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A Compost Tea Story

Two white 55 gallon barrels with one 55 gallon blue barrel in background on top of mulch.
55 Gallon Compost Tea Brewers

Many moons ago when Malibu Compost was still young and I was doing a lot more consulting work to help us make ends meet, I got an amazing opportunity to try to save some giant specimen sequoia sempervirens whose root balls had been cut way too small when they were taken from the ground, burlapped and shipped. Thirty-two, thirty foot tall redwoods had been planted to line the driveway leading into a giant private compound and estate along a lake in the Western United States.

I got a call from the estate manager to see if there was something that I could do for the trees which were starting to show signs of dieback. The estate manger from the lakeside property had heard I had very successfully created the organic protocols on another coastal estate site for the owner, and he was hoping that I might have a fix for the stars of the entry to the palatial estate. I told him that we could run a compost tea regimen and composting protocol that could definitely garner positive results for the big trees.

Red flowering plant in the foreground with tall redwoods in the background.
Redwoods in Background

He had the manager of the landscape crew who managed the estate call me so that I would have a spot to ship all of my organic amendments, compost tea brewers and pallets of our Bu’s Blend Biodynamic Compost, as well as get the lay of the land in terms of the landscape, power and water usage and how the trees specifically were planted. The biggest clue I got from him was that when the trees arrived from the company they’d bought the trees from, they noticed that they had extremely small root balls hidden under their burlap wraps. They were about 6 feet in diameter which for a forty foot tall tree is nowhere near the root-to-shoot scale appropriate for those trees. Someone had done a real hack job digging those trees out, and they didn’t have long for this world if we didn’t do something to save them.

Window view of airplane flight with clouds in sky and earth below.

I immediately sent my supplies for the job and booked a flight out of LAX for the following day. I wanted to get up to the site and assess firsthand just how bad things were looking for the redwoods. When I got to the site, I passed through a very serious security checkpoint with the most intense and professional security team I’d ever encountered. Once I was cleared by security I was greeted by the estate manager, the landscape manager and the foreman of the landscape crew down near the base of 1/4 mile driveway that was lined by the trees in question. This gave me my first view of just how far the dieback had moved out along the branches of these beauties.

The estate manager was a bit exasperated as he pointed to the red dieback on the interior of the branches that bled back into the greenery of the trees. “We just can't have this. It’s unacceptable. We paid a lot of money for these trees…” The landscape manager carefully and as if on queue, nodded his head in agreement. “Can you fix them?” the estate manager asked with very little hope in his voice. I looked up the drive at the trees who were becoming more sad by the minute and said assuredly, “We’re going to do our best.” He responded with the appropriate and correct chess move, “The owner would be very grateful to you and Malibu Compost if you can salvage these trees…”

We got to work right away. I had the landscape manager and foreman gather the crew I was going to be in charge of up the drive around the first trees that were planted. I told the crew the game plan, which was to bore ten 3” holes with metal fence posts around the drip line of the tree. We were going to bore four holes just outside of the three foot zone of the root ball. We were going to drop a small camera into the holes nearest the base of the trees to see if the roots had grown at all off of the root ball. I suspected not.

We were going to brew up a special compost tea recipe in the five, fifty-five gallon compost tea brewers that I had shipped to the site. We were going to fill each of the boring holes with compost tea and then drench the entire base of the trees out to their drip lines. After drenching each tree, we would fill the boring holes with Bu’s Blend Biodynamic Compost and water it in. I told the crew that the compost tea would act as our fast acting biological inoculant that would stimulate root growth and mitigate the transplant shock. They looked at me like I was insane, like I was speaking Chinese to them, and that the owner must have lost his mind to send a tree hugging quack up here to throw some muddy water in a hole!

