What is the Best Organic Lawn Fertilizer?
Grass has been growing on earth for millions of years, and it did fine before the use of chemical fertilizers keeping weeds away. That’s why people are making a change towards organic lawn care. Not only is it safer for children and pets, but it has less of an impact on the environment in our community, and is healthier for the wildlife that shares our yards. In this article I’ll share what I consider to be the best organic lawn fertilizer
The shift to organic lawn care isn’t for everyone. Going organic requires an additional time investment and it requires a lot of patience, but for me (and others) the effort is worth it for the safety.
If you’ve been using chemical treatments on your grass for years, the biggest challenge of going organic is getting your yard used to using its natural defensive abilities again.
Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides step in and fulfill roles grasses evolved to do on their own. If your lawn isn’t used to tending to itself, you’ll need to be patient as it grows in again. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to tend to it more strictly for 1 to 2 years.
The payoff? Once it’s grown in again, you’ll find it’s greener and lusher than ever before!
Getting Your Lawn Ready to Go Organic
After making the decision to make your lawn chemical-free, the first thing you need to do is stop applying all chemicals. Cut it off completely.
Then do a soil test (I’ve used this kit from Amazon with good results). The key to a healthier, organic lawn is to make your soil rich in nutrients so the grass can fend for itself. It’s more sustainable in the long-term, and it means less work for you overall.
A soil test will tell you which nutrients your lawn is lacking, and that will give you a guideline of what to fix and how to amend the soil.
Local nurseries or universities offer soil tests, and they’ll send you sample boxes to fill to ship back. The soil test kit I linked above works the same way. You’ll need to dig up samples from different areas of your lawn and send the soil in to be analyzed in a lab.
When you get the results, you can purchase the products you need to improve your lawn, like buying gypsum if your lawn has calcium deficiencies.
Part of going organic is that you’re working on your soil, not your grass. That thick, green, beautiful carpet of grass will come when you get the soil balanced and fertile, naturally.
Preparing Your Lawn to Amend it with Nutrients
Preparing your lawn to accept the organic fertilizer and nutrients it needs is just as important. Here’s how you should do that:
- Mow your lawn down to about 2-inches, so the nutrients can get as much soil contact as possible. I recommend bagging your clippings on this mow so there’s as little between your fertilizer and the turf as possible.
- Pull up any weeds you find and then de-thatch your yard using a thatch rake or power rake.
- Once those tasks are done, it’s time to aerate your lawn. You can either hire someone or rent an aerator. I like to rent a commercial power rake and aerator and do everything the same day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon). This can save you money by doing 4 hour rentals on each piece of equipment vs. full day rentals on both.
- Now your lawn is ready to absorb all the nutrients you’ll add to your yard.
The other incredibly beneficial thing you will want to do is add a quarter-inch to a half-inch of organic compost over your yard after spreading the nutrients your soil test told you you’d need.
Compost is decomposed organic matter that carries the beneficial organisms to make your soil rich, and your grass healthy. These are nematodes, fungi, and other bacteria. It improves soil structure, especially in nutrient poor soil, like those that are sandy or full of clay.
It’s easy enough to start a compost bin in your backyard, and often local communities make public compost depositories. Worst-case, order some in bulk from your local nursery. This is black gold and it’s worth every penny.
A Greener Lawn (In Color, Too)
Organic fertilizers don’t act as quickly as synthetic fertilizers, and you won’t notice your lawn gets green quite as quickly after an application of even the best organic lawn fertilizer.
Synthetic and quick-release fertilizers target the grass specifically and do nothing for the soil, whereas the organic counterpart improves the soil to strengthen the grasses.
The benefit to that is organic fertilizers act more slowly and require fewer applications. That’s particularly beneficial because it offsets the higher price tag at purchase. A bag of organic fertilizer might be more expensive, but if you’re only applying it 3 times per season, the cost evens out.
Chemical vs Organic Lawn Fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers are full of synthetic nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that deliver quick, excessive amounts of each nutrient to your grass.
Organic fertilizers release smaller, more consistent amounts of nutrients to let your grass develop the capabilities to fend for itself by developing deeper root systems, in addition to being thick enough to crowd out weeds.
Over-apply a synthetic fertilizer and you risk “burning” your lawn (think of the difference between eating one buffalo wing vs. drinking a quart of buffalo wing sauce).
Most organic slow-release fertilizers won’t burn your lawn, and your biggest risk that comes with over-applying it is that you will lose out on the money you spent.
The other important factor when getting used to organic fertilizers is the fertilizer’s NPK, or its ratio of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (Potassium is “K,” like on the periodic table).
These key nutrient numbers are lower and more varied in organic fertilizers, while chemical fertilizers have higher numbers and tend to deliver more than is needed.
