Whether you are gardening indoors (perhaps in an urban apartment), in containers, outside in raised beds or directly in your own backyard or farmland, you have likely wondered about the best ways to prepare your soil for planting season. We know that soil is the key to a bountiful harvest, and that taking the time to develop rich, nutrient-dense soil will pay off with an abundance of crops year after year. In fact, the key to reaping a healthy harvest each and every year lies in learning how to enrich and properly amend your soil before and between planting seasons.
Why do I need to enrich or (re)amend my soil?
Whenever we plant and grow any type of crop – be it a fruit, vegetable, ornamental, or cover crop – the plant takes certain nutrients from the soil, and often leaves other nutrients or chemicals behind as a byproduct of its metabolic processes. Different plants exchange different nutrients, and certain crops are known for having high requirements of specific common nutrients (such as nitrogen or calcium).
One of the key principles of permaculture is to “produce no waste”. Applying this principle means that we must learn how to grow our crops in a way that utilizes all of our natural resources most efficiently, and allows us to continue to produce bountiful crops from the same land year after year. The only way to grow crops every season from the same land, without depleting your soil, is by learning which crops have a natural tendency to leave behind greater quantities of commonly-needed nutrients. We then plant those specific crops as what are known as “cover crops” in the off-season. This practice, called “crop rotation”, helps to naturally restore the soil’s nutrients before the next growing season, and is one of the most useful natural methods of soil enrichment that we can recommend.
Many times both novice and experienced gardeners and farmers will resort to synthetic, chemical fertilizers and soil additives in order to restore nutrients and achieve the soil properties that produce desirable crops. However, using these types of products is not the best choice, as they often leach into runoff water and contaminate waterways, and improper use can result in the risk of burns to your plants, or even yourself!
We do not consider any commercially-available synthetic fertilizers or soil “boosters” to be a valuable or ethical investment. Instead, the best way to cultivate ideal soil is through utilizing a combination of organic, permaculture-inspired methods, which include composting, mulching, encouraging earthworms, and soil amendment before and/or between planting seasons.
Compost is a fantastic way to enrich the soil. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, compost:
- enriches your soil slowly, while keeping the pH of the soil in balance (how to test your soil’s pH).
- improves the soil’s drainage while allowing it to hold onto water for a longer period of time.
- supports earthworms and other beneficial organisms and discourages pests and disease.
- has trace minerals that are often not found in chemical fertilizers.
In addition, many synthetic fertilizers do not actually provide nutrients for the entire growth-cycle of the plant. Rather, they only provide plants with a short-lived, strong burst of chemical energy, and then essentially disappear, often leaving the plants even weaker than if they had never been synthetically treated at all.
How Do I Start A Compost Pile?
First, it is not necessary to buy a fancy roller-barrel contraption in order to begin composting. You can make your own container for composting using inexpensive chicken or turkey wire. Simply cut enough wire to make a cylindar that is about three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter.
If you do wish to purchase a container, we invite you to try out our all-in-one Bokashi Bucket Composting System. This system contains everything you need to start composting virtually anywhere, and the addition of Kashi Blend. The bokashi makes a world of difference in the composting process. Whether you are new to composting or are a seasoned composting veteran, we encourage you to give our Kashi Blend a shot, as we find it has become a quick favorite of many longtime farmer friends! But again, we want to stress that our bokashi, bucket, or any other implements or accelerators, are entirely optional to the composting process!
After you build your wire container, creating the compost pile is easy. Just add old leaves, straw, hay and other materials appropriate for composting. Build a 2-inch thick layer of material in the bottom, and then add the activator. An activator jumpstarts the decomposition of the organic materials. Good activator options include powders containing specific beneficial bacteria, horse or cow manure, alfalfa, bone or blood meal, or even high protein kibble.
Make sure to dust the entire surface of the layer with activator. After adding your activator, add nutrients to your compost pile. “Nutrients” are the organic materials you want to compost, such as food scraps, paper waste, or plant matter. Make sure to only add materials that are safe for composting to your pile. We have included a list here for easy reference.
Ingredients for a Compost Pile
Remember, not everything can go into a compost pile!
Materials to AVOID include:
- any paper with colored ink
- animal products (with the exception of blood meal, bone meal or eggshells)
- diseased, infected or infested plant material
- alkaline soil
- materials with a very high nitrogen count
Materials that are GOOD for the compost pile include:
- dry plant and green plant materials
- paper bags
- white paper
- dead flowers
- other organic kitchen waste.
