Urban Farm Handbook February Challenge – Soil Building

This first challenge is by Urban Farm Handbook co-author, Joshua McNichols.

Happy roots grow in well-built soil.

Every winter, many gardeners resolve to do things right next season. But when the hustle and bustle of spring comes along, sometimes – well, we run out of time. Maybe we don’t have a place to compost, so all those dried up pea vines at the beginning of summer just end up in the yard waste bin. Maybe we never got around to buying fertilizer, and so raced out to the garden center to buy some. And then we saw the price – yikes! We left the box on the shelf. When weeds overtook the undernourished lettuce, we sighed and conceded to getting our salads from the farmers market this year. We’ve all had moments like these.

It’s not that we don’t know better. As gardeners, we know the importance of compost and fertilizer. Compost mellows the soil, evening out wild fluctuations in water and nutrient availability. When we combine compost with organic fertilizer, our plants are stronger, more nutritious and flavorful. The problem is – when spring finally takes off, when we need a place to compost, when we need quick access to affordable organic fertilizers – we’re just too busy.


Let’s all plan ahead this year, so we can all have the best gardening season ever. So here’s the challenge: This February, plan for compost now, by dedicating a space in your yard. And buy fertilizer in bulk, or make it from scratch. The first of these challenges will help newbies get over that first hurdle. The second challenge should appeal more to soil building veterans.

Soil Building Challenge 1: Plan for Compost

Find an out of the way corner of the yard for your compost pile. The ideal spot should be accessible by wheelbarrow, so you can haul materials in and out.

After you’ve decided on a spot, build or buy a compost bin. You can get by without an actual bin – your compost can simply be a pile. But there’s something about having an actual bin that helps get us composting. Plus, it keeps things tidy. Whether you intend to keep a loose pile, or a formal bin, for this challenge we want you to get things ready. The goal is this: when you pull that first bucket of garden thinnings from your garden this spring, we want you to have a place to toss them. Without thinking.

My 3-bin compost system. Functional and built to last - but a lot of work to build. If you're new, start with a one bin system, then expand as you get deeper and deeper into it.

While the ideal compost bin has three chambers, you can get by with just one. Three chambers lets you turn the compost more easily from bin to bin. But the goal here is to get you started. Besides, on a small urban lot, you rarely generate enough materials to fill multiple bins.

Really, a compost bin can be anything that will contain the mess.

If you’re inclined to build your own, wooden pallets make a fine and inexpensive building material (use domestic pallets to avoid chemicals).

A simple wire bin

You can build one out of a simple cylinder of chicken wire or hogwire,or you can  buy a premanufactured plastic bin. The ideal size is at least a 3 foot cube. That’s big enough for a well-built pile to get hot. And when a pile gets hot – that’s when the whole process of making compost really speeds up!

Of plastic bins, there are many designs, some very expensive. I like those that give you the option of allowing the compost to have contact with the ground – which helps keep things moist. If your material gets dry, it will never break down. That’s why I dislike compost tumblers – they tend to dry out.

Avoid Compost Tumblers

One of the compost bins available from the city of Seattle. You can make one for much less money by drilling a plastic garbage can full of holes. Including the bottom.

If you want to go further, you can also pick up a green cone, which allows you to compost food waste – table scraps for example – without attracting rats. Green cones are very expensive. Seattle used to subsidize them – no longer. Now, I recommend building your own by drilling a small galvanized garbage pail full of holes and burying it 2/3 of the way into the soil. All the holes should be underground.

A green cone just outside my front door. You can build something similar using an old metal garbage pail. Unlike with a compost bin, you don't turn this material - just leave it until it's thoroughly rotted. I have two - I fill one while the other rots.

And finally, you’ll need the right tools. For turning compost, you’ll need a pitchfork. A machete and a log is optional (you can chop large items on top of the log before putting them in the compost, to make things break down faster). And you may want a small wheelbarrow, or even just a bucket for hauling things back and forth.

When you’ve planned a space for compost and assembled the right tools, when you’ll be able to toss the first spring thinnings in there without thinking, post a photo – and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win our modest soil-building prize package. More entry details at the bottom of this post.

Backyard Compost – Something To Be Proud Of

A backyard pile, if well-built (chopped, moistened, aerated, proper mix of greens and browns) will hit at least 150 degrees on the third day, then the  temperature will go down. Then you turn it again, bringing material that was on the outside into the hot center. In a few days, it peaks again. You repeat this process over and over again, leaving longer breaks between each turning as the peak temperature gets lower and the process slows down. Though hot composting can destroy seeds and plant diseases, many of them will survive. That’s because even when you mix the pile, not everything gets into the hot center.

