Apr 012015

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Spent coffee grounds are increasingly recommended by professionals and gardeners as a sustainable way to improve your garden soil and provide nutrients to your plants. Claims include improved soil structure, an ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, improved fertility and provision of nitrogen1. However, the scientific literature has not sufficiently assessed the impacts on soil and plant production.

Recent research conducted by Dr Stephen Livesley and Sarah Hardgrove from the University of Melbourne, has shown that fresh (uncomposted) spent coffee grounds, applied directly to gardens, can significantly decrease plant growth and development. This article reviews the case for using spent coffee in the garden and describes recent scientific findings and their implications.

The problem of coffee waste

An estimated 6 million tons of spent coffee ground waste is produced annually worldwide2, predominantly in cities. Australia’s contribution is estimated at 75,000 tonnes annually, and with coffee consumption rates in Australia increasing at a rate of 4.3% per year, the volume of waste is also set to increase. Using spent coffee grounds as an urban soil amendment provides an attractive and sustainable way to take advantage of this under-utilised urban waste product.

Potential for coffee grounds to improve soil and plant growth properties

Spent coffee grounds can possibly provide similar plant growth and soil property benefits as other organic amendments such as manures, biochar, vermicasts and compost. These amendments provide nutrients (particularly nitrogen), increase plant growth, improve soil water and nutrient holding capacities, improve soil structure and water infiltration, increase buffering capacity against leaching of nitrates and changes in pH, increase biological activity and resilience against pathogens3.

Under natural conditions, plants have adapted and evolved to the soil and climatic conditions of their local environment. As the soil properties and nutrient content varies, so too will plants vary in their nitrogen requirements and pH preferences for optimal growth. These differences affect our decisions about application rates of fertiliser for various crops. In addition, soil texture affects the movement of water and nutrients throughout the soil and their availability to plant roots. The aim of this recent research was to investigate the impacts on plants that vary in their nutrient requirements and pH preferences.

The experiment

In a greenhouse pot trial, broccoli, radish, leek, viola and sunflower (chosen for their varied nutrient-pH preferences) were grown in sand, loam and sandy clay loam substrates. Four treatments were applied: no treatment control, spent coffee grounds (5% volume), fertiliser and spent coffee grounds plus fertiliser.

Concurrently, a field trial grew the same plants under six treatments: control, fertiliser, and spent coffee grounds at 2.5%, 5%, 10% and 20% volume application rates (in the upper 10cm of soil).

The Results

Plant Growth

In the greenhouse trial, all plants grown in coffee-amended soil treatments showed poor growth compared to the control and fertiliser-amended soil treatments. The left hand picture below shows the five plants under the four treatments, from top to bottom: control, fertiliser; spent coffee grounds; spent coffee grounds plus fertiliser.

In the field trial similar results were obtained. The right hand picture below shows, from left to right, Control, Fertiliser, Coffee @ 2.5%; @5%; @10% and @ 20%.

More in pots (800x800)           Plants side by side (800x800)

Soil Properties

Water holding capacity
The results for the greenhouse trial showed a general trend for increased water holding capacity for poorly structured soils, but less of an impact for well-structured soils. The results also suggested that these improvements take time to emerge. Other research also shows that benefits do not clearly emerge until 6-12 months after application, depending on species, soil type and temperature4.

The pH of the soil was also tested to investigate whether the acidic nature of spent coffee grounds may be impacting plant growth. In the field trial, the pH of the soil amended with spent coffee grounds was similar to the pH amended with fertiliser. As such, pH from the added coffee could not adequately explain the plant growth response.

What explains this decreased plant growth?

The two possible explanations for this plant growth response were biological nitrogen immobilisation (nitrogen drawdown) and phytotoxicity.

Nitrogen drawdown occurs when the amount of nitrogen required by decomposer microorganisms is higher than the amount of nitrogen that is available for plants from the soil. As organic matter decomposes, nitrogen is supplied to the plants via its roots from the surrounding soil water solution. However, the vast majority of the nitrogen in soils is not readily available to plants. In order for it to become available, it needs to be transformed by microorganisms within the soil water solution, a process known as mineralisation. Through mineralisation, organic nitrogen changes to inorganic nitrogen and becomes plant available. In its plant available form, as nitrate (NO3-) and ammonium (NH4+), it can be easily translocated throughout the plant and soil.

