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Thread: molasses 101

  1. #1

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    Default molasses 101

    Indepth info on molasses..

    {{[Recreation of 3LB's (three_little_birds) the 3LB’s Molasses Manual - a growers guide to soil sweeteners}}

    This is the second in our series of threads on organic gardening techniques and tools started with the Guano Guide / Manure Manual. That particular guide was designed to be a fairly comprehensive look at the uses of poop in gardening. While we tried to keep that topic (and our puns) tasteful - there’s no avoiding the fact it’s not exactly an appetizing subject (unless you happen to be a plant!)

    Like manure, this subject is another one of those “magical” organic goodies that contributes to plant health in more than one way. It’s also like manure in that it’s a waste or by-product, but when we think about it, this topic really is the “other end of the stick”!

    Now it’s time to move on to a much much sweeter topic . . .

    Molasses . . .

    like the boy’s on South Park are sometimes known for saying - “That’s what I call a sticky situation!” . . .

    Sweet Organic Goodness - Magical Molasses

    There are a number of different nutrient and fertilizer companies selling a variety of additives billed as carbohydrate booster products for plants. Usually retailing for tens of dollars per gallon if not tens of dollars per liter, these products usually claim to work as a carbohydrate source for plants. A variety of benefits are supposed to be unlocked by the use of these products, including the relief of plant stresses and increases in the rate of nutrient uptake. On the surface it sounds real good, and while these kinds of products almost always base their claims in enough science to sound good, reality doesn’t always live up to the hype.

    The 3LB are pretty well known for our distrust of nutrient companies like Advanced Nutrients who produce large lines of products (usually with large accompanying price tags) claiming to be a series of “magic bullets” - unlocking the keys to growing success for new and experienced growers alike. One member of the three_little_birds grower’s and breeder’s collective decided to sample one of these products a while back, intending to give the product a fair trial and then report on the results to the community at Cannabis World.

    Imagine, if you will, Tweetie bird flying off to the local hydroponics store, purchasing a bottle of the wonder product - “Super Plant Carb!” (not it’s real name) - and then dragging it back to the bird’s nest. With a sense of expectation our lil’ bird opens the lid, hoping to take a peek and a whiff of this new (and expensive) goodie for our wonderful plants. She is greeted with a familiar sweet smell that it takes a moment to place. Then the realization hits her. . .

    Molasses! The “Super Plant Carb!” smells just like Blackstrap Molasses. At the thought that she’s just paid something like $15 for a liter of molasses, our Tweetie bird scowls. Surely she tells herself there must be more to this product than just molasses. So she dips a wing into the sweet juice ever so slightly, and brings it up to have a taste.

    Much the same way a sneaky Sylvester cat is exposed by a little yellow bird saying - “I thought I saw a puddy tat . . . I did I did see a puddy tat . . . and he’s standing right there!” - our Tweetie bird had discovered the essence of this product. It was indeed nothing more than Blackstrap Molasses, a quick taste had conformed for our Tweetie bird that she had wasted her time and effort lugging home a very expensive bottle of plant food additive. Molasses is something we already use for gardening at the Bird’s Nest. In fact sweeteners like molasses have long been a part of the arsenal of common products used by organic gardeners to bring greater health to their soils and plants.

    So please listen to the little yellow bird when she chirps, because our Tweetie bird knows her stuff. The fertilizer companies are like the bumbling Sylvester in many ways, but rather than picturing themselves stuffed with a little bird, they see themselves growing fat with huge profits from the wallets of unsuspecting consumers. Let us assure you it’s not the vision of yellow feathers floating in front of their stuffed mouths that led these executives in their attempt to “pounce” on the plant growing public.

    And the repackaging of molasses as plant food or plant additive is not just limited to the companies selling their products in hydroponic stores. Folks shopping at places like Wal-Mart are just as likely to be taken in by this tactic. In this particular case the offending party is Schultz® Garden Safe All Purpose Liquid Plant Food 3-1-5. This is a relatively inexpensive product that seems appealing to a variety of organic gardeners. Here’s Shultz own description of their product.

