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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Amending Your Garden Soil, Organically and Sustainably

Mulched Soil

 

Feed the Soil, Not the Plants

 

When asked how to grow good vegetables, many gardeners and farmers will say “it starts with good soil.”  Soil is the foundation of your garden, it’s what feeds & aerates your plants.  Good soil is not just dirt, it is is a microcosm filled with microorganisms (hundreds of millions per gram!) that transform organic matter into food your plants can digest. Only with good soil will your plants thrive.

 

Soil Testing

 

The first thing you should do before planting a new garden is to test the soil to find out what nutrients it currently holds.  You should probably test the soil of your garden every few years, just to make sure your plants are getting everything they need.  You can buy a simple soil tester at any good nursery and most hardware stores, or you can buy one online.  These will not test everything a plant needs, they will only test the basics:  Ph balance, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium.  But that should be a good indication whether or not your soil is healthy overall.

 

If you suspect there may be lead or other hazardous elements in your soil (for instance, if your garden resides where there was once a house that could have leached lead paint, or near a freeway or gas station), you should have your soil professionally tested by a lab.  This is more expensive, but worth your family’s safety.

 

Compost

 

Amending Your Soil With Nutrients

 

Make Your Own Compost

 

By composting you are recreating nature’s processes of recycling and renewing.  We’ll go into more detail about composting at a later time, but I want to mention this:  if you are afraid of composting or “don’t have time” to compost, just create a pile in the backyard.  Make sure it’s somewhat layered, so it’s not a big chunk of grass clippings.  But really, just make a pile.  Put food scraps, leaves, retired plants, grass, etc. into the pile, and if you don’t have time to turn it that’s ok – let it be.  It will decompose and become compost.

 

Compost in the Pickup

 

Bring In Compost and/or Manure

 

If you’re just starting your garden, your garden is rather large, or you just haven’t got around to composting, you may have to bring in compost.  We bring in a compost and aged manure mix, to get a more or less good mixture of nitrogen and carbon.  Make sure to use aged manure – it is high in nitrogen, so it will burn your plants if it is new.

 

If you have a truck – or have a friend or relative with a truck – the easiest and cheapest way is to find your local municipal compost service, and pick up a truck load of compost.  My mother and I picked up a truck load (1 cubic yard) for $20 over the weekend.  I have no idea how many bags of compost that equated to, but um… it was a lot.


If you don’t have a truck, you can usually have it delivered.  Generally there is a minimum delivery, so you may want to go in on it with your neighbors.

 

Americans, to find out how many cubic yards of compost you need to order, use this calculation (it’s fairly standardized):

 

(length in feet) x (width in feet) x (depth in feet) = (total feet)

then, (total feet) divided by 27 = (cubic yards needed)

 

Once you have your compost, you’ll want to make sure to incorporate it into your topsoil (the top foot of your soil) with a shovel, fork, cultivator, or broadfork.  If you already have plants planted, you can do this gently, or simply sprinkle around the outside of the plants, carefully avoiding the very base of the plant.  Make sure you do this when the soil is moist but not wet.

 

Other Deficiencies

 

If your plants are not looking happy (yellow leaves, stunted growth, purple veins, or sickly in general) and you know it isn’t due to water, sun, nor compost, you may have a deficiency in other areas.  You can send a soil sample to a lab to find out exactly what is wrong, or you can talk with your neighbors and local master gardeners to see if there are particular known deficiencies in your area.

 

Calcium and magnesium: Unfortunately, in the Pacific Northwest we’re particularly vulnerable to these deficiencies for a number of reasons. If your garden is deficient in calcium and magnesium, you can mix 1 part “agricultural lime” (calcium carbonate) with 1 part dolomite lime (calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate) – at a rate of 5 lbs. per 100 square feet.  For calcium alone, you can add crushed egg shells to compost.

 

Phosphorous: Add phosphate rock, 9 lbs per 100 square feet.

