By David Bienenstock Photos by Murphy Green
When you’re growing ganja way off the grid, it’s vitally important to become as self-reliant as possible. At this lovely medical marijuana garden in Northern California, that means not just cultivating your own medicine, but also growing your own food, brewing your own beer, sewing your own socks, pickling your own vegetables, playing music on a guitar instead of an iPod, and learning a million other frontier skills that quickly become crucial when you’re way up in the mountains, more than an hour from the nearest small town.
For the record, these modern-day homesteaders grow amazing marijuana and brew only so-so beer. Of course, that may be because the “homebrew” they’re most proud of is meant for the garden, not the gardeners.
“Compost tea is the foundation upon which the entire success of our farm depends,” says Spore, the head gardener and plant manager of this operation. “We use it to create an ideal soil for growing ganja, to provide our plants with the nutrients they need, to protect them from insects, molds, diseases ... I can’t tell you the number of different products compost tea can replace, for a lot less money.”
Compost tea starts, obviously enough, with compost, a mix of decaying organic matter that farmers of all kinds have used since the dawn of agriculture to enrich their soils. Organic compost can be inexpensively obtained from your local garden store and mixed directly into your exist- ing soil -- or, better yet, you can build and maintain your own compost pile as an easy and cost-effective way to supply your plants with the nutrients they need to thrive throughout the growing season.
One important thing to be aware of, however, is that there’s a world of difference between a compost pile and a garbage heap. So while it’s not that hard to make garden-ready compost, you do have to follow this basic recipe diligently or you’ll end up with a stinky, useless mess.
Start with a mix that’s 25% high-nitrogen ingredients (such as manure, legumes and grass clippings from early spring), 45% green ingredients (like green plant debris, food scraps and coffee grounds), and 30% woody material (like dried leaves, wood chips and shredded newspaper). You’ll need to create a compost pile with a mass of at least one cubic yard of this combined material to ensure that, as it decomposes, the pile reaches a temperature above 135°F and stays there for three days -- long enough to kill off weed seeds, pathogens and cannabis-eating nematodes.
Measure the pile with a long-stemmed thermometer that can reach its center in order to verify the temps. When the temperature reaches about 155°F, turn the pile over with a pitchfork so that the cooler outside material is now on the inside and has a chance to get hotter in its turn. Keep in mind, however, that the inside of the pile must always remain below 160°F, since that’s the point at which the beneficial microorganisms within the compost will start being killed off.
For the first week or so, expect to turn the pile every day or two, then much less frequently after that. In a few weeks, the temperature will gradually start to drop -- a sign that the compost is maturing. About two months after you’ve started, the center of the pile should be cool or barely warm to the touch, which means that it’s ready to add to the garden.
“Proper compost has an amazing aroma,” Spore reports. “It might be an acquired taste, but it’s certainly not overtly unpleasant in any way -- unless you fucked it up.” So that takes care of the compost. But if compost is so great on its own, why bother brewing compost tea?
Primarily because that’s the most efficient way to get all of the beneficial microorganisms living in the compost to your plants in a form they can readily absorb, while also speeding up the breakdown of any toxins in the surrounding soil. Compost tea supports plant growth in two key ways: First, it helps to build a “soil food web” by introducing billions of beneficial microorganisms and nutrients into the soil in a way that makes them readily accessible to plant roots. Second, at the root level and especially when used as a foliar spray, these same beneficial microorganisms protect the plant from pathogens, molds, insects and other buzz killers.
In Spore’s garden, with its dozens of large outdoor plants, the head gardener has several compost piles going at any one time, which he uses to brew up large batches of compost tea at key points in the growing season. To handle his needs, Spore has also acquired a relatively sim- ple pre-made compost brewer capable of producing 50 gallons of the tea at once, which is then delivered by hose to the garden, where aerating wands allow the growers to apply it both to the plants’ roots and to the leaves as a foliar spray.
Over time, Spore has developed his own special recipes for the vegetative and flowering stages that incorporate locally sourced organic amendments. “Aside from the benefit to plants, compost tea is also by far the most environmentally friendly way to grow cannabis,” he explains. “Tea- treated plants don’t need chemical nutrients and pesticides, they require less water overall via increased retention, and they don’t require shipping in tons of soil and amendments from distant, ecologically sensitive lands. And, oh yeah -- the buds smell and taste fantastic!”
Naturally, not everyone has quite as many plants to tend as Spore does, so over a few glasses of homebrewed beer, we decided that it would be most helpful to High Times readers if we provided a set of instructions for constructing a simple, inexpensive compost-tea brewer that anyone can build at home using an aquarium pump and a few other basic items from the hardware store.
This simple bucket system is based on instructions from Elaine Ingham, a rec- ognized leader in the field of microbiol- ogy and the author of The Compost Tea Brewing Manual. So start small, witness the amazing power of compost tea first- hand, and you’ll soon become a convert.
Compost tea is 100% organic and has been shown to:
Suppress pythium, phytophthora, powdery mildew, fusarium and other plant pathogens.
Reduce or eliminate the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Increase retention rates for water and nutrients.
Break down toxins in the soil, helping root systems to thrive.
Save growers a lot of money while boosting both the health and yields of their plants.
COMPOST TEA INSTRUCTIONS
An aquarium pump (with at least three bubblers or air stones)
Several feet of tubing
A gang valve
Unsulfured organic molasses
An old pillowcase (to strain the tea)
Two five-gallon plastic buckets
Compost (from a homemade pile or store-bought)
NOTE: If your water comes from a city source, you should start by filling one of the buckets and running the bubblers in it for about an hour to remove any chlorine, which can kill the beneficial organisms in your tea. Well water can be used straight from the spigot.
(1) Fill one of the buckets halfway with fully mature compost -- but don’t compact it.
(2) Cut a length of tubing and attach one end to the gang valve and the other to the pump.
(3) Cut three more pieces, each long enough to reach from the rim of the bucket to its bottom, and attach those to a port of the gang valve on one end and a bubbler on the other.
(4) Bury the bubblers beneath the compost and hang the gang valve from the top lip of the bucket.
(5) As the bubblers run, add one ounce of molasses, then stir vigorously with a stick or broom handle that reaches to the bottom of the bucket.
(6) Once the molasses (which serves as food for the tea’s beneficial microorganisms) is dissolved, check to see that the bubblers have remained on the bottom of the bucket and are still well spaced. Repeat this stirring process several times a day for three days straight to achieve fully brewed tea.
After three days of constant brewing, remove all of the equipment from the bucket and let the tea sit 10 to 20 minutes to allow the compost to settle to the bottom. Empty the contents into the other bucket using the pillowcase to strain out any solid compost. You should yield about 2.5 gallons of usable tea, while the strained-out solid matter can either be returned to your compost pile or added directly to the soil.
At this point, you can also add any foliar micronutrients to the tea (such as rock dust and kelp) that you think will benefit your plants.
Since compost tea works by bringing beneficial living organisms to your plants, it must be applied to the soil or used as a foliar spray immediately after you finish brewing. Compost tea is best applied in the early-morning or early- evening hours, so plan accordingly before you start brewing.
As a foliar spray, compost tea is ideally used as a preventative applied to the leaves at the beginning of the season, before problems develop, and then reapplied every two weeks or so until flowering (or as the need arises). Any type of spray bottle designed to apply pesticides can be cleaned and converted into a compost-tea sprayer.
Compost tea gardeners also use the tea as a soil drench, applying it heavily in the beginning of the season in order to build up a “living soil” filled with beneficial microorganisms, and then reapplying it all the way up to the flowering stage to support the formation of strong, resin-soaked buds.