I am a founding member of the Lebanon Organic Gardening and Permaculture Club, here in Central Pennsylvania. The best part of the club is being able to collaborate and learn from other members. We currently have 61 members and growing. One of our members, Joe, is a permaculture designer, and he had the club over to his permaculture site to learn how to brew compost tea. He had a nice setup that I would like to copy.
I am not a big fan of traditional composting. I much prefer the Ruth Stoudt method of composting in place and feeding scraps to livestock. My main problem with composting is the time and effort required to make it. Compost tea is a different story. I love compost tea, because you can make a lot of compost tea from very little compost. Basically, you are taking a small amount of compost and growing the beneficial microorganisms by feeding them in an aerated slurry of water, molasses, and other nutrients. Once the beneficial microorganisms have multiplied, which usually takes 1-1.5 days, you can harvest the slurry and spread directly on your plants and soil giving them a huge boost. Compost tea will help with the overall health of your plants as well as their disease and insect resistance. In addition to the molasses to feed the microorganisms, other nutrients can be added as well, such as kelp. There are tons of compost tea recipes, so I won’t detail them here. Just know that at a minimum you’ll need some finished compost and something to feed the microorganisms, unsulphured molasses.
1. At the very least, you’ll need a container, an aerator, some compost, and unsulphured molasses. It is important that you have good quality finished compost. Your brew will only be as good as your ingredients. If you have a worm farm, worm compost is best in my opinion. Do not use anaerobic compost. You’ll know if the compost in anaerobic because it will smell bad.
2. Place well water or rain water into your bucket or barrel and begin aerating the water for at least twenty minutes. City water is not great for the microorganisms. If that is the only water you have, aerate for 24 hours for the chlorine to off gas.
3. Add about 1 pound of compost in a mesh sack or nylon panty hose per 8 gallons of water. This ratio can vary too. Nothing is set in stone with compost tea. Place your sack in the water. Tie it up to the lid or the side of your container so it does not fall in.
4. Add your food sources. An ounce of liquid kelp, humic acid, and unsulphured molasses per 5 gallons of water is a simple recipe, that I like, but there are tons to choose from and don’t be afraid to experiment. Other common food sources are fish hydrolysate, soybean meal, oat bran, oatmeal, fish oils, cellulose, lignin, cutins, rock phosphate dust, and many others.
5. Let the tea aerate for at least 24 hours, but not more than 36. If you brew beyond thirty-six hours, you risk anaerobic bacteria taking over. The brew will stink if it does. If that happens, do not put the brew on your plants. I just throw a bad brew in the grass, because I hate grass.
6. If it smells good, spray the tea on your plants!
If you are growing an annual vegetable garden, having sufficient fertility is of paramount importance. Most people know that plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow. These elements are represented on fertilizer bags everywhere in percentage terms by the three numbers prominently displayed. For example a 24-18-12 fertilizer has 24% nitrogen, 18% phosphorus, and 12 percent potassium. This is also an example of a chemical fertilizer. This I can tell simply because the percentages are too high for an organic fertilizer. An organic fertilizer rarely has more than a single digit percentage of any of the NPK ratio. There are also secondary elements and micronutrients that are often overlooked but still vital. For example, if you have a calcium deficiency you can apply all the NPK you want, but the plant will not be able to use it.
What Plants Crave: (These are the basics, but there are many more micronutrients needed)
The key to good fertility is diversity. There are many different techniques, manures, composts, and fertilizers to consider.
If you rotate your crops, you will have less nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Also, using heavy amounts of nitrogen fixing crops will boost fertility in depleted soil. (Peas, beans)
Composted manures are a fantastic way to build fertility in the garden. Cow, pig, rabbit, chicken, and horse manures are most common. It is important to compost the manures before adding to your garden, because of the possibility of pathogens, weed seeds, and burning plants. Having said that, rabbit pellets do not burn plants, and I have applied “hot” un-composted chicken manure in the late fall after the garden was finished without issue. I have also applied chicken manure during the season in fallow areas, with a layer of mulch to cover.
Manures can be very nutritious for your plants or they can be lacking vital nutrients. It really depends on the nutrition of the animal that the manure comes from. Ideally, your manures come from your own animals that have a nutritious varied diet free of chemicals. If you import manures, it is important to know what the animals were fed.
I prefer composts to manures, because it is has more ingredients, and is safer to apply. Manures are often an important component of compost, but it is usually mixed with other materials such as straw, leaves, grass, vegetable scraps, and wood chips. The variety of sources helps to insure that you are less likely to be missing valuable elements.
Fertilizing your plants with compost teas directly on the leaves of the plant can yield tremendous quick results. This can be a great addition to traditional compost, manures, and fertilizers. Compost teas improve growth by providing beneficial organisms that repel pests and improve nutrient retention in the soil. Teas also help to build soil life and improve biodiversity.