 

Potassium: Add wood ash, 1.5 lbs per 100 square feet. (Note that wood ash has an alkaline effect on soil, so make sure you know your pH first.)

 

Worms!

 

Amending Your Soil With Worms and Microbes

 

Most healthy soil should have loads of beneficial microbes, worms, bacteria, beetles, mites, and fungi.  Together these things break down organic matter and turn it into plant nutrients, aerate the soil, fend off diseases, and often work with the plants in a symbiotic feeding and fending-off relationship.

 

However, when you spray chemicals on your soil to kill the bad bacteria, or if you till repeatedly, it kills the beneficial creatures that live in the soil.  Because you don’t have microbes to help the plants break down nutrients and fend off disease, you have to feed the plants more, and spray them more for disease.  This creates a vicious cycle of farming that depletes the earth and relies on chemicals made from and/or distributed by fossil fuels.

 

If you are reclaiming soil that has not been gardened for some time (if at all), or it has been gardened with chemicals in the past, chances are that your soil is not very “alive” with worms and microbes. Fortunately you can help your soil ecosystem rebuild.

 

Adding & Encouraging Worms

 

Worms like organic matter.  Generally, there are two types in garden soil:  red worms – which are often used for composting and live near the top of the soil, and earthworms – which live lower in the soil.  You can encourage red worms by mulching and generally disturbing the soil as little as possible.  (I mulch with straw, which you can find for $5-10/bale at a local feed store – one bale goes a long way.)  And you can encourage earthworms by amending your soil with compost and minimizing tilling as much as possible.

 

Or if your soil is truly depleted and you’re not finding any worms, you can add them to your garden. There are many kinds of worms, and they all do different things, and people grow them for different reasons.  (Yes, there are worm farms all over the world!)  If you can’t find them locally, several places sell worms online, mostly for fishing bait.  I found the largest selection of worms at the Worm Man’s Worm Farm.  (Watch out for the “Superworms” – yikes).  And they have the perfect selection for the gardener:  a mix of red worms and earthworms called “Lawn and Garden Worms”.  You can buy them in 5 lbs or 25 lbs bags. They recommend 5 lbs per 600 square feet.

 

Adding & Encouraging Microbes

 

The best way to do this is to make your own compost.  If you live in a small space, you can create compost in your kitchen, with a worm bin.  A worm bin has the added benefit of multiplying worms, providing extras that you can give to friends or set free in your garden.  If you have room outside, you should create a compost pile or two.  Composting is the subject of another post – as there are loads of ways to do it – but do look into it now if you’re starting your garden!

 

Compost will help a lot, but to really jump start your soil into recovery, you an add microbes and worms to the soil.  I sprinkle a bit of “Beneficial Bacteria” whenever I’m planting seeds in a new bed.  It’s made by “Down to Earth”, and you can find it at many good nurseries, or online at Bountiful Gardens.

 

Scarlet Runner Beans

 

Using Inoculant

 

Inoculant is rhizobium, a type of soil bacteria.  Legumes (beans, peas, etc) and rhizobium bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship which allows legumes to fix nitrogen (ie, add nitrogen back into the soil – a great thing for gardeners!).  Because each legume needs a different kind of inoculant, most soils don’t have the particular rhizobium necessary to make your beans thrive.  So you have to buy it – it’s available at most good seed shops.  Make sure to get the right inoculant for whatever you’re planting.

 

From what I’ve learned, there are two good ways to inoculate:  either the “slur” method, or the “stir” method:

 

  • To slurry: Lay out the seeds in the shade.  Spray the seed with non-chlorinated, clean, cool water.  Shake the inoculant onto the seeds and make sure they are thoroughly coated.  Plant immediately.  Then water immediately.  (Apparently you can also dampen them with a mixture of 1 quart milk to 2 T molasses.)
  • To stir: Mix the inoculant in a small amount of water (approximately 1:1).  Put the seeds in the mixture and coat them thoroughly.  Plant immediately.  Then water immediately.  (This is the method I used.)

