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When Your Garden Needs Help, Give it Some Tea

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There’s a store in Santa Cruz that sells everything you might want to make your own compost or even convert your compost into soil additive to inoculate your plants with beneficial microorganisms. KUSP’s J.D. Hillard has this report

55 gallon barrels of compost tea - bubble behind 'Soil Solutions', James Neve.

55 gallon barrels of compost tea bubble behind ‘Soil Solutions’, James Neve.

In the parking lot of Soil Solutions, there are the bags of prepared compost and soil you might find at any garden store. But the store in Santa Cruz’s Harvey West neighborhood isn’t a typical garden store. Owner James Neve advocates a whole new approach to gardening.

Helping You Raise Good Microbes

“What we offer is a non synthetic, a non-chemical way of feeding your soil,” Neve says.

When he says “feeding your soil,” he means he doesn’t sell chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Instead everything he sells is intended to cultivate the biology of your soil so it’s more nutritious for your plants.

There’s an assortment of mylar bags with concentrated compost. Some composting equipment. And in one corner some big plastic barrels, one of which is bubbling.

Neve is an arborist, specializing in urgent care for sick trees and gardens. He says used to feed the plants synthetic chemicals: “This chemical plus that chemical equals a tree the same thing for diseases and pests. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Good for Plants and Non-Polluting

But the approach didn’t jibe with his training. For one thing only a small portion of the chemicals he used were being absorbed by the plants. The rest, he asserts, were becoming pollution.

He began researching recently developed techniques aimed at cultivating beneficial bacteria, fungi and protozoa in the soil.

“Below our feet is millions and millions of microbes,” he says, “and what that soil biology, what those microbes do is they turn carbon and organic fertilizers in to plant available food.”

Soil Solutions owner James Neve interviewed by KUSP's J.D. Hillard.

Soil Solutions owner James Neve interviewed by KUSP’s J.D. Hillard.

Making Compost Tea

He tried it in the field and it worked. Trees that would have died with synthetic approaches had full recoveries with compost derived treatments. In 2011 he started the store to sell some of the products he was using. One key product is the brown liquid in that bubbling barrel mentioned above.

“What we’re brewing in these 55 gallon barrels where you see all the bubbles is compost tea.”

The stuff starts out as compost. Neve demonstrates: He puts compost that’s been sifted to a fine consistency into a mesh bag which he kneads in a bucket of water. The water darkens.

“We’re releasing this material into this liquid solution,” he says. “If I were to plate this right now and put it under the microscope, you’d be amazed at the things you would see. Even though most of it is dormant and still a lot of it is alive.”

The next step is to feed it something like fish emulsion and put it in the barrels where the bubbles provide oxygen. Then the microorganisms multiply rapidly. It’s like a probiotic for plants. In addition to making soil more nutritious, it can be sprayed on the leaves to prevent sickness.

But Neve knows he’s selling something most people aren’t familiar with. So the business holds workshops and offers samples.

“We’re doing that knowing we know how well it works,” he says, “and we always like to put something in somebody’s hands ad say here don’t just listen to us go out there and try that.”

The drought offers up a big reason for gardeners to try to make more of their compost. Soil with compost in it helps keep water in the root zone.

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