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Yellow leaves are a big source of worry for many fruit tree owners. They can be a natural feature of the tree, but in many cases, they also indicate that you’ve got a problem. It really helps to try to diagnose the issue.

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We’re always banging on about healthy soil being the foundation of your entire food growing system. It’s one of the main things you should always be aiming to improve.

So it won’t surprise you to hear that some (but not all) causes of yellow leaves can be fixed by improving the soil.

Chickens can definitely help you to build healthy soil
Chickens can be great partners in helping you to build healthy soil
(Image: Unsplash, Rachel Lees)

Healthy soil can help prevent yellow leaves

There are lots of techniques available to help you improve the soil, but one of the common questions we’re asked, is “how?”.

Adding aged chicken manure, compost, and worm castings are just a few (and we’re big fans of them all). Planting a diverse understorey is another really useful technique for rapid soil improvement, and you can learn more about that here.

A slightly more advanced technique is brewing your own compost tea. We brew it on a big scale (as you can see in the photo below), but it’s also easy to make on a home garden scale.

Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop
Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop

What is compost tea?

It’s probably easiest to start with what it’s NOT, which is compost extract.

Compost extract is made by putting compost in water, swishing it around, or leaving it to soak. You can do a similar thing with weeds to make weed tea or weed extract.

This technique will extract some of the nutrients from the source material (compost or weeds) into the water. Some of the microbes will probably wash off and end up in the tea as well.

It’s a fantastic thing to do and makes spreading the nutrients around your garden really easy.

However, this method doesn’t increase the number of microbes in the brew. That’s the point of compost tea.

Hugh showing a hand full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea
Hugh showing a hand full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea

Compost tea increases the number of microbes

To brew compost tea you start with a small amount of something that’s rich in microbes. This might be good quality (preferably home-made) compost, or worm castings if you have a worm farm.

Leaf litter from under a mature gum tree is also perfect as a source material because it’s highly fungal. Use the broken-down layer under the top layer of litter.

The source material is placed into water and agitated to knock the microbes off.

Then add microbe food and oxygen for 24-48 hours and voila! What started as a small number of healthy microbes will turn into a huge number in a very short time.

The main types of microbes you’ll be brewing include bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. The microbes breed like…well, like microbes (that is, REALLY fast when conditions are right).

A compost tea brew bubbling away
A compost tea brew bubbling away

Making compost tea on a home scale

On the farm, we always make 1,000 litres at a time, but you can make much smaller batches at home.

There are a couple of drawbacks to making compost tea. It’s a bit fiddly to make and needs some specialised equipment.

However, everything you need is readily available and fairly cheap, and as long as you have some simple plans to work from, you only have to set up your brewer once.

Components for the compost tea brewer
Components for the compost tea brewer

How to use compost tea

We check each batch after brewing to confirm we’ve grown the right kind of microbes. We also like to make sure there are actually microbes present and we haven’t just made a nice brew of brown water. That’s not necessary for a home-brew situation, as long as you follow the guidelines.

Then we just put the tea on the soil under our fruit trees and let the microbes go to work. 

The other thing to consider is that microbes are a bit like Goldilocks.

They won’t be happy in the soil if the temperature is too cold or too hot, so wait for the weather to warm up before you get started, and then avoid brewing tea in a heat wave.

If the yellow leaves on your fruit trees are caused by nutritional deficiency or poor soil, compost tea is definitely part of the fix. But it won’t happen overnight!

Compost tea is not a “quick-fix” solution. It’s part of a long-term strategy that can take a couple of years to have a positive impact.

The best way to think of compost tea is as another tool in your healthy soil toolbox.

Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it's full of microbes (and not just brown water!)
Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it’s full of microbes (and not just brown water!)

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