If you’re familiar with compost tea, our Worm Tea is similar, except instead of using traditional hot compost (or thermophilic compost), we use our own Living Worm Compost. Our Worm Tea is sold by the gallon to backyard gardeners for flowers, fruits, veggies, shrubbery and as a compost pile activator. It’s also used by farmers on their crops as a microbial drench and anti-fungal agent. Finally, we use it on lawns.
Before we get into how we make our Worm Tea, let’s look at different types of microbial tea and the different methods of making it. Then we can get into how we do it, and why we do it that way.
The basic recipe of compost tea consists of compost (the source of the beneficial microbes), a food source for the microbes (typically molasses) and water (distilled, rain or well water; using municipal water straight from the tap can kill the microbes because of added chemicals like chlorine). Other things can be added to give the finished product a more complex microbial population or nutrients. But those are the basics.
For a simple recipe, just throw a pound or two of compost into the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, add a half cup of black strap molasses and fill the bucket with distilled water. Let it sit in the sun for a few days, and you’ll begin seeing some film, froth and bubbles. This is evidence of your microbial population growing. You could simply add this to your plants and soil.
The problem with this method is it’s a little haphazard. First, it’s anaerobic, meaning there’s no added oxygen, so you can often end up with dangerous microbes. Second, traditional hot compost isn’t very uniform. It might not be completely “finished” (meaning it might contain pathogens or materials that aren’t necessarily beneficial), it could be too “finished” (meaning it lacks any sort of nutrients), and since different materials break down differently, every batch of hot compost is completely different from the next.
To create a safer compost tea, you could consider adding oxygen by way of an aquarium or pond aerator. Simply use the ingredients from above, but then plunk some aeration stones attached to an aerator and let it bubble for a couple days. This will give you an aerobic (active in the presence of oxygen) tea.
The problem you might face now is a product that doesn’t come out of a spray bottle cleanly. With your compost simply tossed into the bucket, you’re going to have chunks and slurry in the finished product. To fix this, use an old pair of panty hose. Or a burlap sack.
So now comes the question: What’s the difference between tea made with traditional hot compost and tea made with vermicompost (like our Living Worm Compost)? Difference #1: Vermicompost is completely “finished.” You never have to worry about semi-composted chunks of matter (sometimes containing pathogens) getting into your tea. When a worm eats the organic material and poops it out, it’s done. It gives you a more uniform result because vermicompost itself is more uniform than hot compost. Difference #2: Unlike traditional hot compost, which often has all the nutrients leach out or get destroyed by the high temperatures, vermicompost still contains trace amounts of nutrients. That’s good for your plants.
At the end of the day, tea—whether it’s made from hot compost or vermicompost—is meant to give your soil and plants a boost of microbes. Those microbes, both fungi and bacteria, help break down organic matter in your soil and serve as an anti-fungal agent. Without life in your soil, your plants will suffer.
So now on to how we make our Good Sweet Earth Worm Tea:
We use specially-made compost tea bags that we fill with our Living Worm Compost. We also add a special blend of alfalfa meal and kelp for added growth hormones and iron, respectively. To that we will add black-strap molasses. We add the water from our underground aquafer (fancy way of saying “our well”) and turn on the large pond bubbler. The whole thing is done inside our 100-gallon tank, which we can use to apply it directly to lawns, transfer into a farmer’s irrigation tank, or put into jugs and buckets for individual use.
We let the tea brew for between 24 and 72 hours (earlier in the season, when temps are still cool, it takes longer to get the microbe population up to where it needs to be; in mid- to late-summer, the microbes multiply faster in the heat).
Now when it comes to brewing our Worm Tea for use on lawns, we’ll at times add other ingredients based on the needs of a customer’s turf at any given time. Sometimes we’ll add more kelp extract, sometimes we’ll add another bit of alfalfa. If we want more a more fungal tea (not typical for lawns), we can add oats or spent distillers grains. If we want a more bacterial tea (good for lawns), fish emulsion or additional sugars (maple syrup, cane sugar, etc) can be added.
For the tea that we sell at farmers markets and on our website, our recipe is pretty standard: Living Worm Compost, aquafer/rain water, kelp, molasses, alfalfa meal. This is the recipe that we’ve found gives the best results, and it keeps things consistent for everyone that uses it.