The lower NPK in organic fertilizers is why it takes longer for your lawn to show its effects. In the long-term, your lawn will be healthier, as it’s more sustaining and sustainable.
Most organic lawn fertilizers have a higher nitrogen rating, and generally more potassium than phosphorous. Usually no organic fertilizer will have NPK numbers higher than 15.
My Picks for the Best Organic Lawn Fertilizer (What I Use)
Fertilizers like Milorganite (what I consider to be the gold standard and best organic lawn fertilizer) have an NPK rating of 5-2-0, and it is primarily heat-dried microbes. It’s one of the most popular brands and spreads easily using a handheld broadcast spreader, drop spreader, or broadcast spreader.
The low NPK ratios of Milorganite means results come slowly, but it improves the strength of the grass overall, and the iron in it will help your grass achieve that dark green color everyone is after.
Purely Organic Lawn Food is another highly reputed brand of organic lawn fertilizer, and it’s one that I use on my own lawn and have had good results with. Its NPK rating is 10-0-2, meaning it will make your lawn a rich green color. The potassium strengthens the grass roots for drought protection. I like to use it as a follow-up fertilizer after applying starter fertilizer to new grass.
There are regulations prohibiting use of phosphorous in a lot of fertilizers, since it can be harmful to the environment, but it helps newly seeded grass take root.
One organic fertilizer that balances its NPK is Dr. Earth 715 Super Natural Lawn Fertilizer. Its NPK of 9-3-5, and this ratio will develop a strong root system and makes your grass strong quickly enough to cut down on water waste.
There are several other steps you can take to make sure your lawn is green in both its health and environmental consciousness.
Overseeding your lawn every year is a great way to keep weeds out of your lawn because it makes the grass thick enough to stop them from growing.
Choosing an organic grass seed, or one specific to your climate is important for keeping your work down and keeping chemicals out.
Matching your grasses with your climate and soil-conditions is an important step, which will make your lawn require less work than sustaining non-native grasses in adverse conditions.
And the long-term benefit of going organic with your lawn is that your lawn will eventually find a balance and require a lot less work from you to maintain.
Keeping Your Lawn Green with the Best Organic Lawn Fertilizer
After establishing your lawn, the basic principles of lawn care are still important.
Make sure you cut your grass to the appropriate length for your species. Most lawns in America are healthiest at about 3 to 4 inches high, like bluegrass and fescue. However, warmer season grasses, like Bermuda grass, can be cut much shorter.
Using a mower with a mulching attachment is also incredibly helpful, since grass clippings provide natural fertilizers, giving your lawn a healthy dose of nitrogen as it decomposes.
Make sure to spread out any grass clumps evenly. Rake up any wet clippings if you mow your grass when it’s wet. This way you will not suffocate your grass.
Until your lawn is established, unfortunately, you may notice more weeds growing in your yard. It will take some time for your lawn to grow in strong enough to force them out. You’re not without organic solutions for weed and pest prevention, however.
In early spring, you can spread corn gluten meal onto your lawn to prevent weeds. It’s an organic weed preventative, but gluten meal does target all plants. If you spread it when overseeding or starting a new lawn from seed, it’ll keep grass from germinating as well.
Other options are natural post-emergent weed killers, such as Nature’s Avenger.
Alternatively, you can home make a weed killer using a diluted solution of dish soap and lemon juice. Diluted vinegar can also work.
How & Why to Make Actively Aerated Compost Tea to Feed Your Garden
When people ask what we feed our plants, more often than not, my answer is an exuberant: “Compost tea!” Actively aerated compost tea, or AACT, is a biologically-active, nutrient-rich, mild-but-strong natural fertilizer. It can be made with worm castings or other high-quality compost. We try to feed our plants with aerated compost tea at least once every month or two. I guess the the proof is in the pudding… because our plants are happy and healthy!
Do you want to learn how to make aerated compost tea? Read along and I will teach you how! We’ll go over the benefits of using compost tea, the brewing supplies needed, the step-by-step process of how to make aerated compost tea, and the various ways you can use it in your garden.
There is a tutorial video that shows the entire process at the end of this post! It’s really quite simple, but there is certainly some insight I hope to provide you. Including, what proper compost tea is, and what is not.
WHAT IS COMPOST TEA?
Compost tea is a natural liquid fertilizer that is made by steeping compost in water, with or without the addition of air. The purpose of brewing compost tea is to extract beneficial microbes and soluble nutrients, and then provide them to plants in a form that they can readily uptake and utilize.
What are beneficial microbes? They include bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes – who all have an important role in soil health! Using aerated compost tea in your garden is a great way to enhance the soil food web. We talked a lot about the soil food web in our “Building the Perfect Organic Soil” article, if you’d like to learn more.
