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Invite plants to a tea party

Ever notice how often things come as a mixed blessing?

During the winter and the dry season, we pine for the return of summer warmth and rain to soak thirsty lawns and gardens. But once they arrive, we whine about the steamy heat and the multitude of fungal diseases that coat roses, vegetables and lawns. The fungi are rarely dangerous, but they can weaken and disfigure gardens and landscapes.

Some folks prefer the immediate results of broad spectrum chemical fungicides such as Daconil or Benomyl or Funginex. The bad news is that these products can also wipe out the beneficial fungi that nourish plant roots and help control disease and nematodes. Think of applying those chemicals as using a sledgehammer to kill a fly on a piece of fine china. Such sprays simplify the ecology of a garden, but in nature the complex ecologies are the healthy and stable ones.

Those of us who garden organically can mimic nature's ancient wisdom by adding "teams" of beneficial fungi and bacteria to crowd out the harmful ones and fight diseases. This "biological crowding" has kept my gardens and my clients' gardens virtually disease-free for the past 20 years; and as you might expect from a tightwad like me, the technique is inexpensive and time-efficient.

Bio tea, natural fungus control

Fill a 5-gallon bucket with water and let it age two to three days in the sun to get rid of the chlorine; then add two cups each of the first five ingredients:

Calf Manna (sold in feedstores in 25 and 50 pound bags)

Any dry compost starter

Compost (preferably homemade)

Ringer Lawn Restore

Sugar or molasses

1 packet of baker's yeast

Mix all the ingredients and let the tea steep for two days.

For roses, vegetables and other plants: Stir the tea, then fill a watering can. Pour the tea all over the leaves; this inoculates their surfaces with hundreds of good critters.

For lawn and shrubs: Strain the tea through a pair of panty hose into a pump garden sprayer (preferably one that never held herbicides). Coat the lawn or shrub with these natural allies to control disease.

As with most natural gardening approaches, bio tea is not a fast-acting silver bullet, but a gentle, steady means of achieving a stable and sustainable balance. Try a batch of bio tea, and use the money you save on those expensive chemicals for a nice meal out.

_ John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnesmsn.com.

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