Berkeley Botanical Garden Adopts New Eco-Friendly Fertilizing Method

Eugene W. Lau/Staff

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The UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley recently began an new innovative fertilizing method, financed by a campus fund that supports environmentally friendly projects.

Last month, the garden, perched atop a hill northeast of campus, started to use what is called "compost tea" to provide nutrients to plants and reduce the amount of water that is needed. The "tea" is a liquid that is brewed from high-grade organic compost and sprayed onto plants, acting as a disease suppressant.

"Because the liquid is so biologically active as compost, the soil is allowed to take advantage of the nutrients," said Anthony Garza, supervisor of horticulture and grounds for the garden. "You use less synthetic fertilizers that are based in chemicals."

Plants get nutrition from microorganisms in soil, according to Kevin Haines, a staff member at Soil Foodweb, an organization that does laboratory testing regarding fertilizers and soil quality and has performed much of the research about compost tea. Without the microorganisms in the soil, he said, keeping the garden healthy requires entering a "cycle of dependency" on synthetic fertilizers.

With the compost tea, the garden can reduce that reliance, which can harm wildlife and plants like those inhabiting Strawberry Creek. The creek, which flows through campus, has faced excessive pollution as the student population has increased over the past hundred years, according to Tim Pine, environmental protection specialist for the campus Office of Environment, Health and Safety.

Changing the methods at the garden, which is close to the creek's south fork, will help further efforts to restore the quality of the stream's water.

"One of the biggest concerns is the impact on watersheds and water quality, and we're right here in a major East Bay watershed with tributaries of Strawberry Creek," Pine said. "And the health of all plants and animals, aquatic and terrestrial, depends on the quality of the watershed."

The garden received $15,000 for the project from The Green Initiative Fund, which is supported by a $5.50 per semester student fee that totals about $250,000 to pay for eco-friendly projects around campus.

So far, Garza has spent $11,000 on the equipment, which includes a 300-gallon tank used to aerate the compost, worm composting bins to form the compost and a spray tank with which to apply the tea. Initially, he said, the compost tea will be used in the garden's Asian collection and rose garden because the two are the most heavily irrigated and therefore have the most fungal diseases, which the new method looks to prevent by using less water.

"If you've improved soil and plants are happier, you have to spend less time tending to pests and diseases," Garza said. "Right here in the Bay Area for a public institution ... I don't think there's anything in the area quite like it."


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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