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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

MAKE WEEDS YOUR FRIEND THIS SUMMER WITH COMPOST TEA

By Lee Pierce, CalmUnity Farms


As spring approaches the Southern Tier, every gardener looks forward to their own unique taste of summer, be it tangy ground cherries, plump tomatoes, or rows and rows of fat squash. But everyone agrees on one thing: weeds are the worst part of gardening.


As dandelions and stinging nettles pop their heads up among our prized fruits and veggies, the temptation may be overwhelming to break out the pesticides or till the entire area and start over. We certainly feel that pain. Here at CalmUnity Farms in Elmira, NY our multiple acres of local heirloom plants are always competing with the deep taproots of weeds or what we call “soil monitoring plants.” But we are committed to a permaculture approach that emphasizes designing holistic systems that work with, rather than against, nature. We’d like to share our holistic approach to those pesky plants formerly known as weeds.


CalmUnity Farms founding member Lee Pierce (she/they) in the garden looking for those pesky weeds. (Photo courtesy of CalmUnity Farms)


THE TROUBLE WITH WEED REMOVAL


Many popular weed management methods sacrifice long term sustainability and environmental harmony for short term results. Tilling strips the all-important soil microbiome and releases harmful greenhouse gasses. Fertilizers are expensive and disrupt the ecosystem. And don’t get us started on costly genetically engineered starter plants that threaten biodiversity.


Also, we can’t overlook the crucial function of weeds. They’re much more than just a modern gardening nuisance. Their taproots penetrate deep into the soil, providing aeration and making water distribution more efficient (more rainwater gets into the soil rather than running off the top). 


Not to mention, they make the best fertilizer around. It’s called Compost Tea and we use it for everything here at CalmUnity Farms, from increasing disease resistance of our pea shrubs to helping our fruit trees grow strong and healthy. The best part is that it costs absolutely nothing and works better than even the most expensive brand.


HOW TO MAKE AND USE COMPOST TEA


All you need to make compost tea is a bucket, a collection of recently picked weeds (ideally ones with nice big taproots), and a stick or something to stir with (this will need to be dedicated only to this project)


As you attend to your garden, grab a few of the larger weeds for your compost tea. You only need about half a dozen taproots to get started (although you can certainly make much larger batches). 


Submerge the cluster of plants, roots and all, in a bucket filled with water. Be sure everything is submerged in the water because the entire plant contains beneficial nutrients, not just the taproots. (If you’re feeling brave, you can also throw in rotted leaves or partially decomposed compost to add another source of nourishment to the brew). 


At this point, let your tea sit for a few days. Be sure the bucket is somewhere out of the way where it won’t get spilled and ideally somewhere very well ventilated. But don’t forget about it! You need to stir it at least once a day to ensure maximum effectiveness. You’ll know the tea is working because every time you give it a good stir, it should smell a little more pungent.


Batch of compost tea containing a few scoops of nitrogen rich wet leaves, heavily rooted plants such as nettles, water, and a few scoops of other magic from CalmUnity’s land steward and systems (an)architect, Zeke. After it stews in the sun, the tea is poured at the base of our most vulnerable plants, especially our fledgling fruit trees. (Photo courtesy of CalmUnity Farms)


Be aware that more pungent Compost Tea isn’t necessarily better. If the Compost Tea is too strong, it can burn leaves or overwhelm small plants. You want it to smell like freshly fermenting grass — piquant but not disgusting. Usually a few days will do it. During colder spells, you can leave it for closer to a week. If you do let the tea ferment too long, don’t worry. Think of it like tea concentrate and dilute it with water before adding it to your plants. Given that you’ll be doing this throughout the growing season, it’s better to give the plants tea that is too weak, rather than too strong. 


Once your tea is ready, strain it through a sieve or colander into a device you can use for distribution, like a large watering can. Apply it directly to the roots of your plants — using more tea for larger plants and less tea for younglings. Then watch those babies grow.


We promise that after one season with Compost Tea, you’ll never see those weeds the same way again.


About the Author

Lee Pierce (she, they), is a founding member of CalmUnity Farms, an equity cooperative farm that uses permaculture principles to design sustainable systems. CalmUnity Farms is dedicated to building local food systems that nourish communities in need throughout. Learn more at calmunityfarms.coop.

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