Tip: Break up the material at the bottom of the container to help with drainage.
Keep repeating adding layers of compost material, then dusting with a layer of activator, until the container is full. The material should be loose and fluffy and never packed down. You want to allow air and oxygen to circulate. Water the pile but do not allow it to get too wet, as compost piles that are too wet or too dry will not decompose. A dry pile does nothing at all, and a soggy pile simply rots. In hot, dry weather the pile may need to be watered every three or four days.
After a week, turn the pile over. To do this thoroughly, take off the wire, put it aside then use a gardening fork to refill the container. Place drier material in the center of the container, and moisten if necessary. Repeat this process every week. Once the pile starts to decompose, gardening experts recommend that nothing be added to the container until the old compost is used up.
Some gardeners prefer compost that is not broken down all the way. This is because a coarser compost holds on to water more efficiently. Coarse compost should be ready to use after about two weeks.
Mulch is typically loose, organic, compostable material that is spread over soil, most often covering plant beds to provide temperature moderation and physical protection to the plants’ roots and bases. Mulch does not have to be organic, but choosing an organic option is ideal for the health and sustainability of your garden. Coarse compost can serve as an ideal organic mulch option because it will add nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.
There are a number of beneficial reasons to add mulch to your garden. Mulch keeps the soil beneath it from drying out, suppresses weeds, cools the soil in the summer and keeps it warm in the winter. Mulch can also help to suppress various harmful insects, such as the Colorado potato beetle.
A thicker layer of mulch is best in more humid or cool climates, while a thinner layer is preferred in climates that are hotter or drier. Good organic mulch options include straw, hay, shredded leaves, wood chips and even old coffee beans. Grass clippings may also make perfectly good mulch, just make sure they are weed free and have not been sprayed with herbicides.
Few animals play as valuable a part in enriching the soil as the earthworm. Earthworm castings add nitrogen to the soil – a nutrient that is vital to the growth of many crops, and therefore often heavily depleted in garden soil. Earthworms tunneling through the soil provides aeration and improves the soil’s ability to retain water. Earthworms help to keep the soil loose, which supports the growth of roots. They also bring minerals from the lower levels of the soil up to the topsoil, making those minerals available for the plants! And as if all of that is not enough, earthworms also neutralize soil that is too acidic or too alkaline, making the soil a more hospitable environment for a wider variety of organisms.
To help encourage earthworm population growth, gardeners should till their soil only very lightly. Deep tilling not only kills earthworms, but also disrupts beneficial microorganisms by abrading the soil and drying it out. Tilling to about 3 inches is ideal. Unless a new garden bed is being created, you should never till the soil deeper than half a foot.
Earthworms dislike chemical fertilizers, and even natural fertilizers with too much nitrogen (such as un-composted manure) are not ideal for earthworm environments. The soil should also be watered regularly to prevent it from drying out, but avoid overwatering.
By following these simple steps you can begin enriching your soil organically in no time. And, your plants will be thanking you for all the added nutrients with a bountiful harvest this spring!
Can I Reuse Soil?
Over the last few months, we’ve had quite a few friends asking if it is possible to reuse the same soil from a previous growing season. This is an especially popular question for those growing within containers, as well as specifically for cannabis growers.
So, we figured we needed to let everyone know – not only is it possible to reuse your soil, but it is highly recommended! We love to recycle our soil and use it over and over and over again! After all, practicing sustainability is all about reducing waste and making the most out of all of our precious resources. Following are some of our favorite tricks for re-amending your soil for reuse.
Why re-amend your soil for reuse?
If you are growing a number of plants, it is common to need to transplant them to larger pots relatively often as the plants grow. This is also true if you enjoy sprouting your plants from seed, or if you primarily maintain an indoor or container garden. Every time you increase the size of your plant’s home, you are left with an empty pot of soil with few nutrients remaining. In all of these scenarios, you find yourself with a giant stack of nearly-nutrientless soil sitting in those long out-grown pots.