    “Garden Safe Liquid Plant Foods are made from plants in a patented technology that provides plants with essential nutrients for beautiful flowers and foliage and no offensive smell. Plus they improve soils by enhancing natural microbial activity. Great for all vegetables, herbs, flowers, trees, shrubs and houseplants including roses, tomatoes, fruits, and lawns. Derived from completely natural ingredients, Garden Safe All Purpose Liquid Plant Food feeds plants and invigorates soil microbial activity. Made from sugar beet roots! No offensive manure or fish odors.”

    That sure sounds good, and the three_little_birds will even go as far as to say we agree 100% with all the claims made in that little blurb of ad copy. But here’s the problem, Shultz isn’t exactly telling the public that the bottle of “fertilizer” they are buying is nothing more than a waste product derived from the production of sugar. In fact, Schultz® Garden Safe 3-1-5 Liquid Plant Food is really and truly nothing more than a form molasses derived from sugar beet processing that is usually used as an animal feed sweetener. If you don’t believe a band of birds, go ahead and look for yourself at the fine print on a Garden Safe bottle where it says - “Contains 3.0% Water Soluble Nitrogen, 1.0% Available Phosphate, 5.0% Soluble Potash - derived from molasses.”

    The only problem we see, is that animal feed additives shouldn’t be retailing for $7.95 a quart, and that’s the price Shultz is charging for it’s Garden Safe product. While we don’t find that quite as offensive as Advanced Nutrients selling their “CarboLoad” product for $14.00 a liter, we still know that it’s terribly overpriced for sugar processing wastes. So, just as our band of birds gave the scoop on poop in our Guano Guide, we’re now about to give folks the sweet truth about molasses.

    Molasses is a syrupy, thick juice created by the processing of either sugar beets or the sugar cane plant. Depending on the definition used, Sweet Sorghum also qualifies as a molasses, although technically it’s a thickened syrup more akin to Maple Syrup than to molasses. The grade and type of molasses depends on the maturity of the sugar cane or beet and the method of extraction. The different molasses’ have names like: first molasses, second molasses, unsulphured molasses, sulphured molasses, and blackstrap molasses. For gardeners the sweet syrup can work as a carbohydrate source to feed and stimulate microorganisms. And, because molasses (average NPK 1-0-5) contains potash, sulfur, and many trace minerals, it can serve as a nutritious soil amendment. Molasses is also an excellent chelating agent.

    Several grades and types of molasses are produced by sugar cane processing. First the plants are harvested and stripped of their leaves, and then the sugar cane is usually crushed or mashed to extract it’s sugary juice. Sugar manufacturing begins by boiling cane juice until it reaches the proper consistency, it is then processed to extract sugar. This first boiling and processing produces what is called first molasses, this has the highest sugar content of the molasses because relatively little sugar has been extracted from the juice. Green (unripe) sugar cane that has been treated with sulphur fumes during sugar extraction produces sulphured molasses. The juice of sun-ripened cane which has been clarified and concentrated produces unsulphured molasses. Another boiling and sugar extraction produces second molasses which has a slight bitter tinge to its taste.

    Further rounds of processing and boiling yield dark colored blackstrap molasses, which is the most nutritionally valuable of the various types of molasses. It is commonly used as a sweetner in the manufacture of cattle and other animal feeds, and is even sold as a human health supplement. Any kind of molasses will work to provide benefit for soil and growing plants, but blackstrap molasses is the best choice because it contains the greatest concentration of sulfur, iron and micronutrients from the original cane material. Dry molasses is something different still. It’s not exactly just dried molasses either, it’s molasses sprayed on grain residue which acts as a “carrier”.

    Molasses production is a bit different when it comes to the sugar beet. You might say “bird’s know beets” because one of our flock grew up near Canada’s “sugar beet capitol” in Alberta. Their family worked side by side with migrant workers tending the beet fields. The work consisted of weeding and thinning by hand, culling the thinner and weaker plants to leave behind the best beets. After the growing season and several hard frosts - which increase the sugar content - the beets are harvested by machines, piled on trucks and delivered to their destination.