 

Note:  because inoculant is alive, make sure you check the expiration date, and keep it cool and out of sunlight.  You can store inoculated seed for a few hours, but it’s best to plant it immediately.  And according to “Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply”, “you cannot use too much inoculant; but you can use too little.”

 

Tilled Dirt

 

To Till Or Not To Till

 

Gardeners get into heated debates about this issue.  My common sense says that if you are slicing through the soil with big round knives, and at the same time crushing it with a big heavy machine… you’re going to kill microbes and worms.  So if you don’t have to till, you probably shouldn’t.


There are definitely cases to till, however.  When we first moved to our 1/2 acre in Geyserville, the land was dead, depleted, compacted, dirt.  We tried to just dig enough to be able to plant a few starts, and it was too hard to dig – despite watering for a long time to try to break it up.  But since it was dead, probably weren’t very many microbes in there to kill.  And after we tilled the first time, we never had to till again because we had worms and microbes doing the work for us.

 

The main reasons not to till are that every time you till, you kill worms (they don’t grow back into two worms – it’s a myth), you uproot good bacteria from their homes, and you unearth good nutrients so that they have a greater chance of blowing or washing away.  If you want to see the extreme examples of what can happen when over-tilling, check out the short film “The Plough that Broke the Plains,” the Farm Commission photos from the 30s, or Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

 

By enriching your soil and gardening organically and sustainably, not only will your vegetables and fruits be more flavorful – and your family healthier – but your soil will actually absorb 30% more harmful carbon than conventional agriculture.  (More about that study here and here.)

 

And Lastly

 

Whole books have been written on this subject, so I don’t mean for this to be a be-all, end-all resource, but simply a way for you to get started.  A way to let some fears fall away, if you are fearful.  A way to push you to do a bit more, if you have been wondering what to do next.  I encourage you to try new things and have fun with it!

 

Questions or Thoughts?

 

I know this is a long post, but I would love it if you would share how you do some of these things, or ask any questions you have!!

 

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21 comments to Amending Your Garden Soil, Organically and Sustainably

  • What a helpful post thanks!

    I realised my soil was a bit sad after last seasons tomotoes totally failed due to fruit fly. Since then I have been focussing on improving my soil. Once a crop is finished I put my chicken tractor on the garden bed and my chooks clean up the remainder of the crop, eat all the weeds and turn the top soil for me. I then add a thick layer of straw and water regularly. After a few weeks i remove the chicken trackter and add a thick layer of compost and manure. I get free horse manure from a local race track and cheap mushroom compost from a mushroom farm. I also make my own compost. I add some straw as a mulch and leave to mature for a few weeks and water regularly. It seems to be working wonders. I planted some seedlings today and beneath the 30cm or so layer of mulch, compost and manure the soil was riddled with worms!

    I plan to try a green manure crop this winter as well.

    Cheers,
    Tricia

  • Most of the time I’m pretty anti-digging, I’m much too lazy for it, but in places where I didn’t have space for a compost heap, or when I lived in houses where I didn’t think the landlord would approve, I just buried my compostable materials in parts of the garden we weren’t planning to plant out for a while. It’s slow, but it’s fairly easy, and the soil was great.

  • I garden in raised beds (I live in a flood zone) so my digging is very limited. I use a spade to loosen up the soil before fall crops and again before spring crops, mulch with hay that I turn in, put out crushed eggshells on tomato areas and add trace minerals. My compost just won’t compost so I buy mushroom compost at a very dear price and turn a good deal into the beds before spring planting.

    Great post!

  • We just started gardening again this year and dug up our garden area and mixed in home-grown compost. What do you recommend for mulch? And when to mulch?

    Also, we’re having a disagreement on weeding – how much do you worry about small weeds once the plants have gotten established? I’ve already lost some parsley seedlings to overzealous weeding. sigh.

