Using Whey in the Garden

Like, most home cheese makers I’m always in the pursuit of productive ways to use up that plentiful cheese byproduct – whey. After making a hard cheese you have roughly 2 gallons of whey – that’s a substantial amount to try an use! A great solution is to put your whey to work in your yard or garden as either a plant enhancer or killer.

As many of you probably already know, whey is acidic. In the garden this can be helpful or harmful depending on what kind of plants you have. Acid loving plants can benefit greatly from a whey amendment (i.e. pour whey around the base of the plant.) Essentially your acidifying the soil. In fact, some plants require acidic soil to thrive. If you’ve ever planted or tried to grow a blueberry bush, you probably acidified the soil in the desired location before you planted it. If plants that require acid do not have the proper soil ph they can fail to thrive or  become sickly. In addition to blueberries, pine trees, azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas all prefer acidic soil and can benefit from whey. Hydrangeas are the most noticeably affected by whey as the blooms become a bright beautiful blue with sufficient acid. To do this, pour the whey on the soil around your plant where the roots would be. Don’t get it on, or to close to, the plant itself, as this may damage delicate plants. Don’t go overboard, and do it too often, as  too much acid can be just as bad as too little. If you’re in doubt about a specific plant or overloading on the acid, I’d advise doing some research and ph testing your soil.

Whey can also be a great organic plant killer. For neutral or alkaline soil dwellers, whey can sufficiently affect the soil ph to make it inhospitable to the point of death (there’s more chemistry, microorganisms, etc. to it, but I’m not a horticulturalist.) All you do is pour the whey directly on and around the plants you want to kill. The effect might not be be immediately noticeable (after all, we’re talking about whey, not Roundup), but with enough applications you can kill a lot plants. First plants will change to a yellow color – that means it’s working. They will continue to look more sickly and weak if you keep adding whey. Hardy weeds might not be killed completely but they will be greatly weakened and stop spreadingI have a spot in my backyard between my fence and the neighbor’s that is very weed prone but difficult to get at, so I’ve  been whey bombing it. I grow veggies near by so non-organic solutions are out of the question and I have a lot leftover whey, so it’s win-win (albeit a little slow.) Be careful as you pour the whey or you will become sticky where it splashes. Keep in mind you’re not just killing the plant itself, you’re also changing the ph of the soil which will affect what can and will grow there in the future.

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Whey in Lacto-fermentation

If you make cheese, particularly any volume of hard cheese, you’re going to have left over whey.  If you happen to find miniature cucumbers on sale, like me, you’ll want to make lacto-fermented pickles! After scouring many recipes on the inter-webs I found an interesting  phenomenon – many lacto-fermented recipes call for the addition of whey to your brine. While this initially seems like a good idea, if you think about it for a moment, it doesn’t make a whole lot sense. Whey has been inoculated with whatever cultures you used in your cheese making. These cultures have been chosen for their ability to efficiently convert the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid. But, veggies do not have lactose! The lacto in lacto-fermentation actually refers to lactic acid that is produced by Lactobacillus – not milk lactose.  Lactobacillus is a naturally occurring good bacteria present on veggies. While the end product of these different bacteria is the same and desirable for similar reasons, the pathways are not – they don’t eat the same thing. The similarity in name may explain some confusion about adding whey to fermenting veggies. While adding good bacteria to our food is the basis for many wonderful products, and this blog, adding incompatible bacteria doesn’t make sense, and in my opinion, is asking for problems.

I did a batch of wild fermented pickles using a salt brine with added tannin from black tea. They turned our crisp and zingy. No whey needed! If you are concerned about letting your beautiful produce ferment wildly, you can purchase cultures selected for lacto-fermentation at sites like Cultures for Health.

If anyone knows of another reason for including whey in lacto-fermented veggies, I’d love to hear from you!

Stay tuned for more whey related posts and ideas how to use that sticky golden leftover!

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