“Chemical-based pesticides, fumigants, herbicides and some synthetic fertilizers kill a range of the beneficial micro-organisms that encourage plant growth. On the other hand, compost teas improve the life in the soil and on plant surfaces. High quality compost tea will treat the leaf surface and soil with beneficial micro-organisms instead of destroying them.”
Soil Food Web Institute
Historically, gardeners and farmers have made a passive or non-aerated compost tea by soaking a sack of compost in water for an extended period of time, often up to two weeks. This passive brewing of non-aerated compost tea (NCT) has been occurring for centuries! In more recent years, modern agriculturalists have began to brew super-charged compost tea in a much shorter duration of time, by introducing oxygen, food, and additional nutrients (ACT). This is what we do!
Why Aerate Compost Tea?
If you want to make the most of your compost and create the best tea possible, brewing actively aerated compost tea is the way to go! Why not take a stellar product, like homemade compost or worm castings, and make it even better? By introducing air and a food source for the beneficial microbes, their populations within the tea increases by the thousands.
The process of making actively aerated compost tea significantly enhances the strength and effectiveness of your starting compost. However, the process will only amplify the inhabitants and nutrients that are already in the raw compost used to brew the tea. Therefore, it is important to start with high-quality, well-aged, properly composted material. Quality in equals quality out! We’ll talk more about the types of compost that can be used in the supplies section to follow.
“Aerobic organisms are the most beneficial as they promote the processes that a plant needs in order to grow without stress and with a greater resistance to disease. To enhance this community of beneficials, the compost tea must remain aerobic. Anaerobic conditions during brewing can result in the growth of some quite detrimental microbes and also produce some very detrimental metabolites. It is best to avoid extremely low oxygen concentrations during brewing.”
Soil Food Web Institute
The reference to “detrimental microbes” above includes the potential development of human disease-causing organisms. It is only in anaerobic or low-oxygen conditions that harmful human pathogens can outcompete beneficial microbes and flourish.
In summary, aerating compost tea encourages the best microbes possible, both the type and quantity, while reducing the risk of pathogens.
What are the Benefits of Using Compost Tea?
- Compost tea enhances the soils ability to retain nutrients. The nutrients in the soil will runoff and be depleted less quickly. Therefore, there is less need to use other fertilizers.
- An enriched population of beneficial microbes, introduced via compost tea, can increase the bioavailability of nutrients to plants. They break down organic matter and free up minerals. This means the plants can uptake nutrients from the soil more readily.
- A healthy soil food web can buffer soil and plants against pollution. For example, compost-rich soil is excellent at reducing the impacts, uptake, and concentration of pathogens, contaminants, chemicals, and heavy metals that may be introduced or present in soil.
- Compost tea can help improve the soils moisture retention properties. This prevents stress to plants by maintaining a more evenly moist soil, and reduces the need for more frequent watering.
- Plants fed compost tea are reported to not only grow stronger, but also have a boosted immune system and improved ability to resist disease.
- Likewise, it increases a plants ability to tolerate and rebound from stress such as drought or pests.
Compost Tea versus Worm Bin Leachate
Before we get into the instructions on how to make aerated compost tea, I want to point out a common point of confusion for some people. Many gardeners, ourselves included, make aerated compost tea using finished worm castings from a worm compost bin. The process (and the instructions I am providing you today) results in an aerobic compost tea solution. This is NOT the same thing as the liquid or runoff that can be collected from the bottom of a worm bin. That is leachate, and it is anaerobic.
In our “Vermicomposting 101: How to Create & Maintain a Simple Worm Compost Bin” article, you’ll see that we don’t add drainage holes to the bottom of our tote-style worm bins. The moisture is kept at an ideal level, the consistency of a damp but wrung-out sponge, through care and upkeep of the bin! This includes not giving it too much wet food, and adding new bedding or brown material when it is fed. When the worm bin is too dry, we give it a small shower of water.
When worm bins are maintained too wet, they leak. The runoff is often collected in a catchment system below, depending on the type of worm bin. Some gardeners do use this runoff to water their plants, calling it “worm tea” or “worm wee” even. Unfortunately, that isn’t the good stuff. But wouldn’t that be nice and easy?! This leachate liquid may be okay to use, but it is also more likely to contain negative bacteria and pathogens due to its anaerobic state.
So let’s learn how to make the good stuff, shall we?
7 SUPPLIES NEEDED TO MAKE AERATED COMPOST TEA
As we already discussed, the quality of your starting compost directly dictates the quality of your aerated tea! Whatever is in that compost is going to be amplified. A variety of compost types can be used for making aerated compost tea, though they may provide a slightly different end product.