And there it is. It sounds relatively simple, and at its core, it is. However, what we’ve been working on over the past several years is ingredient ratios, brew time and oxygen levels. And that’s where we feel like we’ve hit the sweet spot. If you’re interested in purchasing our tea (available only in West Michigan), check out our product page. Be aware: Since it does contain living organisms, you will need to use it within 8 hours of getting it.
At Good Sweet Earth, we believe healthy soil is the key to a healthier—well, everything. It’s the key to producing healthier food, keeping our watersheds clean, giving us more breathable air, and even reducing the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change. Reducing the amount of chemicals in the soil around our homes exposes us to less carcinogens, which is healthier for our families. Healthy soil provides a home to billions and billions of lifeforms, which are threatened when soil is tainted with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. And when soil is healthy, it helps prevent erosion. Soil is life.
But what exactly does soil do?
According to the Soil Science of America, they describe the basics of soil like this:
Soil is an amazing substance. A complex mix of minerals, air, water, and countless microorganisms, soil forms at the surface of land and comes in many types. Put another way, soil is the thin, outermost layer of Earth’s crust, and like our own skin, we can’t live without soil.
You know that smell in the air after a good rain? Or that smell that permeates the air when you dig into your garden’s soil every spring? Did you know there’s a scientific explanation for that smell?
The science behind that wonderful “fresh earth” aroma is geosmin.
Geosmin is an organic compound produced by a microorganism found in all soil, and it carries a distinct aroma and flavor. It’s what gives beets their earthy flavor. Sometimes if you drink water that’s been sitting out for a while, it develops a musty taste, and that, too, is caused by geosmin. Wine is known to pick up this flavor as well.
The flavor produced by geosmin isn’t always a pleasant one, but the aroma it gives off is quite pleasing to the senses. So where does that smell come from, and why do we get whiffs of it after a nice heavy precipitation? It’s pretty simple: When it rains, water fills the air pockets found in the soil, and the geosmin gets expelled into the air. Sometimes you’ll even get an earthy whiff of geosmin before it rains. How, you ask? Well, a low-pressure system can de-gas the soil and put those geosmin into the air before a drop of water even hits the ground, leading many of us to say things like “It’s gonna rain; I can smell it!”
Read more about geosmin from the Soil Science Society of America.
Earlier this summer, residents in Toledo, Ohio and southern Michigan were given the shocking news that their tap water was dangerous– ‘do not drink, do not touch, do not boil,’ is what they were told. Talk about scary! Some people had to drive into neighboring counties to find enough bottled water to support their family through the crisis.
This wasn’t a gas shortage, or a snow shovel shortage before a storm, or a Nutella shortage— those are all annoyances– but this was a serious, serious situation these residents were facing. The water in Lake Erie, scientists told us, was poisoned due to phosphorus run-off which then caused algae blooms in the shallow parts of the water. Most of this comes from neighboring farms, but if you’ve got a yard, you also need to be aware of what’s in the fertilizer you’re using. When too much phosphorus gets into bodies of water, you get these toxic algae blooms. For the most part, on smaller lakes, that means you can’t go swimming there for a few days. But when it happens in larger bodies of water– like Lake Erie– it affects our supply of drinking water.
When it comes to your yard, read labels. Scott’s got rid of phosphorus from their turf builder a couple years ago, but if you use things like Miracle Gro for your flowers and fruits and vegetables, you need to be aware that you’re putting phosphorus into the environment. Plants like turf grasses don’t flower or produce large fruit, so they absolutely do not need any (or VERY little) added phosphorus.
When it comes to phosphorus pollution, going the organic route is no less safe than using chemicals. You need to use things like bone meal sparingly, and if you’re using a seabird or bat guano, make sure it’s a type that’s high in nitrogen, not phosphorus.
Read the labels before you buy organic fertilizers. The nutrient analysis is displayed on the product label is NPK– or Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium. If your plant doesn’t flower or produce fruit, avoid the fertilizers with lots of phosphorus– the middle number on the nutrient analysis should be as close to 0 as possible, and 4 should be about as high as you go.
For instance, this seabird guano is high-phosphorus, so it’s nutrient analysis is 1-10-1– one percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and one percent potassium. Avoid this for the most part, and when you do use it, use it very sparingly and make sure you don’t get any on cement or near bodies of water (ponds, streams, creeks, lakes, etc). On the other hand, this bat guano has an analysis of 8-4-1, which means it has 60% less phosphorus than the seabird guano. You should still use it sparingly, and avoid spillage onto cement or water, but it’s not nearly as toxic to the environment as the seabird stuff.
