Around this time last year, people all over the country (myself included) began mass purchasing houseplants to liven up their spaces during quarantine. Seed sellers alone have seen higher demand this past year than ever before in their history! (1)
If you’ve been stuck in your house for the past year and desperately miss sitting at a cafe with your friends, you may be tempted to share a cup with your houseplants.
But pouring a mug of steaming liquid onto your plants is not a great idea. So I am going to walk you through how you can use tea leaves in compost and fertilizer:
- What is Compost and Why Should We Compost?
- How to Begin Composting at Home
- Adding Tea Leaves to Your Compost: Making your own fertilizer & impacts of caffeine
- Fertilizing with Tea Leaves Directly: What teas to use and N-P-K ratios
- Other Ways to Spice Up Your Food Recycling
This is Lauren, and this is my first blog for MA! I am an English major obsessed with tea and gardening, so I am especially excited about sharing this collision of the two with MA’s readers today. So...here’s the tea on how best to compost your tea leaves:
What is Composting?
Let’s break it down (organically):
- “Composting” - the verb - refers to the process by which we assist the natural decomposition of organic waste like food scraps, yard trimmings, and manure to create organic fertilizer. (2)
- “Compost” - the noun - can be mixed into soil or used as topsoil. Plants LOVE this stuff! It improves soil structure, texture, and aeration. This increases the soil’s water-holding capacity thereby preventing problems caused by overwatering like root rot. (2)
Like a great party guest, compost feeds both the plant and its neighbors, the microorganisms in the soil which produce nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus that help plants grow.
Why is composting important?
Composting is more than just a way to nourish plants; it’s also a critical way to fight climate change. To understand how this form of recycling helps, it’s important to discuss how chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and rotting food waste harm the environment. Be prepared; things are gonna get pretty gross...
So here we’re talking “runoff”, where agricultural chemicals wash into local waterways over time, due to rain, snowmelt and irrigation.
- When chemical fertilizers get into lakes, rivers, oceans, it can cause massive algae blooms, sometimes big enough to block waterways. Apart from being ugly, these massive algae blooms remove oxygen from the water during decomposition killing local aquatic life. (3)
- Pesticides are even worse: when these chemicals run off, it causes fish to get illnesses that can be passed on to humans when we eat them. According to the U. S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), Americans use 75 million pounds of pesticides per year. (Not the accompaniment you had planned with dinner!) (3)
Look at the beautiful compost bins!
But that’s not all: Composting also drastically reduces our food waste. The average American creates 1,600 pounds of waste every year, 65% of which is compostable. In my home state of Vermont, we discard 77,000 tons of food waste each year. (2)
When food waste sits decomposing in a landfill, it produces methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2. (2)
To mitigate food waste, there is a lot that needs to be done on the institutional level, but composting is one of the easiest ways for individuals to contribute. Lots of people are already reducing their carbon footprint by composting. In 2018, 2.6 million tons of food were composted - a good start but we have a loooong way to go. (4)
I hate to use this metaphor for an environmental blog, but composting really does hit two birds with one stone! It helps preserve lakes, rivers, and oceans by reducing our dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And it helps break down food waste without adding more methane to the atmosphere.
If you want to learn more about climate change, pollution and how to make a difference check out our series, Going Carbon Positive, where we discuss all things environmentalism.
How To Begin Composting at Home
There are lots of different composting methods out there. Personally, I drop my waste at the local composting facility. There are plenty of curbside food recycling programs around the country that will send someone to pick up your compost and send over soil on a regular schedule--like doordash for your leftover doordash (5). You can find the nearest facility at www.findacomposter.com.
Waste management program in Middlebury, Vermont - picking up residential compost by horse drawn carriage! Photo credit to Nick Hammond
For those with a DIY spirit and a little outdoor space, composting couldn’t be any easier. All you really need is:
- A metal trash can
- Some soil
- Food waste
- A little water
To build it you'll need to:
- Use a hammer and nail to punch some holes into the bottom of the can.
- Set the can on 4 bricks to keep it off the ground.
- Throw some garden soil, kitchen scraps, and leaves or grass clippings (about 3 inches of each).
- Add more waste as you produce it and keep the lid on as much as possible.
- Wait 3 months and voila perfect compost!
No outdoor space? There’s nothing to fear, there are plenty of indoor composting kits specially designed for small spaces.
I’ve personally been itching to try vermicomposting, which uses specially bred creepy crawlies to eat at organic waste and produce soil which is super handy! Vermicomposting has no smell, can be done all year round, and only takes two weeks to convert waste into soil. Too bad my partner is terrified of bugs.