Conversely, as microorganisms require nitrogen as fuel for their own metabolic processes, they can also draw it out of the soil water solution, leaving the soil apparently deficient in nitrogen and, therefore, unavailable for plant uptake: a process known as biological immobilisation. These processes can operate dynamically as the chemical nature of the soil changes over time and new material is added. The carbon to nitrogen (C/N) ratio is a useful guide here, as an organic amendment with a higher C/N ratio will mineralise more slowly than one with a low C/N ratio and is more likely to lead to biological immobilisation as nitrogen is taken up by the microbes involved in decomposing the new large, carbon substrate pool. The C/N ratio of the coffee in this research was 23. It is generally accepted than a C/N ratio occurring within the range of 20-30 will not lead to microbial immobilisation5.

A mineralisation study was also conducted as part of this research to test whether the plant growth differences were the result of nitrogen drawdown. The findings clearly showed that the nitrogen drawdown could not explain the plant growth response.
The most likely explanation for decreased plant growth is a toxic stress response as a result of the applied coffee grounds. The exact mechanism of phytotoxicity remains unclear, however caffeine, tannins, polyphenols and lignin content have all been implied in previous scientific research.

Should I add coffee grounds to my garden?

This research suggests that when fresh, uncomposted coffee is added to gardens at volume application rates of 2.5% and higher it will likely decrease all plant growth and development. As such, it is probably a better idea to add coffee grounds to your compost to allow for decomposition of toxic components, and for the improved water holding capacity benefits to emerge. It is recommended that no more than 20% volume of spent coffee grounds be added to your compost6.

Alternatively, if you have a patch that is lying fallow for 6 months or more and you want to reduce the rate of weed growth, then fresh spent coffee grounds incorporated into the soil or applied as a thin layer of mulch, is a pretty good idea!


1. Lucas, J.W. 2010. Happy, Hunting Grounds. Viewed 6th April 2014. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1501/ – b
2. Tokimoto, T., N. Kawasaki, T. Nakamura, J. Akutagawa and S. Tanada. 2005. Removal of lead ions in drinking water by coffee grounds as vegetable biomass. Journal of Colloid & Interface Science 281: 56-61.
3. Handreck, K. and N.D. Black. 2002. Growing media for ornamental plants and turf / Kevin A. Handreck, Neil D. Black. 3rd ed, Sydney : UNSW Press, 2002.
4. Yamane, K., M. Kono, T. Fukunaga, K. Iwai, R. Sekine, Y. Watanabe, et al. 2014. Field evaluation of coffee grounds application for crop growth enhancement, weed control, and soil improvement. Plant Production Science 17: 93-102.
5. Price, G. 2006. Australian soil fertility manual / editor: Graham Price. Collingwood, Vic. : CSIRO Publishing : Fertiliser Industry Federation of Australia, c2006. 3rd ed.
6. Schalau, J. 2010. Backyard Gardener – Using Coffee Grounds in the Garden. Viewed 6th April 2014. http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/archive/coffeegrounds.html

Sarah Hardgrove is completing the final semester of the Master of Urban Horticulture at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus.She also works part time at a garden centre in Melbourne.

Photos: Experiment results: Sarah Hardgrove.  Other: Sharron Pfueller

  19 Responses to “Using Coffee Grounds in the Garden”

  1. We tend to empty our left over ground coffee in our compost bin and with time mixed other ‘stuff’ in there, I tend to get some good soil to add to my garden

  2. I spread spent coffee grounds around my lettuces and beans and they seemed to respond very positively. However I would say that my application rate would have been only a fraction of 2.5%. 2.5% is actually quite a lot of coffee grounds when you think of it. Perhaps the plants are like people in that a little is good but you can definitely have to much.

    • You may be right. And you can’t be quite sure that the coffee grounds actually made a difference.

  3. Following the advice in this article, I am adding small amounts (under 10%) of compost grounds to thermophilic compost piles, some of which will go into further processing in the vermicompost bin.
    I would love to see research on composted coffee grounds. If its safe for plants, then I could use larger quantities. Aside from the ideal C:N ratio, The texture is excellent for balancing out the larger particle sizes of kitchen scraps/ crop residue that makes up the bulk of my pile.

