I have been making and using compost tea in gardens for years now. I was first turned onto compost tea back in the early 2,000’s when I was looking for ways to naturally and organically grow better and healthier landscapes and gardens for my landscape company. We were the first ecological landscape company in Los Angeles, maybe in the U.S.
We focused all of our projects on the natural and organic gardening and landscaping protocols that we created that focused on a healthy environment, healthy soil and growing healthy food within the landscape, which became a key feature of every garden we designed and built. I was also laser-focused on learning everything I could about all of the new “organic” products that were coming into the marketplace and how we could incorporate them into our gardens. There was no “ORGANIC” until 1990 in the United States until:
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 as part of a larger law governing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs from 1990 through 1996. The purpose of the program, which was implemented in October 2002, is to give consumers confidence in the legitimacy of products sold as organic, permit legal action against those who use the term fraudulently, increase the supply and variety of available organic products, and facilitate international trade in organic products.
We were also the first landscapers that I ever knew who were adamant about not using ANY pesticides or herbicides, nor any and all chemical fertilization. It wasn’t easy. The hardest thing about what we were trying to do was that there was no information on organic growing back then, and we were inventing and creating methodology as we went along. There was a lot of trial-and-error in our early days of transitioning to organic from traditional chemical and synthetic gardening and landscaping.
One of the biggest game-changers for us came when one of my friends told me about this group in the Pacific Northwest who was working with a PhD, Dr. Ingham, out of OSU. They were making a concoction that was called an aerated “compost tea.” It was made by adding compost, fish, worm castings and kelp into a mesh bag and then agitated or “brewed” with the use of a small pond pump for a 24 hour period in a 33 gallon trash can. My friend told me that he’d heard that this liquified form of humus was great for adding nutrient and biology (microbes) back into the soil. I was more than interested.
The problem then, was the same problem as it is today; compost. To make good compost tea you need a good compost. I was having a really hard time finding a good quality compost in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. I searched high and low from Santa Barbara to San Diego and couldn't find anything besides green waste compost and crappy compost from the big soil yards.
No-one was making good compost. The guys in the Pacific Northwest were using this stuff called Alaskan Peat, or Yukon Gold, which was forest humus that was collected from the forest floor in Alaska. I didn’t like the sound of that at all. It didn’t seem to make sense to me to grow landscape plants and vegetables in California using soil that came from a forest in Alaska.
I finally found some really great compost when I was turned onto a biodynamic farm in the Central Valley by Alan York, the vintner of Benziger Vineyards back in 2007. I was lucky enough to meet Alan after I randomly called him when I read an article on him in the Wine Spectator Magazine. He was doing some really far-out stuff with something biodynamic compost, as well as using an insectary as his IPM (Integrated Pest Management) on their 1,000 acres of land. Alan is the person responsible for introducing me to biodynamic compost. He told me to put my hands in his compost at the end of our tour of the vineyard, which was the first time that I ever felt life in soil. It was a life-changing moment for me. Alan introduced me to the first farming partner that I had. I knew after touching, feeling, smelling and sensing Alan’s biodynamic compost that I had to use this on all of my landscaping and gardening work. This was before I started Malibu Compost, and it was the key to making great compost and compost tea!
Read more about the meeting with Alan York at https://www.malibucompost.com/our-story
I began by making a very basic aerated compost tea in a couple of 33 gallon trash cans on my job sites. We used a base tea recipe that I had learned from talking to a couple of farmers that I knew in Northern, CA who had been playing with compost teas on their farms. We bought some really simple small pond pumps to aerate the tea and paint strainer bags to put our tea mix into. My landscape crew was very interested in the idea, but were one hundred percent apprehensive that it would work. Our first teas were used on a rose garden on a property in Malibu that had an old, established rose garden that was starting to fail. The owners wanted us to take it out. I asked them if we could save it with compost and compost tea would they like to keep it? They said, “Yes.”
