My personal experience with learning to create great garden soil began many years ago when I was taking my master gardening course. My instructor would cringe whenever someone referred to garden soil as “dirt.” At first I didn’t understand what the difference was. After some years of real tough in my face experimenting, reading, and testing, I got it. Arden Andersen explains the difference so well that I want to share it with you:

“Soil is ALIVE. Living soil is healthy and healthful and does more than just support life, it allows for growth and development of healthy, healthful plants – plants that fulfill the nutritional needs of animals and people.”
Earthworms plows soil
Earthworms are a sign of “healthy” soil.

In contrast, DEAD soil is “dirt.” It erodes. It compacts. It clods. It does not produce healthy animals and people. It no longer carries an adequate electromagnetic charge.

Now I’m not exactly sure that is why my instructors cringed at the word “dirt” in my master gardening class, but I believe it is a good reason to, no one should plant a seed in dirt and expect it to grow without regular manipulation of its entire environment.

  • How is your garden soil?
  • Is it alive, or is it dead? Can you tell the difference and is it really that important?
  • How do you create LIVING SOIL out of DIRT and prepare it for planting?

These are some of the questions I will be answering in this lesson. I cannot stress enough the need to BUILD your soil so it will produce high quality, delicious fruits and vegetables that will sustain you, your family, your animals, and those you might share it with or sell it to in a way that requires no other supplements, and allows you and yours to enjoy a long, high quality life.

MOST GARDEN FAILURES ARE DUE TO POOR SOIL PREPARATION

“We were typical suburban gardeners. Each year, at the beginning of the growing season, we carpet bombed our lawns with a megadose of water-soluble, high-nitrogen fertilizer and watered like crazy.” – Jeff Lowenfels

Sound familiar? This was me. And I thought it was the right way to do things. In fact, I had been trained to use commercial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. They were my best friends in the garden and all around the yard. I had experienced great success growing large, productive gardens, beautiful flower beds, and lush green lawns with an arsenal of sprays and granular applications of synthetic chemicals. I learned to diagnose deficiencies – and there are always deficiencies when you garden with those friends. From pre-emergents to roundup and numerous pesticides, when people (including my grown children) called me for advice, I shared with them the secrets of success which turned them into carpet bombers too. So what was wrong with all that?

One of the hardest things in life is to realize that what you’ve been taught, or trained to do, and spent many years perfecting, is incorrect. When faced with the “organic” nonsense that was coming into vogue, I hung on to my methods with a stubborn loyalty, double-checking now and then with my mentors about this “organic” craze. I was assured that all these chemicals (at least the ones I was using) would surely break down into carbon and hydrogen in just a few short days and become harmless. Additionally, chemicals were chemicals – whether they were naturally occurring or man-made. It made no difference to the plant where the chemicals came from. Hmmm that made sense to me and because compositing and manures were not that readily available – I went with the synthetic commercial fertilizers.

I could readily see the success I was having with my tried and true methods, so it took some real hard to deny evidence before I began to open my mind and resign myself to the fact that there may truly be a better way and it was very different than what I was doing. I’ve made changes. It has been hard. Starting all over is never easy. The learning curve began yet again, but today I can truly say I am glad I made the commitment to change.

It all began one day when I was standing out back on my green lawn over looking acres of gardens, pastures, and a small orchard. All was in order – I thought. I heard a small quiet voice say to me, “You need to prepare this soil to receive seed.” You know, it was just one of those very loud thoughts that come once in a while. But it was certainly not MY thought. I was dumbfounded.

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 8.06.09 PMWhat could that mean? I had been gardening this piece of earth for a long time. It was receiving seed. Then one day I was presented with the idea that I ought to be “feeding the soil” and not the plant. At first that didn’t make any sense to me. Three years later and after numerous interesting experiences and reading many books that I will recommend to you, I began to understand what I had been told. My soil was dead. I didn’t have soil. I had dirt. It was a humbling realization. My soil was an addict of the “feed the plant” philosophy put out there by the powerful commercial fertilizer companies. It could not sustain healthy fruit and vegetable production on its own.

I’m going to save you the rest of the story. It would take a book to tell. What I will say is today I AM NOT A CONVENTIONAL GARDENER. I have been converted over to the natural side. I have discovered the Earth is a being that is alive with vibrational frequencies that we need to live in harmony with. She is our most healing, productive, self-sustaining friend. What we take from her, we must give back – and by doing so she continues to provide in abundance. By understanding the laws of nature we can be much more successful gardeners in much less time and with far less effort. Hard to believe – but true.