  4. This is an excellent, well researched article, I might think twice about pouring spent coffee into my pot plants from now on.

  5. I researched the effect of coffee grounds on slugs/snails a while ago and discovered that the concentration of caffeine in them was too insignificant to have any toxic effect and this seems to be borne out in my vegetable garden over many years.

    • That’s interesting. Where could we see the results of your research? Has it been published in a scientific journal? Reports of effects of coffee grounds on snails are confusing and are not, as far as we can determine, the result of scientific research, but rather of observations by individual gardeners. Some say that coffee grounds act as a deterrent and there are suggestions that spraying snails directly with coffee kills them, but the overall situation is not clear.

  6. Hi all
    I am setting up a new garden and have heard that used coffee beans waste is good for the soil and I will be recycling at the same time trying to source this from the from 7 Eleven stores just not sure of the volume I need to add can suggestion on this

    • Any organic matter is good for the soil and coffee grounds are available in quantity like never before. However, as the article states, they can harm plants if added to the soil fresh. We suggest you add them to your compost heap.

      • I am no expert in science or gardening, but common sense seems to come through for me. I have placed a thick layer of
        ” fresh and moist” on a small section of my garden and so far my plants are very happy. I have a mixture of plants and not ine has turned up their toes. So far so good for my little garden.

        • That’s interesting. Maybe the effect of coffee grounds varies according to the soil type or some other factors.

  7. Great reading. Maybe we should be using spent coffee beans for mushroom growing!

  8. I worked at Swanes Nursery in Dural in the late 1970s. We did incorporate coffee grounds into the potting mix we made for general nursery use. This mix included sand and composted sawdust and a mix of chemical fertilisers.

    I can’t remember if it was only used for certain plants but the mix smelled great when using the potting machine.

    It was quickly discontinued not due to any adverse findings but due to us being unable to source sufficient quantities.

    Swans Nursery might have records from this time. Both Ben and Valerie Swane and John Tulon were there ath this time.

  9. I was also under the impression that spend coffee grounds are good to deter slugs and snails – should we no longer be doing this?

  10. I read the article about coffee grounds and accept this, however,
    I will continue to use coffee grounds.
    My reasoning is that by using coffee grounds
    The worm activity in the soil is increased enriching that area and
    Another benefit is that the coffee grounds act as a deterrent
    To slugs and snails and other pests. Jim Edmonstone

    • Hi Jim,

      You are right, any kind of organic matter is going to increase microorganism activity and soil engineers(!) like earthworms in the long term. Increasing a diversity of bugs in the garden will help to keep populations of pests down so that they don’t cause excessive damage to your plants! I have heard from a friend who works with a large scale worm farm who said that worms fed with lots of coffee were not actually able to process veggie scraps they were given as fast as worms not fed with coffee. An interesting finding. However at the small scale I suspect that a slight slow down in eating of veggie scrap will hardly make a noticeable different and is therefore not a concern.

      As for the slugs and snails, see my response to Gaye above.

      All the best with your soil enrichment!

  11. Dear Sarah,
    I first heard of using spent coffee grounds in the garden to deter snails & slugs. I tried this by spreading the grounds around veges that these pests seemed to love. My snails & slugs ate the veges, regardless of the spent coffee grounds. I may not have spread the grounds thick enough or used the wrong type of coffee. I prefer Arabica coffee beans.

    Do you have any comments about the use of spent coffee grounds to deter snails & slugs?

    Thank you.
    Gaye C.

    • Hi Gaye, Thanks for your question, and apologies for the delayed response!

      I have also heard that coffee grounds deter slugs and snails, however I have not come across any scientific research looking at this. All of the accounts I have heard have been anecdotal, from friends and colleagues. I tend to attract snails using the beer in a dish method, and haven’t tried the coffee grounds as a deterrent yet.

      What I will say though, is that when I did my research in the filed, some of the broccoli seedlings were eaten by snails and had to be replaced. It was clear that the broccoli in the treatments that had no coffee in them were less attractive to the snails, ie they chose the fertiliser and no treatment broccoli seedlings first. However, it was those broccoli seedlings that were big and juicy and green! and if I were a snail I would make that choice too. So it is difficult to say for certainty whether it was the coffee itself, or the size of the seedlings, that led the snails to make that decision.

      The experiment continues!

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