Friday, March 06, 2009

Tea Time

Corey Welles can ride a bike very fast, but he is also one smart cookie when it comes to organic horticulture. He's in charge of plant health at Ganna Walska Lotusland, which is home to some very rare and beautiful botanical specimens. Some are literally priceless, with genealogy traceable back to prehistoric times. It's Corey's job to keep those babies alive and thriving ...without using any chemicals. When Corey talks plants, I listen carefully.

And so it was a month or two ago on the Sunday group ride, that Corey told me about the Compost Tea Maker he just acquired for Lotusland. He told me about the beneficial effect on plant health, how the billions of microbes in the tea help suppress plant diseases and discourage insect pests. The plants at Lotusland are thriving and Corey says that Compost Tea is a cornerstone of their operation.

I decided I needed some of this magical brew too. For my plants. So I raced home and jumped on Google and probably spent an extra hour of chamois time researching Compost Tea. Sure enough, the organic gardening community raves about it. The only problem was that the equipment to brew the tea is not cheap. Even the units made for the home gardener ran a hundred dollars or more.

So after a bit more research, I concluded that the key component was really nothing more complicated than an aquarium aerator pump. You see, the crucial aspect of brewing Compost Tea is to oxygenate the water to breed a booming population of microorganisms. So off to the pet store I went, dropped $30 for the pump, and came home to brew Compost Tea. That was a week ago, and my backyard garden seems to have responded nicely, so I made another batch and documented it for your consumption...

Start with water in a five-gallon bucket. If the water is fresh, like from rain or a stream or directly from an underground well, then you're ready to go. Otherwise if it's from a municipal source, then you should run the pump in the water for a while to evaporate off the chlorine.

Next, take a shovel full of compost --about a quart or so-- and pile it on a piece of mesh fabric. You want the fabric to be permeable to water, but you want the compost material to stay inside when you enclose it. It is important that the compost be fully aged, preferably from a hot pile, so that it's free of diseases and pathogens. You want that dark and rich mix that smells like a forest after a rainstorm.

With a piece of twine or string, tie up the edges of the fabric so the compost is inside just like a tea bag. Leave enough extra string so you can hook it to something else so that you can hang the bag in the bucket. A couple other ingredients are helpful. Add a tablespoon or two of unsulphured molasses. This will feed the microbes. You can also add a tablespoon or two of a fish-emulsion/kelp fertilizer as a good nitrogen source for the plants.

Now hang the bag into the bucket and get about your day. The concoction needs 12-24 hours to fully brew.

By the next morning, the liquid has turned the color of your favorite dark beer, and it should have a rich, vaguely sweet and yeasty smell. You'll almost be tempted to drink it! Or not.

Dilute it with some additional de-chlorinated water and use it as a foliar spray, or pour it directly into the soil around your plants' roots. It's important to use it within a few hours because without the aeration, the microbes will begin to die.

So there you go. Homemade organic fertilizer, plus disease control and pest repellent.


Jason said...

This is Jason. I don't know if you remember, but I was seated behind you w/ my buddy at the organic gardening class they had at La Sumida a few weeks back. (I occasionally see you at cycling events as well;)) I started reading your blog quite awhile back for the biking info, but now I seem to be reading it for the gardening info!! I enjoyed the Tea brewing tips and was thinking of making some myself. Do you think that using a small amount of organic compost that comes in a bag would work as well, or do you recommend using homemade compost(which I haven't got going yet)? Let me know when able via these comments if you can. Thanks again and as always, enjoy the ride!

Marco Fanelli said...


Of course I remember was last year at the IV race that we first met. So anyway, how cool was it that we were a cluster of 5 bike racers coincidentally sitting together at an organic gardening clinic!?!

I don't know the answer to your question because I don't really know how much microorganism activity is in bagged compost (from the nursery or wherever). But I do know who to ask: Corey Welles. I'll try to get him to look at this post and comment.

Also, are you doing the crit tomorrow at research park?

Jason said...

No, no crit for me tomorrow; I'll be in the garden:). I would like to do it, but I am still trying to build a base up so I can put a good effort in at the Sea Otter RR. I think I am going to use next week's Solvang Century as a nice training ride. My wife and I may stop by though and check things out tomorrow. Good luck to you and Platinum!
Thanks for the garden info;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,
I agree with Mark-without testing or at least knowing some of the inputs we don't really know much about the so called organic compost. I measure everything including:inputs, temps, moisture levels, microbes, and microbes after making the tea. This shouldn't stop you from experimenting though. Just have fun in the garden using lots of compost, building insect habitat, and carefully selecting the right plant for the right spot and you'll be fine.

Marco Fanelli said...

I'm pretty sure that comment above is from Corey. In other words, it's the word of (plant) god. said...

I'm going to hijack this comment thread to say hi to Corey. Hey bud! Hope all is well. Laura still talks about the time you gave us a tour of Lotusland.
Take care

Chester Gillmore said...

So wait... can I drink this stuff or not? ;)

Jason said...

I'm brewing up some tea right now:) Thanks for the advice guys; I'll let you know how it tastes, oops I mean works!!!:)