  • Great post! Two comments to add in: Be very careful that you get STRAW and not hay bales; straw is just the stems and will be pretty seed-free, hay is not and you’ll start growing your own from all the seeds! The second is that you should design your garden to minimize travel on the planting soil. No single-row gardening where you walk all over the place – make wider beds, raised beds with defined paths, and travel the paths. We shoveled 8″ of the topsoil from the paths back onto the beds to make good use of it; it’s all connected underneath so you don’t need to worry about it being isolating or anything. The less you compact, the less you have to till (manually or by machine). We did a machine-till of our new garden to get it started, and hope never to till again, just gentle-to-the-earth human-energy from here on.

  • Tricia, thanks for sharing your methods – wonderfully resourceful composting, weeding, and mulching!!

    Kate, great idea for secret composting.

    ChristyACB, My favorite is mushroom compost, from mushrooms grown in chicken compost. Every plant seems to LOVE it. And I second the raised beds idea. Haven’t done it in my mother’s yard because it’s a bit too utilitarian, but in the p-patch will be raised beds because of our rains.

    owlfan, When to mulch… Mulching in the winter will give plants some protection from from freezing and frost. If you live in a cooler and/or rainier area, I’d suggest removing some of the mulch in early spring and wait until the soil warms to 45F at least (the soil, not outside temperatures – you can use a kitchen thermometer and stick it down into the soil). This is because mulching actually holds in the coolness of the soil, so you should let the soil warm up first. If you live in a warm area, you can mulch any time of the year.

    When you mulch, you can mulch around the plants, just leave open a couple inches around the base of the plant (it can rot the stem). Parsley seems to love mulch, and doesn’t mind cold soil, so you can leave the mulch on it all year.

    We use straw. See Christina’s comment for more details about it. 4″ or so should do it. And the straw helps a lot, particularly on the paths where weeds are most likely to grow. You will still have some weeds.

    Weeding… I am not super diligent about weeding. In some cases, weeds in our garden have helped protect plants (our epazote insulated our tomatoes from the first few frosts, eg). But in other cases, weeds offer competition and spread diseases. It’s really something you learn as you get to know your plants – as well as the different types of weeds. Some weeds you just want to get rid of immediately – either they spread diseases or they get big quickly or they’re ugly or for some other reason – so yank them when they’re small (much easier). I recommend getting a book so you can identify different weeds, or look them up so you know what they are and what they will do.

    Hope that helps!

    M, thanks!

    Christina, Awesome reminder about straw vs hay – thank you. And I agree completely about the paths. Thanks for your great comment!

  • If the weeds are not intruding, I let them get big (but not flower) then they become compost. Some weeds have very deep taproots that bring up nutrients (which then go into the compost). No reason not to make them work for you too.

  • Excellent post…….will tweet about it this afternoon. Always nice to hear this come out of someone else’s mouth other than my own!

  • monica

    My idea of composting is dump it on a pile and let it rot for a year. Now that we have the chickens, though we are going to have more activity on the pile, so I will probably turn it a few times just to get the nice dirt out quicker and make the rest of it rot faster. We are using wood chips for the floor of the coop, but probably straw in the nest boxes. I am not sure what we will be using in the winter. I think that the raised beds shown in the pic #1 are very do-able. The more that the chickens eat, the more they poop, the more they poop, the more we eat. I can’t wait. You can bet I will be posting a pic of the first egg! Stuff is sprouting all over!

    I checked out the link to the bountiful gardner site that you mentioned. I requested a catalog. they have prices that seem fair. They have some really neat gardening kits for those who say they don’t know where to begin with a garden.

  • We started a large garden this year, so we did till (it had been grass) but probably will hand turn the soil in the future. For compost, we we’re able to get a truckload from the anaerobic digester in Monroe, WA and that has proven to be great for our garden! We’re already getting lots of lettuce, spinach, rhubarb, and radishes.

    We have chickens too, so this summer/fall the chicken tractor will go into the garden and the shavings from the coop floor will go into the compost pile.

  • This reminded me to go check the worm bin! :)

    I’m planning on putting my chickens to use for the compost process too. Actually one of the reasons I got them. I’ve been a cold compost creator until now.

