Hay Tea (Compost Tea) – the best water for your plants

It’s summer!  Time to buy MiracleGro?  Heck no.  That stuff is weird, fluorescent blue, un-dissolvable grains of mystery.  Here’s a recipe that cost me $25 that I can use for years.   You can do the same with a “Homer Bucket” on a smaller scale if you don’t have a huge garden, and you will know you did a great job feeding your plants and trees in a very simple way without contributing to shoving synthetic nutrients into the soil and wondering to yourself, “Does this crap really work?” like I do when I use MiracleGro.    I could never tell.  I always imagined while I was swirling my bucket that me adding MiracleGro to my plants is how an atheist feels when he or she is trying to pray:  Hopeful by trying, but not really seeing any lightning, and having no clue at the end if what I did even mattered.  And by the time I know for sure, it’s too late to get my money back.

“My plants didn’t grow miraculously”, I would imagine telling the Home Depot returns clerk, still using my arm to swirl the now-blue soup-water as I daydream about the exchange that would take place if my crops were not to be a bumper that year.  “So I want my money back”, I would verbally conclude as I contribute to the delinquency and slow insanity of a poor retail store employee who has previously returned my overcompensated .35 cent PVC pipe parts,  dead plants and light bulbs that expire within the warranty.  The clerk would then daydream of pulling out a katana from under the counter, and in one quick swoop, lop off my head with that hopeful look still on my face.  That look that says, “my return will reward me with a Home Depot gift card that I will immediately use within the hour at the checkout counter….” as my smiling, bloody melon bounces on the grey concrete floor to a slow roll and stop, while the clerk victoriously smiles with that victorious gleam in her eye, bloody sword over her shoulder poised to strike again if my headless torso were to suddenly go erect and attack….  as my Type A+ drips from the blade handle onto the shoulder strap of her orange Home Depot apron while the managers all rush up and applaud the employee for the early termination of a persnickety, receipt-bearing cust….

Wow.  Sorry.  That’s a slice of ADHD pie if I ever saw one.   Okay, back to the Tea Compost.

Okay, since I’m pressed for time and this is already way past due for Earth Day, and some of my readers are visual types (like me),  I decided to make this somewhat easy to illustrate (since saying “throw a bunch of hay and water in a big 55-gallon drum and add an aerator and half cup of molasses” wouldn’t be easy enough if you’re one of those unimaginative analytic nerds, so if you are, there you go.  Thanks and bye!).

For the rest of us who didn’t read Playboy “for the articles”, here we go.   You can get hay from most feed stores, depending on where you live.  Each bale of hay has “flakes” or for you Wonder Bread types out there, “slices”.    All you need is one.  But if you’re going to use the hay in a few days to surround the base of your taller and more mature plants, go ahead and throw in two.   That way, you can remove some of the hay without having to start over.



Easy-peasy-Japanese-ey, right?   Right.

Next, get a nice big 55 gallon drum.   These can usually be purchased for about $15.00 on Craigslist, depending where you live.  If you know of a better way, add them to the comments.  But before you pay, keep a sharp eye out.  Sometimes you can get them on Freecycle.com or Craigslist for free by someone who has one they want to get rid of.


I obtained mine from a mechanic who had it out on the street for “bulk pickup trash day”.   In Phoenix, 4 times a year the trash company contracted with the City of Phoenix rolls by to pick up your large items that don’t normally fit in the bin.   This one pictured was set out on the curb, filled with a mechanic’s car parts, transmission fluid, some oil and was dirty.    With a little dish soap, a scrub brush and good ol’ free elbow grease, I was able to get this as good as new.

Free is free, right?  Why pay?


So with your hose, start filling the bin and add a flake of hay.


Next, add a half a cup of molasses.   You figure a few ounces per gallon, but I use a half a cup for the whole thing.  It’s a food source for the microorganisms, and good for the soil to boot.   Some may argue how much to use, but that’s how much I use.

20140422_181129     20140422_181207    20140422_180957

Give it a good stir, and get all of your hay wet.

Next, add your air source.   I used this two output air pump from Petco, which was under $20. brand new.  I hated buying it new, but I was in project mode, and had everything except this.  So I broke down and got it.     You can also find these at some SecondHand stores or on the above mentioned Craigslist/FreeCycle options.    You’ll also want to weigh them down (not pictured) with a fishing weight or something that will keep the air flowing near the bottom.


WARNING:  I don’t believe these are rated for outside use, so keep it dry or unplug it when you’re not monitoring it.   Don’t zap yourself.

Finally, you’re ready to go.   You may want to consider covering it up a little since it can get relatively stinky when the composting process happens.


Some final points:

When the hay tea gets particularly aged, I scoop it into a bucket and distribute it around the garden, putting it around the base of larger plants, bushes and trees.

Some foaming will be normal.  It’s a measure of proteins, but not necessarily an indicator of quality compost tea.

You can also add some black compost soil, which will be healthy for the mix.  But make sure it’s black and “earthy” smelling.

Choose a watering can that doesn’t have a narrow spray head.   I use one that pours out a solid stream, so that if some hay hits the nozzle from inside, it doesn’t stop up the watering process.

Some people are into “peak brewing” and use testing equipment and microscopes to determine the best time to use this stuff.   This is simple, and works in almost every application.


Happy composting!






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2 responses to “Hay Tea (Compost Tea) – the best water for your plants

  1. ljb

    Smells like the south end of a northbound cow… I believe you when you say it works. Still won’t try it at home…

  2. You’re right. I also didn’t have a cover on it, and it gathered flies. That black trash can lid should solve that issue, and if not I’ll try something else for when company comes over. It does smell like farmland, though, and that’s no fun at a pool party or outdoor barbecue. Point taken and appreciated. 🙂

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