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Nutrient Dense Food and Carbon Sequestration using Local Sourced Fertiliser. Kay Closes The Loops – Part Two

July 25 2016

I put a roast in the oven tonight with Rainbow yams and red and purple potatoes, it looked so amazing. It never fails to amaze me and I always remember the old people who passed us these food plants and give thanks, then I cooked the purple mustard in the meat juice and ended up with purple gravy!

Spring is definitely in the air and I’m going to try to write something weekly over spring because having made the decision not to use EF custom made fertilser I have a big challenge on my hands and it feels like a great opportunity to share what is going through my head and how I handle that.

I do have to say to begin with though that I don’t think I would ever have made this decision if I hadn’t already spent several years building the humus in my soil and getting the minerals levels up as well as the cation exchange capacity..CEC.. it would have been a very long road without this..  During this process we took the humus level from 4 to 20…

So .. I spent the weekend preparing beds ready to plant my broad beans into, and to plant my garlic and shallots and potato onions,  as well as my peas.

I weeded them U barred them and then applied 5 x  20 litre buckets of compost to each bed. Ie 100 litres of compost to each 10 sq m. That is equivalent to 1cm of compost all over the surface of the bed… a good amount.

I forked that into the beds with home made biochar charged with urine. I was surprised that it was not really smelly or difficult/offensive  to handle. I added 3kgs per 10 sq m bed. I would have liked to have had enough to put 1kg per sq m but until we do another burn I won’t.

At that point I had a big decision to make. I knew from the test I had had done on my compost ( Reams test) that my compost did not have a good balance of calcium and magnesium. I had been adding calcium to the compost trying to get the levels higher and higher but did not add enough magnesium. That meant the calcium /magnesium ration was not 7:1 as it needs to be to get optimum growth.

I had already seen what happened when planting into that compost, very slow weak growth, poor plants with a low brix. I decided to add a common form of magnesium (magnesium sulphate .. Epsom salts) , in liquid form with added molasses ( carbon to hold the magnesium, bind with the magnesium so it is not so water soluble). I added 1 Tbspn of magnesium sulphate and 1 Tbspn molasses each 5 sq m in 10 litres of water.

If I put too much magnesium on it will lock up the nitrogen but if I don’t have enough the calcium/magnesium ration will be out and then I won’t have quality plants either. We’ll see how this goes!

Once the plants are up and growing I will then give them a boost with  liquid cow manure, I’m lucky the cows are just outside our housesite at the moment.

Ok so buying Epsom salts to use as a mineral supplement is easier and cheaper than bringing in custom fertiliser but it is still not my  ideal situation. Thinking ahead, I know I want to continue adding calcium to my compost heaps in the form of bone char and burnt bones, and plants selected as efficient accumulators of calcium in particular like oats and lupins, so I’m going to have to find a way way to know that I’m also adding something that contains significant amounts of magnesium… I’m thinking … which trees and plants are the best magnesium accumulators.

I’ve been working on this list for a while, not only in terms of designing plantings or collecting material for a compost heap but also in terms of designing forest gardens. It is easy to say that planting a diverse range of plants and having all 7 layers will create a system that is able to supply all  the needs of the heavy feeding fruit trees in the medium/long haul.. but to me it feels as though there needs to be some careful selection of at least the initial range of support trees going in to ensure we have enough legumes and potash suppliers, as Martin Crawford says, but it feels like good sense to ensure that when we plant our major minerals accumulators we make sure we get the basics covered.

The basics in terms of having the key minerals around for healthy cell growth initially are the major ones.. calcium, magnesium, potash and phosphate.

If the leaves falling to the ground each Autumn were from trees known as dynamic accumulators that concentrated these 4 major minerals then we could know that as they are broken down by the microbes and re enter the mineral cycle and be grabbed again by the feeder roots of the heavy feeding trees .. that the trees would have a good chance of growing to be strong and healthy and producing high quality food without the need to bring in fertiliser of any kind.