Soil health affects plant vigor and nutrition. From The Small Grains by Mark Alfred Carleton, 1916. Older texts like this that predate the ubiquity of chemically-based agriculture offer insight for organic gardeners.

I don’t really expect a backyard pile to consistently kill weeds and pests. To be honest, I don’t care that much about these pests. Our city plot is small enough that dealing with weeds is not a major problem for me ( I just hoe them away), and pests and diseases are only as far away as my neighbor’s yard. Instead, I focus on building up the soil using compost and fertilizer, growing the healthiest plants I can so they can withstand the widest variety of stressors.

There are also advantages to a pile that doesn’t get that hot. The big contractor that composts Seattle’s municipal yardwaste – Cedar Grove Compost – their piles get super hot – about 180.  Recognize that temperature from yogurt making? Or from conservative USDA poultry cooking temperature charts? They keep temperatures high by pumping oxygen through the pile using underground pipes. In compost, that kind of heat kills things that are good too.

Commercially produced compost is great for building soil structure. The process is perfect but the product is sterile. Backyard compost is more like a human gut. Alive with competing organisms, some good, some bad. Often, the worst are kept in check by the larger ecosystem of organisms.

So don’t worry too much about the imperfections of backyard compost. The best preventative medicine with plants, as with humans, is good health. And the best way to have healthy plants is to feed them right – using compost and fertilizers.

Okay, end of rant. On with the challenge.

 Soil Building Challenge #2: Buy fertilizer in bulk or make it from scratch.

Compost is important, but it can only give your plants those nutrients already found in your soil. Composting recycles those nutrients, and that’s important. But few soils include every nutrient a plant needs – there may be only a couple regions in the world with such soils. And plants grown without enough nutrients will be stunted and more prone to diseases and insect pests. Not only are plants grown in healthy soil more robust, they taste better and offer better nutrition.

The health of your soil MATTERS. From Soil Fertility and Animal Health by William Albrecht, 1958.

Organic fertilizers are best, as they eke out nutrients gradually as they’re digested by micro-organisms in the soil. If you have compost in your soil, the tiny holes and slight negative charge of compost will actually cling tightly to nutrients from fertilizer as they become available. In other words, compost helps keep your fertilizers from being washed out to sea.

That’s important because organic fertilizers are expensive! If you garden in anything larger than a window box, you might want to consider saving some money by buying in bulk. Even if you need just a bit, you can buy in bulk and split it up with friends.

Buy in Bulk

Fertilizer becomes a little more affordable when you purchase it in bulk. What you can buy in your region will vary, but chances are you can get bulk discounts if you order in large enough quantities. For example, around Seattle a 40# bag of Walt’s Rainy Pacific NW Fertilizer is $65.50. But if you band together with 4 friends and purchase 4 bags, you can get them for $49.50 each. If you live in a rainy climate like we do, you’ll probably also need a bag of agricultural or dolomitic lime.

Walt's - where Seattlites can buy organic fertilizers in bulk. Many large cities have similar places catering to urban organic gardeners. If there's nothing like Walt's where you live, you probably have feed stores and can make your own fertilizer. Read on. Image by Google Street View.

Make your own

Fertilizer becomes cheaper still, and better, when you make it yourself. For example, Walt’s blend is simply fish meal, fish bone meal, crab meal, kelp meal and mined gypsum. That’s a good recipe, but not perfect. When I make my own fertilizer, I prefer to use a variant on Steve Solomon’s complete organic fertilizer recipe. It’s formulated for the Pacific Northwest and other somewhat rainy climates (we get 32 inches of rain a year). In desert regions, you’ll want to reduce or eliminate the lime (Rainy weather tends to acidify the soil. Lime counteracts this).

Complete Organic Fertilizer. I store mine in a galvanized garbage can in my garage.

To make Solomon’s recipe, you’ll want to head up to a feed store. Here in Seattle, I make the drive out to DeYoung’s Farm and Garden in Woodinville, one of the closest suburbs where there’s still a remnant of farmland. I suggest going together on this with friends, as most items are sold in large bags, whereas you will only need a little.

Fertilizer matters. From The Small Grains by Carelton, 1916.

Here’s your shopping list.

