improve your garden soil with organic fertilizers 

I learned to make a range of organic fertilizers at a recent Guerilla House workshop

Biochar will get charged up in this hot compost pileBiochar will get charged up in this hot compost pile

Fertility magic from permaculture:
a key workshop that opens the door to many other permaculture topics, but also unlocks the fruitfulness of your garden

These microbes like sweet stuff, and they got molassesThese microbes don't have teeth, but they like sweet stuff, and they got lots of molasses

I went to this workshop because I wanted to see the Khanyisa project, stimulated by the photographs Guerilla House has been publishing on facebook. The other workshop on the same weekend, a propagation workshop ‘food must fall’ was a fantastic inspiration, when I attended it a few months ago. As I had already attended that one, I decided to try ‘make it fertile’. It sounded very basic, and because I’ve been gardening so long I was curious what new methods it could offer, but a little blase. I could not have been more mistaken in my attitude. It is a key workshop which ‘opens out’ and leads to so many other topics in permaculture, if not the whole of permaculture.

If you use the Guerilla House free download sent us afterwards, and follow the links they provide and the research that follows on that a lot will open up for you. Soil ecology, composting and soil additives, fermentation, carbon cycles, plant mutualisms, grey water processing, and water wise garden management are just some of the topics which press hard on the heels of this workshop’s subject matter.

Workshop attendees and Josh from Guerilla House at the board in some temporary shadeWorkshop attendees and Josh from Guerilla House at the board in some temporary shade

The site and the projects

The lovely site, with some adult fruit trees, many young saplings and sunken beds organized in a wheel pattern is the home of the garden project, Khanyisa, a collaboration between Guerilla House and members of the Langa Rasta Community, namely Zozo Mohoto, Vile Mgudlwa, DJ Simple and Ndumiso Sibindlana. The garden is called 'Rasta in the community' and it adjoins a shop called 'The Shelta'.  Other attendees at the workshop were urban farmers from Khayalistsha and Gugulethu who are involved with the slow food movement, eco rapping and spreading the message of green living. There were two overseas students who research on soil biology and ecology respectively and came to learn more about permaculture soil management, and then yours truly, green blogger and gardener.

The beautifully laid out sunken beds at Khanyisa. Mulching with wood chip and straw introduces organic fertilizers to the soil as the material decomposesThe beautifully laid out sunken beds at Khanyisa. Mulching with wood chip and straw introduces organic fertilizers to the soil as the material decomposes

Making organic fertilizers is like making earth magic 

It was a quite spell binding day of making fires and concoctions to feed the invisible life under our feet. This kind of knowledge is fun to learn, hands on, engages all the senses and the mind, and made everyone excited and curious. I learned of earning opportunities, and more ways to close the recycling circles to reduce waste and produce abundance. I guess I should have known it would be so exceptional. Fertility of the soil has fascinated humans since the dawn of time, we’ve even made fertility beliefs into religion, and the knowledge from this workshop was thrilling in quite a profound way. I cannot relay all of the many topics that were covered, and will just refer you to other pages of mine if there is duplication.

Imraan's wild EM culture. The smelliest sock in the worldImraan's wild EM culture. The smelliest sock in the world

In a nutshell, organic fertilizers add life 

We learned first about different soil types, and a few simple tests that help the gardener, such as testing for pH with litmus from the chemist, and a drop test with peroxide, for the organic content in soil. Add organic material and life is the gardener’s mantra, but especially the permaculture gardener’s. We learned how to do this in some quite marvelous ways, from mulching to cover crops, biochar, effective microorganisms (EM’s), humanure composting and liquid manures.

a mix of covercrop seeds for scatteringseeds for scattering: cover crops are an excellent way of improving your soil and adding organic fertilizers

Plants that add organic fertilizers to soil

We mixed a range of seeds for strewing on the beds, legumes, mustard, sesame and oats are good for this. Most can be bought at spice shops, Once the cover crops come up, chop n drop or cut and harvest. Plant dynamic accumulators like comfrey. We received a free download after the workshop with a list of about twenty species.

