The Good, the Bad, the Microbial
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:59 PM
SoilSoup creator receives AHS award for creative use of technology.
Some years, late tomato blight would kill everyones tomatoes on Bainbridge.
Then Jerry Erickson encountered compost tea a home-brewed garden remedy that, when sprayed on the plants, would eliminate late blight.
Why is this natural material so effective at doing what no chemical can? Erickson asked himself.
One thing led to another, and this year Ericksons SoilSoup in Seattle received the American Horticulture Societys G.B. Gunlogson Award for creative use of new technology to make home gardening more productive and enjoyable.
Erickson had not even heard of compost tea until 1998, when a compost tea maker gave a demonstration at Winslow Green. The idea that this brown, tea-like liquid containing millions of microbes could eliminate diseases and be good for the soil intrigued him.
There was one drawback: the brewing device Erickson saw demonstrated was expensive and large. So, when two friends said they were thinking of getting one, Erickson offered to build one of his own.
A consultant for machine design by trade, Erickson worked on a gadget to aerate a mass of water in his machine shop at home.
The aerator, which he eventually patented, mixed air into every part of the compost tea, encouraging the growth of the beneficial microbes that need oxygen over the anaerobic microbes that are bad for plant life.
Erickson also studied up on microbiology starting with his wifes nursing book, and then an English translation of N.A. Krasilnikovs Soil Microorganisms and Higher Plants he found on the internet.
Working with local farmers such as Art Biggert, he tested and refined his brewer.
Jerry would say, I think I have something that might work, and then the bioslime would clog the pipes and burn out the motors and hed redesign it, Biggert said.
Over the course of two years, Erickson came up with an aerator design and mix of nutrients that could brew a tea full of beneficial microbes from a worm compost tea bag.
Erickson and his business partner Eric Neff marketed SoilSoups first compost tea kits, including the aerator dubbed the Bio-Blender and its nutrient mix, to small organic farmers and home gardeners.
While they still sell the kits to consumers, their most successful products have been large-scale SoilSoup Kitchens to garden supply stores, which cook up and sell small quantities of the compost tea to individual gardeners.
Dawn Levy of Bainbridge Gardens says they sell up to 200 gallons a day, and sold well over 5,000 gallons last year. Thats despite the fact that compost tea is less convenient to apply than chemical fertilizers because the brew contains living microbes, it has to be used the same day it is brewed.
It takes some convincing for some people, she said. But I havent heard any complaints yet. Compost tea is the least toxic thing you can do.
Usually, its the home gardeners who misuse chemicals. The first reaction to a problem is to spray.
As concern over the health effects of chemical pesticides has grown, so has the popularity of compost tea. Many chemical treatments, says Biggert, will kill beneficial microbes, while pathogens hide in a dormant protein shell, only to emerge later. The aerobic microbes in compost tea, by contrast, will eat through that shell.
Pathogens are poor competitors but good at reproduction, he said. In a biodiverse soil, the pathogens would be eaten by the others.
Levy says that she switched from chemical to organic gardening three years ago, and although the first year was tough, she isnt seeing aphids in her garden this year.
From the position of doing the right thing, its rewarding, Erickson said. Ive never been in a business that (had) a feeling of contribution, and this definitely does.