  • (1) 50# bags Alfalfa Seed Meal ($19.98 each) for every two people participating in this purchase. Four participants would be best. You can also use cottonseed meal, but at least in our region, alfalfa meal is much less expensive.
  • (1) 35# bag Agricultural Lime 35 lbs ($9.69 each) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 50# bag Gypsum 50 lbs ($16.69 each) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 40# bag Dolomitic Lime ($5.98) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 50# bag Fish Bone Meal ($31.98). In our region, this is cheaper than bone meal. But bone meal, a slaughterhouse byproduct, is also fine to use.
  • (1) 50# bag Cal Phos (a substitute for rock phosphate) ($22.98) In other regions, you may be able to find rock phosphate or high phosphate guano, worthy substitutes both.
  • 25# of Kelp meal ($35.00) (normally this comes in 50# bags but they’ve sold me 25# quantities in an open paper bag from their bulk supply) – you will have leftovers. You can substitute basalt dust if this is more available in your region.

For all these items, you’ll invest a whopping $122.32 plus $19.98 for every person. That may seem like a lot – until you calculate the cost of the finished fertilizer. I haven’t performed the calculation with precision, but it comes out to less than half the wholesale cost of premixed fertilizer such as Walt’s. If you got together with three other friends, you could use up each and every scrap of Cal Phos and avoid having to store half-empty bags in your garage. You’d pay around $50 each for more than twice as much fertilizer. And this stuff contains a more complete source of nutrients, too.

If you make just a single batch of fertilizer, you're likely to store leftover ingredients in your garage for years. Still, it's much cheaper, and better, than buying premixed fertilizers.

Here’s the recipe, based on Solomon’s. Keep in mind these items may be sold by weight, but our recipe is measured by volume:

  • 4 parts alfalfa seed meal
  • 1/4 part agricultural lime
  • 1/4 part gypsum
  • 1/2 part dolomite lime
  • 1 part fish bone meal
  • 1 part Cal Phos (substitute for rock phosphate)
  • 1 part kelp meal

I start by measuring the volume of the alfalfa seed meal. A rare 4 gallon bucket is perfect for this measurement, but you can do it with 1-gallon containers, albeit more slowly. Then, following the recipe above, I add a quart each of the 1/4 part ingredients, 2 quarts of the 1/2 part ingredients and 1 gallon of the 1 part ingredients.

I apply 4-6 quarts of this fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden – every time I plant a new crop. A single batch using one bag of alfalfa meal will last the average urban farmer for years.

Soil Building Challenge #3:  Build a Worm Bin

You don’t need tools to do this (although you could build a beautiful wooden one yourself or buy one and the worms from the Seattle Farm Coop).  Annette posted directions for making one using plastic storage bins in this post.

Take The Urban Farm Handbook Soil Building Challenge!

Whether you’re a newbie preparing to compost for the first time, a veteran purchasing organic fertilizer in bulk or mixing your own from scratch, or someone who thought worms were just for fishing we want to know about it!

If you have a blog, do a post about it.  If you don’t have a blog that’s ok.  We’d like everyone to come back to this post when you complete the challenge and let us know what you did, including a link to your blog post if you made one.  That way we can see everyone’s project in one place.

Did we mention there will be giveaways? 
We’ve got things like rain barrels, Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Guide, an annual membership to Seattle Tilth, red wigglers to get your very own worm bin started, and a copy of the Urban Farm Handbook.  So what are you waiting for?  Go build some soil already!

Thanks to erix! on flickr for the amazing photo of roots at the top of this post.

61 Responses to Urban Farm Handbook February Challenge – Soil Building

  1. I am going to follow the instructions I read last fall from this post http://simplemom.net/how-to-make-a-compost-bin/ to make my compost bin. I am still confused about the fertilizer is fertilizer different than compost. Do you need fertilizer if you are going to be buying soil? I am going to have a container garden on my patio this year.
    I miss having a yard of my own!

    • Joshua McNichols

      Compost is about recycling nutrients – the nutrients in your yard, or if you purchase compost, the nutrients in your geographic region. But it won’t supply all the nutrients. Fertilizer fills this gap. I like to think of compost as “whole grains.” Whole grains have great structure, and they do great things for you as they pass through your body. They even contain important vitamins and minerals. But you wouldn’t want to rely on whole grains for all your vitamins, would you? No, you need vegetables too. Organic fertilizers are like vegetables. In truth, many gardeners “get away” without using fertilizers for a couple years. They apply compost only, and see great results. But over a couple years, their vegetable gardens consume many of the trace minerals necessary for plant growth. Then, the soil nutrients are gone and they have a bad year and get discouraged. Additional compost brings some nutrition back, but not everything.

