Compost tea has become increasingly popular in the last few years as part of a grower’s program. In fact, current world record holder was grown using this technology. I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss different types of compost teas and share some of the knowledge we’ve gained in the industry over the past 5 years.
Plant Tea – This is where plants are soaked directly in water for an extended period of time. Compost is not involved, and any bacteria or fungi on the surface of the plant will be extracted. May contain some soluble nutrients.
Manure Tea – Typically manure is placed in a permeable bag (burlap) into a bucket or barrel and left to soak for an (# of days) extended period of time. Compost is not involved, and will be dominated by anaerobic organisms (bacteria and ciliates). Pathogens will be present in most instances, and may burn the leaf surfaces of plants. These teas will contain some soluble nutrients, but may also contain antibiotics and growth hormones such as tetracycline, that are not broken down during the composting process.
“Put To Sleep” Tea – These teas are typically advertised as “instant” compost teas. Specific organisms are cultured or extracted from compost and then put into a dormant state. Even with hundreds of different species, it won’t contain even 1% of the diversity or quantities you would find in properly made aerated compost tea. These teas may be helpful in certain instances when you wish to combat certain diseases and know the proper microbe that has been documented to prevent or suppress it (eg. trichoderma).
Compost Leachate – These teas is sometimes referred as “worm tea” as it is the liquid that leaches out of the base of worm bins or compost piles during the composting process. Leachates will consist primarily of soluble nutrients, but will contain some small amount of biology. This can serve as a good food substrate for the biology in your soil.
Compost Extract – Compost extract is where the microorganisms are stripped from the soil aggregates using water and extracted into a liquid form. This process will contain good biology for soil drenches, and can be made very quickly, as it does not require a brewing process. It does however require a large amount of compost relative to the final liquid product, and is primarily used in large commercial productions.
Non-Aerated Compost Tea – This is where compost is put into a container with water and foods are added for the microbes. The tea is then stirred occasionally or left to sit for a period of time. These teas may or may not produce beneficial results and could potentially harm your plants depending on the anaerobic organisms in your starting compost.
Aerated Compost Tea (AACT or ACT) – Similar to the tea above, this process involves adding oxygen to the tea and a food source for the biology in the compost. By creating optimal conditions for aerobic microbes, AACT allows you to multiply the biology in the starting compost by over 10,000 times. Many plant pathogens are anaerobic and prefer low to no oxygen conditions. By making sure the tea and the compost itself are well oxygenated and highly aerobic, you can potentially eliminate 75 percent of the potential plant-disease-causing bacteria and plant-toxic products.
For the past 5 years, AACT has become the standard within the organic industry in regards to compost teas. It’s currently being used by golf courses, vineyards, farmers, and homeowners as a means of growing healthier plants.
Compost tea has been shown to help in disease-suppression (pythium, phytopthera, powdery mildew, fusarium, etc.) when applied as a foliar spray and soil drench.
Helps extend root systems
Increases water and nutrient retention
Is 100% safe and natural
Creates healthier plants
Helps breakdown of toxins in the soil and on the plants
Enhances the taste of fruits and vegetables
Reduces or eliminates the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers
Occupies the space around the infection sites so disease-causing organisms cannot penetrate into the tissues of the plant
Cannot be over-applied because it is completely natural and organic
1. Good compost is very important! Without good biology in the compost, you really have no chance of getting high-quality tea. You can only multiply what you put into your brewer, therefore good compost that has been tested to have high numbers and a diversity of beneficial organisms is essential. A lot of science goes into making good compost, and unless you test your compost you really have no idea if what you are putting into your brewer is truly beneficial. By adjusting the type of compost you put in the brewer you can control whether your tea is going to be bacterial or fungal dominated. We use a mix of 3 different composts (Alaska humus, vermicompost, and a fungal compost comprised of woody materials) to increase the biological diversity in our teas.
2. Food is critical for the microorganisms so that they can reproduce and grow in numbers. The goal is to maximize your output of beneficial biology without giving the bacteria and fungi too much food that they over-replicate and cause the tea to go anaerobic. It’s important that dissolved oxygen levels stay above 6 mg/l during the entire brewing cycle. There are many different recipes out there, each of which will give you different biology in the end and some are much better than others. It is important to see the lab results of the recipe you use to make sure that you are indeed maximizing your final product.
3. Oxygen! If you’re not getting enough oxygen in your brew, then your tea will go anaerobic and you will start brewing the “bad” organisms (pathogens such as e.coli or root feeding nematodes) that may have existed in your original compost. If your tea has enough oxygen and stays aerobic for the entire brew cycle, what you’ll have at the end will be the good biology that you want for your plants.
In addition to these variables, other things to consider are elevation, temperature, brewing time, and water quality. All of these variables can have a significant impact on your final tea. With significant elevation, you may need to increase the brewing time, due to the lower oxygen content in the air. With high temperatures, where the water temps are 90 degrees or above, you’ll want to shorten the brewing cycle and possibly cut back on the foods you’re using. In cold temps., you’ll want to increase the brewing cycle to give the organisms time to reproduce. In regards to water quality, different sources will have different mineral or chemical content, which will affect your final tea. In the case of chlorine or chloramines, these chemicals will need to be removed prior to adding the compost to the brewer.