That first compost tea that we made had amazing results. We sprayed about fifty or sixty roses with backpack sprayers and then drenched the plants at their base in their watering wells. Within a day or two we noticed the leaves of the roses greening up and losing much of the powdery mildew that was all over them. We did two back-to-back compost tea applications about two weeks apart. By the time we were done with that second application the roses were budding out and the powdery mildew was gone. As they started to bloom, one of my foreman asked me if I thought it was the tea. My gut said yes. So I told him that I did, even though I was such a novice back then, I really had no idea. This was our trial-and-error phase. What I did know was that the homeowners loved how their roses looked and asked if we could make them a focal point of the garden. That was really cool to see something that was going to be discarded in a garden saved. It taught me some very valuable lessons that I would use in the future as our understanding of compost tea and applications of the tea progressed. I learned to trust my gut and continue to see alternative ways of healing the plants, soil and gardens that I was blessed to be working on. If you’re a landscaper and you’re not using compost tea, you are definitely missing the boat.
In the almost fifteen years that I’ve been making and using compost tea, I have seen amazing results, starting with that first Compost Tea that brought back the dying rose garden on the residential landscape job in Malibu to helping transform a world famous rose garden - the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland, CA. We were hired to try to help save the 5,000 roses that covered 8 acres of this once world-class municipal garden. The garden was about to lose their accreditation from the American Rose Society (ARS). The city had tried everything they could think of to stop the fungal diseases - black spot, rust and powdery mildew that was overtaking this jewel of the Bay Area. To compound matters, someone had done a sheet mulching of the entire site with cardboard and it wasn’t breaking down at all and was causing pockets of anaerobea everywhere that was destroying the beneficial soil biology. As if this wasn’t enough, the entire garden was suffering from the toxicity from all of the salt and chemical fertilization and fungicide that the city maintenance team was using in megadoses. You want to talk about a stressed out rose garden? This was the place!
The Morcom needed love. First, we asked the Dedicated Dead-Headers to come back to the garden to help prune off the black-spot and dispose of it. Guess where it went? To the city dump and into the green waste composting facility.
The Dead-Headers had left their volunteering at the garden because of all of the poison and chemicals that the city was using. When they met us and learned that we were going one hundred percent organic, they were back on-board, and the community surrounding this amazing garden started coming back together! Never use green waste compost on anything that health or well-being of the soil or plants is of paramount importance.
We composted everything, all five thousand roses with our biodynamic compost. We brought in kids who needed hours from the court to help pull up the sheet mulch, then rake in a 1/2 cubic foot of compost around every rose. We watered in all the compost afterwards. It was a massive undertaking. We finished up the pruning, composting and watering with two very comprehensive tea applications. We foliar sprayed, then soil drenched every rose in the garden that July and August. What happened over a three month period was nothing less than a miracle. The powdery mildew and rust all subsided. The entire garden, which was a sea of gray when we got there, now bloomed profusely. When we walked the garden with the president of the rose society in September, she asked me how we fixed the garden? Not knowing that she was a biologist, I told her that it wasn’t us, it was the microbes that were in the compost tea and compost. She said that was great answer! She was thrilled with the direction that Oakland and the Morcom Rose Garden had taken, and the Morcom was able to keep their coveted and important status with the ARS.
If you’re still not convinced that compost tea will fix your garden, or any problem or issue that you might be having with soil heath or plant vitality and productivity, then read on…
I have been very lucky and blessed to work on some amazing large-scale projects beyond the residential work that we did for years. This change in our business happened for me once I decided to quit being a conventional landscaper and garden designer and builder to one who was one hundred percent holistic, organic and natural. Once we started Malibu Compost and became the country’s only biodynamic and true organic compost maker, the lid flew off of the kettle and my world in terms of landscape, farm and garden consulting soared to new heights!
One of my first consulting jobs for Malibu Compost was on a very large private fruit orchard on an estate in Southern California. It was a fully mature orchard that was no longer producing. Years of chemical fertilization and lack of composting was finally taking it’s toll and this orchard was dying. We were asked by the horticulturalist of the site if we could fix their orchard? I walked the orchard with the horticulturalist, landscape architect, assistant landscape architect, business manager and maintenance supervisor. I tried to put my soil probe into the soil, and it wouldn't even penetrate the surface of the soil. It was clay soil that was hardened like concrete, choking off the feeder roots of the trees. I told this team of people that we could save the orchard by using compost and compost tea. The landscape architect chuckled, “That’s it?” I looked at him and said, “Have you ever brought back any type of acreage with compost and compost tea?” He shrugged, “I don’t even know what compost tea is!”