  2. Thanks, you may have convinced me to start using my compost on my garden. Because it is a cold pile–and I did not want to introduce weed or disease to my precious raised beds, which are full or purchased topsoil and compost–I have only used the finished compost throughout my yard. I hope to start turning the pile and may invest in a thermometer to be sure I am “properly” composting instead of tossing and waiting.

    • I think it’s still smart to keep a couple of raised beds “clean.” On an urban lot, you’ll require more compost than you can produce. I put all my cold compost on the large garden bed where I grow the majority of my vegetables. Then I buy a little commercial compost for the 2 raised beds I keep “clean” so I can rotate brassicas between them without getting club root. The complex community of micro-organisms in cold compost will protect you MOST of the time, but not always.

      To extend the health care metaphor: Fungal diseases, powdery mildews and blights are like the winter colds that afflict us so often. In my family, we never refuse to visit a relative because they have a cold – if we did, we’d never see each other. Colds are so ubiquitous, and so low risk, so we don’t really bother to change our behaviors very much to avoid them. Staying generally healthy seems a more useful strategy than living in a bubble. We wash our hands more frequently – just as you would not let the tomato in your garden lie on the ground where it could pick up fungal diseases. But club root is sort of like mono. It’s not deadly, but it’s a royal pain in the neck. And so you don’t kiss someone who’s infected. We change our behavior to minimize that risk. So I say: keep a bed “clean” for brassicas.

      • Glad to read the suggestion to keep some beds “clean” before I added compost to my new beds! Do you do anything for these beds to make the soil more alive – water it with whey or is that still too “risky?”

        • I see nothing risky about it. I suspect you could add it to the soil or spray it in diluted form on the leaves – a method called foliar feeding – to give plants a “nitrogen boost” if you feel they need a shot in the arm. I’m just speculating here, based on the idea that whey is high in protein and thus similar to fish emulsion in its effect on plants.

  3. Interesting, especially on the tails of Annette’s post yesterday. I appreciate the clarification re: compost vs. fertilizer. I certainly tend to lump the 2 together in my mind. Just added a yard/chicken waste compost bin (as seen here / ) to compliment the increasingly inadequate for our needs production of our green cones. Not very high tech, but the pallets were super easy. We are adding at least 5 raised beds this year, assuming our diagrams our correct, and wondering where to get our base soil to fill them. Any local recommendations?

    • For raised beds I like the 3-way vegetable garden mixes that include compost, sand and sandy loam. Sometimes a place will throw some aged bark in there – an ingredient which is okay but probably more appropriate in a potting soil mix than a raised bed, where you have room to work the soil a little more. Into this veggie garden soil I mix a good complete organic fertilizer. I get my dirt from The Dirt Exchange in Ballard, where they charge a little more and fill the truck bed a little less than Sky Nursery, which is a much longer drive for me. Not sure about other outlets in the South end. If you don’t have a truck you can order 10 yards dumped in your driveway, but that’s a lot of dirt.

  4. I will be taking on the make your own fertilizer, as well as continue to have a number of different compost piles, my extra challange is that I am making a old fashioned manure hot box for starting early spring plants.

    I would also love any of your thougths on hugelbeets? and how many years do you think before needing to top dress them with fertilizer?

    • Joshua McNichols

      I would fertilize it from the very start, mixing fertilizer in with the compost you layer at the top. I’d apply fish emulsion periodically with my irrigation, and add more fertilizer with every new top-dressing of compost.

      Here’s why: I think hugelbeets are the gardener’s version of a stump in the forest with a huckleberry plant growing out of it (a common sight in Pacific Northwest forests). The growing medium – the rotting stump – is very high in carbon – the small amount of forest litter that lands atop the stump is unlikely to balance out the carbon enough to allow plants to thrive. But stumps are also a favorite place for birds to perch. There’s a neat symbiosis there – huckleberry seeds digested by birds fall into a crack where bird poop also lands. It’s a perfect microenvironment for a huckleberry plant and the nitrogen (bird poop) increases as the plant grows (very slowly) and produces more berries for birds to eat. That bird poop probably also includes traces of other minerals, gleaned from berries and bugs eaten all over the forest. I would definitely add nitrogen to compensate for all that buried carbon. And probably add fish emulsion (nitrogen) periodically with your irrigation as the micro-organisms that decay the wood will tie up your nitrogen – they’ll incorporate it in their bodies as protein, not releasing it until they die – which will take a long time since the wood’s so big. And wood, like compost, has a limited spectrum of other nutrients – the microorganisms will release them slowly to your plants, but they’re not complete so you’ll want to supplement. If you’re trying to truly mimic nature, maybe growing blueberries on that hugelbeet to mimic the huckleberry on the forest stump, then I would eliminate the lime from the fertilizer recipe – as blueberries prefer acidic soil.

