Wednesday, 19 November 2014

'Unlock the Secrets of Soil' with Dr.Elaine Ingham

November 1st - 5th 2014

This was one of the ultimate highlights and reasons for my journey to North America.

'Unlock the Secrets of Soil', discovering the science of the Soil Food Web and learning techniques for soil improvement and remediation with Dr.Elaine Ingham.

I am deeply passionate about the soil, as our topsoil is precious, nourishing and feeding all life on Earth.

This was a 5 day workshop, with a schedule as follows:
Day 1: The Soil Food Web; Appearance and Function of Organisms, Aerobic vs Anaerobic, Nutrients in Soil, Soil Chemistry and Biology, Testing Soils.
Day 2: The Soil Food Web continued; Soil Profiles, pH and Mineral Availability, Soil Structure, Nutrient Cycling, Succession.
Day 3: Making Compost; Thermal, Vermi and Static Compost, Carbon and Nitrogen ratios, Moisture content, Management and Testing. 
Day 4: Making Compost Tea; Equipment, Materials, Food Sources, Extracts and Teas, Fungal and Bacterial Teas, Application.
Day 5: Microscopy; Equipment, Assembly of Microscope, Features of Microscope, Identification of Organisms, Soil Testing and Recording.

The first 2 days were an amazing overload of information, which I am hoping to capture and summarize in later posts and for the use of student notes.

Compost: Day 3
The third day was a little more practical, and we were taken to a small park where the correct method for making a thermal compost was demonstrated. Now I say correct only to mean this is one of the best ways to capture the right kinds of beneficial organisms that will benefit soil life. There are many ways to make compost, but Elaine explained this was amongst one of the simplest and most effective ways to gain excellent results.

Three types or material was lined up in buckets so we could see the ratios with our eye.
2 Buckets of High Nitrogen Material (Legumes, but only if functioning nodules are present, Fresh Manure or Seeds), 4 Buckets of Green Plant Material (Grass clippings, Weeds, Green leaves, Hay), 4 Buckets of Woody Material (Straw, Woodchips, Brown leaves).
A thermal compost should be 10% high Nitrogen, 40% Green Material and 60% Woody Material depending on whether a fungal or bacterial dominance is wanted.

 Here are the buckets lined up with the piles of compost material with Loita demonstrating.
One of the easiest methods to use is to create a cylinder of wire mesh for the materials to be placed in
Now this is an important part: Humic Acid! I will in later posts describe what this is exactly, but for now lets just say it is a complex molecule that allows soil to retain moisture, nutrients and contributes to soil structure. It forms in some lush topsoils and well-made compost.
To extract humic acid, compost from a reliable source is used. You can get a lab to test the compost for lots of good little critters, test it yourself or trust in the smell, colour and odor. Compost should, according to Dr.Elaine Ingham, be the colour of a 70% cocoa chocolate bar! The smell should be earthy, rich and quite pleasant- no odors of ammonium or rot.

The compost is placed in a mesh bag and a colander, with a bowl underneath. Water is then poured over the contents and the remaining liquid should be a dark chocolate colour. 

 The humic acid extract is then added to the compost pile using a spray bottle, whilst the material is being turned. This will ensure the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
The group teamed up to mix the materials using the right ratios, adding the humic acid and wetting the pile accordingly.

 Our finished 'lasagna'! There was mixed opinions surrounding whether or not it was more beneficial to layer the materials or not. Dr.Elaine Ingham states that during her investigations and studies, it has made no difference.
We were then told that when creating good compost one must invest in a long stainless steel themometre, and the temperature should be taken from the top and the sides.

The pile should be turned the least amount of times as to not disturb the organisms too much, although turning is usually essential if you want to get compost quickly. It all depends on temperature!
The pile needs to be turned so the contents from the outside layer gets turned into the center, and the center gets turned to the outside top layer. This will ensure the adequate distribution of heat and therefore decomposition amongst the pile.
Temperatures need to reach above 55 degrees Celsius for 3 days, 65.5 degrees Celsius for 2 days or 74 degrees Celsius for 1 day if pathogens are going to be killed and beneficial microorganisms to breed.

Carbon and Nitrogen mixed to create lush Compost!

Compost Tea: Day 4
On the fourth day we also got to see some action, and watched as Loita demonstrated her methods of making high quality compost tea.
Now the trick to making good Compost Tea is that it must always be aerated in order to breed aerobic organisms, which contribute to a healthy 'digestive system' of the soil.
We evaluated different equipment, and ideally you want compost tea brewers with the least amounts of pipes, that are easy to clean and have no crevices. This is so the anaerobic organisms (pathogens) cannot stick to these areas and breed, if they do they will turn your whole compost tea anaerobic, despite whether it is being aerated or not.
 Foods, such as kelp emulsion, fish hydrolysate and humic acid are added to the mixture to feed bacteria and fungi. Most soils are deficient in fungi, so adding the fish hydrolysate is a great way to make sure fungi will grow after application of the tea. It is important to note the difference of fish hydrolisate to fish emulsion, which is a bacteria food. The emulsion has the oils removed, which is what fungi predominately feed on. If you want a more bacterially dominated soil (used mostly for vegetable crops), using fish emulsion rather than hydrolysate could be beneficial.