Today, that orchard is prolific. We’ve added more trees and a very diverse and intensive food grow on the property. The base protocols in the orchard today are simple. We have added so much biology that now it is composted once a year and fertilized with compost tea only once per year. We use other protocols which I’m not going to share in this blog, but let me tell you, we’ve been on that site for almost eight years now and it is alive! It has become an ecological habitat for frogs, butterflies, bees and more wild bird varieties than you've ever seen or heard.
A funny thing happened about a year into the project. I came across that same architect and a group of businessmen who were touring the gardens and orchard of the estate one day as they were coming up the garden path. We came around the corner and walked right into each other. He introduced me to the group, “That’s Randy… he’s a… (he thought for a moment) a soil witch or something. He helps grow microbes!” The businessmen all looked at me and nodded. They had no idea what he was talking about and were a little scared at what the architect said about me, as they uncomfortably moved around me and down the path. The point is, the architect had become a true believer. He didn’t know how or why, but he knew that his site and his gardens were flourishing like never before with compost tea and compost.
I hope you’ve noticed that I always mention compost and compost tea together. They are inseparable and must be used in conjunction with each other to have a maximum benefit for soil vitality and soil health which translates into plant health.
Here is the last story that I am going to tell about how fabulous compost tea is.
This one is for the folks out there who grow lawns, love lawns, have lawns or work in the turf industry. Compost tea is amazing for lawns. We brought back a private golf course that was on the brink of collapse from root feeding nematodes that were destroying the roots of the turf.
This is a very prestigious golf course where several Presidents of the United States have played during their Presidency. I met with the agronomist and greenskeeper of the course and they asked me what I thought, was there anything that we could do to help? I asked them how much finished compost they were putting down when they put down new sod and seeded for new turf? They told me "None." They were using a fertilizer mix and a cheap topper like many gardeners use over sodding and re-seeding. I told them that their problem was a lack of diversity. I told them that they needed to be using a good finished, true organic compost, coupled with regular compost tea use to build the microbial counts and diversity of microbes in their soil. By doing so, it would fight off their root feeding nematodes, as well as several of the fungal issues they were having with the turf. They didn’t really believe me, but didn’t have much choice. The golf course was another biological miracle! After only a month, the root feeders were gone and the turf was greener and healthier than it had ever been. Those two fellows were now converts to compost tea and compost!
Oh yeah, I almost forgot my presidential story during my time down there. One of the President’s played twice while I was working there. One day right in the middle of a tea application, we were stopped by the super high-tech security detail that worked the course along with a couple of secret service agents. They told me that we had to leave the course immediately because, "the eagle had landed!” I looked at them like… “What?” They told me that the President was about to tee off and that we had to vamoose! We grabbed our gear and scurried off of the fairway in our four wheel drive mules with our 250 gal. compost tea brewers strapped onto them, and down into the tree-line and out of site before the President teed up his first ball. That was weird. And fun. But more importantly, the compost tea applications on that site were magical.
I guess the bottom line for me is that compost tea is the greatest cheat in organic gardening.
We don’t use fertilizers on any of our sites. We use compost and compost teas. We do an IPM (integrated pest management) program instead of insecticide. We don’t need fungicides and sprays to clean up disease, we use compost tea. We know that there are some nay sayers out there, but compost tea is more and more accepted as an absolute wonder when it comes to organic gardening, farming and landscaping.
I have years of actual experience using compost tea from really good compost out there in the field. I don’t need to rely on other people’s research, or outdated white papers, or claims by academic hacks that compost tea doesn’t work, because I know it does. I’ve seen it over and over and over, firsthand. My hope is that some of the Master Gardeners and folks who have been turned off to this beautiful addition to their gardening protocols, and who believed the nay-sayers, will give this fantastic gardening use of bio-mimicry, biology and honest-to-God organics another look. I believe if they do, that they will find out for themselves the benefits and healing properties of this natural elixir, and then they will know WHY I LOVE COMPOST TEA.
© Randy Ritchie 2019