Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It’s tea time in the garden

Posted by: Kiley Jacques, Senior Rose Gardener

Do you take cream and sugar or pulverized fish and elephant poop with your tea? This isn’t Tetley’s folks! We are talking about compost tea—that mysterious concoction that has many environmentally-concerned folks thinking of alternatives to pesticides. From the inception of our Natural Care horticulture program at Woodland Park Zoo, we have approached the application of this mighty brew as one component of a system intended to support sustainable landscape management. It works in conjunction with other biology-based techniques; it is important to understand that we don’t look to its use as a cure-all for disease problems.
Every Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m., I can be found unrolling a bright yellow 200 foot hose while our 250 gallon tank makes its scheduled appearance via forklift. While we prepare for our four hour spray session, the questions start coming. So many visitors find this all very intriguing. Most start with: What is compost tea? The answer: it is a blend of organic matter from a variety of sources that is either added directly to de-chlorinated tank water (as in the case of liquid ingredients), or put into an actual “tea” bag for steeping (designed for dry ingredients). The magic potion is then aerated and left to brew for 24-48 hours until the likes of tea-takers like me are ready to spray.
This query is often followed by: what does the tea do? The idea behind compost tea is for desirable biological microbes (those that contribute to the advancement of an environment’s ecological balance) to take up niches in the soil and on foliage that would otherwise be occupied by disease agents. In addition, “beneficials,” as they are called, can aid plants in nutrient and water absorption and retention.

When people inquire about our recipe, I first inform them that different plants/landscapes call for different biological considerations. In the case of roses, we are aiming for a tea that is dominated by beneficial fungi (which is not so easy to do as most teas are more bacteria-based). Our own unique recipe has been developed over the years to include: pulverized fish matter, Alaskan humus, fungi laden bark mulch, granular sea kelp, liquid humic acid, protozoa that has been extracted from a hay and water mixture, our famous Zoo Doo, and good old garden compost. We are regularly examining the material yielded as well as its affect on our garden to determine if changes need to be made. This brings up another point: it is vital to TEST, TEST, TEST when adding anything to a landscape; we want to know exactly how we are impacting our soils and plants. If it’s not for the better, we better rethink what we are doing!

Most people get pretty jazzed about all of this and ask me how they can make their own tea. I answer: though possible, it is difficult. I recommend if one is really serious about getting the right tea for their garden, have a professional brewer/applicator come to your home.

Some other frequently asked questions include:
Q: Can I buy it in stores?
A: Yes, it now comes in powder form, though be sure to have its viability tested.

Q: Where do you get your ingredients?
A: We make our own compost and order all other ingredients from an Oregon company specializing in tea related materials. Feel free to contact the zoo for more information.

Q: Do you spray all year?
A: We can, but generally begin the spray season in late February, following our hard prune, and end in late October as the garden is being put to bed.

Compost tea is a relatively new idea in the history of landscape management. It is controversial and will be continually examined for its efficacy. Here at Woodland Park Zoo, we are believers. We have seen desirable results. We are committed to conservation, preservation, and sustainability. So, put the kettle on and brew up a pot!
Photo by Kiley Jacques/Woodland Park Zoo.

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