Wood mulch, leaf, straw, & living mulches such as nitrogen fixing clover add fertility to the soil, and protect soil life. It is vital to protect soil with a mulch of some kind.
Steve Solomon in Gardening when it Counts makes an excellent case for using what he calls a complete organic fertilizer. He describes a situation where he and his family were getting most of their nutrition from their garden. They ended up with some health problems relating to missing nutrients in his soil that ended up being deficient in the food they were eating. He also describes a neighbor’s family with health problems that uses only horse manure in his garden for fertility. This would probably never be noticed by most people, because most people don’t get the majority of their food out of their backyard. This struck a chord with me, because every year Denise and I get more and more calories out of our garden.
He swears by his complete organic fertilizer. He claims that your plants will grow like gangbusters, and the food will be highly nutritious and delicious. The recipe is as follows:
3 parts seed meal (flaxseed meal, alfalfa meal, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, rapeseed meal etc…) Please be aware that many seed meals do contain GMO’s. I would recommend an organic alfalfa meal.
1 part blood and bone meal
1 part lime
1 part bone meal or kelpmeal
***Out of fairness to the author, I won’t give out all the specifics, and the rates of application. I don’t agree with some of the author’s practices such as tilling and not using mulch, but it’s still a good book. So if you want all the specifics, buy the book.
Chemical fertilizers give the highest amount of NPK for the price, but that fertility is typically available very quickly and adds salts to the soil negatively affecting soil life. There are coatings now that fertilizer manufacturers add to slow the release down, but they still can’t fool the soil life. I would highly recommend avoiding these fertilizers, especially since there are so many other good options.
The Bottom Line
In the past my plan has been to make extensive use of chicken manure, living clover mulches, some straw and wood mulch, and compost to take care of my fertility. The only problem has been the cost and labor to apply said compost and mulch. Now that my clover living mulch is taking over, I am going to try the complete organic fertilizer. I would also like to start making a compost tea with a worm bin. I will still use chicken manure as well. In the future, I will continue to try other methods to further explore what works best for my site. I think the key to having good fertility is a diversity of materials and methods.
Reference: Steve Solomon, Gardening when it Counts
Composting can seem pretty complicated. Depending on who you talk to, or what you read, you will find tons of different advice on how to get just the right “brew”. You’ll hear about having the perfect ratio of greens and browns, and putting them together in thin shredded layers. Then you hear about occasionally turning the pile to let the right amount of oxygen in, but not too often, as you are losing nitrogen. Then you have to have the right cooking temperature. You have to have it hot, but not too hot. Hot enough to cook, but not so hot that you burn up your nutrients. Then you have leaching to worry about, and rodents and other animals if you don’t cover your edible scraps. You have to keep the right moisture levels. Seriously, how practical is all this??????
Sometimes I wonder why composting has to be so complicated. First of all, all organic material decomposes, and most of the materials that you are going to put into your compost pile will decompose in one year without any turning or any special attention. Sawdust, tree branches, and paper tend to take much longer. I would suggest making a separate pile for woody material. You can use the woody pile for firewood, or even a hugelkultur bed. If you burn your wood pile, you can use the wood ash in your garden beds, but be careful. Too much wood ash can raise the soil PH beyond what is good for most plants. Definitely, keep wood ash away from acid loving plants like blueberries. Wood ash can add some calcium, potassium, and a small amount of phosphorus.
So, if most things will decompose in one year, why do people go to all this trouble to get it just right? People do this to speed up the process, and to get just the right nutrient levels in their compost that is suitable for their plants.
What are the appropriate nutrient levels for compost?
This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on the existing soil, climate, and types of plants where the compost will be applied. Furthermore, there is much debate in this area as well. This is where we should know about the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Most people advocate around a 25-1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Below is a list of approximate carbon to nitrogen ratios of various materials.
6:1- These high nitrogen sources are high nitrogen manures such as rabbit, chicken, and pig, as well as bone meals.
12:1- Horse and cow manure, vegetable scraps, weeds, spring grass
25:1- Green hay, fruit, summer time grass
50:1- Dry corn stalks, tree leaves, poor hay
100:1- Tree bark, pine needles
Source carbon-nitrogen ratios “Gardening when it Counts” Steve Solomon
How you get to that nice 25:1 ratio compost pile, really depends on what you are putting into it. If you have lots of leaves in your compost pile, you probably want to add rabbit or chicken manure to help bring down the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Also, you will want to mix the materials as they go in, which further complicates things. Unless you are really anal about the ratio, I would imagine most people never get it exactly right. My compost is a mix of chicken manure, grass clipping, and a small amount of leaves. All of my edibles that don’t get eaten go to the chickens.
