Compost tea is a bubbling bucket of goodness for your garden, but don’t think of it as fertilizer. It’s a dose of hard-working microbes that break down nutrients in the soil making them more available to the plants.
“You’re taking microbes and multiplying them thousands of times, and adding those microbes to the soil,” says Donald Dukote, aka The Bayou Gardener, who has used compost tea in his Louisiana garden for over three years.
Tad Hussey, manager and research director of Keep It Simple, Inc., which offers compost-tea brewing research and supplies, views compost tea as a piece of the puzzle in creating a healthy growing environment. “When you put on organic fertilizer you’re feeding the microbes that make nutrients available,” he says. By adding more microbes to the soil through the compost tea, the entire process becomes more efficient. The overall soil structure improves with the combination of both.
Some people think of compost tea as simply adding compost to a bucket of water and allowing it to brew for a certain amount of time, but a better way to create a supercharged tea is to add oxygen. This is often referred to as actively aerated compost tea (or AACT).
Beneficial bacteria prefer an environment rich in oxygen, Hussey points out. Picture a flowing stream and a stagnant swamp. The stream is clear and sweet-smelling, while the swamp’s brackish water often has a putrid scent that most of us inherently recognize as a bad thing. Non-beneficial or pathogenic agents that thrive in anaerobic, or low-oxygen, environments like swamps and stagnant pools are problematic. By adding oxygen—and lots of it—the beneficial microbes reproduce at a rapid rate.
There are a large number of systems available to brew your own compost tea, ranging from larger components that make enough to apply to large-scale operations to 5-gallon versions for the smaller home garden or hobby farm. High-quality kits are on the market, but some people prefer to make their own.
“It’s really easy to do,” Dukote says. For his own system, he utilizes an aquarium pump in a 5-gallon bucket. However, he points out the most important aspect of creating your own compost tea is what you use in the process. “It’s kind of like cooking. The better the ingredients, the better the outcome,” he says.
Here are the ingredients you will need to begin brewing your own compost tea.
1. Find Microbe-Rich Water
The first consideration is the water you choose, as you need to encourage microbial growth. According to studies at Keep It Simple, soft water or water from a reverse osmosis system were the least favorable. They’re the “cleanest” in terms of removing living organisms, and don’t support microbes very well. Distilled water wasn’t far behind in the “don’t use this” column.
So when you’re looking for a water source, go as natural as possible. Dukote’s preference is regular rain water, though he notes water from a pond or other natural source that is already teeming with microbes is the best option. Keep It Simple’s research indicates water they tested from a ditch won in this department, as well.
Well water is acceptable, while city water is less desired because it contains chlorine, which can kill living organisms. Sometimes you can bubble out the chlorine by aerating it, but depending on the type of chlorine used in the treatment process, this isn’t always the case. To be safe, try to utilize water from a different source.
2. Make Quality Compost
Choosing an adequate source can be tricky because sources are variable and sometimes downright toxic with herbicide residue if the ingredients aren’t carefully considered. (Manure from animals fed weed-seed free hay, for example, can have herbicide residue for years.) If you’re using your own compost, make sure it’s broken down completely and is created from a wide range of organic sources.
Even “bagged” compost at the store isn’t the answer.
“Commercial compost often isn’t fully finished,” Hussey says. “I usually encourage people to use worm castings of a vermiculture system to be more reliable.” Hussey’s preference is a compost blend created specifically for its complete nutrient levels. The compost he uses only takes a cup in a 5-gallon bucket of water. This amount will cover 1/4 acre.
Dukote makes a mix of his own, as well. “You want a little bit of worm castings, compost and maybe garden soil,” he says.
3. Add Essential Minerals
Soil often lacks a number of minerals, such as boron, magnesium and many others. You can find composites to add into your brew before aerating. The minerals offer additional support to the microbes and help create a healthy soil structure.
4. Start Brewing
Mixing the compost tea components isn’t difficult. Fill most of the 5-gallon bucket with water. Place the compost and minerals in a mesh bag or nylon hose to contain the compost for a clearer tea, and add the back to the bucket. Aerate the mixture for 24 to 36 hours.
“Make the compost tea and use it right away,” Hussey says. Once you stop the aeration process, you take away oxygen from the microbes. If it’s not promptly applied so they can start living in the soil, they will die.
5. Apply the Tea
You can apply your compost tea as a soil drench or spray it on the plants.
“If you want to spray it, you’ll still have to strain it,” Dukote says. Use a cheese cloth or similar fabric to clear the tea of large particulars that will clog the sprayer.
Compost tea is one way to take advantage of the organic matter you have in your garden. Added to the soil, microbes do the hard work to break down the materials so your plants can optimize the nutrients.
“You can do compost tea every day if you want. It’s never going to hurt the plant,” Dukote says.
Making and using compost tea is simple. Choose a brewing system that works best for you, pick your ingredients carefully and bubble away. Your plants and garden soil will undoubtedly be better for it.
Get more tips on composting from HobbyFarms.com:
- How to Build a Compost Bin with Straw Bales
- Feed Your Houseplants with Compost Tea
- 6 Reasons Backyard Compost is the Best Soil Enhancer
- Carcass Composting
- Using Rabbit Manure
About the Author: Freelance writer Amy Grisak relies on her pressure canner to put up much of the food from her garden. You can follow her endeavors on www.thebackyardbounty.com.