Growth in gardening: Compost Tea

Compost tea is a great way to add nutrients to your soil and increase the microbe population, which is not only good for the soil but also the enviornment. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

When I first began my research on compost teas, I figured it would be a fairly easy subject to tackle. Boy did I ever underestimate that one. For that reason I offer this information in the hopes of making it easier for you.

It’s no secret that compost is one of the best fertilizers and general soil amendments you can possibly add to your garden. And the sky’s the limit when it comes to all the options you have when it comes to different styles of compost piles and the ingredients that you can use. Bins that spin, the three-bin method, worm composting (or vermiculture if you prefer), the slow method, leaf mold composting, compost windrows or just a big old-fashioned pile, whichever method or style you choose, you can’t go wrong by composting. Like I always say, compost is garden magic.

One of the benefits of any style of composting is that you can make compost tea. Compost tea is basically a brew made from water and finished compost. It has a myriad of benefits and I like to think of it as a natural alternative to the “miracle growing” products sold at the gardening stores in town. It’s a fantastic, easy way to improve your garden soil and is a great way to bring the benefits of your compost into your indoor plants as well.

Not only does compost tea add extra nutrients to your soil, it also has the potential to increase the microbe population in the soil. This is great and not just because I’m a big fan of good germs, which you should be, too. No, it is because, as science is teaching us, most plants on planet Earth have some type of beneficial relationship with microbes.

When you start to learn about compost tea, you’ll quickly learn there are approximately nine million different compost tea methods, techniques, and recipes … And that is where it begins to get confusing. The biggest differentiation in compost teas are the aerated or non-aerated varieties. Aerated compost tea (ACT) uses an electronic device of some sort (usually a bubbler for a fish tank, or something along those lines) to force oxygen into the brew, while non-aerated tea simply relies on water, compost, time and a bucket.

As you can imagine, there is much debate as to which method is superior. Some folks swear by ACT and claim it is the only appropriate way to brew compost tea, while others reason that there is no scientific research backing these claims. After a lot of digging around, I’ve settled on non-aerated compost tea for my method of choice, and here’s why:

  • Simplicity- While I will be the first to admit that there are benefits to the ACT method (which my buddy Robbie prefers), I simply do not have the time to add another semilabor-intensive project to my gardening routine. If gardening is your primary passion, then by all means, I encourage you to do some research and become an aerated tea expert. But keeping it simple is always my number one priority.
  • History- Different cultures have been brewing forms of compost tea for centuries. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have fish tank motors three hundred years ago, but they still had compost tea.
  • Laziness – Wait, Err... I meant efficiency, yes that’s it efficiency. Steeping and stirring sounds better to me than babysitting an aeration system. I am after all a selfadmitted lazy gardener.

As I mentioned above, if you want to pursue the ACT methods, I think that’s great. But if you are a homeowner like I am who struggles to keep his head above water, let’s keep it simple, shall we? Below is my easy compost tea recipe.

Compost Tea Recipe

You will need:

  • A five-gallon bucket
  • 1 shovel-scoop of good-quality finished compost – as you can see, the quantities here are super-scientific.
  • Non-chlorinated water. Rain water is great, too!

Instructions:

  • Dump the shovel-full of finished compost into the five-gallon bucket. Fill the rest of the way with water. Stir vigorously, and set aside for about a week. Stir it once or twice a day.
  • When you are ready to use it, strain the compost from the water. If you want to skip the straining you can put the compost into an old, clean, cotton pillow case and then put the pillowcase into the bucket and fill with the water. Instead of stirring it daily you can dunk it

How to apply: 

  • Your finished compost tea can be used undiluted, or if it turns out very dark, try diluting it one-part compost tea to one-part water.
  • Use it directly on the ground around the plants or put it in a spray bottle.
  • It may be sprayed directly on the leaves of your plants or poured around the roots and allowed to soak into the soil – I personally prefer using it as a soil drench. If you are applying your tea to a large area, it can be diluted further tomake it stretch.

A few extra but important notes on compost tea:

  • I suppose you could buy compost for this recipe, too, but buying compost sounds a wee bit crazy to me.
  • You can also use worm castings for homemade compost tea.
  • Some sources warn against compost tea since they are worried it could harbor dangerous bacteria like salmonella or e.Coli, since these organisms reside in manure. This is why it is important to use finished compost, and not raw manure.
  • Other experts warn not to spray the foliage of a plant if you plant to consume it or its fruit right away. Personally? I’m not too worried about this, but I wanted you to have the full story. Since I am using only plant materials to make what I like to call kitchen compost, and I am not using any manure at all, I do not worry too much about this. But you should make compost from healthy, grassfed animals, instead of using manure from questionable sources if you are using manure in your compost – which is a great use for the stuff you animals give you for free.
  • As mentioned above, if you use animal waste in composting, as does my good friend Mike who’s compost pile is a giant pile of horse and cow manure that he turns with the tractor, be sure to allow it to fully “cook” until it becomes beautiful, mellow compost.

Once you start to become proficient in making compost tea, you can start to add other stuff to your mix, like kelp, molasses, etc, to add various nutrients to the soil if you need them. Me? Well, I like to keep it simple, so let’s just say I like my compost tea the same way I like my whiskey, straight.

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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