What are enzymes?
For those of us who managed to skip chemistry class, let’s start with an explanation of what enzymes are and what they do.
First off, enzymes are molecules present in the cells of all living things. They are amino acids (proteins) that speed up chemical reactions within cells. And, for each different enzymes, there is a different function that it performs. For example, some functions that enzymes perform include:
- making hemoglobin functional in the human body
- breaking down complex carbohydrates
- breaking down organic matter into chemicals that fertilize our gardens
- used for bioremediation to break toxic chemicals down into non-toxic ones
What do enzymes do?
Enzymatic action increases levels of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in the garden. Additionally, enzymes assist in breaking down deleterious chemicals, like ammonia; and can be used for any number of reasons, including transforming grey water for use in the garden or even as a garden pesticide.
To do their jobs, most enzymes require a cofactor or a coenzyme. Cofactors are generally metal ions, which we call trace elements, that are present in healthy soils. Coenzymes are derived from vitamins, which are also readily available in healthy soils.
If you’re converting a garden or farm from standard agricultural methods to organic, you will want to focus on enzymes that facilitate bioremediation, and add plenty of fresh compost to activate those enzymes. If you’re working with poor or exhausted soil, enzymes along with fresh compost will quickly increase quality and tilth. Maximizing enzymatic action relies on organic matter, by way of either fresh compost or generous green manure.
Maintaining Enzyme Functions in the Garden
Enzymes are present in all of the things that interest us as organic gardeners: the soil microbiome; compost; compost teas; fermented plant extract and fermented fruit juices; and in probiotics. Everytime we use one of these in garden soil, we are increasing enzymatic activity, so long as conditions are right. Three conditions that gardeners need to note in maintaining enzyme function in the soil include:
- and pH levels.
As enzymes are contained in the cells of microbes, some level of moisture is required, as microbes become inactive in dry conditions. Most enzymes, particularly the ones we’re interested in for gardening, will be active in temperatures between 32 and 140 degrees F. Further, they like a steady slightly acidic to near-neutral pH level. Fluctuations in pH over short periods will inhibit activity.
If you’re using rainwater and live in an area where the rain is acidic, or drawing groundwater through an acidic substrate (such as lime rock), you should test the soil pH to be sure that it’s not too acidic to support enzymatic activity. If soil temperature or moisture levels are a challenge, adding mulch will alleviate the problem. To keep enzymes active through cold winter months, or during extreme heat, increase the amount of mulch.
Adding enzymes to your garden will result in increased enzymatic activity, meaning increased chemical reactions that purify the soil and make more nutrients bio-available to plants. Additionally, enzymes can be used as pesticides when made into a solution for direct spraying on plants and topsoil. You can make your own, and, if you’re already making fermented fruit juice, you probably have everything you need to make an enzyme solution.
Making Enzyme Solutions
To start making your own enzyme solutions at home, you can follow these basic instructions to form your own recipe or use one of the recipes listed below.
First, you will need the following materials:
- Molasses, Jaggery or brown Sugar
- Fresh vegetables, scraps or peels
- An airtight plastic container
- Measuring cup
Once you’ve gathered these items, simply add these proportions to your airtight container for your enzyme solution:
- 1 part molasses
- 3 parts fresh vegetables
- 10 parts water
As long as you maintain that ratio, you will be well on your way to making some of the best homemade garden fertilizers, pesticides, cleaning products and more! Of course, you could also choose to switch the fresh vegetables for fruits or other organic material that you want to test out as an enzyme solution.