Feed Your Houseplants with Compost Tea

Most of us who garden, fertilize our plants at one point or another. How many of us think about feeding houseplants in the same way?

by Dawn Combs
How to Make Compost Tea - Photo by Dawn Combs (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Dawn Combs

Most of us who garden, fertilize our plants at one point or another. How many of us think about feeding houseplants in the same way?

As I’ve previously written, January and February are the months when my plants begin to wave the white flag. During summer, I don’t really have any houseplants—all but a very few go outside as soon as the weather is nice. For us, coming inside seems like a good situation. For the plants, it’s no picnic. They don’t get the same amount of sunlight and moonlight. They don’t have gentle winds carrying off pests, or beneficial insects feasting on the advancing mites. Worst of all, I think is the change in water quality and frequency. Outside they either get the rain or water from the well. Both of these water sources contain a fair amount of minerals and aren’t polluted with salt or chemical excess.

Each winter I haul my beautiful potted herbs and tropicals into the house. I imagine them throwing out vines or root tendrils and dragging themselves along the deck in a vain attempt to prevent their indoor imprisonment. I make a promise to mind their encroaching insect pests by hand and to place them in front of a window with just enough sun. No matter. By this time each year, they’re dropping yellowed leaves and generally looking very miserable.

Water in Nutrition
While I should be feeding them all winter long, I tend to forget until they are sadly drooping. (Perhaps you can do better than I once I share my fertilizer recipe with you.) You can feed your indoor plants in much the same way as you do outdoor plants, with compost and manure. Now, before you protest that you couldn’t possibly stand the smell of the barnyard next to your easy chair, rest assured I am talking about compost tea.

Compost tea is a preparation much like an herbal tea for your human family. I like to use compost or worm castings as tea for my plants. If you have a stock of compost that isn’t frozen right now, that’ll do. If you’re like me, everything outside frozen! For the purpose of illustration, let’s use worm castings, which you can get from your own vermicompost bin or in a warm bag from the hardware store without the need for icy walks to wherever you keep your compost pile.

Make Compost Tea
Start with a pair of women’s stockings. I chuckle every time I get to use these in my gardening. It’s a true statement of independence from your corporate job when you stuff compost into part of your old business attire—you certainly aren’t likely to wear them again! Anyway, grab a couple handfuls of castings and stuff them down one leg, tying a knot just above. You’ll need a bucket sized to water all your plants. Your compost tea is best used right away, so you’re not going to store it. I use a 5-gallon bucket and fill it with melted snowfall or water from the hydrant outside. Drop your compost-filled stocking into the bucket of water. You’re finished except for one more important step.

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Aerobic vs. Anaerobic
The most common mistake people make with compost tea is just dropping in the nutrient and letting it sit. You need to keep your solution moving and introduce air in some way. If you don’t, you’re creating an anaerobic feeding solution. You want your compost tea to be full of life (i.e., aerobic). You can stir it for 24 to 48 hours, or you can buy an inexpensive fish tank bubbler—I opt for the bubbler. I drop in the tube, turn it on and walk away. In a day or so I’ve created the perfect food for my long-suffering plant friends.

You can use compost tea as often as you’d like throughout the year. I make it monthly in the winter, as they the plants like some time off from all that lush growth just as much as you and I. If you notice that your plant is lacking in something, you can simply add an herb to the mix. For instance, if I see my plant could use more calcium, I usually add comfrey (Symphytum officinale) to the tea mix.

My plants are ready to go back outside and it doesn’t look like that’s going to be possible anytime soon. A little compost tea is the boost they need to keep going just a bit longer.

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