      I think letting it mellow over winter is also critical as that’s when fungal hyphae penetrate the wood. They are nature’s dumbwaiters of water and nutrients. They also make the wood more sponge-like and less likely to dry out over the summer.

      • I am following the German Small farm method. I take off the top soil in layers put to the side, I put in very well rotted bigger peices, then all the small branches and twigs from the overwinter clean up, then all the leaves/grass from the spring rake ups, then the whole deep litter chicken coop clean out of the floor goes on top , then the layer of the soil peices, then another couple feet of the winter pack for the sheep/goats/bedding, then on top goes the winter pack under the outdoor rabbit hutches, they end up a good solid four plus feet high even after folks jump up and down on them to try and flatten them, using the spring rains and collection from the roofs to auto water them, then a light dressing of soil on top to plant them in, my big one is 20 plus feet long, currently just under four feet high and four feet wide on top close to six feet on the bottom. My smaller ones are around ten feet long, 3 feet high and about 4 feet wide.

        Having read your reply, I would perfer to use any of my own bird composts if possable, I have a couple different choices, duck, turkey, geese or chicken, I can mix them up or just use one depending on what is better.

        To date, the best things that grow in them is all kinds of melon’s, and or sqaush, but I do radish’s, green onions or greens on the sides which are harvested before the other overruns the top and goes down the sides.

        Thanks for your impute, I will consider giving them a extra feeding once or twice this year over the season for the older ones.

        • Annette Cottrell

          Farmgal, one other thing: the proof is in the pudding as they say. If you are not having luck growing things with high nitrogen needs, try planting peas or clover amongst them. In permaculture you would use living mulch such as clover, utilizing companion planting (including a nutrient accumulator and nitrogen fixer.) This would make the nutrients more available to your plants.

    • Farm gal – there are many different thoughts about fertilizer and hugelkultur. It’s a permaculture method that I am employing extensively and have done a ton of reading about this winter. I’m not sure that Joshua has done as much reading on them or actually used one. There are many commenters who say they have had them for years and these people do not believe in fertilizer. Instead they use compost occasionally but prefer to use nutrient accumulators and nitrogen fixers in the kultur to provide nutrients. You may want to go to the permies.com forum and do your own reading and post that question to some other gardeners who actually are using hugelkulturs. I would also say that it will depend on how much other detritis is in your kultur bed. When I build mine, I used a wide range of things that will slowly release, some in the not so distant future and some in the far, far future. This broad range will provide you nutrients right away and for a long time. I use compost, worms, leaves, manure, straw, sod, branches and logs. You can see some things are available immediately and some things will not decompose for years and years. Just throwing this out there because I am a HUGE fan of them. :)

      • I’d love to hear how it works! Permaculture breaks some rules – and it’s important to break rules from time to time in order to challenge them.

        • Annette Cottrell

          A great place to start is Sepp Holzer or Toby Hemenway. Although Toby also is not fond of the fast decomposition process. He believes that you are unnaturally accelerating a natural process and in the process destroying some natural parts of the process (bacteria, etc) and causing nutrients to leach out into the environment quickly that would otherwise be utilized by plant and soil life. In the end he believes you end up with inferior soil. He believes in mulching in place and presents a pretty convincing argument. Maybe it’s time for a contrarian compost post? :) It’s funny how not black and white these issues are in gardening.

          • “Composting in place” does preserve and encourage soil life. It’s great for that. It’s part of why I use mulches in the garden over the winter. But I do proceed with some caution, as I know there are costs. When crop residue is left on the soil, soil is slower to warm – 6 degrees lower at 2 inches depth. That delays vigorous growth, as nutrients only start to become available when soil temperatures hit 50 degrees or so. This phenomenon of delayed soil warming has been well documented because “no-till” agricultural has become so popular with conventional farmers: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uc192.pdf.

            That said, I’ll bet you we urban gardeners could get around this setback by applying black landscape fabric over the decaying crop to help warm things up.