At Good Sweet Earth, our Worm Compost is largely phosphorus-free. Our Bold Tomato and Dulce Rosa do contain a little high-nitrogen bat guano, so these specialty mixes do have some phosphorus (to help with rose blooms and tomato production), but it’s only a small component of the mix.
So when it comes to your yard, be mindful of what you apply to your lawn and garden– reduce the amount of phosphorus fertilizer you use on your garden plants (and be careful not to spill any on your driveway, sidewalk or pavers), and DO NOT apply any phosphorus to your lawn. Every little bit helps when it comes to keeping our drinking water safe.
When it comes to large farms, you can call your state and federal legislators to urge them to pass legislation to require farmers to implement best-use practices. Farm lobbyists are fighting such legislation, even after this most-recent water scare in the Toledo area, which will allow them to continue putting their own profits over public and environmental safety. And we’re not talking small family farms here– these are the large corporate-owned farms that would rather do things cheaply than safely.
Some cities and counties in Michigan are taking a closer look at the dangers of phosphorus to their waterways as well. Ottawa County has already banned the use of phosphorus fertilizers. Let your local leaders you’d like to see them follow suit.
For more information on what you can do to fight phosphorus pollution, get in touch with us by shooting an email to office@GoodSweetEarth.com.
Want to know the secret to having healthy, thick, lush grass in your yard? Well, aside from applying Worm Tea to your lawn instead of chemical fertilizers, I'll give you two easy organic tricks that'll help give you a healthier lawn.
1. Mow smarter. This means mowing less and setting your lawn mower to the highest setting when you do mow. The roots of your grass mirror the blades you see above-ground. If you whack your grass blades down to a half-inch or an inch every seven days, your lawn's roots will never really have the chance to penetrate the soil. Without deep roots, you'll have a weak lawn-- it won't handle foot traffic well, it will be susceptible to disease and pests, and it won't be able to handle dry conditions.
Also, lose the bag on your mower. Grass clippings provide some great nutrients to your lawn. When you leave the grass mulch on your lawn, and you apply Worm Tea, the mulch serves as a food source for the microorganisms in the Tea. The microorganisms break down the mulch and release nutrients into the soil. Organic matter being broken down by bacteria, fungi and other microbes-- this is the all-natural way of providing nutrients to plants that the planet has been employing for thousands of years. No need for lab chemicals.
2. Water smarter. This means turning your sprinkler on only when necessary. Instead of watering your lawn every day for 10 minutes, water once every 7-10 days for 35-45 minutes. And if it's rained within the past 10 days, don't bother watering at all. Also, if your grass looks good, it might not even need a watering. Allowing water to go deep into your soil means your lawn's roots will follow the water deep into your soil. Those short waterings most people do mean water stays near the surface and evaporates. The roots never go very deep because the water never goes very deep.
Watering in the morning is the best time. Watering after 11am means the hot sun will evaporate too much surface water, and watering in the evening promotes bad fungal growth.
Also, when you turn the sprinkler on too often, it introduces more nasty chemicals to your soil-- like chlorine, which is added to water to kill bacteria. Bacteria, however, is an absolutely essential component to healthy soil. That means every time you apply water to your lawn from your hose, you're killing billions of beneficial microorganisms. Limit this by watering less frequently.
Finally, the best day to water is the day before you apply Worm Tea. That way, any beneficial bacteria you kill with the tap water from your hose (which has chemicals like fluoride, chlorine, etc) will be replaced the next day.
So here's an ideal scenario for mowing and watering:
Day 1. Mow your lawn. Keep it at a length of 2-3 inches, and let the clippings fall onto your lawn.
Day 2. Water for 35-45 minutes at around 8am.
Day 3. Apply Worm Tea to your lawn to replenish the microorganisms lost with your watering and to break down the grass clippings.
Day 4-8. Enjoy your lawn with friends, family and pets!
Day 9. Mow, if necessary. During hot summer months in Michigan, grass goes dormant, so it's often not necessary to mow as often.
Day 10. Water for 35-45 minutes.
Day 11. Apply Worm Tea.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.