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Recipes to get the ‘soup on’ for our garden

“Making sustainable gardening amendments is not like following a highly refined recipe crafted by a professional chef. This is not baking, but more like making a soup and following the brief notes from your grandmother.”

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

I like the idea of cooking up food in my kitchen for the garden plants and soil, much like preparing a meal for the family. Like all home-cooked meals, it takes the mystery out of what I’m feeding to those in my care.

In fact, one of the big takeaways from Palmer’s book is what an enjoyable experience it can be to make DIY amendments that are nutritious, environmentally sustainable and helpful in closing waste gaps by using ingredients that are often thrown away.

In recent columns, I’ve discussed some of Palmer’s recipes for garden amendments using plant debris, composted leaves, water and a few common household items such as brown sugar and rice. Fermented plant juice, fermented leaf mold and indigenous microorganisms provide a broad spectrum of the minerals plants need to thrive and/or introduce biological diversity to the soil. These amendments can be used throughout the growing season as foliar sprays, soil drenches and compost inoculants.

Other useful DIY amendments that are made from a few simple ingredients are vinegar extractions, fermented fish and lactic acid bacteria. Together with the other amendments, these homemade “soups” replace synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in a garden that goes beyond growing organically to growing regeneratively.

Vinegar extractions utilize the acidity of apple cider vinegar to break down the minerals in eggshells, fish/chicken/beef/pork bones, even seashells, to provide phosphorous , calcium and a range of other minerals and beneficial compounds. Once prepared, the amendment can be stored on the shelf for years. When needed, the extract can be diluted with water 1:500 and applied directly to plants or soil.

To prepare vinegar extractions, gather shells or bones and cook them at around 300 degrees for about 40 minutes, and then fill a glass jar or crock with 10%-15% material and 85%-90% organic apple cider vinegar. Cover the jar loosely to allow gases to escape and place out of direct sunlight for about two weeks. Strain, and then store the liquid in a labeled airtight container; reuse the shells or bones for another two or three batches of “soup.”

Fermented fish is made with uncooked fish parts (any part will work) and organic brown sugar. Cut the fish parts in chunks and mix in a bowl with the same amount by weight of brown sugar. Fill a crock two-thirds full with the mixture, add a layer of brown sugar to the top, cover with a cloth, and store out of direct sunlight for six months. Strain the liquid into a labeled airtight container and store on a shelf; dilute with water 1:1000 and use as a foliar spray or soil drench.

Whereas vinegar extractions and fermented fish provide nutrients to the soil and plants, lactic acid bacteria amendment, made with raw milk, rice and water, adds beneficial bacteria to the soil that fight off pathogenic microorganisms. Rinse the rice with water through a sieve several times by collecting and reusing the same rinse water. Cook the rice to eat (or to make IMO No. 1), and fill a labeled quart-sized canning jar with the rinse water.

Cover the jar with a cloth and allow the rinse water to sit for 3-5 days at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. You should start to see the contents separate into three layers. The middle layer will be the most distinct — this is the layer you want to keep because it contains the highest concentration of lactic acid bacteria. Remove the top layer, spoon out the yellowish middle layer into another labeled airtight jar, and store the middle layer jar in the refrigerator. Add the other layers to the compost pile or feed to the chickens.

When you’re ready to use the amendment as a foliar spray or soil drench, mix the stock with milk at a ratio of 1:10. Diluted lactic acid bacteria can also be added to the compost pile to stimulate decomposition.

Palmer notes that making our own garden amendments can seem a bit overwhelming at first, so he offers six simple strategies to start growing regeneratively:

1. Collect plant debris and unused fruit in buckets as you weed, deadhead, prune and harvest to make fermented plant juices that can be stored on the shelf or to make plant “teas” (Palmer calls these water extractions) that can be used right away.

2. Save eggshells and bones to make vinegar extractions.

3. The next time you eat rice, save the rinse water to make lactic acid bacteria.

4. Start a compost pile with plant debris, animal manure and a bit of soil; inoculate with amendments.

5. Collect fallen leaves in autumn to make fermented leaf mold or to use as a mulch.

6. Grow cover crops; collect cuttings to make fermented plant juices or plant teas.

OK, gardeners; it’s time to get the “soup on” for our plants and soil!

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.

My garden to-do list this week

• See No. 1 on Palmer’s list above. My furiously blooming rosebushes will need deadheading soon, and there are lots of extra leafy greens from the raised beds that can be collected in buckets. I’ll add grass clippings to a separate bucket.

• Pinch back basil, thyme, oregano, sage, marigolds and salvia when they’re about six inches high to promote branching new growth. (It’s also time to pinch back chrysanthemums if you want larger flowers later on.)

• Cut back all of the foliage and stems on my hellebores (they are entering their dormant period and the foliage attracts aphids).

• Continue 10-day routine with foliar sprays and soil drenches, focusing on plants that are setting buds or have just bloomed.