I have been researching for a while to find my ideal  list of trees/plants that can supply the forest garden with the minerals needed for the long haul, but now that I’m not buying minerals for the vege garden, it is obvious that the list is one and the same list.

Here is my current list.. it’s short because I think we’ve gotten too carried away and we should focus on what is very important first.. once we have the basics covered we can get more carried away.

For my compost heaps in the vege garden I will continue to grow lupins and oats which unlock sesquester both calcium and phosphate very well, but I’m also going to be adding oak, and dogwood ( the ultimate calcium accumulators that also bear very edible fruit), and linden,    leaves,   as well as alfalfa (an excellent source of calcium and phosphate and I’m growing it permanently around the vege garden now especially for harvesting to make compost and mulch beds).

To ensure I have adequate sources of magnesium, willow leaves, and bark, and alfalfa look to be my easiest bets, for potash I’ll use comfrey leaves, (it will have to be maple sin the forest garden because I have poultry  in there and they kill the comfrey)  also planted around the vege garden, for phosphate I will add loads of comfrey, alfalfa and oats and lupins again, and also collect linden, birch and  cassurina leaves.

For people in the cities many of these trees are in our parks, and easy to collect.

For those of you looking for support species to feed your forest garden check the Koanga website for forest garden support trees and seeds .  Our bundles are selected to cover the mineral bases and also to either be trees that like being coppiced (alders, tagasaste) or that only grow to 2-5m in height so they are suitable for smallish spaces.

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Nutrient Dense Food and Carbon Sequestration using Local Sourced Fertiliser. Kay Closes The Loops – Part One

Spring is around the corner and I haven’t written a garden blog for a while, I have a new greenhouse /garden shed about to be ready for use and finally after months of agonising I’ve decided how to cut down the number of hours I require to spend in the garden to keep it looking incredible and producing large amounts of high brix food.


Our garden is 200m2 plus 50m2 of perennial beds. I’m leaving the perennial bed as it is, Purple Asparagus, Purple de Jesi globe artichokes, sea kale, Hong Kong 3 rhubarb, Multiplying spring onions, Welsh Bunching onions and day lilies (edible flowers) All of these crops are highly productive, taste fantastic and are ready to eat just when we need them, Spring.

The rest of my garden feels too big now, we have come a long way in 5 years in terms of building up the soil and I feel as though I can grow just as much food in a smaller area, The biggest challenge of all is to stop bringing in fertiliser to keep the process of regeneration maintained in the soil and the health of the crops. This is a graph showing just how much we have built the soil in our home garden …. .. using the following strategies, over the past 5 years

graphics new

  • Learning to make compost that is actually useful, adding balanced EF fertiliser, plus clay, biochar, seaweed and clay shards
  • Using Environmental Fertilisers based on Reams soil tests

Utilising Biointensive practices whereby we grow 50% of the garden in compost crops each season

  • Growing carbon crops in the garden that unlock needed nutrients eg lupins and oats

I have decided that this year is the year I’m stopping buying fertiliser… and that feels like my biggest challenge ever, I’m also totally committed to growing soil and high brix food and I want to grow as much food on less area to save time.

When we came here the brix of the grass was 2, way too low to maintain our human health or for the soil processes to be regenerative.

This season I’m committing to going the extra mile to close the loops, now that we have got our brix levels up and soil building happening fast (and we’ll keep testing to watch what happens) my strategies are going to change a little… as follows:

  1. Continue to make high quality compost using carbon crops from the garden and compost heaps with a 60:1 carbon ratio and high quality ingredients (as described below)
  2. Begin consciously and carefully using all of our urine and humanure in the vegetable garden. It seems clear from the research (see below) that 1 person’s urine for 1 day is an appropriate amount to return to 1m2 of garden bed or soil twice a year. That means you could feed 175m2 of garden per year using 1 persons urine (balanced with the composted humanure as well) With 2 people in the household that means we can feed an area roughly 350m2 which is exactly what I have worked out that we need to grow all of our vegetables and grains in our soil this year. That means I can take 6 beds out of my rotation, 2 beds out of blocks 2 and 4 and 1 bed each out of blocks 1 and 3 in the rotation. Those beds I’m going to plant in the best perennial crop I know that can be regularly harvested throughout the year to make compost or mulch beds such as the perennials and the tomatoes and peppers and pumpkins
  3. Grow perennial alfalfa in 6 of my previous garden beds. Alfalfa is a serious contender for our most valuable dynamic mineral accumulator especially for unlocking and recycling calcium and phosphate which are the key minerals we need to be bringing into our soils.