Very simply stated Compost Tea is a water-based environment wherein beneficial microorganisms are extracted from compost or vermicompost (worm compost) and multiplied by the millions and billions. Some form of agitation breaks the microbes free from the compost and they multiply because food, like black strap molasses, fish hydrolysate, kelp meal, humic acid, etc. has been added to the water, which at least one type of microbe digests. When one or more type of microbe begins to multiply in response to the food, other microbes respond to this growth and begin to consume these initial microbes and multiply in turn and so on and so on. For example the initial microbes are usually bacteria which are food for protozoa so the protozoa multiply in response to the bacteria. The end result is a functional feeding cycle or microbial nutrient cycle. I refer to this as a functional microbial consortia. This develops over a period of 12 to 72 hours or more and is then applied to the soil and plants. In the soil there are a number of organisms which function in basically the same nutrient cycle and zone. Once again, simply stated, there are substances released from the roots of plants which feed bacteria (& archaea), again the bacteria/archaea become prey to the protozoa and the protozoa excrete substances which are available to the roots as nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) thus creating a feeding cycle. Other compost/soil microorganisms of great importance are fungi. Fungal hyphae, are long branching strands which grow through the soil and serve to; bind soil aggregates together, help retain moisture, store certain nutrients, provide a source of food to certain other microbes, provide pathways for nutrient and moisture delivery, decompose organic material and displace disease causing fungi. There are also other types of fungi which do not grow (to my knowledge) in compost or Compost Tea which form a direct symbiotic nutrient exchange relationship with roots. This sort of fungi is called mycorrhizal fungi and there are many different species. The major microorganisms at work in Compost Tea are bacteria, protozoa (flagellates, ciliates and amoebae) and fungal hyphae if present in your compost. It is best to have a wide diversity of each of these microbes present. There are higher order organisms like nematodes found in compost and soil and occasionally these are extracted into Compost Tea but they do not grow nor multiply in the tea. Of course in the soil there are many other contributors to the nutrient cycle, like insects, earthworms and other animals. In its totality this is often referred to as the soil food web.
All life is in a symbiotic nutrient cycle even down to the microorganisms contained in our gut that assist us to digest certain foods. Life, consumption, excrement, death, decomposition, life. You are what you eat and the same applies to plants.
It has been discovered that aerated Compost Tea helps to ensure the multiplication of mostly aerobic microbes which are more desirable in this application. Plus the aeration provides the agitation necessary to dislodge the microbes from the compost. Therefore most Compost Tea machines or brewers, as they are commonly known, involve the introduction of air into the water and compost.
Many Compost Tea users and producers have begun examining their brews with microscopes to see the microbes present. This ensures that they have the desired microbes in the right numbers and diversity prior to applying the tea to soil and plants. I am fairly hopeful if not certain that in the future when someone purchases a Compost Tea brewer that the kit will include a microscope. It is the identification of what is going on in this tiny universe where I find my calling.
There is much more, but here is the end:
Using Compost Tea
The use of compost tea (CT) is one of the best ways to inoculate your soil with the beneficial microbes you wish to have for optimum health of your plants. It is also good if your supply of compost or vermicompost is limited, as it multiplies those microbes, we have been discussing, by the millions. Remember the protozoa I mentioned earlier? Well you can brew an aerated compost tea specifically to have a large population of protozoa, usually mostly flagellates. If you have a good quality compost or vermicompost, protozoa will already be present, often in a resting cyst. If you have an efficient aerated brewer you can pretty much count on having a high flagellate (protozoa) population combined with bacteria/archaea and fungal hyphae (not mycorrhizal) at 36 to 44 hours brew time (65 to 72 degrees F). If you have a microscope you can examine the CT periodically to be sure that the microbial population is optimum. The use of aerated compost tea also provides the opportunity to manipulate microbial populations for specific purposes by using various recipes and brew times. You may wish to have high bacterial or fungal numbers for pathogen/disease control or have soil or plants that require a higher population of a microbial type. I have a lot to learn yet of fungal species which can grow in compost tea so until I have learned to identify the species occurring I’m cautious about some of the tricks employed to stimulate fungal hyphae growth in compost. Better to count on good quality compost and vermicompost with natural occurring quantities and species of fungi and use known mycorrhizal and mushroom spores in the soil.
TEA RECIPE from Tim Wilson of www.microbeorganics.com
1 gallon = 16 cups = 256 tablespoons
2.38% by volume compost or vermicompost (EWC) per gallon = .38 cups or around half a cup max or about 2 cups in 5 gallons max.
0.5 to 0.75% molasses by volume per gallon = 1.28 to 1.92 tablespoons per gallon. 0.75% is the maximum I use. It is a good bacterial and fungal food.
0.063% fish hydrolysate by volume per gallon = 0.16 tablespoon = 0.479 teaspoons or half a teaspoon
0.25% (max) kelpmeal by volume per gallon = 0.64 tablespoon or half a tablespoon