 In this lesson you can expect to learn:

  • How to Create Healthy Soil
  • Bed Preparation
  • Planting Seeds and Seedlings

 Recommended Readings:

Teaming with Microbes by jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
Life & Energy in Agriculture by Arden B. Andersen
The Garden Doctor by Jacob Mittleider
Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture by Cyril G. Hopkins
The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
Earthing by Clinton Ober – Not so much for Gardening, but to understand the Earth’s vibrational frequencies

How to Create Great Garden Soil

Here we are at the point where we are going to plant seedlings into the soil or sow seeds. Whether you are working with a pot on your window sill or 20,000 acres, growing plants for food and for beauty is meant to be a joy. It ought to be something you take pleasure in and not something you “have to do.” Your own vibrational energies and thoughts ( believe it or not) will have an impact on the plants you grow and the success you have. Relish the time you spend in your gardens and enjoy the benefits that will return.

Great Garden soil

Because the quality of your soil is so very important, time and energy must be put into creating rich, healthy soil. As all things vibrate with a specific frequency and actually have an electrical charge when it is vibrating correctly, it is critical that the correct supplements be added to the soil in order for that frequency to be healthy and life promoting. Soil is made up of a variety of living and dead organic material including micro-organisms, roots, plants, animal waste, air, & water. In good healthy soil, chemical and biological interaction goes on all the time. When these things are in balance, the soil is vibrating correctly. It seems to me that this frequency is achieved when the soil is also in the PH range of 6.2 to 6.8. It is in this range that microbial life is most active and according to Eliot Coleman – the nitrogen fixation of legumes and bacteria is most active. When microbes are active, more of the potassium already in the soil becomes available to the plant. It is an amazing self-sustaining system. The addition of nitrogen is seldom necessary in this system because it is provided to the plant by the microbes surrounding it.

Cyril Hopkins a Soil Scientist

The knowledge of this relationship has been around for a long time. Professor Cyril Hopkins wrote extensively about it from 1911 to 1919, but was generally ignored as self-sustaining systems did not put any money in the pockets of the corporations pushing synthetic chemicals. What happened is an almost complete forgetting of the natural processes and a widespread adoption of the dependency system created by synthetic commercial fertilizer companies. Forcing plant growth became the norm, which does net us large beautiful vegetables and green lawns, but they are also absolutely dependent on the fertilizer fix because there are no microbes to give them the nutrients they need. Where have they all gone? They have been destroyed or driven deeper into the Earth by the massive amounts of fertilizer, fungicides, and herbicides used on them.

Refer to the recommended reading list for this lesson for an in depth understanding of various methods of amending the soil in ways that will create healthy plants. Giving back to the Earth is an essential part of successful gardening. What you give back is what you take out in the form of organic matter, phosphorus, micro-nutrients, and calcium. There are a number of products that will provide these elements. You will find a list in the Resource Section for this lesson. In these lessons you will learn to grow according to the natural methods that enhance and encourage microbial activity. As far as I know, it is the only self-sustaining way to garden.

Soil Structure

What type of soil do you have? This is valuable information and makes a difference in your watering schedule. Soil is made up of a mixture of different sizes of rock particles. There are basically three different classifications; Sand, Silt, & Clay.

Sandy Soil

 

Sandy soil feels gritty when rubbed together in your fingers. It absorbs water quickly, but does not hold on to it long, nor does it hold on to nutrients well. There is a lot of “space” between the particles allowing for the water and nutrients to pass by.

Sandy soil warms up quickly in the Spring – that is a plus.

siltonfinger

 

Silt is neither sandy or clay, but has properties of both being right in the middle.

 

 

clay

 

Clay also has a large attraction for water. Too much clay is bad because there is not enough space between the particles and little air, or water can pass through, causing roots to have a more difficult time establishing themselves.

Clay soil contains the smallest of particles that tend to feel plastic or gooey when rubbed together. Clay soil has a quality called “adsportion” which is an ability to attract or store large quantities of nutrients.

There are a number of ways you can figure out what kind of soil you have:

  • sending a sample in to a private lab
  • taking a sample to your extension office
  • purchasing a commercial home testing kit
  • doing your own squeeze test
  • or gathering some of your soil in a glass jar and filling it with water and observing the results after settling.

