Free Fertilizer Tea

Our now-5-year-old has been pulling out weeds and mixing them with water in bowls and buckets and pitchers and pails since she was 1–and while I’ve always seen that as real help, purposeful Practical Life, and important child-led pretend play, I only recently discovered that the work is actually even more valuable. Because that weeds and water concoction can be used as fertilizer tea!

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have learned some of the virtues of weeds–so now when we pull them out, instead of dismissively discarding them on the empty lot in front of our house to decompose, we intentionally collect them in a bucket (until it’s half-full); tearing (or chopping or pounding) them into smaller pieces and thinking and talking about how rich they are in nitrogen (and other minerals) that plants need as we go along.

Important note: Just like in a compost pile, make sure not to use weeds that have already seeded because the seeds will survive this process and when we use the liquid fertilizer on the soil for our plants, the weeds will also germinate and grow.

We do this every time we work on the weeds, but it would be best if we can time it with the rain. Because the next step is to fill the bucket with water–and rainwater would be best. But if we can’t wait for the rain just yet, we use tap water and leave the bucket out until the next day to let the chlorine evaporate.

The next day, we can add some coffee grounds (optional)–also rich in nitrogen and other minerals. My friend and fellow eager-learner gardener said it’s a lot of chemistry–and I’m so excited to co-learn chemistry with Cara this way!

Then comes what I think is the hardest part for me: Waiting. We’ll cover the bucket with cloth, leave it in a shaded area, and wait for 3 (to 14–in parenthesis because I don’t think I can ever wait until 14) days. In the meantime, we check our calendar, count the days, and put a label on our bucket so we remember just when it’ll be ready.

While working on this, Cara and I naturally get to talk more about weeds. Weeds have a notorious reputation, but because of Montessori Cosmic Education, I wanted to understand weeds–what is their purpose, what is their role, what is their “cosmic task”.

They may seem relentlessly random; but we learned that really, whatever weeds are growing on the soil are the purposefully precise weeds that particular soil needs–each type is a reaction and remedy to whatever imbalance and issue the soil has. For one, if the soil is deficient in a particular nutrient, weeds that can find and absorb that nutrient from far and deep under the soil will be the ones that grow and thrive! And when those weeds die and decompose (and grow and die and decompose–again and again as indefatigably as weeds do), the minerals they’ve absorbed will stay on the top layer of the soil, making it richer over time. So if we think about it, weeds are actually nature’s diagnostic tool and cure for the soil!

We read that there are experienced farmers and gardeners who can even tell what the soil needs just by looking at what weeds are growing on it. So I tried researching more about the weed we have so many of–tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens)–and found that an abundance of these calcium-absorbing weeds is an indicator that our soil is calcium-deficient. Still, I understand why it is one of Cara’s favorite weeds–it’s like being in a field of little yellow and white wildflowers!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” – A.A. Milne

After 3 days, our free fertilizer tea is ready. And thrice for that week (every other day), we water the soil of our plants with it. We use everything up within the week–so if we make the tea on a Sunday morning, we’ll use it by Wednesday morning, water with it again on Friday and Sunday, then make a new batch for the next week that Sunday morning as well. We do it this way because among other things, steeping longer will make the mixture smell stronger–so I think this is simpler, more manageable to involve children with.

And really, because I’m always just so excited! All the more when I saw how our plants’ leaves look healthier and happier, greener and grinning!

Nature is always, always more amazing when you attempt to understand it a little bit more. Now the weeds bring me a kind of delight, instead of the dread they brought before.