“Research suggests that carbon-rich feedstocks (e.g. dry leaves, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper), produce a compost with a higher fungal content. Nitrogen-rich feedstock (hay weeds, coffee grounds, herbaceous material and manures) produce compost with higher bacterial content. Vermicompost is used as an ingredient in many compost tea recipes. This compost is typically the highest in available nutrients.”
San Francisco Department of Environment
No matter what you choose to use, ensure that it is well-aged, balanced, and properly decomposed. For example, do not use fresh animal manures, or compost that is anaerobic and stinks like a landfill.
Most often, we use vermicompost from our worm bin to make AACT. If you need help getting a super simple worm bin started, see this post. Or, check out “Composting 101: What, Why, & How to Compost At Home” to learn about 6 different ways to compost.
If you do not have your own homemade compost, you can usually buy finished worm castings at your local garden center or buy some online. Another options is to use convenient compost tea bags from Malibu’s Compost – our favorite organic biodynamic compost company. The compost is already “bagged” and ready to steep! They offer various types of tea bags, including ones for trees, veggies, and even houseplants.
2) Brewing Vessel
This one is super simple. For an average home garden, a basic 5-gallon bucket or two is adequate for making aerated compost tea. Larger gardens, grow operations, or farms may choose to utilize bigger tanks instead. If it is important to you, there are BPA-free, food-grade 5-gallon plastic buckets available too.
We started brewing aerated compost tea using one 5-gallon bucket. Over the years, we have added more and more 5-gallon buckets to our brew day routine. Now, with the help of a multi-port air pump (described in #4 below), we can brew up to six 5-gallon buckets at a time! Most times, we make three buckets.
3) “Tea Bag”
It is called “compost tea” for a reason! The compost needs to be contained and steeped within a little sack, just like tea would be. You can get pretty creative here. The idea is to create a sack that is breathable to allow the exchange of microbes and nutrients between the compost and water, but won’t let too many larger particles through.
We have made sacks from burlap in the past, and still use one of them. Recently, we have been using nylon paint strainer sacks. They work perfectly and are easily available. Cheesecloth could work, if it is layered several times, but may be more difficult to reuse. There are also some really nice quality, uber-durable compost tea bags on the market too – ready to cinch close and hang!
4) Air Source
As you’d expect by its name, aerated compost tea needs some air! An air pump is used to introduce oxygen into your compost tea brew. In the past, we used a basic aquarium pump. It worked okay… But to be honest? Not nearly as well as the little commercial air pump we use now!
This air pump that we love and use not only creates a ton of bubble action, but also has 6 ports so you can brew several buckets at once! The ports are adjustable, so you can turn off the ones you aren’t currently using, or dial the ones you are using up and down for more or less air flow.
5) Air Stone or Bubbler, & Tubing
The air pump is what generates oxygen flow, but you’ll also need a tool to get the air from the pump and down into your brewing vessel. Air stones are often used to make batches of aerated compost tea. When we first starting brewing AACT, we used a basic air stone like this. They do okay, but can get clogged easily and therefore need to be scrubbed after each use. Similar to our air pump, we have since upgraded to something that we find works much, much better!
To aerate our compost tea, we have been using these bubbler snakes by TeaLab for the last few years. We love these things! They produce some serious bubble activity through the perforated holes in the bottom of the “snake”. The bubblers fit perfectly in a 5-gallon bucket, and have a little loop where you tie and suspend your tea sack from. It is uber convenient, effective, and also keeps the snake weighed down in the bucket. Fun fact: The bubble snakes are made in Humboldt County, California!
When you watch the demonstration video at the end of this post, you’ll see what a significant difference there is between the snake bubblers and the air stone bubble activity. And they are all hooked to the same air pump! We’ve been meaning to buy another bubble snake soon, to eliminate the use of the air stone completely.
Last but not least, slender silicone airline tubing is used to connect the air stone, snake, or bubbler to the air pump. The TeaLab bubbler tubing is 1/4″ and the standard air pump tubing is 3/16″, so we use these adapter pieces to connect the two hoses together.
6) Microbe Food Source
In addition to the compost itself, other nutrients are often added to aerated compost tea brews. The purpose is to feed the microorganisms in the tea, and thus increase their activity and quantity.
Common additions include kelp, fish hydrolysate, molasses, and humic acid. Most often, we use a little organic molasses, seaweed extract, and/or kelp meal. We were out of kelp meal at the time we made this example brew for you all, so that is why you don’t see it!
7) Dechlorinated water
As much as possible, the water used for brewing aerated compost tea should be free of disinfecting agents such as chlorine or chloramines. Those are meant to kill microorganisms, so using chlorinated water sort of defeats our purpose here! We use captured rainwater from our rain tanks for brewing compost tea.
