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Goal: We will be introducing aerated compost tea and discussing the science behind it and the lack of science supporting some of the claims. We will talk about how one can properly create an aerated compost tea brew, but will also recommend against aerated or non-aerated compost teas for the home gardener. 2. Traditional Compost Tea: traditional compost tea recipes call for taking mature compost, wrapping it in a sieve of some sort, and soaking it in a bucket of water for several days, sometimes up to a week or more. Any ideas why this is problematic? a. Air: Beneficial bacteria in the garden are aerobes, meaning that they need air to survive. In an environment without air, such as a bucket of water b. Food: bacteria need food to survive and replicate, as in a compost pile where they have plenty of food to eat and air to metabolize. c. Conclusion: with no food and air, aerobes will quickly die submerged in water, especially for days at a time. Furthermore, and worse for us, without air, anaerobic bacteria flourish. So not only are you not getting the benefits you are looking for, you could actually be applying anaerobic bacteria to your garden. d. Hand Extraction: the way to apply compost without top dressing or aerated compost tea. Vigorous rubbing of compost between your hands into a bucket of water. The water can then be strained into a watering can and immediately applied to your plants. 3. Aerated Compost Tea (ACT): a scientific form of making compost tea designed to proliferate bacteria and/or fungi populations by creating a medium in which they can multiply rapidly and then be applied through several methods to the garden. a. Compost: high quality compost is an essential ingredient for aerated compost tea – a tea with high bacterial counts cannot be made without it. Compost must be tested to ensure a high count of diverse bacteria. b. Sterility: The environment in which you are going to be producing your compost tea must be sterile. Have a dedicated five gallon food grade bucket, and clean and sterilize all of your equipment after each use. This is very important – you are trying to grow bacteria so there should not be any others present. c. Soaps and Cleaning: Again, remember your goal – to produce a population of beneficial bacteria. To this end, you cannot use cleaning agents or chemicals that are designed to kill bacteria. You need to use ecofriendly cleaners and make sure to rinse thoroughly with water. d. Water: To that same end – water in Santa Cruz is chlorinated using free chlorine, and chloramine. Chloramine is a stable form of chlorine that cannot be removed by simply outgassing, like chlorine. Neutralizing drops must be used to remove this from the water. Remember – these chemicals are designed to inhibit bacterial growth. If you forget to do this step, or use chlorinated water, you cannot have a successful tea. e. Air: as we mentioned before, air is a necessary component to the survival
of beneficial bacteria. Since we are attempting to create an environment where bacteria can not only survive, but multiply rapidly and support a population explosion, we are going to need very high air saturation. For this we are going to need an industrial pump. i. Aquarium Pumps: typing in aerated compost tea online will produce tons of recipes and instructions for compost tea. Popularly, you will see people using low powered aquarium pumps and air stones. DO NOT use there. They are not only severely underpowered to foster such a large population explosion, but air stones are total junk – the are not designed to be easily cleanable and a sterile environment. ii. Industrial Pump: What you will need to produce compost tea is an industrial pump. These will provide enough power to create enough air saturation to succeed with your goal. f. Distribution method: The air must be distributed through some form of distribution – this is called diffusion. i. Pvc tubing: can construct a very good distribution method by using pvc and elbows. g. Application i. Soil drench: you will need to strain the liquid to keep your watering can from clogging, and then you simply soak the areas around plants with the tea. This is basically inoculating the soil with beneficial bacteria. ii. Foliar feeding: a foliar feed is a method of applying fertilizer or compost tea that involves spraying the plants with a fine mist of the solution at certain times of the day – typically early morning and before sunset when plants “pores” open up to take in moisture and nutrients. Foliar spray should be applied to the underside of the leaves and as thoroughly as possible. 4. Recipes and Strategies a. Fungal vs. Bacterial: Remember our discussions about fungal vs. bacterially dominated soils and plants’ preference for variations of the two. Thus, we have an opportunity to produce aerated compost teas with different rations of bacteria to fungi in order to support plant preferences and create a diversity in the soil. b. Instructions: i. Fill 5 gallon bucket with follow instructions on de-chlorination ii. Put compost or vermin-compost in a mesh sack iii. Attach pump to diffuser and submerge into the water iv. Aerate for 12-72 hours c. Bacterial Recipe: 5 gallon recipe i. 1.5 cups compost ii. 1.4 cup kelp meal iii. 2oz blackstrap unsulfured molasses iv. 2oz fruit juice
