As always, we try to up our “sustainable living game” here at Sustainable Jungle, looking at all facets of our life, one by one. And this time, we’re taking a deep dive into the composting world, and specifically looking at a byproduct of vermicomposting, WORM TEA! But before we get into that, if you missed our article Compost Magic: The Many Benefits of Composting give it a read to get the lowdown on why composting is one of the BEST things we can do for our environment. Also, another side note, the inspiration for this flurry of content into the gardening world was inspired by our friend and awesome interviewee, Fabian Van Hase who is a permaculture guru. We visited him in his home in Namibia which also happens to be in one of the driest countries on earth! Check out our video interview here and podcast here for some real inspiration!
Ok, back to the topic at hand…worm tea.
Worms are the work force of the composting world. They’re so good at it, there’s even a special word for their composting: vermicomposting, a process that benefits the health of soil and produces digestive excrement called castings that can be used to produce an all-natural fertilizer and pesticide. This is called worm casting tea.
No, it’s not a replacement for your Earl Gray. This is tea for your plants, and just like certain herbal teas can boost the human health and immune system, worm tea boosts plant health and stimulates growth.
Worms are certainly not nature’s only composting champions. Plenty of rodents and insects contribute to composting processes. Blatticomposting, for instance, is composting with cockroaches. The downside is, well… cockroaches.
Worms are not only less creepy but also far superior composters. If you dig into fertile soil, chances are you’ll run into some hard working wrigglers. That’s no coincidence since worms are directly responsible for the health of the soil in which they live. You can actually add worms to poor, depleted soil to improve its quality. Worms benefit soil in many ways, here’s a few examples of why these guys are your best composting friends:
- Through tunneling, worms provide natural aeration and water paths to plant root systems, increasing water retention 50-75%.
- Worms purify soil by consuming and absorbing heavy metals like copper, lead, and cadmium. When released, the excrement is metal free, meaning less will end up in our food.
- Most importantly, worms consume, digest, and excrete the equivalent of their body weight each day. If only human metabolism were so efficient! These excreted “castings” are rich in nitrogen, phosphates, and potash: all ingredients to healthy soil.
Worm casting tea, or worm compost tea, is the liquid result from soaking worm castings in water. Since castings are “steeped” or “strained”, we call it worm tea. Plus it rhymes with pee, which essentially is what worm tea is, and who doesn’t love a good rhyme?!
Just bear in mind, this isn’t to be confused with leachate, or the liquid drainage the settles below worm castings during vermicomposting. This is an important distinction because leachate can be a potentially harmful fertilizer that includes bacteria, pathogens, and phytotoxins. Leachate can be used to fertilize some plants, but nothing you plan to eat. When in doubt, remember leachate seeps while worm tea steeps.
Worm tea is an extremely potent fertilizer with a rapid absorption rate (compared to time-release fertilization of castings alone). According to University of Ohio’s Dr. Clive Edwards, “Microbial activity in worm castings is 10 to 20 times higher than in soil and organic matter that the worm ingests.” This “microbial activity” refers to the powerful combination of enzymes and good symbiotic bacteria in worm digestive systems that carry over its castings, adding healthy bacteria, fungi, acinomycetes, and protozoa to soil.
This makes soil far richer than it could ever become on its own. According to Dr. K.P. Barley, worm castings have “two times more calcium, five times for nitrogen, and seven times more phosphorus and potassium” than regular soil, and unlike chemical fertilizers, worm tea will never burn plant roots, no matter how much is applied.
Being 100% organic, it can even be used in organic farming.
Various studies have investigated the practical role of worm castings in agricultural production. Subsequent meta-analyses of such studies have confirmed worm castings and tea help increase crop production about 25% in both short and long term growing periods. This stuff is literally the gummy berry juice for plants.
Worm tea is not only directly beneficial for the plants but it’s also an extremely effective non-chemical pesticide that works on two levels: First, it promotes a healthy plant immune system so it can produce more of the hormones insects finds distasteful. This wards away a number of insects, including aphids, parasitic nematodes, and eelworms.
Second, when sprayed on leaves, the tea stimulates growth of a waxy layer atop the leaves called the cuticle, which both protects the plant from the elements and wards away leaf munching insects. Coating leaves with worm tea also promotes growth of good microbes that outnumber disease causing ones, preventing harmful fungi and diseases.
The best thing about worm tea is that’s cheap and easy to make, just like regular tea! You’ll need four simple things:
2. 5 gallon bucket
3. Porous bag (i.e. panty hose, cheese cloth, or an old cotton t-shirt)
4. Non-chlorinated water (i.e. distilled, rainwater, pond water… just not tap)
Add the castings to the bag and tying it closed. This is your tea bag. Fill the bucket with non-chlorinated water, add the bag of castings, and allow them to steep for 24 hours. Once the water turns light brown, signaling your tea is brewed, strain any stray castings out and pour into a watering can or spray bottle. That’s all there is to it!
For an enhanced version, simply aerate the steeping process by connecting an air pump (a simple fish tank one will suffice) to the bucket and mix in a high-energy food source, such as molasses, brown sugar, honey, or syrup. This helps feed good bacteria and stimulates microbe growth. Just remember aerated worm tea, should be used right away; storing it will significantly reduce its bacterial value.
For a step-by-step glance, watch this whole process here.
If you’re just getting into worm tea gardening, urine for a wonderful surprise (ha, get it?). The benefits of worm tea are almost endless and we encourage you to continue reading the many ways worm casting tea can benefit your plants and soil. As Simple Grow Soil aptly puts it, worm tea is the “Swiss Army knife of plant food”. It has a little bit of everything and you can always trust it to work.
If you’ve got any tips, tricks or just general worm tea anecdotes, we’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or send us a message here.