Compost Tea has become a very popular topic. The following is a quote from Fine Gardening (ref 2):
Gardeners all know compost is terrific stuff. But there’s something even better than plain old compost, and that’s compost tea. As the name implies, compost tea is made by steeping compost in water. It’s used as either a foliar spray or a soil drench, depending on where your plant has problems.
Why go to the extra trouble of brewing, straining, and spraying a tea rather than just working compost into the soil? There are several reasons. First, compost tea makes the benefits of compost go farther. What’s more, when sprayed on the leaves, compost tea helps suppress foliar diseases, increases the amount of nutrients available to the plant, and speeds the breakdown of toxins. Using compost tea has even been shown to increase the nutritional quality and improve the flavor of vegetables. If you’ve been applying compost to your soil only in the traditional way, you’re missing out on a whole host of benefits.
Let’s look at the facts.
What is Compost Tea?
This seems like a simple question, but it’s not. There is no clear definition of compost. Compost can be made from a large variety of materials, and each compost is different. If you make tea from two different types of compost you will get two different types of tea.
The nutrient content of each type of compost tea will be different.
One of the reported benefits of compost tea are the ‘microbes’. If we assume this to be true then is it not important to know which microbes are in the tea? It certainly is. The problem is that unless you have a fairly sophisticated lab you won’t know this. Home gardeners have no way to know which microbes are in their tea.
The microbe content of each type of tea will be different.
Tea can be made in two very different ways; aerobically and anaerobically. The term aerobic means that the tea is made in the presence of oxygen; you usually bubble air through the tea as it is brewing (see picture above). When tea is made anaerobically, it is made without added oxygen. You simply let the smelly sludge sit in a pail. The method used to make the tea is very important because microbes tend to favor one or other of these living conditions. They either like living with oxygen present or they prefer less oxygen. So the method you use to create the tea is very important to determine the type of microbes in the tea.
Aerobic soil bacteria inhabit soils that contain a lot of air; the light fluffy type of soil we all know to be good for plants. Anaerobic soil bacteria tend to live in wet, compacted clay type soils where there is little oxygen present – not the kind of soils we want. So why is it that many recipes for compost tea use the anaerobic method? That makes no sense and I can’t explain it.
There is also something called manure tea which is the same as compost tea except it is made from manure.
Bokashi composting is something completely different and is described in detail in Bokashi Composting Myths.
What Are the Benefits of Compost Tea?
Proponents of compost tea ascribe a wide range of benefits – see the above quote from Fine Gardening.
One thing is clear to me. If a product or gardening technique does everything under the sun, it is always too good to be true. When it sounds like snake oil, it probably is snake oil! Run for the hills.
There are a few main benefits that would be worth discussing. Compost tea is claimed to provide:
- An increase in nutrients
- A decrease in diseases
- Additional microbes for the soil
Does Compost Tea Increase Nutrients?
To clarify the question it should be stated more clearly as; Does compost tea add more nutrients than compost alone? There is no doubt that compost tea adds nutrients. But does the process of making tea increase the level of nutrients compared to just using compost without brewing? If they both add the same amount of nutrients–why bother making tea?
If you think about it for 2 seconds you will realize that this is a silly notion. Think about what you are doing in making tea. You take a handful of compost and you put it in a bucket of water. Microbes take over and start digesting the compost.
Your original handful of compost had a certain amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. No matter what process you use, you will never increase the amount of these nutrients in a plastic bucket (except for some minor organics falling in an uncovered bucket). The microbes might breed and grow and digest things, but the total amount of nutrients remains the same. In fact it might actually be less since some of the nitrogen might be converted to ammonia which evaporates into the air.
What about the quoted statement above “compost tea makes the benefits of compost go farther “. The nutrient content (NPK fertilizer numbers) of say 500 ml of compost is 2.6 – 0.9 – 2 (average value for composted cattle manure; source Alberta Agriculture Department). If I now add this to a 5 gal pale (about 20 L), I still have the same ratio of nutrients, namely 2.6 – 0.9 – 24, but it is now diluted 40 times (500 ml to 20 L). The nutrient value of the tea is now 0.07 – 0.02 – 0.05. That is an extremely dilute fertilizer. For comparison human urine has a nutrient value of 11 – 1 – 2.5, that’s 160 times as much nitrogen as compost tea. Sure you can probably spread the tea over a larger area than a handful of compost, but if you do that the amount of nutrients added to the soil is negligible – so why bother??
