This summer's special: soup for the soil

My husband, John, and I often tease each other about our vices. I have two, flowers and fabric, while he cites only one: fertilizer.

Discussions about soil microbes and bacteria are commonplace at our dinner table. Over the years John has experimented with various organic soil enhancers and foliar fertilizers, all dubbed "magic grow" by my creative husband. This summer his quest for the perfect fertilizer blossomed with "soup for the soil."

"Manure tea" and "compost tea" are terms I grew up with. My mother would throw a few scoops of rotted manure or compost in a bucket and add water. After a sufficient time, she'd sprinkle the tea on her roses and perennials. But John has acres to cover and miles of rows to spray before he sleeps and is never content to cook up a small batch of anything. So he bought 600-gallon fiberglass tank for his soup.

On our next shopping trip he roams the aisles of the pet department looking for a "bubbler."

"A bubbler?" I ask. "For the pond? To aerate the water for the fish?"

"No, no," he replied. "One big enough for my vat, for my compost tea. I can't have it go anaerobic. I have to add oxygen."

Shaking my head, I wheel the cart toward groceries while John discusses aquarium bubblers with a sales clerk.

The next Saturday, John drags out his vat. "We're supposed to have warm weather next week, right? In the 80s? My tea can't take cold weather."

"Perfect brewing weather, according to NOAA weather radio," I tell him, and John hustles off.

Later he asks, "When is your next trip to the food co-op?"

"Oh, any time now. Is there something you'd like?" I was waiting to hear that we haven't had lasagna in a long time, so please pick up some lasagna noodles.

"Baking yeast, two pounds," John orders. "And how about some nutritional yeast? Do you have any? I might need a few pounds."

A few pounds of that flaky, fluffy, golden yeast that our cat is wild about? "What's all this for?" I ask.

"For my compost tea, for my soup for the soil."

When I return from the co-op, John and our son, Carlos, are filling the vat with pond water. Hopping onto his tractor, John rumbles over to a pile of turkey compost and scoops up a bucket. A yard of compost drops into the murky mess. Yeast, molasses, and other "secret" ingredients are added, the bubbler is turned on, and the pot begins to brew. When I walk through the barnyard, the air is filled with traces of yeast and molasses.

Three times a day, another larger motor connected to a pump is started, and the guys huddle over their concoction. I pause from weeding my garden and saunter over to watch. Each of them is holding a large green hose attached to the pump that sucks up the tea by one hose and spews it out the other. John has one arm in up to his elbow and is "troubling" the waters while stirring his hose near the bottom of the vat.

"We're stirring the tea!" he shouts over the din of the motor. The surface of the slop boils and roils; mist surrounds the caldron. And these are the guys who say their cooking skills consist of PB&Js and scrambled eggs?

Just at this moment, a quick breeze flings John's straw hat into his soup. Carlos reaches for it. In doing so, the end of his hose reaches the top of the tea. Soil soup fountains about them, and I retreat.

"Don't ever ask me to help with that job!" I remark.

Calmly, the guys laugh, wipe their faces, and resume their stirring.

"Just a little compost," John comments. "What's good for the soil is good for me."

A week later the great moment arrives. Father and son scurry about the vat, pumping tea and more pond water into the spray rig.

"We have to spray it out today," John explains. "Supposed to rain tonight, and that will wash it into the soil. Timing's everything."

The tractor grumbles and growls, and I hear the spray rig rumble off. All afternoon, John and Carlos take turns spraying the soil in the blueberry bog. At last the vat is empty, and they hose out the sludge. When I walk by the spray shed the air smells normal, and I no longer hear bubbling.

Thunder rolls over us that evening and John stands on the porch, gloating, watching the rain sink his soup further into the soil. In farming, timing is everything, and this time the farmer and the weather waltz. The rain settles into a drizzle.

"What's the weather supposed to be like next Friday?" John asks.

It appears that soup for the soil will be a regular item on this summer's menu.

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