    When I first moved to where I’m at I had 6 yards of topsoil/compost mix delivered. I used some of it for raised beds and spread the rest out in a thick layer (about 10 inches). These are the areas that I plant most of my annuals/vegetables. My soil is really rocky so I disturb it as little as possible.

    I never bother with inoculant, I get all the peas and beans I want. Is there any other reason to use it?

  • Yah, I think,the inoculant helps the beans help other plants by storing more nitrogen. I haven’t bothered, I have a lot of fairly rich compost coming in all the time — too rich in some ways (poultry manure in straw) — so much so that I run it through three heaps in succession to make sure it stays off the land for three months, or even six. This helps prevent “burning” of seedlings and the passing on to us of pathogens from the birds.

    Melinda, a lovely post! I drooled over the cucurbits in their nice, fluffy weedless bed.

    We used to till all through the 70s and 80s and then as we got older in the 90s just gave it up. Soil warmth is an issue, so for years we covered in spring with black plastic to help with that, and to prevent waterlogging, but we’re under the impression the soil organisms wished we wouldn’t do that! so now we have nice-looking beds with some year-round crops on them, and are experimenting with ways to warm up spots where the summer things will go… never boring, that’s for sure!

  • Kory, Oooh, great point. Love it – another reason not to weed!
    Compostinmyshoe, Thank you for tweeting! : )

    monica, Hooray for chickens! I’m still living vicariously through you, you know! Bountiful Gardens are definitely one of my favorites for seeds and supplies.

    Erin, What is anaerobic digester? Is it compost from a dairy? Also, I’ve added your blog to our list of Northwest blogs here.

    Deb G, So jealous of all y’all’s chickens! So great. As far as inoculant goes, my understanding is the same as Risa’s: it helps the legumes convert more nitrogen. Also, I’ve noticed my beans grow a tad more vigorously with it. But if your soil has been healthy for a while, it is quite possible that you already have the inoculant you need in your soil.

    Risa B, I’ve often wondered about the black tarp method as well… seems like it would cook the microbes and worms! Funny, when I was taking Master Gardener classes back in Sonoma, I asked about that. The instructor looked at me like I was insane, why would I care?? LOL. The next part of the class was about burning your weeds with a gigantic blow torch. Methinks I didn’t fit in well!

  • [...] Amending Your Garden Soil, Organically and Sustainably | One Green … [...]

  • [...] we can get truckloads of potting soil from our municipal compost system for less than $20 (photo here).  But if you can’t obtain cheap potting soil this way, or if you need smaller quantities, [...]

  • abib palma

    I have garden and I am trying to grow verything organicallyand all my practices is enviromentally friendly I also use worms.
    I do believe that if any one should garden they should not till.

  • I would love sharing my experiences with other people as well as to learn from them.
    I believe composting should be done in a timely manner so to enable the nutrients desiered.

    I love your web site keep me posted

  • jami

    i wanted to no how to make soil, not about it. i wanted to no what is needed to make it but you didnt tell me that either. your website says how to make your own soil, but you dont even tell the ingrediants! what type of a website are you?

  • Hi jami, I’m sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for. The article is about how to amend your soil, not how to make soil. Amending means adding to. If you’re looking for what components you need to make soil, it will depend on what you’re using it for. Here’s a list of recipes: http://www.backyardgardener.com/soil.html Here’s another: http://www.organicgardening.com/feature/0,7518,s1-3-81-185,00.html Here’s a third: http://www.vegetable-gardening-gnomes.com/garden_soil_recipe.html

  • Kaitlyn

    I’m dealing with some pretty sad soil right now in my two new raised garden beds, but I got the 2 cubic yards I needed at a good price. Now I have to really “feed” the soil. I think I’ll start with adding compost (I have a worm bin, but will probably have to buy some too). My question: I have backyard chickens, how can I use their manure? Put it in the compost pile? Can I bury it directly into the raised beds?

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