I read the room, well the driveway, so I asked them my favorite question to compost tea non-believers… “So, you guys have used a lot of compost tea in your landscaping and you know that it won’t work, right?” The entire crew looked a little dumbfounded. “Well…” I pushed, “How often are you guys using compost tea on your sites?” Finally, the foreman spoke up, “Never. We’ve never used compost tea before.” Another guy, who looked like he’d been at the landscaping game a looooong time spoke up, “We don’t even know what it is…” Just then, a tattooed guy with lots of stickers dotting his hard hat spoke up, “I know what it is, my cousin grows weed in Cali and they use it all the time. He swears by the stuff.” That got a little laugh and cut the tension of me being the new sheriff in town with this seasoned crew. I looked at the guy, “Yup, your cousin’s right, a lot of growers use compost tea very successfully in their grows, and with any luck and a little help from God, we just might save these trees.” I paused, “Are you guys willing to try?” “Un-huhs” and nods all around. We were ready to save some redwoods!

The next morning my supplies arrived and I went to brew the tea with the tattooed guy, while the rest of the crew got busy boring holes and preparing the trees for their inoculation. We brewed the tea for 24 hours and came back to the site the next morning. The trees dieback had moved a little further out along the branches. I hoped that I’d gotten here in time. I showed my new tattooed friend the recipe of the compost tea for the sequoias so that he could be the brewmaster when I was off site. He was excited to learn and asked a lot of questions. We talked soil, microbes and how basic biology works in the process of mineralization which feeds plants in nature. He was game to learn and was becoming more and more hopeful that this just might work.

Large white tarp laid out over mound of organic soil with totes of Malibu Compost soil and redwoods in background.
Organic Protocol Supplies on Site

Handful of organic Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost in front of bags.
The Compost to be used in the Compost Tea brews

The next morning we went to work drenching the first ten trees. We were going to repeat the process each day for the next two days. I was going to watch the new brewmaster make the brew and make sure that he’d followed the recipe just as prescribed. The crew filled each of the boring holes with compost, then drenched the trees with compost tea out to their drip line and finished the regimen by filling all of the holes, except for one, which we’d use to drop the camera down in to capture the root growth that we were all hoping for. If the roots began to grow, the dieback would stop and the trees would survive and then thrive if cared for correctly.

Day three started with our first hiccup. Apparently, the bears liked my inputs for the compost tea brew and had come over the fence the night before for a little snack! Bears! Nobody told me about bears. The foreman said they'd lock the supplies up in metal containers at night. I told him that was a great idea, because I didn't send enough supplies to feed hungry bears...

Bear claw opened up bag of fish bone meal with contents spilling on top of soil.
Bear Claw

Food - Pack it in Pack it out Bears!!

We repeated the process over the next two days until all thirty-two of the thirty foot tall centerpieces of the entry to this massive estate were treated. Now, all we could do was wait. I needed to get back to LA and it was time to say goodbye to my new pals. It’s funny how when you work together, buy into a process and become a team, all of the prejudgment and second guessing falls away. I got high fives and handshakes from the crew and was off for home.

Two white mesh compost tea bags hanging on a green chain link fence with sequoias in the background.
Hanging Compost Tea Brewer Bags to Dry

I’d been home about five days when I got call from the landscape manager. He was really excited, almost giddy with disbelief. He said that the brewmaster had just put the camera down into the boring hole and said that he spotted some spaghetti strands of roots beginning to shoot out off of the first tree that we’d treated, and the one with the most dieback. He said that the guys were going to check all of the trees and that he’d get back to me. I told him to measure the dieback from the center of each tree and record that in the compost tea journal that I’d left with the brewmaster.

Over the next several days I got that same call. He told me just like I'd said that the dieback would stop once the roots began to grow. He was blown away! The dieback had completely stopped. That was eight years ago and all of the redwoods not only survived, but have thrived. They have all grown, have greened up and are the iconic placeholders that the landscape designers had hoped for when they designed the beautiful entry. I know that this is a pretty big example of what I have personally seen compost tea do in an extreme situation, but think about it, if it can do this for giant sequoia trees on an estate, what can it do in your garden? I know what it’s doing in mine. Give it a try and some day you can share your own compost tea story with some gardeners who may need some help in their gardens.

© Randy Ritchie

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