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Do Old Coffee Grounds Work As Fertilizer?
First, what makes brewed coffee, other than caffeine? Nutrition experts agree that coffee grounds contain trace amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and calcium. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are essential ingredients for garden soil. These match the numbers you see on most fertilizer bags. So coffee has what plants need to grow.
There seems to be some debate as to whether coffee produces nitrogen or not. Most agree that coffee grounds contain 1.5 to 2.2% nitrogen. However, some believe that nitrogen is not available to the soil or plants until the soil begins to decompose.
Others say you need to compost coffee grounds with other plants to release nitrogen in the decomposition process. They recommend adding nitrogen to the soil if only sludge is used. Rotting grounds attract nitrogen-consuming microbes, so nitrogen must be added if only coffee grounds are used as fertilizer.
To be on the safe side when it comes to fertilizing, it may be better to throw the coffee grounds into the garden with other compost in the fall and winter to give them time to make the best use of them for spring planting.
When I emptied the coffee grounds onto the ground last fall and spring, I didn’t put them in the compost. In the spring, I used 8 to 10 cubic feet of a peat-compost mix that I spread around my garden, which is 13 x 33 feet. I turned the soil about 6-8 inches deep before planting. I have never had so many tomatoes in my four years of gardening.
How does the acid in coffee affect things? The coffee you drink is acidic, but the grounds afterwards are closer to neutral on the pH scale. Some claim that they retain their acid levels until they combine with compost and its microbes, which neutralize it. In any case, acid is great if your soil is low in it (alkaline). In the west, where I live, the soils are alkaline and getting closer to neutral or increasing the acid content is a good thing for my strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and radishes. Note that you have to use quite a bit of soil to make any real difference in the pH scale.
Coffee grounds have other benefits besides being a fertilizer. They increase heat in the soil better than most composting materials, including manure. These high temperatures kill any weed or vegetable seeds that may have made their way into the compost pile. If you are considering raised beds, consider covering the bottom edges with coffee grounds to prevent weeds from creeping in.
Other benefits of using coffee grounds in the garden include its ability to attract earthworms, thereby improving soil structure. It even prevents cats from pooping in your garden. (Our neighborhood stray poops on the outside of the garden instead!) If tomato blight is a problem, some think the copper in the coffee grounds prevents it.
Coffee grounds are also good for pest protection for both indoor plants and outdoor flowers, such as hostas, roses, lilies, peonies or those grown from bulbs. Caffeine deters slugs and snails. You can add about 2 cups of grounds to a 5 gallon jug of water and let it sit overnight. Use it to water plants, and don’t be afraid to water the leaves too.
So, regardless of whether coffee grounds contain enough nitrogen to be used as fertilizer, its pest deterrent properties and earthworm attraction more than sold me on its benefits. If you don’t drink coffee, just ask your local coffee shop if you can get their grounds. Not only does it help them dispose of waste, but it also helps them create a more abundant, cheaper and organic garden.
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