Do Your Own Squeeze Test

Wait two or three days after a good rain and take a handful of soil about golf ball size and squeeze it. If it feels gritty, you have sandy soil, like talcum powder – you have silt, if it is slippery – you have clay. When you release your grip,If it breaks apart, you have sand, if it stays in a ball you have a substantial amount of clay in the soil. If you can roll it into a sausage, you have even more clay.
SandySoil1 Soil Squeeze Test #2 Squeeze Test #3

The Glass Jar Method

With the glass jar method, scoop up the soil you want to test, put it in a glass jar and completely cover with water and shake. After 1 minute you will begin to see the heavier sandy particles dropping to the bottom of the jar, in 2 hours you should see the silt separate out. After 4 hours the water should clear completely with all layers visible. This is a good way to see the percentage of each kind of soil you have.

Soil Test with Water

Great garden soil is called “loam”. It can be sandy loam or a more clay loam, but has properties of both, and a large amount of organic matter. Few of us have ideal soil and regardless of what we have, the way to turn it into loam is to add humus or compost. This is the #1 principle of soil preparation.

Compost that is rich in old leaves, plant material, straw, hay, manures, or anything that grows, and has been broken down by micro-organisms will load your soils with nutrients, allow enough space for roots to grow and water and air to pass through, feeding the microorganisms that are essential to healthy plant growth, bringing your soils into the right vibrational frequencies and the correct PH balance. It can take a number of years to get your soils up to speed if you have been a chemical gardener in the past, or if you are just starting out, but if you will be patiently persistent in adding organic matter to your beds every year, you will in time build beds filled with “ideal soil.”

Compost can be obtained from city composting piles, dairies, home and garden centers, chicken farms, or you can make it yourself. All compost piles are not the same though, and testing your compost is a must if you want to be sure to get the right balance of nutrients in your beds. Just as you tested your soils, there are numerous ways to test the nutrients in your compost. The same labs will often test your compost.

If you use the city compost piles, it is likely to be low in nitrogen because nitrogen is used up in the decomposition process and most city compost piles don’t include animal manures which are high in nitrogen. You may have to add a natural form of nitrogen to your compost. If you use cow, horse, or chicken manures in your compost, you will likely be high in nitrogen, but could be low in other things, so it is important to take a sample of your compost.

A word of warning about compost piles that you did not create; You really have no control over what is in them or how long they have “composted.” There have been numerous instances where city compost piles are so full of toxic chemicals that everything the compost touches turns sickly and dies. Farmers who sell “hot” manure compost that has not had sufficient time to decompose will leave you discouraged and frustrated as hot manures will not promote healthy plant growth. The compost you can trust most is the one you created.

Four of the most important nutrients necessary to healthy soils are what I call the macro-nutrients;

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • and Calcium (Ca)

If there is a shortage in any of these nutrients, you will have problems. Compost usually supplies Phosphorus, and Potassium in enough abundance, but not Calcium or Nitrogen. Additionally, the soil itself contains large amounts of these substances, but not in the form that plants can use. When microbes get involved, they make those nutrients available to the plant in the form the plant can use. Microbes are extremely important to the self-sustaining garden method.

Most garden experts recommend you add nitrogen in the form of ammonium sulfate (NH3.) However, in the book Teaming With Microbes, scientific research has shown that the relationship developed by the microbes and plant roots is a symbiotic one in which the microbes feed the plant roots nitrogen in the form of (NH4) at the same time the roots feed the fungi and bacteria oxygen. Also (NH4) is much more readily used by the plants than what is in commercial nitrogen fertilizers.

So, ideally, the addition of more nitrogen, especially in the form of (NH3) is unnecessary if there is an active community of microbes in your soil. Calcium on the other hand, is something that we often must add. It not only flocculates the soil or opens it up so air and water can flow more easily, but calcium makes all other nutrients more available to the plant. Many of the pest problems we have would go away if enough calcium were added to our soils.

Earthworm cartoon
And not to be left out – Earthworms are alive and well in healthy soil. They are one of the visible signs that the soil is doing well or not so well.Earthworm castings are full of plant nutrition. The tunnels they dig help aerate the soil allowing oxygen, water, and nutrients to penetrate more easily. As they eat their way through all the leaves, plant waste, and such that you have placed in your compost pile, they do an amazing job of turning it all back into soil through their castings.

You can purchase Earthworm cocoons for a reasonable price and add them to your rows or your compost piles. You can also purchase a worm farm and grow your own worms and take advantage of those earthworm castings. There should be 50 earthworms in a square foot of living, vibrating, ph balanced soil.

If you find your soils low in any of the four macro-nutrients, see the resource section for ways to add those minerals naturally. Remember – success in the garden begins with the soil.  Create great garden soil and enjoy a bounteous harvest year after year.