Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place
The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

Fermentation for Plant Health

Elspeth Hay

You know that liquid in the compost that you try to avoid? My neighbor Kris Smith is making something like it on purpose. It bubbles, and well, it’s active. It’s alive.


The liquid in the bucket smells awful, like rotting cow manure. But the bubbles and belches tell Kris it’s doing what it’s supposed to do—which is nurturing and multiplying indigenous microorganisms—bacteria and fungi. The plants are simply weeds Kris pulled from his garden—the biggest and healthiest looking ones—and they’re combined with rainwater and shredded decaying leaves to ferment for a few weeks. Kris follows a method known as Korean Natural Farming, which he says has totally changed the way he thinks about growing food:


“I just kind of felt like I had been lied to kind of my whole life about how gardens work," he said.


“To me it was always you buy bottled nutrients or you buy plant food and you feed that to your plants and— which is not the case at all. You’re basically supplying the soil with the microbes and the nutrients that the plant needs. So it’s—you’re not force-feeding your plants, you’re building up your soil.” 


This might sound like a small distinction. But in practice, it’s a big deal. We’ve all been hearing more and more about the human digestive system and the importance of microorganisms in keeping us healthy. The same thing is true for plants. Kris’s ferments are like probiotics or yogurt or kimchi but for the garden. Feeding plants fertilizers doesn’t help if they can’t absorb them. The microorganisms in his homemade soil amendments help break down nutrients so they’re more accessible to the plants. These days Kris uses Korean Natural Farming methods to make all kinds of liquid fertilizers and amendments.


“So this one is bones, there’s still a bit of bone left in here from some coyote, there might have been a whole sheep skull in here, which is long gone.”


The bones dissolved into fragments, broken down by the fermentation. The other buckets hold ferments made with crab shells, oyster shells, seaweed, rock dust, and more garden weeds. Every mixture has rainwater—it’s important that it’s unchlorinated—and more shredded leaves.


“Which is first I was just amazed, because it’s just leaf mold. It’s just you know the decomposed leaves from the woods is kinda doing all the work for this stuff.” 


Elspeth Hay
Kris and some of his ferments.

The leaves add carbohydrates that feed the bacteria and fungi already present in the plant matter or on the bones or shells so that they can multiply, although some people also use sugar. It’s a similar process to what happens as compost breaks down, but instead of a huge pile, you get a concentrated liquid. 


I asked how you use it, and what you do with it.


“So if I was making a five-gallon bucket to use to water the garden I would use between a cup and three cups depending on what stage the garden is in.” 


For instance calcium is important when plants start growing fruit, so according to Korean Natural Farming methods you’d add extra bone ferment at that stage, whereas when they’re just getting started and need nitrogen you might add fermented plant juice. And of course at every stage, you’re adding lots of indigenous microorganisms. Kris says the impact on his garden has been huge. 


“Our garden, it seems like Jurassic Park, um, like the leeks or these Chinese onions, they overwintered two winters with no mulch and they are obviously very happy.”


The garden is vibrant. It’s overflowing with onions, greens, raspberries, hops, apples, blueberries and squash. Kris says he was drawn to Korean Natural Farming for the same reasons as people all over the world: it’s low cost, organic, and effective. Once I started learning about the fermented inputs Kris Smith is making, I found out a lot of other farmers and gardeners around the Cape are making their own Korean Natural Farming amendments, too.