If you are on municipal tap water that uses liquid or gaseous chlorine as a disinfectant, you can simply fill your buckets a day or two in advance, let them sit out in the sun, and most of the chlorine should dissipate. Unfortunately, chloramines do not “burn off” the same way chlorine does. Another solution to this is to use filtered water. These carbon filters that attach to your hose will help do the trick! We use them extensively in our garden.
Now that we have our supplies covered, let’s brew!
Directions: How to Make Actively Aerated Compost Tea
Prepare your Brewing Vessels
Add dechlorinated water to your brewing vessels. If needed, let your water sit out for a day or two to let any chlorine burn off. If you are making compost tea in 5-gallon buckets like we do, fill them up most of the way. We generally leave a few inches of room on the top to allow for bubbling and possible foaming.
Prepare Your Compost Tea Sacks
Using your compost of choice, fill your tea sacks with several cups. There are varying recommendations out there for exactly how much compost to water should be used. We generally use anywhere from 2 to 5 cups of compost per sack, per 5-gallon bucket, depending on how much available compost we have at the time. If you need some tips for how to harvest finished worm castings from a compost worm bin, check out the link to see how we harvest and screen ours!
If you would like to add kelp meal as your microbe food source, add a quarter cup per tea sack at this time.
Tie the sack closed on top with a string, hemp tie, or similar. Leave a little length to the string so you can suspend the teabag in the bucket.
Steep & Feed
Dunk your ready compost tea sack in the brewing vessel. Just as you would with a tea bag, lift and lower the bag in the water several times to moisten, agitate, and encourage infusion. Tie the extra length of string to the handle of the bucket. Or, if you’re using a TeaLab snake bubbler like ours, tie it to the designed steeping loop at the top of the snake.
At this time, add an additional food source for the microbes – unless you already added kelp meal in the previous step. We typically add 1/3 cup organic molasses to each 5-gallon bucket during every brew. Sometimes, we also add a slug of seaweed extract in place of the kelp meal.
If you haven’t already, insert your air delivery device (air stone, snake bubbler, etc) into the brewing vessel. Ideally, it should rest on the bottom of the bucket, with the tea bag suspended above it. This prevents the bag from sitting directly on the bubbler and blocking the air flow.
Kick on the air pump! Allow the compost tea to bubble for 12-48 hours. This is the ideal timeframe for optimal microbial activity and nutrient extraction.
Aerated compost tea should ideally be protected from extreme temperatures while it is brewing. Excessive heat and sunlight or freezing cold temperatures can impact the microbial activity. We don’t stress about this too much. However, during the winter, we brew our tea in the garage to keep it a tad warmer. In the summer, we keep the brewing vessels out of the hot sun.
Use Your Compost Tea Right Away!
At the end of the designated brewing period, be prepared to use your finished tea in the garden immediately. Actively aerated compost tea becomes anaerobic very quickly, and its benefits and strength quickly degrade. Therefore, we recommend that you make use of your AACT within an hour or two after removing the air source. The quicker, the better! We’ll talk about the many ways to use compost tea in the garden below.
But, what do I do with the “spent” compost in the tea bags?
There are a few different options for utilizing the compost within the tea bags! Which option you choose depends on how you want to use the compost tea.
If you are going to pour the tea into garden beds, containers, or around other plants straight from the bucket, the worm castings or compost can be incorporated into the tea itself. For example, we most often scoop out helpings of finished tea with a large liquid measuring cup. Once the tea has finished brewing, we simply open up the tea bags and empty the contents back into the bucket. Then, as we give the plants compost tea, we stir the bucket frequently to prevent settling of the castings and ensure even distribution.
On the other hand, if you’d like to apply the compost tea with a watering can or sprayer, you want to keep the spent compost separate. It will clog the holes in a can or sprayer! Some folks even further strain their compost tea if they’re going to put it in a sprayer. In that case, pull up the tea bag, give it a good squeeze to ring out as much liquid into the bucket as possible, and then make use of the spent compost elsewhere in your garden instead! We often empty and spread the contents of the tea bags directly into a garden bed, or around the base of fruit trees.
How to Use Aerated Compost Tea in Your Garden
Using Compost Tea As A Soil Drench
Our preferred method for using compost tea in the garden is applying it as soil drench. A “soil drench” is essentially just another way of saying “watering with it”. It is quick, easy, and effective!
All we do is scoop out a helping to pour around the base of each plant, which may vary from one-half cup to several cups each, depending on the size of the plant. Experts recommend to apply as much volume of compost tea as necessary to saturate a plants root zone. That means that smaller plants such as seedlings will need less – because they have such small roots at that point. Larger plants, like established tomato plants or even fruit trees, will appreciate more volume!