A piece of research that has helped me take this step is this paper from the EcoSanRes Programme
and the Stockholm Environment Institute written about recycling human urine and humanure (READ HERE

After reading this and having watched the Kotare Village work through designs for recycling human urine and humanure for all toilets in our houses and the village and Koanga I now feel able to use the urine and composted humanure in ways I can talk about publicly and recommend.  Kotare Village is in the process of putting these plans through the Hawkes Bay Regional Council so when we have them approved, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime it goes something like this (it is very simple) collect the urine or most of it separately, in a urine only bucket or have a urine separator on the toilet system. It must not have fallen down through the humanure bucket, (it must be just urine) and then add a carbon source to it such as vermicast, sugar, humates, or biochar.  Adding a carbon source holds the nitrogen and means it stays in the root zone of the plants available as a slow release fertiliser, rather than being water soluble and washing into the water ways with the first rain. I don’t want to have to buy anything to do this and we are making biochar/bonechar on our house site twice a year, 200 litres at a time, so we are collecting the biochar/bonechar, storing it in barrels and then adding urine to charge the biochar/bonechar and lock up the nitrogen.

I’ll use that in place of fish fertiliser or a pick me up for all heavy feeding plants. The humanure we collect in buckets, which contain humanure plus leaves, a little dirt and a little wood ash and some urine so that it is moist. These 20  litre buckets are then tipped into a larger barrel. A house of two people will need 2 of these larger barrels. And after you fill up the first one put a lid on it and keep in a warm place while you fill up the second one. It will take 6 months for the first one to become friable compost ready to go on the garden and then swap over again. I’ll plan this so that the barrels of compost are ready to use either straight onto the garden at planting time or bed preparation time or into my usual compost heaps.

Either way the nutrients will be retained for the garden because we don’t let our compost heaps go over 50°c holding the carbon in the compost to be returned to the soil in the form of humus. (see Koanga Composting Booklet for more details here). One of the amazing things about our urine is that it is not only a fertiliser but it is a communicator through the microbes and the soil to our plants showing them what we need, to improve/balance our health. This may sound far fetched but Ayuverdic medicine as practiced in India for thousands of years recognizes the value and healing properties of our own urine. Our own urine on our own garden soil will communicate to our ecology in a way that is a vital part of the process of coevolution (part of the process of creating a regenerative ecology) it’s amazing, it’s free and we all have access to it!

So I’ll continue making compost, I’ll continue adding bone char and biochar to the compost as well as clay and pottery shards, seaweed,  and as many ingredients as I can that contain high levels of phosphate. The calcium will be the burnt crushed egg shells plus the bone char soaked in soldier fly liquid which unlocks the calcium and the phosphate

I’m sure we can do it, grow soil fast, grow high brix food and reclaim our health and that of the ecology around us. I’ll spend the rest of my life fine tuning this process and enjoying the journey…… stay tuned …. It’s exciting stuff!!!

I’ve used the Koanga Garden Planner to redesign my garden this spring to ensure I have the rotation systems in place, enough carbon crops to know I will be able to make enough compost to grow my soil, and the right balance of crops to ensure we have a balanced diet year round!!!

If you find all this stuff interesting then would love to know more please join us for a workshop or two this spring, Some of you might enjoy staying over during the week in between 2 workshops so you can do both workshops and have a good look around while you are here. Talk to Trena if you are interested in this at [email protected].

If this feels like your life journey, something you want to know more about to take back and teach and continue learning then maybe the last spot on our Spring Internship is for you!