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Every organic gardener knows their next crop is only as good as the ground it grows in. Keeping the soil healthy is of utmost importance for setting up a biologically sound system that can produce top quality produce for you to enjoy. For this reason, avid gardeners treat their compost piles like gold, well aware that a generous heaping into their garden beds can turn low grade dirt into vibrant, healthy plants.

Yet, boring black compost isn’t the only way you can get these soil benefiting nutrients in your garden. It turns out that straining and soaking small pieces of compost in water can actually create a biologically rich mix that is a boon to your blooms. Called compost tea, this simple infusion has taken the gardening world by a storm and it’s an easy way to cast off disease and improve nutrition for your plants. Best of all, it’s almost as easy to make as it is to use.

What is Compost Tea?

To put it simply, compost tea is a liquid fertilizer and a plant disease suppressor full of biologically active compounds. The tea is made through soaking small amounts of finished compost in water and adding a food source (like brown sugar or molasses) to feed the hungry microorganisms within the soil. The process of aerating the water gives the present microbes all the tools they need to reproduce, so once the mix is done brewing you are left with a nutritionally rich, well-balanced supplement with incredible value as an organic liquid fertilizer.

Best of all, compost tea is simple to make right at home from your very own compost pile (or from store bought organic compost if you use that instead). The two requirements are that the compost must be organic and it must be broken down into tiny particles. Think loose leaf tea leaves for a good sense of size.

An Easy Way to Make Your Garden Green

It might seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble to brew, strain and spray a compost tea when you could otherwise simply work compost into the soil. However, there are plenty of benefits that you get with compost tea that regular compost simply can’t match. Not only does compost tea help suppress foliage diseases, it also improves the amount of nutrients that plants can access and even improves the flavor of vegetables. If you’re looking for a way to get more bang out of your soil amendments, compost tea is the way to go.
Garden trowel and healthy flowers to plant

The Benefits of Compost Tea

There’s a lot to like about incorporating compost tea in your garden. Some of the top benefits are listed below.

  • Better plant growth in the form of better tasting vegetables, bigger blossoms and greener leaves.
  • A boost of beneficial organisms that enhance the immune system of plants.
  • Plenty of nutrients for the plants that are easily absorbed straight through the plant roots.
  • Encourages the growth of root systems to help your plant pull nutrients from farther down.
  • Provides an all-natural alternative to harsh chemical composts that cause harm to native plants, insects, wildlife, and even humans.

The Science Behind It

When you look at the facts, it’s easy to understand why compost tea provides such big benefits for your garden. Soil is teeming with microorganisms, some that help your plants grow and others that bring disease and suppress growth. It’s much harder to have a healthy garden if you don’t have an imbalance between the beneficial microbes and the pathogens that dwell with them. Compost tea simply boosts the ratio of beneficial microbes, and because they become well oxygenated in the process, they add oxygen back into the soil, meaning they can out-compete the naturally anaerobic bad bacteria.

Just like humans that need to fill their diets with fermented foods to keep their probiotic levels high, plants also require lots of healthy microbes to help them thrive. As opposed to regular pesticides that kill off the good and bad bacteria alike, compost tea helps you boost the populations of the kind you want in order to create a healthier, more robust soil structure.

How To Make Compost Tea

If you’re ready to experience the benefits of compost tea by making some yourself, these instructions will help get you started. If you want more nuanced information about the best ways to make your tea, the book Compost Tea by Mark Remillard is a smart place to start.

First, you need to gather your supplies. Pull together a five gallon (or bigger) bucket, a brew bag to strain the tea, several feet of tubing, gang valve, medium sized aquarium pump or air stones, organic, unsulfured molasses, and compost, of course. If it sounds like too much effort to build your own compost tea setup, you’re in luck because plenty of companies manufacture fully functional tea brewing systems that are designed to give you the optimal benefits for your effort.

To start the brewing process, fill the bottom third of the bucket with compost. Fill the rest of the bucket with de-chlorinated water, either by using well water or allowing tap water to sit out for several hours, and hook up the aquarium pump so that it constantly aerates the water. Next add at least a cup of molasses to the mix and stir it into the compost with a stick.

Let the mixture sit with the aquarium pump on for 3-4 days, stirring it every half day or so to prevent the molasses from settling on the bottom. At the end of the final day, strain the mixture through a piece of fabric like the brew bag and pour the liquid into another bucket. The compost solids can be added directly to your garden or back in your compost bin.

Taking the liquid tea, dilute it to one part tea to ten parts water and use it immediately in order to get the top benefits for your garden plants.

bucket of aerated compost tea

Is Aeration Really Necessary?

Some people forgo the step of adding an aquarium pump to their tea brewing technique and simply let their tea soak longer to make up the difference. In most cases, this isn’t a great idea. Not only does non-aerated tea not have as many immediate benefits for your garden plants, it actually has the potential to turn toxic. When making tea, if the microbes in your compost use up the oxygen in the water, the mixture will start to stink and become anaerobic, at which point it causes more damage to your plants than good.

Top Ways to Use Compost Tea

How often you spray your garden plants depends on how healthy your garden is overall. Healthier gardens will be able to keep harmful pathogens in check without too much involvement on your part. However, if you suffer from lots of pest problems and don’t see many beneficial insects in your garden it’s better to spray more often, sometimes as much as once every two weeks.

The best way to use your tea is to put it in a pump sprayer or misting bottle and spray the whole area that seems to be suffering. Because the beneficial microorganisms tend to be fragile, it’s best not to spray them out of a high pressure spray, lest they get damaged in the process.

Delicate potted plants can get a gentle infusion of tea right at the base of their stems, and hardy shrubs or orchard trees benefit from tea poured directly from a bucket to the base of their roots. For use as a foliage spray on plant leaves, add about 1/8 tsp of vegetable oil per gallon and spray it directly onto plant leaves, taking care to coat both their top sides and bottom.

Commercially-Available Compost Teas

If you’re excited about the idea of using compost tea but can’t be bothered to go through the process of making it yourself, there are plenty of companies selling premade teas you can use. However, keep in mind that compost tea loses its potency the longer it sits on store shelves, so your commercially produced tea is less likely to be bio-active than any type you make yourself.

Conclusion

Keeping a top quality organic garden is a lot of work, but the results are always worth the effort. If you’re looking for a new way to add a boost of botanically beneficial nutrients to your plants that cause them to be more robust and bloom better, it’s a smart idea to look into making your own compost tea. The benefits to your garden will be well worth the effort of getting your system set up, and you’ll be amazed at how productive your garden can be with a regular infusion of healthy probiotics.

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.