Ica Crawford was a woman with a mission when she arrived in New Orleans in early 2006. She came to town with volunteers from the culinary arts school she was attending in southern Illinois to help rebuild a restaurant devastated by Katrina. But she stayed when she realized the opportunity to her purpose in life.
“To grow great food in a responsible manner to feed the people. It’s that simple,” Crawford said.
Today, Crawford will teach a workshop on a process she uses to ensure she can do just that — making compost tea.
The free workshop begins at 10:30 a.m. at the Recirculating Farms Coalition garden (1750 Robert C. Blakes Drive, aka Carondelet Street). Crawford will explain how “compost tea” helps any garden thrive and increase its yield.
“The healthier the soil, the healthier the plants, whether they are vegetable crops or fruiting crops,” Crawford said. “Beneficial bacteria in compost tea reawakens the soil and restores it so that plants can form healthy roots. Most people only see the greenery at the top of the plant, but it all starts with the roots.”
Crawford knew when she got here that she needed more education to realize her goal of being a productive urban farmer.
“I got an associate degree in horticultural science, then went to UNO to study biological sciences,” said Crawford, now the director of farming operations for the Recirculating Farms Coalition. “I wanted to know and understand what it really takes to help plants grow.”
The basics: There are macro-nutrients that plants need in large quantities, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Then there are the micronutrients. Those are elements that plants need in trace amounts, such as copper or boron.
“When I teach a workshop, I try not to get too technical because I don’t want to scare anyone away. The most important thing is to get them planting — the rest can come later,” she said.
Compost tea is made by steeping nutrient- and bacteria-rich compost in aerated water.
“You know how sometimes your computer isn’t working quite right and you have to reboot? Well, watering with compost tea reboots the soil so your plants can develop good root structure,” explained Crawford.
The tea is economical because it can cover a larger area than solid compost. All you need are a five-gallon bucket, two cups of organic compost, an aerator, rainwater and … pantyhose.
“People bring me pantyhose all the time because that’s what I put the compost in so it can steep in the water,” she said. Alternatives are cheesecloth, an old pillowcase or a tea towel.
If rainwater isn’t available, it’s important to let tap water sit for a day or two to evaporate the chlorine that can kill beneficial micro-organisms.
“I recommend that people make their own compost — that’s what’s going to be the most nutrient rich,” said Crawford. “But if you buy compost to make tea, go with the compost from local producers and check to make sure it hasn’t been pasteurized, because that process will kill the microbes you want to add to your soil. Also make sure it’s fully broken down without any woody pieces visible.”
In addition to her work at the Recirculating Farms Coalition, Crawford has a neighborhood-based nonprofit called “Our Garden” with locations in Pigeontown and St. Roch. Neighbors help tend the gardens in exchange for boxes of fresh organic produce.
“You have to give before you can take,” Crawford said. “The way I see it, we are all stewards of Mother Earth.”
R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at email@example.com.