    At harvest time, a huge pile of beets will begin to build up outside of the sugar factory that will eventually dwarf the factory itself in size. Gradually throughout the winter the pile will diminish as the whole beets are ground into a mash and then cooked. The cooking serves to reduce and clarify the beet mash, releasing huge columns of stinky (but harmless) beet steam into the air. Sometimes, if the air is cold enough, the steam will fall to the ground around the factory as snow!

    As we’ve already learned, in the of sugar cane the consecutive rounds of sugar manufacturing produce first molasses and second molasses. With the humble sugar beet, the intermediate syrups get names like high green and low green, it’s only the syrup left after the final stage of sugar extraction that is called molasses. After final processing, the leftover sugar beet mash is dried then combined with the thick black colored molasses to serve as fodder for cattle. Sugar beet molasses is also used to sweeten feed for horses, sheep, chickens, etc.

    Sugar beet molasses is only considered useful as an animal feed additive because it has fairly high concentrations of many salts including calcium, potassium, oxalate, and chloride. Despite the fact that it’s not suitable for human consumption and some consider it to be an industrial waste or industrial by-product, molasses produced from sugar beets makes a wonderful plant fertilizer. While humans may reject beet molasses due to the various “extras” the sugar beet brings to the table, to our plant’s it’s a different story. Sugar beet molasses is usually fairly chemical free as well, at least in our experience. Although farmers generally fertilize their fields in the spring using the various arrays of available fertilizers, weed chemicals (herbicides) are not used for this crop due to the beet plant’s relatively delicate nature.

    There is at least one other type of “molasses” we are aware of, and that would be sorghum molasses. It’s made from a plant known as sweet sorghum or sorghum cane in treatments somewhat similar to sugar beets and/or sugar cane processing. If our understanding is correct, sorghum molasses is more correctly called a thickened syrup rather than a by-product of sugar production. So in our eyes sorghum molasses is probably more like Maple Syrup than a true molasses.

    In the distant past sorghum syrup was a common locally produced sweetener in many areas, but today it is fairly rare speciality product that could get fairly pricey compared to Molasses. Because sorghum molasses is the final product of sweet sorghum processing, and blackstrap and sugar beet molasses are simply waste by-products of sugar manufacturing, it’s pretty easy to understand the difference in expense between the products. The word from the birds is - there isn’t any apparent advantage to justify the extra expense of using sorghum molasses as a substitute for blackstrap or sugar beet molasses in the garden. So if you find sorghum molasses, instead of using it in your garden, you’ll probably want to use it as an alternate sweetener on some biscuits.

    That’s a quick bird’s eye look at the differences between the various types and grades of molasses and how they are produced. Now it’s time to get a peek at the why’s and how’s of using molasses in gardening.

    Why Molasses?

    The reason nutrient manufacturer’s have “discovered” molasses is the simple fact that it’s a great source of carbohydrates to stimulate the growth of beneficial microorganisms. “Carbohydrate” is really just a fancy word for sugar, and molasses is the best sugar for horticultural use. Folks who have read some of our prior essays know that we are big fans of promoting and nourishing soil life, and that we attribute a good portion of our growing success to the attention we pay to building a thriving “micro-herd” to work in concert with plant roots to digest and assimilate nutrients. We really do buy into the old organic gardening adage - “Feed the soil not the plant.”

    Molasses is a good, quick source of energy for the various forms of microbes and soil life in a compost pile or good living soil. As we said earlier, molasses is a carbon source that feeds the beneficial microbes that create greater natural soil fertility. But, if giving a sugar boost was the only goal, there would be lot’s of alternatives. We could even go with the old Milly Blunt story of using Coke on plants as a child, after all Coke would be a great source of sugar to feed microbes and it also contains phosphoric acid to provide phosphorus for strengthening roots and encouraging blooming. In our eyes though, the primary thing that makes molasses the best sugar for agricultural use is it’s trace minerals.