As an alternative to scooping out finished compost tea with a measuring cup, we sometimes add the tea to a watering can. This is particularly helpful when we want to evenly distribute compost tea across an entire bed of small plants, such as with carrots or radishes. Again, this is with the tea alone – not with the spent compost too! Using a large funnel, we ease the finished compost tea into a watering can after removing the tea bag.
It is best to apply compost tea to soil soon after a routine watering, when the soil is still damp. Damp soil more readily accepts more moisture than dry soil. Meaning, it will more easily absorb and less will run off. Additionally, you probably won’t need to water for a few days following, which gives the tea some time to do its work before getting diluted.
We like to spoil our plants with an application of AACT once every month or two, but especially for newly transplanted seedlings! Another treat for transplants or stressed plants is an aloe vera soil drench.
Aerated compost tea does not need to be diluted before application. It is mild and cannot “burn” your plants like many other fertilizers can! Use as much as you’d like, but also keep in mind, a little goes a long way! If needed, you totally can dilute a smaller batch of tea to create more volume and feed more plants.
Benefits of a Compost Tea Soil Drench
Using compost tea as a soil drench is the most bang-for-your-buck, especially since we usually add the spent compost into the tea solution as well. Additional filtering, such as what may be required for use in a sprayer, creates an extra step. It also removes suspended particles that may contain nutrients & microbes. A soil drench is full-strength aerated compost tea, which delivers all those stellar benefits we previously discussed – straight to your plants root systems.
Another benefit of using compost tea as a soil drench is that there is minimal concern for potential pathogens. The soil and root system of the plant act as a buffer to filter out harmful pathogens that could be present in the brew. Because we use captured rainwater, we aren’t extremely comfortable with the idea of spraying something like leafy greens with our tea. I’m sure the good microbes are kicking butt and warding off pathogens in our brew as they should, but why risk it?
Using Compost Tea As A Foliar Spray
Rather than watering the soil and root system, you can apply compost tea directly to plant leaves! Plant foliage and their vascular system are extremely effective at readily absorbing and using nutrients from their surface. Many gardeners use this practice and swear by it.
To create a compost tea foliar spray, you may find the need to filter it further. This largely depends on the tea bags you use, and how fine or porous they are. Either way, do not empty your tea bag into your bucket if you plan to do a foliar application.
Add finished compost tea to a pump sprayer immediately after brewing, and apply to plants leaves until the point of runoff. Drench them! Like all foliage applications, it is best to wet leaves either early in the morning or in the evening hours. Direct sunlight on wet leaves can cause sunburn effects, and will also kill beneficial microbes present in the compost tea.
To be honest, this isn’t something we do very regularly. Mostly for the reasons above: it is an extra step, there are concerns of the sprayer clogging, and the slight risk of pathogens. I will say though, when we do make a foliar spray, I feel 100% comfortable using it on anything we aren’t going to consume directly! For example, on the foliage of tomato, squash, pepper, other veggies, cannabis, or non-edible plants where we aren’t consuming the raw greens. It’s just the fresh leafy greens that make me most nervous.
So, what do you say?! Are you ready to get brewing with us?
Check out this tutorial video that walks you through the whole process!
In summary, you can’t go wrong with actively aerated compost tea! It is easy, and your plants and soil will love it! Sure, you may need a few supplies upfront… But that is a small, one-time investment that can in turn provide you with an otherwise endless supply of free, killer, organic, homemade fertilizer for your garden
for years to come! To me, it’s a no-brainer.
I hope you found this helpful. Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the love by sharing this article with friends!
The post is proudly supported by Kellogg Organics, where #organicbuildslife
Top dressing the lawn: How to have thicker, healthier grass
If you love the look of a lush, green lawn, but you don’t want to spread synthetic chemical fertilizers where your kids and pets play, consider feeding your lawn naturally instead. Top dressing a lawn with compost is the best way to provide the long-lasting, slow-release nutrients that encourage optimum turf grass growth. In this article, you’ll learn the many benefits of top dressing lawn, when to do it, and a few different techniques for getting the job done right.
You can have a beautiful, lush, healthy organic lawn by feeding it naturally.
Why bother feeding your lawn at all?
You probably fall into one of three different camps when it comes to lawn care.
- Camp 1: You tend your lawn methodically. You fertilize regularly, mow frequently, and perhaps apply weed killers and pesticides a few times a year.
- Camp 2: You ignore your lawn except for keeping it mowed. You apply no fertilizers, you let the weeds flower for the pollinators, and you only consider pests if they happen to show up.
- Camp 3: You’ve gone no-mow and let your grass grow tall, only trimming it a few times a year. You don’t really even think about your lawn.
