The tinker lab in the garden is at full tilt with fermented brews made from fish bones and food scraps, and not for the faint-hearted with words like ’emulsion’ and ‘sludge’ frequently cropping up.
At the heart of it lies a back-to-basics approach, starting with soil. Not a quick fix, buy it in a bag over the counter solution, but a more natural and holistic approach that involves no fertilisers, no pesticides, and no fungicides. With minimal intervention, a probiotic gut bacteria for the soil that not only promotes healthier plants, but ones that require less watering and less maintenance.
In essence, it’s all about soil biology and the fungal population within it. Taking what’s good from our own soil, cultivating it and putting it back into our garden. It’s of the bubbling and fermenting school of thought, using compost extractions, tinctures and ‘teas’ – a liquid brew of bespoke microbiology that helps plants connect to the soil they’re growing in.
Head gardener, Joshua Sparkes is a new found disciple, and is already putting into practice the ideas and working methods gleaned from gardens around the world. It’s been a passion of his for the past five years, and an earlier stint working at Chanteclere, Mount Cuba and New York Gardens opened his eyes to the possibilities. Keen to delve a little deeper, Josh successfully applied for a Winston Churchill fellowship. An inspired initiative which funds scholars to go out into the world and learn innovative ideas to share on their return, putting into practice the foundation’s motto: “travel to learn, return to inspire.”
Balancing science with an instinctive curiosity
Inspiration for Josh comes in the form of worm composting, bio char, compost extraction and Korean farming. As with all these new practices, there is a fair bit of scepticism about the science and applied principles. Josh is of the mind to balance the science with an instinctive curiosity, of fact finding with observation, drawing inspiration from long standing practices that have proven to actually work.
As a general rule of thumb Josh is aiming for a soil with a crumbly texture smelling of the earth. Not the sort of recipe destined to be part of the family cookbook, but its all pervading presence will be etched in the flavours of the ingredients finally enjoyed around the kitchen table. Acronyms abound, with FFJ (Fermented Fruit Juice) and FPJ (Fermented Plant Juice) in the index – the recipes for both written here, as well as IMO – indigenous microorganisms. It’s a three-part recipe, although can be shortened to two if time is of the essence.
IMO and a recipe for good soil health:
To tap into the purest form, Josh uses untouched woodland microbes for his base. Untouched, meaning it’s not coppiced or felled, and is the most nutrient rich soil to hand, nourished by trees, shrubs and animals.
As a starter kit for IMO, you’ll need a wooden box with holes drilled into it. Fill it three quarters full with half cooked rice, to the point that it’s a little bit soft but still with a crunch in the centre. Josh then quarter submerges it underneath a healthy tree in the woods and covers it with leaf mould gathered from the base of that tree (what you’re looking for is leaf mould with white fungi hyphae), with a metal grill over the box to stop any animals from digging in. Add to the pile some rotten logs and leave it for ten days. After this time the rice will covered in a white and fuzzy carpet. If it’s green, blue or red, it’s anaerobic, and these bits will need to be picked out.
Mix equal parts in weight of sugar and the white rice. Massage it together and cover with another layer of sugar, topped with a muslin cap so it can breathe. Ferment for a week in 20 – 25 degrees. After that, you can store it between 1 – 15 degrees. By doing this, you’re giving the microbes from the box a longer shelf life. As the sugar draws all the moisture from the microbes, they go into dormancy, until water is reapplied and they come back to life (it can be used as a liquid solution at this stage).
Growing it as a compost. Make a bran base that’s a 5cm deep pile on soil floor (we use organic horse bran). Take the IMO 2, diluted in water: 1 – 1200, and pour that onto the husky bran. Cover with hessian and leave for a week. You’re basically growing the culture on that bran for another week. Combine with a 50/50 mix of soil and incorporate it in the garden or in your compost.