The fact is that making tea from compost does not increase the amount of nutrients. It does not make the compost ‘go further’. If you want to add nutrients to the garden just add the compost directly.
Will Compost Tea Decrease Diseases?
This topic has been evaluated extensively by Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D in reference #3. There are limited studies about disease reduction by compost tea, and the results are inconclusive.
The concept here is that the tea has a high concentration of microbes. When these are sprayed onto leaves they populate the surface of the leaves to such an extent that invading pathogenic microbes can’t take a hold. The good tea microbes out compete the potentially bad ones.
For this to work, the sprayed on microbes would need to colonize the leaves (ie live and breed on the leaves). This requires that the new environment, ie the leaf surface, has enough food for them and the oxygen levels are right for them.
Clearly, the oxygen levels would be high and so you can expect that anaerobic microbes would die out quickly. Anaerobic tea just won’t work.
The native microbes on plant surfaces are not well understood. The picture below shows an electron microscope image of a leaf surface showing the microbes present. There are anywhere from 1 t0 10 million microbes on each 1 square centimeter of plant. Nobody knows what happens when more microbes are sprayed onto the leaf. I can’t help wondering why the large number of naturally occurring microbes can’t out compete the potentially bad ones and yet the ones sprayed on in the tea will do this??
In summary, there is little scientific evidence to support the idea that compost tea solves disease problems.
Photo Source: Gerd Innerebner and Roger Wepf/ETH Zurich
Does Compost Tea Add Microbes to the Soil?
There is no doubt this is true. You have a pail full of slimy microbes and if you spread it around the garden you are certainly adding microbes to the garden.
There is a new gardening trend of adding microbes to the soil under the assumption that the soil ‘needs microbes’. I’ve looked at this myth in more detail in the post Soil Microbes. In summary; the soil already has lots of microbes and adding a bit of tea is not going to make much of a difference.
If you are interested in identifying the microbes in tea you should read this before buying a microscope and taking Dr. Ingham’s course: Soil Bacteria – The Myth of Identification and Management.
Can Compost Tea be Dangerous?
It is important to ask this question. Even if there are some minor benefits for using compost tea, they could be outweighed by risks.
Think about what you are doing when you make the tea. You are creating an incubator for microbes. You are providing the moisture, the food and the right oxygen levels to grow microbes. But which microbes are you growing? You have no idea know.
The reality is that along with the ‘good’ microbes you might also be growing ’harmful’ ones. You could be growing microbes that will make you or your plants sick. Tea that is aerated can contain Salmonella and E. coli both of which can prove to be deadly to humans. Remember the contaminated lettuce? That was E. coli contamination. You could also be growing microbes that are harmful to plants.
The process for making compost tea is not selective – you grow whatever is in the pot.
I am confident that the risk is low. But why take the risk when the benefits of compost tea are at best, minimal?
If you want to make some compost tea, go ahead. You will probably not harm anything and you just might have some fun doing it. But understand that there is currently no evidence that compost tea is any better than using just compost. Be a smart gardener and just spread the compost on the soil as a mulch. Nature will do the rest.
This post now has quite a few comments. Many of them are from people with feelings about this topic but without any scientific evidence that their feelings are correct. If you have some references to discuss – please continue posting comments. If you have no valid references to support your position – don’t bother commenting, because I will not approve the comment.
For more information and explanations about the myths promoted by Dr. Ingham, have a look at these posts:
1) Application of Two Microbial Teas Did Not Affect Collard or Spinach Yield: http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/1/73.full
2) Brewing Compost Tea : http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/brewing-compost-tea.aspx
3) Compost Tea and Disease Reduction: http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~Linda%20Chalker-Scott/Horticultural%20Myths_files/Myths/magazine%20pdfs/CompostTea.pdf
4) Photo source for Aerated Compost Tea: Lily Rhoads