    In addition to sugars, molasses contains significant amounts of potash, sulfur, and a variety of micronutrients. Because molasses is derived from plants, and because the manufacturing processes that create it remove mostly sugars, the majority of the mineral nutrients that were contained in the original sugar cane or sugar beet are still present in molasses. This is a critical factor because a balanced supply of mineral nutrients is essential for those “beneficial beasties” to survive and thrive. That’s one of the secrets we’ve discovered to really successful organic gardening, the micronutrients found in organic amendments like molasses, kelp, and alfalfa were all derived from other plant sources and are quickly and easily available to our soil and plants. This is especially important for the soil “micro-herd” of critters who depend on tiny amounts of those trace minerals as catalysts to make the enzymes that create biochemical transformations. That last sentence was our fancy way of saying - it’s actually the critters in “live soil” that break down organic fertilizers and “feed” it to our plants.

    One final benefit molasses can provide to your garden is it’s ability to work as a chelating agent. That’s a scientific way of saying that molasses is one of those “magical” substances that can convert some chemical nutrients into a form that’s easily available for critters and plants. Chelated minerals can be absorbed directly and remain available and stable in the soil. Rather than spend a lot of time and effort explaining the relationships between chelates and micronutrients, we are going to quote one of our favorite sources for explaining soil for scientific laymen.

    “Micronutrients occur, in cells as well as in soil, as part of large, complex organic molecules in chelated form. The word chelate (pronounced “KEE-late”) comes from the Greek word for “claw,” which indicates how a single nutrient ion is held in the center of the larger molecule. The finely balanced interactions between micronutrients are complex and not fully understood. We do know that balance is crucial; any micronutrient, when present in excessive amounts, will become a poison, and certain poisonous elements, such as chlorine are also essential micronutrients.
    For this reason natural, organic sources of micronutrients are the best means of supplying them to the soil; they are present in balanced quantities and not liable to be over applied through error or ignorance. When used in naturally chelated form, excess micronutrients will be locked up and prevented from disrupting soil balance.”
    Excerpted from “The Soul of Soil”
    by Grace Gershuny and Joe Smillie

    That’s not advertising hype either, no product being sold there. That’s just the words of a pair of authors who have spent their lives studying, building, and nurturing soils.

    Molasses’ ability to act as a chelate explains it’s presence in organic stimulant products like Earth Juice Catalyst. Chelates are known for their ability to unlock the potential of fertilizers, and some smart biological farmers we know are using chelating agents (like Humic Acid) to allow them to make dramatic cuts in normal levels of fertilizer application.

    One way to observe this reaction at work would be to mix up a solution of one part molasses to nine parts water and then soak an object which is coated with iron rust (like a simple nail for instance) in that solution for two weeks. The chelating action of the molasses will remove the mineral elements of the rust and hold them in that “claw shaped” molecule that Grace and Joe just described.

    As we’ve commented on elsewhere, it’s not always possible to find good information about the fertilizer benefits of some products that aren’t necessarily produced as plant food. But we’ve also found that by taking a careful look at nutritional information provided for products like molasses that can be consumed by humans, we can get a pretty decent look at the nutrition we can expect a plant to get as well.

    There are many brand’s of molasses available, so please do not look at our use of a particular brand as an endorsement, our choice of Brer Rabbit molasses as an example is simply due to our familiarity with the product, one of our Grandmother’s preferred this brand.

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  3. #2

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    So I have a question. How long does it take to break down so it's useful to the plant? I mean, is there any use in feeding it mid-late flower?

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    I use bud candy , it says that you must use from the first week of flowering till the 6th week flowering.

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  7. #4

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    Great thread, the info helped a great deal, thank you!

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    Very informative thanks
    I'm a first time grower, that being said are there any guides to dosage amounts when it comes to adding molasses? Parts per litre etc? Or can anybody give me a rough idea on here? Any useful input is great fully received.

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    Iv used molasses and honey for years and its pretty good they act as a carb for the plant essentially and also seems to put more of a sugar coat on them and sort of makes them taste sweeter, first off make sure you get yourself unsulferd molasses you can get it from holland and barret secondly i put a tablespoon of moalassis to about 5l from about week 4 flower upto before flushing.

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    I love molasses, I skipped it on my last one and I could tell it was not as sweet

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    Great read!

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    I do love molasses, haven't used it for a long time but getting ready

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    Molasses can vary in price depending on where you go. Better off buying horse or livestock molasses from a feed supplier. Cost is around the £8 for 5 litre mark as opposed to £5 per 450g.
    Plus its blackstrap as well.

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