I have tried many different ways of composting to find the most efficient way.
1. The two-chamber tumbler that you can easily turn, and put your wheel barrow under to collect the compost. This is a nice idea, but the latches on the doors are not durable enough. The tumbler is off the ground which is good for rodents, but bad for earth worms, and soil microbes. It is also a pain to lift heavy material up to put into the chambers.
Cost: High (I think this tumbler was in the $300-350 dollar range)
Labor: Medium (It’s easy to take out material, but it is hard to put it in)
Speed of compost: Fast (You can turn the material easily)
2. The standard two pile system where you add to one side until it is really full then you add material to the other side, while the first pile cooks. This is OK, but you still have to worry about leaching and rodents, and it’s a pain in the neck to shovel the compost out.
Cost: Medium (You can make these out of old pallets, but it is still more expensive than just a pile)
Labor: High (What a pain to shovel in and out)
Speed of compost: Slow (Most people will not take time to turn the pile, what a pain)
3. The pile system is good if you have a tractor or front end loader. If not, you can use a fork. I've found that if the pile is too small, it doesn't heat up enough. If the pile is about 4 feet tall, then things seem to cook well, but I don't have any science to back that up, just observation.
Cost: Low (I put low cost here, because it is taking up land space, which isn’t free)
Labor: High (Human labor can be low, if you have a tractor, but you are still using all the embodied energy in the diesel fuel)
Speed of compost: Medium (A bigger pile seems to compost a little quicker than a smaller pile)
So now that we know how to compost, I can tell you that I hardly compost at all anymore. I love solutions that are easy. We want to get rid of waste, and fertilize and amend our garden soils. Why do we need to put our organic material into a pile to do this? Why can’t we compost in place? Why bother moving it into a pile, only to be moved again later? It seems so inefficient.
A lot of permaculturalists and gardeners are going to the Ruth Stoudt method of sheet mulching or composting in place. I’ve been doing this for the past few years, and I really think it is the way to go. For me, I have a lot of grass and weed clippings, chicken manure, and leftover plant leaves and debris. Now I just spread my grass clippings thinly and evenly in my garden beds. I do keep the clippings from away from my plants, as they are hot while they are green. I try to put the clippings in areas where plants have recently finished, or in fallow areas. They do dry out in just a couple of days. When I prune, or when a plant is finished producing, I simply let it decompose in place. If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me. I put my chicken manure in swale trenches to feed my fruit trees, or in fallow areas of the garden. Chicken manure is hot, so you should keep it away from your plants, until it is composted.
So at this point, the only extra step I need to make is to empty the deep litter trays in my chicken coops. This is the easiest way I have found to maintain good soil fertility and deal with any leftover organic materials. Thank you Ruth Stoudt!
Most of us have not yet perfected our garden ecosystems to not need outside sources of compost to give our plants the fertility they need. If we have to bring compost or compost materials in, it might be a good idea to think about how we can source these materials cheaply, or better yet free!
Below is a list of where I can and sometimes do get some of my compost, mulch, and compost materials, and how much they cost me, and what I do with them.
1. Chicken manure- Free on site, composted in place
2. Grass clippings- Free on site, composted in place
Grass clippings composted in place next to plants (Right side of photo)
3. Fruit and vegetable scraps- Free on site, composted through the chickens
4. Junk mail- Free on site, composted in pile
5. Commercial chicken manure- $7 per ton from a local chicken farmer (I must supply the truck to pick up, and I must compost the manure very well, as the chickens were heavily medicated)
6. Wood mulch- $12 per ton from the local Lebanon County recycling facility
7. Compost- $12 per ton from the local Lebanon County recycling facility (The only drawback to this, is that the green waste that was used to make the compost may contain pesticides, as the feedstock comes from area residents and haulers.)
8. Wood piles- Free from a few neighbors. I would like to do a hugelkultur project at some point, and a few of my neighbors have good sized old wood piles that I’m sure they would be happy to let me have. I also know a local landscaper who said he would drop off wood at my house when he has tree work nearby.
9. Leaves- My neighbor blows all his leaves to the street for county pick-up in the fall. I’m sure he would not care if I took some. I have trees on my site, but they are still too small to generate leaves in much quantity. I like the idea of planting a few large deciduous trees downwind from my garden to harvest the leaves in place as mulch. I also like the idea of planting certain perennials that can be chopped and dropped to provide mulch to the nearby plants.
10. Human urine- Free on site, composted in place if diluted 10-1 with water.
11. Plant debris (Leaves and stems) – Free on site, and even better typically right next to where I want it to go.
The fast growing sunchoke hedge above is cut down periodically and the stems and leaves are used as mulch in the large adjacent garden bed
See my views and philosophy on composting.