I’m not here to pass judgment on any camp. Instead, I’m here to tell you that no matter which camp you fall into, top dressing your lawn with compost is something you should be doing. Yes, it’s a way to reduce the usage of synthetic fertilizers if you’re in Camp 1. But most importantly, for all Camps, top dressing lawn is the best way to improve the overall health of your turf grass and the soil beneath it. It makes your lawn more resistant to pests and better able to choke out weeds. It encourages a deep root system that can better withstand drought and nurtures the beneficial soil microbes that help grasses thrive, whether you mow the lawn every few days, once a week, or twice a season.
Later in this article, I’ll explain each of these benefits in more detail, but for now, let’s talk about what top dressing is and why compost is the best top dressing for a lawn.
If you don’t have the time, energy, or physical ability to top dress a lawn, consider hiring some local teenagers or a landscaping company for the job.
What is top dressing a lawn?
Top dressing is the act of spreading a thin layer over the surface of something. In this case, we’re spreading a thin layer of compost over the surface of the lawn, and it doesn’t take much to do the job. You want to add enough compost to introduce a good balance of nutrients and plenty of beneficial microbes, but not so much that you risk smothering your lawn. When top dressing lawn, you only need to spread ¼ to ½ of an inch of compost over the grass. Rain, wind, soil organisms, and human actions quickly move the compost down through the grass and into the soil where it can work its magic.
After spreading the compost over your lawn, you can choose to rake it in, or just wait for rain, microbes, and time to work the compost down into the soil.
Why compost is the best top dressing for a lawn
Compost is the perfect tool for the job because:
- It can be finely screened (which means no big chunks of it sitting on your lawn after it’s been spread).
- It’s easy to distribute over the turf (more on this process later).
- It contains a perfect balance of macro- and micro-nutrients that are slowly released over time.
- Quality compost has a pH that’s neutral or close to neutral.
- Compost is absolutely teeming with beneficial microbes that help feed your grass. These microbes digest the organic matter in the compost and release the nutrients in it into the soil. They also help break down thatch (a layer of dead grass stems that builds up at the base of the plants). Oh, and one last – and very important – job microbes perform: they digest the grass clippings that come out of your lawn mower and return them to your soil in the form of growth-fueling nitrogen.
- Compost can be sourced relatively inexpensively by making your own, purchasing it in bags, or buying a truckload from a landscape supply yard. Where I live, many of our local municipalities give away leaf compost that’s made from our local leaf collections for free.
The benefits of top dressing lawn
A top dressing of compost over the lawn pays you back in many ways.
- As the compost works its way down into the soil, it helps aerate compacted soils. This occurs when soil organisms, both big and small, work to digest the compost and they open up microscopic pore spaces within the soil. With regular applications of compost, you’ll eliminate the need to ever aerate your lawn again.
- The microbes present in compost digest thatch, which can sometimes build up to form a thick layer that restricts air and water movement into and out of the soil. A thick layer of thatch can cause rainwater to collect on the soil surface, instead of draining away. When this happens, walking on the lawn feels like walking on a sponge every time it rains.
- A top dressing just ¼ of an inch thick, in combination with allowing your lawn clippings to fall to the ground when mowing, provides almost all of the nutrients your lawn needs to fuel an entire season’s worth of growth. And, if you have clover in your lawn, all the better. Clover leaves are rich in nitrogen, basically eliminating the need for additional synthetic fertilizers when the clippings are left in place.
- The nutrients in compost are released slowly, over a long period of time and with very little nutrient leaching. This means little to no nutrient runoff, which can pollute waterways and ground water.
When to top dress lawn with compost
Top dressing can be performed in the spring, just before the lawn “greens up”, or in the mid to late fall, just before the leaves drop from the trees. Some homeowners opt to top dress their lawns twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, with a quarter inch of compost each time. Others opt for just once a year. What matters most is that you spread the compost during a time of year when there’s an increased chance of regular rainfall to help move the compost down toward the roots of your turf grass.
How to top dress a lawn
There are four techniques you can use to top dress a lawn.
1. Top dressing lawn by hand
For this method, you’re spreading the compost by hand. You’ll need a wheelbarrow, a shovel or garden fork (my favorite), and possibly a leaf rake. Use the shovel or garden fork to scoop the compost out of the wheelbarrow, then fling it out across the lawn, doing your best to spread it fairly evenly. You can then spread the compost out more using a leaf rake, if it’s in chunks or if you didn’t fling it very evenly (I mostly skip raking it out, but only because I’m lazy). Frankly, it’s kind of fun to whip shovels full of compost across your yard. Kids love it. It doesn’t have to be perfectly spread or 100% accurate but do try to distribute it as evenly as possible to avoid “extra green” spots where more compost fell or dead spots where too much compost smothered the grass.