v. ¼ cup chopped feed hay vi. 1oz fish emulsion d. Fungal Tea: i. 1.5 cups fungal compost ii. 2oz liquid humates iii. 2oz molasses iv. 1oz Yucca extracts v. 2oz fish hydrolosates vi. ¼ cup kelp meal vii. ¼ cup chopped feed hay e. Fungal and Bacterial: i. ¾ cup compost ii. ¾ cup fungal compost iii. ¼ cup kelp meal iv. 2 oz liquid humates v. 2oz blackstrap molasses vi. 2 oz fish hydrolosates vii. ¼ cup green sand viii. ¼ cup chopped feed hay 5. Testing: The only true way of knowing a successful brew is through a microscope – bacterial and fungal counts can be taken under a microscope. There is no other sure way to know that you have made a real batch of compost tea as opposed to brown water. However, following the directions, providing adequate air, sterile environment, clean dechlorinated water will all increase your chances of having a great brew. 6. Applications: a. Agriculture: aerated compost teas are becoming a popular fertility management technique. b. Soil restoration: is being used to restore depleted soils 7. Evidence: a. Evidence: scientific evidence for compost tea is largely provided by Dr. Linda Ingham, founder of SoilFoodWeb Inc. 8. Criticism: I have to say that after doing extensive research, my conclusion, for now, is that Aerated and non-aerated compost teas may have narrow applications for specific purposes. Overall, however, I no longer believe the hype – there are a number of convincing and scientifically based articles pointing out the lack of scientific evidence supporting claims about the benefits of aerated compost tea, especially in disease suppression. a. Scientific Information: The conclusions that I have made are based on my personal study on scientific articles on aerated compost teas. Though I understand that there are many problems associated with scientific research in itself, I consider peer-reviewed scientific studies to be the starting point for gathering information on these topics. b. Linda Chalker-Scott: Horticulturist and Associate Professor at
Washington State University. The Myth of Compost Tea. i. Negative Results: many negative results are not published. ii. Aerated compost teas for disease control lacks scientific data iii. Rapidly growing compost tea industry downplays the lack of reputable science behind the product. c. Mario Lanthier: Compost Tea and Its impact on Plant Diseases i. Article suggests that there is evidence showing that compost tea can prevent a number of plant diseases such as damping off and Botrytis mold, but is not effective against powdery mildrew. The answer for whether aerated compost tea can suppress disease in plants is “maybe”. d. Rhodale Institute: 150,000 two year study on compost tea controlling leaf disease in pumpkins, grapes and potatoes. Showed reduction in disease in pumpkins the second year, grapes had no impact in the second year. Advantages to compost tea were found only when compost was not used additionally. No reduction of powdery mildew in pumpkins. e. 2004 report: effective in damping off of cucumbers. 9. What this all means for the home gardener: a. Difficulty Level is High: What this all translates to for the home gardener is that the complexity level is too high for all but those with a lot of time to dedicate to proper research and high quality scientific equipment and expertise with which to come to a proper conclusion. i. Composition: the composition of your compost tea is impossible to tell without a quality microscope and knowledge of how to take bacterial and fungal counts. Without this knowledge, you cannot know whether your process was even successful at replicating bacterial and fungal populations, much less replicating specific desirable organisms. ii. Energy Usage: Aerated compost teas must be run for 24-72 hours. 10. Alternatives: a. Mulching i. Compost: mulching with compost has been shown to improve soil moisture, reduce soil erosion and compaction, maintain soil temperatures, increase nutrition, reduce weeds, reduce disease, and reduce pesticide use. ii. Mulching with organic matter: such as straw or weeds has also been shown to have many of the same benefits.
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