Things that once lived, that add life

You can mulch with nearly any plant matter. It cools soil, slows evaporation, harbours friendly organisms, adds organic content and protects soil life by avoiding tilling. We made hot compost, with straw, horse manure and biochar, or hard black but thoroughly burned charcoal. More on this later. Compost or soak biochar in fertile liquids before putting it in soil as it is so absorbent it would remove the nutrients from the soil if it was not already charged.

water feeds the microbes, who make the organic fertilizerwater feeds the microbes, who make the organic fertilizer

Effective micro organisms make organic fertilizers effective

I was utterly fascinated to learn some simple forms of EM culture. We cannot digest or absorb food properly without our own gut flora and the soil needs it too. Without microbes the soil is dead and unable to supply food to plants in a plant friendly form. Permaculture takes the nurturing and reproduction of soil bacteria very seriously. 

We made EM’s based on bokashi inoculum, which is mainly a special yeast, as well as wild strains in the soil, and lacto bacteria in milk. They were fed with molasses, bran, cooked and uncooked rice. Wild bacteria from the soil had been cultured in a sock full of boiled rice buried in the garden a while previously. It was the smelliest sock I have ever had the pleasure of encountering, by quite a distance.

Worm farming is compact, neat and odour free, much less strenuous than making hot compost and has a range of powerful soil benefits in including available EM’s. I already have an article on vermiculture, and here is a good website. Liquid manures from weeds are fantastic and easy to make organic fertilizers. They can involve a short soak to leach nutrients from the plants, or a long fermentation to extract the nitrogen for fertilization and produce EM’s for the garden. The Guerilla House free downloads listed 11 different organic liquids that feed plants or enhance the garden’s soil life.

Imraan sells us the features of the twin seaterImraan sells us the features of the twin seater, he also drives one

If you gotta go, you may as well go green

Towards the end of the workshop we had a viewing of the twin seater compost loo on the property, which was also recently built. Unlike some other simple compost bucket systems it’s a seperating system, accomplished by shifting from one seat to the other. The volume of pee produced every day is much larger and is relatively sterile, whereas poo needs hot composting and ideally to wait a year before being put on food plants which are eaten raw, where there is danger of contact with the compost. They can be processed and utilized in different ways and mixing them can be counterproductive. Both buckets use sawdust to balance the C:N ration for composting and reduce odour. 

a biochar fire needs to be fed slowly and continuallya biochar fire needs to be fed slowly and continually

Wonderful biochar, the catalyst of organic fertilizers

Finally we made biochar in an earth pit and in a rocket stove designed from recycled materials by Imraan’s dad. 

Reading an artice on this topic by scientist Kelpie Wilson, from a link in the workshop download, was really interesting. I learned the secret of biochar’s special properties as a soil additive and ‘fertilizer’ apart from its other myriad uses. These are cation exchange which influences many aspects of soil chemistry and helps it retain nutrients, and and a huge surface area that can house and protecting micro organisms. As the wood burns, most other elements are driven off, and what is left is almost pure carbon, necessitating rebonding into one form or allotrope out of the diverse geometry of pure carbon crystals. The carbon rings attach to each other to form sheets as in the crystal structure of graphite, but instead of being flat, and sliding over each other, they are folded to form what looks like a honeycomb under the microscope, maintaining rigidity and much of the outward form of the original wood. Burned just right, biochar does not decompose for hundreds of years, and has created man made fertile soils, like Terra preta in the Amazon. 

The char-fire becomes incredibly hot, and Imraan’s machine has a wooden handle so that the cladding of corrugated iron can be shifted to close off the airholes. Cutting off oxygen after the wood has charred is necessary to prevent it disintegrating into ash completely.

Both fires blazed in the afternoon heat and we and went home tired and happy having been toasted both sides and satiated with interesting information. 

millenia of veld fires cause our sand to reject water, and charcoal makes it permeable againmillenia of veld fires cause our sand to reject water, and charcoal makes it permeable again



home page for links to all kinds of natural gardening knowledge


fertility and soil restoration and conservation


a graphic version or picture rich album made of this workshop

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