have a confession to make; I like raising a stink. I make my own liquid plant food, also known as liquid compost. Thankfully, once it is applied to the plants, the odors don’t last long, particularly when the feed is applied in light rain or with the sprinkler going. You can make it in small amounts in a bucket or, if you have a big garden and/or an abundance of materials, you can mix bigger quantities in large metal drums, old bath tubs or plastic barrels.

Plants have many valuable trace elements and vitamins in their stems, leaves and roots. For example, dock sends its taproots down deep to bring up trace elements so they can become available to other plants and micro-organisms. When immersed in water and left to soak in a reasonably warm, sheltered spot, the result is a rich liquid fertilizer. This liquid, applied as foliar feed to your plants, also assists in attracting and multiplying microscopic soil creatures, boosting the overall health of your garden.

Half fill the container of
your choice with handfuls of the leaves, stems and roots of the
following plants:
• Nettles (wear gloves)
• Comfrey
• Dock (remember to get the roots)
• Yarrow
• Plantain (both kinds, broad- and narrow-leafed)
• Chickweed
• Mallow

KEEN GREEN MATERIALS: My favorite ingredients are often regarded as weeds. Nettles, comfrey, dock, yarrow, chickweed and plantain form the basic green material for my brew. A bit of manure acts as a “starter,” and if I can locate seaweed, that goes in too. It is basically a big soup, and like soup it needs to be stirred once in a while.

I like to make my liquid fertilizer as a concentrate and then water it down as I use it, but you can put in less raw material and more water and use it straight from the barrel/bucket/drum. Some folks like to pop in a sack of fish scraps, but I was not too popular in my neighborhood when I tried this. Go ahead if you are out in a remote area without neighbors nearby.

Nettles in Liquid Plant food
Nettles are just one of the ingredients in the liquid plant food

MANURE MATTERS: Manure provides micro-organisms. Many of these survive in liquid and will continue to help break down the plant material. Manure in liquid form is readily available for plants to take up immediately, and as long as it has been brewing for a while, it loses its tendency to burn plants or “over-nitrogenize” them.

Goat or sheep manure is my preference because it breaks down fast and doesn’t smell quite as strong as cow, horse or chicken, but whatever you have, throw it in. For a large drum I recommend two buckets of manure for a strong brew, or one bucket for a milder version. If you are experimenting with this recipe in a small bucket, a couple of handfuls will do.

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SOLUBLE SEAWEED: Seaweed is an amazing resource and people who are lucky enough to live near the coast will sometimes be able to harvest vast quantities after storms. As the cells in seaweed are water permeable, it is wise to put it on the garden as a mulch or into a drum of liquid plant food as soon as possible. Don’t leave it outside in the rain—all your nutrients will wash away and feed the lawn. I dunk it briefly in fresh water to get rid of most of the salt and sand, and then into the brew it goes.

BREW TIME: Now add water to fill the container. Put a lid on it. This helps to stop flies getting in that are usually attracted to the smell of rotting vegetation and manure. Let it sit for two to three weeks in a reasonably shady place, not dark and cold, but not too hot either. Stir once a week.

Top off the brew container with water and keep using the liquid until the plant matter has completely turned to a sort of slimy mush. You can dig this goo into the garden where it will provide nutritious snacks for soil dwellers, or put it into a new compost heap as a starter.

PUT IT TO USE: For baby plants or lettuces, use a quart per large watering can. For all other plants, use about 1 to 2 quarts per large watering can. Fruit trees and roses love a little sprinkled underneath them.

If you have difficulty in getting the liquid through the spout of your watering can due to all the bits floating in it, you may want to try this solution: Use an old pair of pantyhose as a sieve. Cut the bottom end off a pop bottle and spread the stocking over it so it doubles as a sieve and a funnel.

Water with foliar feed later in the day to keep the sun from evaporating all your hard work, or water on drizzly days when the moisture can help to soak in the feed.—Kristina Jensen

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Fall 2014 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here

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