 Using a mesh bag, good quality compost is immersed into the water (making sure the water is clean rainwater free of chemicals). It is also a good idea to include some mycelium in the bag, as this will provide fungi, which will feed on the fungal foods and spread once in the soil.
It is important to brew the tea at the temperature you will be applying, and it does not matter if temperatures fluctuate, as this is what happens in nature.

 The 'bubbler' is then turned on, and the tea is left to infuse!
It is important when applying compost tea to not only apply to the roots, but to the leaves of the crop also. There are many kinds of bacteria and fungi that adhere to and protect the surfaces of plants.

Microscopy: Day 5
After considering at length if I should invest in a microscope, I decided to invest in one as a birthday present (as if I needed any justification!).  I will now be able to start doing my own soil testing for gardens, be able to test compost teas and use the microscope for soil classes and also botany in Herbal Medicine classes! (oooooOoooo!)

 Here it is! My very own microscope! Another tool to add to The Perma Pixie kit!

 During this class I have to admit, I felt quite overwhelmed! Very excited, but I also had the feeling of what it felt to step out of my first Permaculture Design Course in 2008. There was a whole new world I had to investigate and familiarize myself with!
 Under our feet a myriad of organisms live, all feeding one another, providing nutrients and nourishment for the whole. This world is as complex, if not more, than the one we see with our naked eye, with organisms so diverse and so unappreciated.
As far as I am concerned, we exist as hosts for microorganisms. Bacteria were the first living inhabitants of the Earth, and they have done a remarkable job of colonizing every surface.
There is still a lot to be learned about this world we have yet to understand, and until we start to appreciate bacteria as we appreciate polar bears, I feel we are at a loss.
We are loosing our topsoil at a phenomenal rate, unsure if we will be able to feed future populations, not to mention the species which are relying on the soil; plant, animal, microbe and fungi alike. 
One of my dedications to this Earth is to learn more about this web of life, and how to re mediate it.

The world of Biology, Chemistry and Physics are interlinked. They are wholistically connected, and we must join the dots and start to understand how they all impact each other, rather than basing agricultural practice on chemistry alone.

More posts on Soil Science to come!

 A fungal Hyphae.
Bacteria known as Cocci, as well as aggregates and soil particles.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Making a Solar Dehydrator

On the Road...

I made a solar dehydrator whilst traveling around in the van. During the hot Californian summer, I decided to make use of the suns energy. This meant I could make delicious crackers, cakes and dried fruits while we were stationary by just popping the dehydrator on the roof while we were hiking or out for the day. Upon return we had our next meal...

 I started by collecting random bits and pieces from a 'thrift' store. All the pieces fit together perfectly. I took the principles of a solar dehydrator and applied them to a smaller, more random project.
A solar dehydrator needs to be painted black, to draw in the heat of the sun, have a glass panel, directed towards the sun to harness and capture the suns energy, and have ventilation holes, usually at the bottom and top, to ensure adequate airflow.

 I found an old tray with removable panels, a glass photo frame, a baking tin and a wire cooling rack at the thrift store. I then brought some non-toxic black paint and hinges.

 Removing the photo from the frame, I glued the glass panel in place and applied black tape to the outer edges.
 As we were sitting in the midst of a beautiful pine forest in California, I took some time to 'drill' holes into the tray with my knife. This was a very 'zen' process, and it was lovely to have no hand tools and really feel the DIY of the project!

 5 holes on the bottom of one side, and 5 holes on the top of the other. I did this to hopefully create an airflow current which would flow in through the bottom (sucking in cool air) and flowing through the food in the dehydrator before flowing out the holes at the top (sucking out the hot air). This would allow the food to dry properly and no condensation, moisture or mold to form during the process.

The next step was to paint!
 I applied a few coats of black paint every time we stopped the van.
 Another stop and, with the help of my partner, attached the hinges to the tray and photo frame with my new multi-tool! The two fit together perfectly!
 And there you have it! The photo frame lifts so I can place food inside, face the dehydrator towards the sun, and let the renewable source of energy do its thing!

 It happened to work well that there were panels that I could slot into the inside of the tray and place the wire rack on top, meaning the air would flow underneath the foodstuffs.

 Mixing buckwheat, black sesame seed, flaxseed, pipetas, pumpkin seeds, onion, cumin seed, salt, cayenne pepper and water in a bowl I then rolled the mixture out onto some baking paper and placed it in the dehydrator.
After half the day I removed the baking paper from underneath and let the crackers air out in the dehydrator, ensuring they were adequately dried.

And there you have it! Crackers on the road, a fun project, problem solving with thrift store bits, and using renewable energies!
This is not a traditional solar dehydrator, although you can look plenty of plans and photos up online.
I like to recycle bits and see if I can apply the same principles for similar results.
Very happy with this little project, although I don't think I will be able to take it home with me on a plane! Perhaps some other traveling soul will like to make some crackers though...