Ewwww! These worms may make you squeamish but they are a vital part of the composting process
There’s a lot of information out there about composting composition. The typical home composter really doesn’t have to worry about balancing ingredients. However, your soil will be richer if you put in the effort, and it’s fun to learn about!
Adding Tea to Your Compost: Can you compost tea leaves?
YES! Looseleaf tea leaves make a fantastic addition to any compost pile. And if you're anything like us here at MA, you may use quite a bit of tea. But instead of throwing away your used leaves, why not try recycling them?
Composting with tea leaves is a great way to reduce your organic waste production and provide all your plant friends with some nutrient-rich soil all in one! (6)
There are a variety of ways to use tea leaves in your garden, indoor or outdoor, but the simplest would be to just throw your used leaves into your compost bin.
Tea leaves compost is chock full of nutrients that plants love, and the microorganisms in your compost will certainly appreciate the moisture left in the leaves after steeping (7). But there are a few things about tea leaves that you have to keep in mind if you decide to use them in your garden.
Pros and Cons of Caffeine in Compost
If you're anything like me, you can’t start your day without a nice, hot caffeinated beverage. Composting/recycling the used leaves is one of the best ways you can reduce your personal organic waste production.
But composting a product with caffeine can be tricky. Caffeine is a stimulant for both plants and humans. Very, very small amounts of caffeine can stimulate plant growth, but if you give your plant too much caffeine, that growth becomes unstable resulting in a dead or stunted plant (8).
Fortunately, when you brew tea and coffee, most of the caffeine is removed during brewing (caffeine is very soluble so it comes out as one of the first components to enter your hot water). There’s less and less caffeine left in the coffee grounds and tea leaves with each successive brewing (8). That means reusing tea leaves and coffee grounds can reduce your waste and the caffeine risk to your plants (saves you money too)!
If you're dealing with delicate plants though, you may want to stick with some non caffeinated teas.
Need a new delicious, caffeine-free tea? Check out our super relaxing Pretty in Purple Lavender Chamomile
But caffeine may also hold a host of interesting gardening benefits. Studies have shown that the bitter taste of caffeine deters plant-eating animals while the stimulant effects attracts pollinators (9). In fact, according to one study out of Newcastle University, bees are three times more likely to remember and return to a plant that contains caffeine. A fun way to attract bees to your garden and do some good in a new way (10). Pretty cool.
Look at their cute little wiggle! Video sourced from the Smithsonian
Caffeinated bees are also likely to return to the hive and tell their friends about the tasty flower! While this is a little off topic, I just love that to communicate, bees perform a distinctive waggle dance that lets other bees know where to find food (9). You might say they appreciate the buzz...
If you’re interested in learning more about caffeine and tea, read our article, Caffeine in Coffee and Tea: All You Need to Know
They might look unassuming but tea bags can be horrible for the environment!!!
The Tea on Tea Bags: Can you compost your tea bags?
Now you may have noticed that up to this point I have only been talking tea leaves, as in looseleaf. So those of you who drink bagged tea may be wondering, can I compost my tea bags as well? The answer is, sadly, almost 100% no. (6)
Unfortunately, there are plastics in tea bags. Many have microplastics in their weaving that keeps them from breaking down. Some also use staples or glues to bind the tea bags shut. Staples are obviously not compostable and the glues may also be harmful to your plants and compost. (6)
So basically it is a risk you could take and see what happens, if the box of tea is labelled compostable…. but bear in mind the manufacturer rarely is acknowledging the sealants and things like that, they are referring to the bag only.
Want to learn more about the impacts of tea bags? Check out MA’s blog, Making Your Tea Greener
Instead remove the tea from the bag and throw the bag in the trash or other recycling bin where possible (check the packaging). Ideally we would all use loose leaf tea, but if you happen to use one, here is one way to get a little more use out of it before throwing it away: using tea bags to germinate seedlings.
The Tea Bag Growth Hack: A cool way to reuse your tea bags
In preparation for today’s blog, I tried out this hack for myself. Here’s how I did it:
- Begin by brewing yourself a cup of tea. I chose MA’s Pretty in Purple Lavender Chamomile in a cloth tea bag.
- Once fully brewed, slice the bag open and add the seeds of your choice. I used basil seeds.
- Set the bag in a dark, dry place to germinate.
- Make sure to rehydrate the seedlings every day with a gentle misting of water.
In about three weeks, my seedlings had grown healthy roots and were ready for planting! While I don’t think my basil germinated any faster, this hack made the planting very easy. Hopefully in a couple of weeks, I’ll have enough basil to make a nice pesto sauce :-)
Here he is all planted!
