2020 Isolation Grow: Compost Teas

Apr 25, 20202020 Isolation Grow Blog

I remember when my teacher at Oaksterdam began talking about compost teas, I felt a bit sick to my stomach. I had heard about compost teas for a while, but knew nothing about the specifics. Whenever I heard compost tea, my thoughts were only on the unruly mess of stuff we have in a wooden bin on the far end of the property. How the hell was I going to make tea out of that? What good would last fall’s decomposed jack-o-lanterns be in a tea? Obviously, I had no concept of a compost tea, and was vastly relieved when I discovered this had nothing to do with what my wife and I called our compost bin.

Now, I am in love with compost tea. Having brewed and poured hundreds of gallons over a four year period, I am more than converted. I am a devotee. I find every tea I make is a form of self-expression, by celebrating and utilizing the very plants growing around me that can aid my crop. There are different kinds of compost tea. Some are made through long fermentation. I brew aerated compost tea. 

Do you know what is growing around you right now? Have you ever canvassed wherever you live and taken stock of the plants growing wild in your neighborhood? 

Obviously, I live in a rural region that borders a wilderness, so my access to things that grow from the earth is vast. But there are probably plants growing wild in your vicinity that could make a large difference in your compost teas. 

I tell this to gardeners I meet: Compost teas have improved everything I grow. And I say this to any new cannabis grower I meet: Learn what grows around you.

The basic recipe for a tea is simple: Five gallons of water, a half cup of humic acid, a full cup of organic molasses, and a full cup of your favorite liquid fertilizer. Other ingredients come and go, like worm castings, and other additives. Then comes the bag you can fill with all manner of vegetation. The green bag for the tea is where the greatest creativity can occur. What I try to do with every tea I make, is to make it appropriate for the stage of growth my plants are showing at that moment. If your plants are young, fill the bag with the freshest and youngest sprouting vegetative growth you can find. It is those young greens that carry the vital micronutrients both your soil and your plants need. For several years, no one lived in one of the houses closest to us. With the permission of the owner, I was able to access plants growing wild in that yard. They had kiwi. When we first moved in and I saw they had kiwi, I told Karen that if kiwi can be grown here, we can grow just about anything we want. I don’t know if I’ve ever used anything in my teas bursting with more life and micronutrients than freshly sprouting kiwi. 

If your plants are flowering, you want that bag stuffed with flowers. I love wild chamomile and echinacea, along with nettles, borage and either crab apples cut and quartered, or plums, or any fallen fruit on the ground, because the flowering plants crave sugar, even when they are getting molasses. The reason for this is because fructose is a simple sugar, while molasses is a complex sugar. In simple terms, the molasses is food for the microbiology, while the fructose is food for the plants. By the way, I credit my Oaksterdam teacher, Natalie Darves, for that concise explanation.

But if you look closely around you, you might find, as I have, ingredients that radically improve compost teas. I took to wandering not only my property, where I get most of what I need, but also surrounding trails where wild growing things are everywhere. Conveniently, there is a nearby stream in our valley with something growing wild that has become a staple for every compost tea I brew. It’s a plant called horsetail.

It is part of the permaculture of our region. It grows back every spring. It grows next to stinging nettles, because if you get stung by a nettle, the solution to the sting is horsetail. If you break open the stalk, a clear, viscous fluid emerges. If you rub that on the nettle sting, it will mitigate, though not entirely remove, the pain. The inside of the horsetail is full of silica. If you put that in your compost tea, you will more than likely not have any root issues with your starts and plants. Silica is known for seeping into the root zones and untangling things. I had some root issues the first couple of years. I’ve had none since using horsetail in every tea. Silica is something you can buy to accomplish the same thing. It is special to be able to get the desired result from a locally growing plant. It is the one thing I add to the very first tea I brew every year, while the plants are still in the cottage. They get their first compost tea sip at 4 weeks.

Through the growing season, I will add or subtract items in the bag for brewing. The first three years, I brewed the same tea for everything I grew. Now, every tea I make is specific for what I’m growing. Vegetables get their own special ingredients, while cannabis teas benefit from others. 

There is one very special thing compost teas can help with that I’ve experienced each year I’ve grown, and I referred to this earlier–Plants attempting to flower early.

The way I used to grow, the usual way of working fertilizer into the soil and then just growing, would leave us with a group of early harvest plants. We’ve done that. The first year, both our Harlequin plants (clones) had some sort of auto flower response and we just let them go. 

Having a plant flower early is discouraging and makes me feel guilty. I feel like I did something wrong and I know I’m not taking full advantage of my precious vegetative growing time.

Even with my challenging sun issue, however, I no longer stress about early flowering plants. The solution is simple, and the cure is compost tea. What I do is immediately cut off all flowers that have started. You have to get them all, or the plant will continue to try. It feels like you are hurting the plant, but you’re not. You’re actually doing a whole bunch of topping at once. The next tea, or possibly two teas, and if need be, three teas, should be all nitrogen. You don’t want any phosphorus or potassium at this time. Cut off any new flower growth as soon as you see it. You want all nitrogen to force her back into vegetative growth mode. I will switch the liquid fertilizer from the Grow formula I use that is mostly nitrogen but with a few other things added, to an entirely fish emulsion fertilizer. Something that is practically pure nitrogen.

After pouring that tea, and watering the plant, wait a couple of hours and see what kind of new growth emerges. If it starts to flower again, repeat the same procedure for another week. It took me more than one attempt at first, but last year, I turned around all three plants attempting to flower with one heavy nitrogen compost tea. Once you see vegetative growth resuming, the plant should be good for the remainder of her normal grow and flower cycle.

You can’t do that with bagged fertilizer. You can only do that with a source you can change during the grow. That is compost tea.

There is one other goal I have from my compost teas. This is the medium where I get to fully utilize the variety of aromatics we’ve planted, or that grow wild, for this specific use.

Have you ever seen insects eating baby mint? Neither have I. Don’t see many bite marks on lavender, either. I can’t recall seeing an insect so much as land on young lemon verbena. 

All of these plants are used in almost every compost tea I brew. If insects don’t like young, fragrant plants, it makes sense to have those odors emanating from the cannabis beds. It takes a few weeks of pouring, but once the odors settle into the soil, there is a decrease in the number of insects landing on our leaves. 

There are insect exceptions, of course. I’ll cover those when I blog about Pests.

I start my vegetable tea on Tuesday, for pouring on Thursday. The cannabis tea is prepared on Friday, and I pour it on Sunday, just after drip irrigation finishes watering. 

Compost teas add beneficial microbes and other compounds to your soil, so that your growing medium performs at a higher level, to breakdown and deliver macro and micronutrients to your plants. As an added bonus, compost tea for vegetables is a revelation. If you thought your carrots, sugar snaps and tomatoes were sweet before, just wait until they’ve spent a summer drinking molasses. 

Jeffery Hickey
Oaksterdam Alumni

Jeffrey Hickey is a 2014 IPPY award winning novelist, performing in over 900 Reader’s Theater shows that featured his authorship of adult novels, and books for children. His accomplishments include a program of self-empowerment and effective oral communication, “Find Your Voice,” that he taught in public and private schools throughout Northern California. Jeffrey is the father of twin sons, and is arguably the happiest married man on the planet.