I use a garden fork to fling compost over my lawn, but some gardeners prefer using a shovel.
2. Use a rolling peat moss spreader to spread the compost
These cool spreaders have a rotating barrel-like structure with metal mesh openings. They are traditionally used to spread peat moss (which is not as good for top dressing a lawn as compost is), but they also work great for distributing compost. Simply fill the rolling barrel with compost and walk up and down your lawn while pulling or pushing the barrel. The compost drops out of the mesh openings and onto your lawn. They cost a couple hundred dollars but are well worth the investment if you have a medium-size lawn. They work best with compost that is dry and screened.
3. Top dressing lawn using a drop spreader
This technique of top dressing lawn uses a traditional drop-style lawn spreader with a big hopper. It works best with compost that is dry and finely screened. Wet or clumpy compost will clog the spreader holes.
Drop spreaders have adjustable holes in the bottom and a mechanism on the handle that lets you set the size of the openings. Set the spreader on the setting with the largest openings and close the lever that shuts the hopper holes. Fill the hopper with compost from a nearby wheelbarrow or truck, go to the edge of your lawn, and open up the drop holes as you walk up and down your lawn in a row pattern. Make sure you cover all of the lawn, refilling the hopper as needed. Lawn drop spreaders with a bigger hopper mean you don’t have to refill as often, but they’re also heavier to push.
It also may be possible to use a broadcast spreader to top dress your lawn. They have a spinning wheel beneath a single hole where the compost drops out. The wheel spins and tosses the compost out onto the lawn, rather than dropping it directly beneath the spreader. However, in my experience, unless the compost is very finely screened and super dry, broadcast spreaders clog more easily than drop spreaders. Still, if you already have one in the garage, feel free to give it a whirl. You might have a very different experience.
Using a drop spreader to top dress the lawn with compost is easy. Just make sure the compost is dry and clump free.
3. How to use a tractor attachment spreader for top dressing lawn
If you have a lawn tractor and a large lawn, it may be worthwhile to invest in a tractor attachment to spread compost. These tow-behind units have large hoppers, adjustable hole sizes, and can attach to either a lawn tractor or an ATV. You can also use them to seed the lawn or distribute ice melter on the driveway in winter.
Another option is to invest in a tractor-mounted manure spreader. They tend to be more expensive but won’t clog as readily if your compost is wet or clumpy.
The best reason to top dress lawn with compost
Managing a lawn is one of the most resource-intensive practices homeowners participate in. Hard to believe, but pound for pound, here in North America we use more pesticides and herbicides per acre on our lawns than big agriculture does on food crops. Instead of turning to synthetic fertilizers that cause water-polluting nutrient runoff, harm beneficial soil life, and introduce unnecessary chemicals into your yard’s ecosystem, turn to compost instead. As you now know, the benefits are many and you can feel great about letting your kids and pets roll around in the lawn without worry.
Feeding your lawn with compost instead of synthetic fertilizers results in thick, healthy turf you can feel good about.
For more about compost and soil care, check out the following articles:
I’m glad I came across this article. I always wanted to take care of my lawn naturally and your article was just what I needed. I never realized the ease of spreading compost, I always thought it had to be perfect so I never bothered. Thanks for giving me the confidence to give it a try.
When do you water the lawn? Did I miss this?
If you apply the compost when rain is in the forecast, there’s really no need to water the lawn. The compost can just sit on top until rain arrives.
Birgitta Sievers says
Great article and much needed as our state is starting to limit what can be applied on the grass to prevent weeds. I was wondering how you estimate the amount of compost needed? We have approximately 1/4 acre with some planting beds. Thank you!
You can use our Mulch Calculator to determine how much compost you’ll need. You can access it here: https://savvygardening.com/mulch-calculator/
A very educative article as I’m paranoid about the condition of my lawn throughout the year. We in South Africa are in Spring and getting the garden in shape. Many thanks for an enjoyable and readable article.
zondi mandindi says
Is top dressing not gonna incresse the growing of weeds.Thank you so much for the info.
Not if you use compost that has been composted properly (165 degrees F for a minimum of 2 weeks and regularly turned). Most weed seeds are killed if compost is made correctly.
Terry Russell says
Excellent article; I have just finished aireating and spread a mixture of topsoil (bagged) and sivved compost. I will update on the results later.
Joan Kalhorn says
Can you overseed before or after composting? How much before or after?
You can overseed after adding the compost, but then you’ll need to cover the seeds with something else to protect them. You can use straw or a light layer of finely screened mushroom soil. I say put the compost on top of the seeds to reduce the work.