Fertilizing with Tea Leaves
If you’re not ready to commit to your very own indoor or outdoor compost pile, there are still ways to recycle tea leaves in your gardening. Used tea leaves can make a great and simple fertilizer when sprinkled directly onto top soil, for example as a fertilizer for houseplants (7). (As opposed to composting your tea leaves with the rest of your food waste first, as described earlier).
Careful about pouring (cold) tea directly into plants: overwatering your plants with tea runs the risk of making your soil too acidic (11). So decide as and when you might want to do this, it may be good for acid loving plants like tomatoes but bad for others like ferns and snake plants. (12)
N-P-K of Tea Leaves
That being said when done properly there are a host of benefits to sprinkling used tea leaves directly onto your plants and allowing them to decompose naturally. Camellia sinensis, the plant species from which all true teas (i.e. green, black, white, and oolong) are derived, is chock full of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), the main components of a good fertilizer (7). Most commercial fertilizers will list the ratios of these chemicals as N-P-K ratios. (13)
In general, flowering plants like lots of phosphorus while non-flowering plants prefer lots of nitrogen (14). We’ve calculated an average N-P-K ratio for green and black teas shown in the pie charts (mug charts?) below:
NPK Ratio 16-1-1
NPK Ratio 5-1-2
Pie Charts illustrating the average N-P-K ratios of green and black tea (15; 16). You can see there is a real difference between the makeup of green and black tea. Use it to your advantage depending on what you are trying to grow. © MatchaAlternatives.com 2021
Fertilizing with Rooibos Tea
Not a super avid consumer of “true” teas? That’s fine because there are a whole host of other teas that make great fertilizer. I’m going to tell you about the wonders of one of them: rooibos (also called Red Bush tea).
Loose leaf rooibos’ nitrogen and mineral levels are perfect for composting and fertilizing! It’s also low in tannins and is caffeine-free (both unlike true tea) so while you may attract fewer bees, you don’t have to worry about potential harm to your plants. (17)
It is beneficial to both plant and root development, and, mixed with potting soil, is a fabulous tool for stimulating new plant growth. Plus, unlike C.sinensis, rooibos teas do not run the same risk of making your soil acidic.
Rooibos really is all that! Learn more about the wonders of rooibos is our blog, Antioxidants in Rooibos, Honeybush and Chamomile.
More Uses For Rooibos in Gardening
But it doesn’t end there! There are a bunch of ways to use your rooibos tea in your gardening:
- Rooibos can be steeped in room temperature water until the water begins to change color. Which can then be used to water your potted plants. It’s a great way to impart nutrients naturally while watering instead of buying packages of plant food. (17)
- When potting a new plant, dried or used rooibos tea leaves can also be added to the bottom of the pot to act as an additional layer of absorption. This will keep excess water from leaking out and instead will slowly impart the moisture and rooibos nutrients into the plant roots. (17)
- Many gardeners also prefer to use rooibos as mulch over the more traditional bark mulch. (17)
- It can even replace some pesticides! For outdoor plants, rooibos tea leaves help deter snails, making it an environmentally safer way to control pests. (17)
Other Ways to Spice Up Your Compost
- Cinnamon is an amazing natural fungicide. A light dusting of this spice prevents seeds from “damping off” and adult plants from developing fungal diseases (18)
- It’s also a great rooting hormone for plant clippings and clones when mixed deep into soil (18)
- Cinnamon is also a good natural pesticide. Most insects can’t stand the smell, and it poses much less risk to local waterways than chemical alternatives (18)
If you're looking for a tea blend with some cinnamon, try our Sweetly Cinnamon Apple Chai Blend
If you don’t have cinnamon on you, cayenne is another natural pesticide. Add a teaspoon of cayenne and a dash of dish soap into a spray bottle then fill with water and lightly mist plants to repel flies (19). Has anyone tried cayenne in their tea? It might taste good with honey (but a whole teaspoon would probably knock your head off…)
Dried fruit is another great additive for composts. The sugars in dried fruit feed your compost’s microbiome. They don’t break down easily so shouldn’t be added directly to a potted plant. (20)
Need some fruity tea to test this out? Check out our Candied Pineapple Ginger Green Rooibos
A Note From Lauren...
I hope y’all enjoyed our post on gardening and composting with tea, it was so nice to blend two of my favorite things in one post. Would you guys be interested in more gardening content? Let us know in the comments :-)
There are so many ways to recycle loose-leaf tea. I noted above that I germinated a basil plant in a bag of Pretty in Purple Chamomile Lavender, part of the Perfect Mother’s Day Gift set. What can I say? I’m a proud plant mom. My basil seedling is still growing strong by the way, and I’ve named him Rowan. Let me know if you have any recipe suggestions!
Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below or on our IG @MatchaAlternatives
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References & Further Reading
- Hardwick, April. “People Are Mass-Purchasing Plants during Quarantine.” New York Post, 16 Apr. 2020, https://nypost.com/2020/04/15/people-are-mass-purchasing-plants-during-quarantine/.
- “Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 29 Oct. 2020, www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/reducing-impact-wasted-food-feeding-soil-and-composting
- “How Fertilizers Harm Earth More Than Help Your Lawn.” Scientific American, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-fertilizers-harm-earth.
- Keen, Peter. 2018. “Zero Waste Initiative Converts Tea into Fertilizer.” World Tea News. September 4, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.worldteanews.com/Features/zero-waste-initiative-converts-tea-fertilizer
- Lamdin, Courtney. “Curbside Food Scrap Pickup Services Sprout Ahead of Landfill Ban.” Seven Days, Seven Days, 5 July 2020, www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/curbside-food-scrap-pickup-services-sprout-ahead-of-landfill-ban/Content
- NA. 2019. “Composting Tea (Leaves)” Carry On Composting. Published 2019. Accessed March 24, 2021. http://www.carryoncomposting.com/142941471
- Pavlis, Robert. 2019. “Is Tea a Good Fertilizer for Houseplants?” Garden Myths Blog. https://www.gardenmyths.com/tea-fertilizer-for-houseplants/
- Grant, Amy. “Will Caffeine Affect Plant Growth?--Tips on Fertilizing With Caffeine.” Gardeningknowhow.Com, 4 Nov. 2020, www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/will-caffeine-affect-plant-growth
- Yong, Ed. “Caffeine Makes For Busy Bees, Not Productive Ones.” Science, 10 Feb. 2021, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-plants-manipulate-bees-with-caffeine
- Wright, Geraldine et. al. 2013. “Caffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator’s Memory of Reward.” Science, 339(6124): 1202-1204. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1202
- No Author. 2011. “Gardens: Old Wives Tales” The Guardian. January 7, 2011. Accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/08/old-wives-tales-gardens
- Pavlis, Robert. “Fertilizer - Selecting The Right NPK Ratio.” Garden Fundamentals, 23 Feb. 2021, https://www.gardenfundamentals.com/fertilizer-selecting-the-right-npk-ratio
- Gardensalive. “Fertilizer 101.” Gardens Alive!, 5 Feb. 2001, https://www.gardensalive.com/product/fertilizer
- Solt, Greg. “Some Vegetables Need Extra Nitrogen.” The Morning Call, 10 June 2001, https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-2001-06-10-3354271-story
- “Tea Components” No Date. No Author. Accessed March 24, 2021. https://www.o-cha.net/english/cup/pdf/38.pdf
- Karak, Tanmoy & R.M. Bhagat. 2010. “Trace Elements in tea leaves, made tea and tea infusion: A review.” Food Research International, 43(9): 2234-2252. November 2010. Accessed March 24, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2010.08.010
- “Gardening Gurus Share Why Rooibos Tea Is a Must for the Garden.” Rooibos Council - South Africa, https://sarooibos.co.za/gardening-gurus-share-why-rooibos-tea-is-a-must-for-the-garden/.
- “Using Cinnamon in the Garden By.” Growing Organic, growingorganic.com/diy-guide/using-cinnamon-in-the-garden.
- Taylor, Glenda. “13 Unusual Ways to Use What’s in Your Spice Rack.” Bob Vila, 19 July 2017, www.bobvila.com/slideshow/13-unusual-ways-to-use-what-s-in-your-spice-rack-51292.
- NA. 2014. “Dried Fruit In Composter.” Garden Stew, August 10, 2014. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://www.gardenstew.com/threads/dried-fruit-in-composter.33620/#:~:text=No%20it%20is%20not%20a,the%20composting%20bacteria%20a%20boost!
@omidvahid Thank you for your comment and question! For composting tea leaves (which I’m assuming is the bulk of the tea factory waste), the section at the top of this post is a great step-by-step guide to setting up, but be aware of the nitrogen and phosphorous levels as they vary between green and black tea (see section N-P-K of Tea Leaves above). If you want to PDF this blog post, you can Right Click and Print to PDF and you can have this as a reference permanently! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, and happy composting :-)
Elizabeth Taeed, Founder
Hello, in the place where I live, it is full of tea plantations and tea drying factory waste. Please send me the easy and principled and standard preparation method of fertilizer for houseplants and garden as a PDF file in my personal email. Thank you for helping me to serve the planet.