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What On Earth’s Compost Tea? And How Can It Help My Garden?

By: Steve Frailey Thursday May 19, 2016 comments Tags: compost tea, organic farming, vermiculture, Vermicomposting, sustainable farming

In honor of planet Earth, we’ve been covering lots of different organic methods we use on the farm, particularly techniques to improve soil fertility. Here’s the last post in the series — hopefully you’ve gotten lots of inspiration to bring some of these practices into your own garden.

All of the organic practices we do on our farm are about mimicking what nature does naturally, and compost tea is no exception. Compost tea is a powerful tool in any gardener’s arsenal, and it’s not for drinking! Basically, compost tea is a nutrient-dense spray for the leaves of your plants.

Sound crazy? Ineffective? Possibly unsafe? We promise it’s none of those things, and we’ll let you know exactly how we do it.

There’s much more nitrogen floating around in the air than there is in the ground. When rain falls from the sky, the water molecules pick up some of that nitrogen and deposit it on the leaves of plants. The leaves can then absorb some of those nutrients through their skin and their pores (called stomata)

Farmers and gardeners borrow this concept by spraying a diluted, biologically active compost mix directly on the leaves of plants. Basically, we steep compost and worm castings in water, and then collect the liquid to use as a foliar spray.


What’s Nature’s Version of “Compost Tea?”

Have you noticed how plants always turn vibrantly green after it rains? This is actually not due to the added water — it’s due to nature’s version of compost tea!

Does It Really Work?

We’ve used this spray on our noni trees for many years, and we believe it’s part of the reason why they grow such nutritious fruits 12 months of the year. But a while back, we had an opportunity to do a real test of how well compost tea works.

My son was spraying compost tea on our noni trees as usual, and he ended up with a little extra — enough to spray one of our two rows of banana trees. So he sprayed the one row, and then forgot about it. Four days later, I was out at the banana trees with a group, and I realized that the trees that had been sprayed were a full 2 feet taller than the un-sprayed trees! That’s enough evidence for me.

How Can I Get Started?compost

We promise, this is something you can do yourself!

Start With Great Organic Compost

This is the only part that’s a challenge, but making your own compost is fun, rewarding, and good for the environment. Here are some tips for success:

  • Include more nitrogen rich scraps (from food scraps, green plants, etc) than carbon scraps (from wood shavings, cardboard, etc), but strive for balance.
  • Add nitrogen-fixing legumes to your compost, especially pigeon pea or cowpea, which are higher in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus than animal manure, without the potential harmful pathogens or contamination from antibiotics!
  • Turn your pile every other day to incorporate oxygen, shorten the curing process, and obtain a higher heat to better kill pathogens.
  • Look for white hairs in your compost (a fungal mycelium network) to know it’s done, because the fungus can’t form until the compost is totally broken-down.

We also encourage you to give vermicomposting (composting with worms) a try, so you can incorporate rich worm castings in your compost tea.

If you don’t have the ability or desire to make either type of compost, you may still be able to acquire some from a local farmer — especially if you can contribute your food and yard scraps to their compost pile! Make sure you talk with an organic farmer, so you get organic compost tea!

Steep Away

Once you have a good source of compost and/or worm castings, all you need is a steeping container. It’s most important to seek out a container that you can oxygenate, to get a more lively, active compost tea.

You can use a fish aquarium, and keep in the aerator pump. Or if you’d like to buy a system, a company called Growing Solutions has a variety of compost tea systems, which all aerate your compost tea as it steeps.

The oxygen allows the populations of the beneficial microbes found in your compost and worm castings to grow into the billions. We also recommend adding just a little molasses to feed your microbes while  their population is growing, for best results.

How to Apply

We always spray our compost tea in the late afternoon, because that timing works out best for a plant’s respiration cycle. Plants are busy photosynthesizing in morning and early afternoon, and the stomata (pores) in their leaves close up to prevent much-needed water from evaporating in the heat of the day. In the late afternoon, those pores open up and will stay open all night.

Just give your leaves a good spray and you’ll be on your way to greener, happier plants that produce more nutritious fruits and vegetables!

Have you tried making compost tea at home? What were your results?

Steve Frailey

About the Author: Steve Frailey

My wife and I (Steve Frailey) moved to Kauai, Hawaii in 1982 from our organic farm in California. There were no roads, electricity, water or buildings but lots of Noni trees (Morinda Citrifolia) in our valley. We also developed a deep relationship with Noni that was growing all through our valley.  Today we run our Hawaiian Organic Noni farm, and share the gift of health with people throughout the world.