Humans have been seeking out ways to add fertility to their garden plants since the beginning of agriculture. Today it couldn’t be simpler to buy a bottle of instant plant nutrition at your local garden store, but some people find these options lacking. Instead, they choose to rely on a different type of plant nutrition, one that they can make themselves. One form of a homemade additive is a highly versatile mixture called fermented plant extract (FPE).
With a little bit of time and plenty of creativity, even the most novice gardener can make and use fermented plant extract right at home. By seeking out specific types of plant material, you can create a combination that gives your garden exactly what it needs, whether that is a natural pesticide, fungicide, or simply a little extra nutrition.
For some simple tips and smart ideas for using your own fermented plant extract, read on.
What is fermented plant extract?
The term ‘fermented plant extract’ can actually refer to a wide range of plant extracts and liquids. Popular throughout Asia for centuries, homemade FPEs are an easy way for poor farmers to get value from local plants, even ones that grow like weeds.
Though the plants can vary, the process remains simple. Plant material is fermented with lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and crude sugar or molasses to break down the plant fibers to make the nutrients and beneficial properties they contain more accessible for garden plants. After being stored for a significant amount of time, this liquid is applied directly to the root zone or as a foliar spray in order to add nutritional and microbial benefits to the soil and the plan
How does FPE work?
The logic behind FPE is simple. Because the prime plants for FPE are young, robust sprouts that grow quickly, they are full of chlorophyll and fiber. Coarsely chopping up these plants and adding sugar or molasses draws out their juices and provides a rich feeding source for the lactic acid bacteria. By eating through the plant material, this bacteria starts a fermentation process that extracts the chlorophyll and other plant materials out of the cellulose of the plant’s cells. This produces an enzyme-rich mixture of bacteria full of benefits for plants and animals.
Because FPE pulls out all the nutrients from the plants used and concentrates them into a small amount of liquid, just a few tablespoons of the final product will go a long way. By adding a scoop or two to a gallon of water, you can create a nutritional powerhouse far more effective than anything on a garden store shelf.
Benefits for the Garden
Using FPE is an easy way to saturate your garden plants with microbial-rich plant materials and beneficial enzymes. When applied directly to the top leaves of growing plants, you will notice a difference as they perk up and grow stronger and more robust.
Not only is FPE a smart way to add nutrition back to your garden, it’s also an easy way to use waste plants that otherwise would be tossed aside. Weeds tend to have the best nutritional content, so fermenting them into a spray helps you to get garden benefits out of them.
Even better, using specific types of plants for your extract can give the final liquid anti-fungal and pesticide properties that help your garden repel harmful pests. Common garden weeds tend to be ideal for this process because they have been naturally selected to withstand the onslaught of pests and insects in the environment.
Not only does FPE have plenty of potential for your garden, it’s also a smart choice for human health too. Unlike commercial fertilizers that can be toxic when ingested, most forms of FPE are nontoxic and many can even provide health benefits through the addition of beneficial microbes. In fact, farmers in East Asia have been drinking their plant extracts for centuries for a digestive probiotic boost. Making FPE from mugwort can help with constipation and arthritis, and bamboo is good for improving general health and energy levels.
What kind of plants can you use?
There are plenty of plant varieties that can be used for making fermented plant extract, but when you select your materials you should choose young and vibrant plants that don’t show any signs of insect or disease damage. Stick with local species when you can, as they have naturally evolved to be robust in your region. Be sure to choose plants that haven’t been contaminated with synthetic pesticides, and stay away from roadsides, as those plants are likely to be polluted.
In general, it’s best to use at least five different types of plants in your extract to ensure that you get a well-rounded cocktail of benefits for your plants.
Making Fermented Plant Extract
Making your own FPE is a simple process, so long as you follow the steps listed below.
- First, collect your plant material as early in the day as you can (before sunrise is best). Be sure to grab the tips of plants that show evidence of having grown quickly, and don’t collect anything during or after a rainstorm.
- Without washing anything first, coarsely cut up the plant material into two to three-inch pieces and place them in a bowl.
- Add in an equal volume of coarse sugar or molasses to the bowl and toss the ingredients together. Avoid using white sugar, as it has been overly refined and doesn’t contain many nutrients and will create a low-quality extract. Try to coat as much of the plant material with sugar as possible to create the maximum amount of surface area for fermentation microbes to attach themselves.
- After mixing them together, tightly pack the plants and sugar mixture into a clear glass or plastic container without a lid. Once the container is full, cover it with a breathable fabric that allows good airflow but prevents insects from getting in.
- Keep this container in a well-ventilated area where it stays safe from direct sunlight and temperature extremes.
- After 24 hours, check the container and remove plant and sugar material if the volume hasn’t naturally sunk down to about 2/3 of the container. It’s important to not overfill the container so that the microbes have enough room and air to fully ferment. If the mixture has settled to less than 2/3 full, add more sugar and plant material to reach 2/3, as this helps prevent mold from growing.
- Don’t disturb the mixture for the next several days. Once bubbles start to form, you will know that the fermentation process is starting to occur. In most cases, this will happen on the second day. After about seven days, the fermentation process should be done. Look for significantly diminished and floating plant scraps and a light alcoholic taste and smell as evidence that the process worked.
- Once the fermentation process has occurred, strain the solid parts away from the liquid and use the plant material as compost or animal feed. The liquid is your fermented plant extract.
- You can use your FPE immediately or store it in a glass or plastic container. Keep the lid loose so that the gasses formed through further fermentation don’t build up and cause the container to explode. For long-term storage, it’s smart to add an equal part of brown sugar to the extract to prevent it from souring in the fermentation process.
General Application Rates
There are plenty of ways to use FPE once you make it. In most cases, the extract is diluted with water and used as a soil drench or foliar spray to add beneficial microbes to plant leaves. In general, it’s smart to use plant materials for fermenting that are in the same growth stage as the plants you want to treat (a young plants-based extract treats young plants, etc). FPE made from unripe fruits can be used on plants right as they develop buds and flowers.
When diluting your FPE in water, it’s usually best to add one part extract to 500 parts water. You can also mix in one teaspoon per liter to create a more concentrated foliage spray. The best way to apply the mixture is just an hour before sunset, but be sure to water the soil before spraying to prevent the plant roots from getting scorched. Once a week tends to be the optimal amount of time between applications.
To use FPE as a way to add microbes to your garden seeds before planting them, soak your seeds for five hours before planting in a solution of one part extract to 50 parts water.
Additional Tips and Tricks
In order to get the best results with FPE, you can follow these extra tips.
- When choosing the plants to use for FPE, stick with fast growing plants that aren’t hard or woody, as these types won’t provide enough juice. Keep in mind that it’s usually best to harvest plants in the early morning when they are in the respiration stage, not during photosynthesis once the sun comes out.
- Though FPE can be made year-round in some climates, you will usually have the best results making it during the time of year when plants grow fastest in your area.
- If you see some bubbles or even fungi in your jar while making FPE, there’s no need to worry. It simply reveals that your mixture needs more sugar or molasses. You can stir in a few tablespoons to fix the problem.
- Keep your FPE our of direct sunlight and heat in order to prevent it from getting damaged.
- Stay away from any areas where plants might have gotten sprayed with pesticides when harvesting for your FPE. This includes roadsides, the edges of farm fields and recreational parks or athletic fields.