Most gardeners are familiar with the never-ending quest to establish balanced, healthy soils for their plants. If this isn’t a problem for you…then please share your secrets. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ve probably tried many different methods of amending or fertilizing your soil.

Not all soil is created equally

In the process of building new garden beds at our house this year it became apparent that we had less-than-ideal conditions in several areas. Our Victory Garden that meets the roadway had lots of silt and sand from blacktop runoff and our Forest Guild bed was heavily compacted and stratified with clay. Prior to our intervention, these areas had only been used to grow turf. Decades and decades of shallow root growth doesn’t exactly build healthy soil.

The less-than-perfect soil found in our backyard.

The less-than-perfect soil found in our backyard.

Our well-established beds, in comparison, have very rich soil. Primarily because we’ve been actively cultivating and adding nutrition to these areas for many years. Fortunately, there are effective ways to jump-start soil health rather than waiting through multiple generations of growth. Queue the “magic” elixir of compost teas.

Why compost tea?

Compost tea is exactly what it sounds like and much more. By suspending biologically active compost in a solution of water—much like a teabag—we can harness the benefits of healthy soil in a liquid application for gardens. While this is only one of many steps towards enriching your beds, there are many benefits of using compost tea that warrant its value.

When preparing new garden beds, it’s always a good idea to introduce compost to turn into the existing soil. But purchasing truckloads of compost isn’t always economically feasible. That’s also a lot of leg work. Compost tea allows us to enrich the rhizosphere (root zone) the same way but without all the heavy lifting. In addition, compost tea adds millions of active microbes that will continue to improve your soil as the season rolls on. For this reason, we believe tea is also a better choice than conventional fertilizer because it is applied in the same way and without the risk of “burning” the plants.

DIY compost recipe

Over several years, I’ve been tinkering with a proprietary blend for compost tea. Microbiology isn’t my strong-suit but I’ve started to take note of what elements work best for a well-balanced, all-purpose tea. My ingredients list has grown to include oddities like volcanic rock ash and deep-sea mineral salts, though effective compost tea can be made by even the most inexperienced home-brewer using very easy-to-find ingredients. Here is a simple recipe that you can use at home!

A batch of tea brewing. Foamy bubbles mean it's alive!

A batch of tea brewing. Foamy bubbles mean it’s alive!

Compost: Start with 3 cups of high-quality compost or garden soil. The darker, the better. It’s also a good idea to use a blend of several types of different soil to diversify the population of beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Food: In order to help said bacteria and fungi thrive, we need to add something for them to feed on. For this I recommend organic, unsulphured blackstrap molasses. But in reality, any simple sugar will do the trick. Use only 1-3 ounces as to not overfeed your microbes. A half cup of oatmeal or oat bran also helps to boost fungal activity.

Materials: Next, you’ll want to mix the ingredients into a “teabag”. This could be a nylon stocking, sock or paint strainer if you’ve got one. With your teabag neatly tied, place it in a 5 gallon bucket filled nearly to the top with water. For the next 3-4 days, simply stir your tea in the morning as it slowly brews a rich concoction soil goodies. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could invest in an aquarium pump and airstones to aerate your brew and speed up the process.

After this brewing period is over, your tea is ready for use! Dilute with equal parts water if applying directly to your soil. It can also be used full-strength as a foliar spray. Either way, your plants will thank you for it. Happy growing!