Even when growing simple crops like veggies, it is common to go through a few sizes of pots before placing the plants into their garden plot, or the final container it will call its “forever home”. We do this often, since we like to start our seeds indoors and always take extra time to harden them off before the colder months. Near the Growing Organic farm, wind gusts can reach up to 50 miles per hour! This means if we want our little guys to survive the turbulence, extra time hardening off crops is pretty much a necessity! And extra time hardening off our crops means…you guessed it, extra pots of used-up soil.
Maybe some of you already tried to plant in these same pots of old soil only to discover nothing really grew well in them. For this reason, re-amending your soil to use over and over again is key not only to cutting waste, but to saving a TON of money, too!
What about re-amending plots or raised beds?
For those looking to re-amend large garden plots or raised beds, the steps we explain below will work as well. You can decide which amendments to use by considering how much soil you have to amend and how nutrient-rich you need it to be in order for your next crop to thrive. Considering the nutrient-absorption of the crops that were previously growing in the soil, as well as the nutrient-needs of the crops you plan to plant next, will also help you to determine which amendments are best for your application.
Typically with plots and raised beds, you want to ensure you fully re-amend the soil at least three weeks prior to planting a new crop. This will allow time for the area to “cook” the nutrients into the soil.
If you are looking to speed up this process, place a black tarp over the area of re-amended soil. This will trap the heat in and allow for the newly amended soil to cook at a much faster rate than if it was left open to natural conditions.
How to Re-Amend Soil for Reuse
If you are emptying small pots and containers, grab a tarp to dump the soil on. Once you have all of the soil you would like to re-amend dumped onto the tarp, it is time to add the missing nutrients back into the soil.
For those re-amending a plot or raised bed, you do not need to move the dirt! Simply spread the missing ingredients on top of the soil. Then, lightly overturn the area to mix the amendments into the top six inches of soil. There is no need to mix deeper than six inches below the surface, as mixing deeper will disturb microbes and organisms living in these soil layers, effectively doing more harm than good.
Now it is time to add the goodies to your soil, be it in a plot or on a tarp!
We are using two example amounts for our explanation. The first column lists amendment measurements for a smaller, single, 15-gallon pot. The second column lists measurements for a larger, three-yard plot of soil. Depending on the amount of soil you are re-amending, the recommended inputs will vary.
To start, gather the following amendments in the appropriate quantities for your application:
|Single 15-Gallon Pot||Roughly 3-Yards of Soil|
|½ to 1 Cup Neem Cake||30 to 40 Cups Neem Cake|
|½ to 1 Cup Crustacean Meal||30 to 40 Cups Crustacean Meal|
|½ to 1 Cup Kelp Meal||30 to 40 Cups Kelp Meal|
Please note that you may find yourself needing more or less of the above nutrients depending upon your soil and the crops you plan to grow next. Additionally, you may see best results after adding more amendments to the soil, such as the optional ones mentioned below.
|½ to 1 Cup Gypsum||30 to 40 Cups Gypsum|
|⅓ to 1 Cup Bokashi||20 to 25 Cups Bokashi|
|½ to 1 Cup Alfalfa Meal||30 to 40 Cups Alfalfa Meal|
Grower Tip: Pay attention to the plants you had in the soil prior to needing to re-amend. They will clue you in to which nutrients are missing in your soil and what needs to be added.
Vegetable & Herb Specifics:
While the above quantities will work just fine for your vegetable garden, you may find you need to use less than the recommended amounts. This is because vegetables are much less nutrient-demanding than some other crops, like cannabis. Additionally, if you find yourself low on calcium, we highly recommend adding the full amount of gypsum to your soil.
The above inputs can be followed exactly for cannabis growers, whether you are growing in pots or in raised beds. Please remember to pay attention to the plants you were growing in the soil previously. This will be key in determining if other amendments need to be added to your soil during the re-amendment process.
Mixing Everything Together
Yup, you guessed it! Once all of the desired amendments are added to your soil, simply grab a shovel or rake to mix everything together.
If your soil is dumped onto a tarp, this should be fairly simple. However, if you are re-amending a bed or plot, remember not to over-till the area. It is important for us to stress that you try to only till within the top six inches of the soil – and never dig below twelve inches – to avoid disturbing the ecosystem just below your feet.
Finally, you want to let the soil “cook” for a few weeks prior to planting. This will ensure the nutrients begin to break down and integrate into the soil, making them available to be absorbed by the plants.
And that’s it…Congratulations! Your soil is officially chock-full of nutrients, and ready to grow vibrant plant babies once again!