk in the woods where native plants are growing and there’s a lot of decomposing leaf litter. Dig a shallow hole in the ground and set the box in it; cover with the cloth and leaf litter. Mark the spot with sticks or rocks so you can find it again later.

In about a week, go for a second hike and check on the contents of the box. Look for white fuzz on the rice, which is actually indigenous microorganisms growing in the rice medium. Gray fuzz means the IMOs are dying and black fuzz means the IMOs are already dead.

If the box has lots of white fuzz in it, then remove the box, fill in the hole, and bring the box home for immediate fermenting. The collection of IMOs is called IMO No. 1; fermented IMO No. 1 is called IMO No. 2.

To ferment IMO No. 1, remove the fuzzy rice from the box, weigh it, and mix in a bowl with the same amount by weight of organic brown sugar. Fill a crock or glass jar two-thirds full, leaving space at the top for air. Cover the container with a cloth and allow the IMO mixture to ferment for one week until it turns into a brown liquid, which Palmer assures has “a unique smell that is not totally disagreeable.”

Once fermentation is complete, transfer the mixture to a glass jar with an air-tight lid and label the contents IMO No. 2 with the date and where the IMOs were gathered. The solution can be stored for several months in the refrigerator, and then diluted with water at a ratio of 1:1000 to be used as a soil drench or compost amendment. Palmer says the best time to use IMO No. 2 is after a rain or after the garden has been watered.

The process of collecting indigenous microorganisms in the woods to add to our garden soil is radically different from heading to the store to buy plant fertilizer. However, the latter depletes the soil of biodiversity, whereas the former adds beneficial organisms to the soil that will help plants grow healthy and strong. I’m going hiking!

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.

Virtual native garden tour

If you think native plants are boring, then you need to get to know native plants better. Here’s your chance.

The Jackson County Master Gardener Association is hosting a virtual Native Garden Tour that will feature 13 local native gardens in all shapes and sizes. Join Master Gardener Sherri Morgan and other host gardeners for a diverse look at native plant gardens, ranging from permaculture to eco-restoration. You’ll learn about Oregon sunshine, red-flowering currant, California lilac and hundreds of other native species that are sure to inspire you before ideal planting season in fall.

The tour will be available online beginning May 15 at the JCMGA website: https://jacksoncountymga.org/native-plants-garden-tour/. The tour is free, but donations to JCMGA are appreciated. For more information about the tour, contact Morgan at shemor484@gmail.com.

My garden to-do list this week

• Collect IMOs from the woods and ferment.

• Collect plant debris from my garden and landscape for fermenting: deadheaded flowers and plant foliage, grass clippings, etc.

• Monitor garden moisture and adjust irrigation as needed.

• Direct seed basil, beans, warm-season annual flowers