            Also, the idea that you conserve more of the nutrients isn’t necessarily true. Really, it’s likely a wash, depending on your soil type. You conserve carbon, but much of the nitrogen is released to the atmosphere as laughing gas, a major greenhouse gas:

            That’s why we’re supposed to dig cover crops in – so the soil organisms can claim that nitrogen, rather than the air. I’m sure they still give plenty of it up, but I suspect they claim quite a bit for the soil.

            I tend to think of “how we treat nitrogen” as a major thing that distinguishes us organic gardeners from conventional agriculture. Conventional ag just uses industrial ammonia – cheap and abundant. In contrast, we organic gardeners have to safeguard it by getting greens into the compost quickly. But it may be there’s a way around this too – applying cardboard over the rotting surface crop seems to help more of that nitrogen stay in the ground. But cardboard is light colored, so would seem to fight against soil warming.

            Basically I think it’s a good technique but needs some attention to detail so in order to work around the drawbacks.

  5. We use our wood stove – can I use the ashes for some of the lime in the fertilizer recipe?

  6. Hmmmmm, head is spinning. We still have frost in the ground and will for some time yet so I need to be preparing but can’t move on this much yet.
    I have access to plenty of chicken poo and ground fish waste that I want to make more use of this coming year so will be working to do that. We have ‘cool’ soils up here, Alaska Peninsula- zone 5b, so I can’t really count on the winter breaking things down, especially this cold winter.
    I have tomato vines from last year that will need to be pulled and disposed of. There was some mildew going on last year so I am hesitant to chop them up and add them to a compost unless I am sure it will get hot enough, and even then would the heat kill it? Am I better to just pitch them in a corner, let them dry out an burn them later?
    I did soil tests last spring so have my base line or Ph and other needs. I will do this again this spring so I am not just adding for the heck of it.
    This is going to be a long term, more than two years or so, to get this soil full of OM and doing well but I am here for that long term.

    • In my experience, powdery mildew is a sign of plant stress. At least in the city – mildew is everywhere, the spores are all over the place, and the only way to avoid them is healthy soils, healthy plants, eliminate all stressors for the plant. As an urban farmer, I tend to not fuss with strategies that would isolate plants from mildew, such as keeping mildew out of the compost. You’re right, a backyard pile won’t kill all the spores, at least not all of them, and as you know with spores, it only takes a few. But that kind of hygiene – impossible to achieve in the city – just isn’t part of my urban farming strategy. My “probiotic” approach is a way of celebrating a bad situation – the inability to isolate plants here, combined with my refusal to saturate my garden with fungicides and other chemicals – leads me to this strategy.

      Isolation may be a better option if you’re in a remote area. If you are in such a location, it may be worth your time to not use mildewed tomatoes in your compost, or compost them and apply it to another part of your garden. Use compost from another source for your tomatoes.

      • So far we are pretty isolated from other farmers, although there are plenty of sources of other ‘natural’ sources due to all our tundra and brush.
        Right now I am not really restrained by a lack of room but am with sources for good soil. Building it is how I need to go to both save $ on inputs (we must ship everything in so price can as much as triple from lower 48 costs) but also how long it can take to do it.
        I will probably ‘cheat’ some and get some activator for compost and see if I can’t do a hot pile this year.
        I also plan to make more use of green manures on any area I am not planting immediately.
        So much to learn and figure out.

  7. I started my worm compost three weeks ago. The worms have settled in nicely and are doing their job.

    • Joshua McNichols

      I see you started a worm hotel – you’ll have to keep us posted on whether it keeps up with your table scraps! Looks like a cute setup.

  8. Pingback: Plant Diseases: Devising a Defense System | Enviro Strides

  9. Joshua, this was super helpful! I also mix my own fertilizer from SS’s recipe but have always been confused about the lime component…how much & what type? Why do you use both types of lime? Thanks so much.

    • All limes include calcium. Limes differ by how the calcium is combined with other elements. Agricultural lime is mostly calcium oxide, so it’s mainly just calcium. Dolomite lime is calcium magnesium carbonate, so it contributes magnesium to the soil in addition to calcium. Gypsum is calcium sulfate dihydrate, so it contributes sulfur.

      Magnesium and sulfur are important nutrients required for plant growth.

  10. What a great challenge! I am going to have to finally break down and get your book…I need it in my library.
    I posted your challenge on my blog with my plan for this month:

    Thanks again!!!

  11. What about compost tea? I’m confused, does this also work as a fertilizer or more like a compost?

    • Compost tea is a way for organic gardeners to get immediate results. It’s like a shot in the arm, rather than the slow and steady trickle of nutrients your plants get from fertilized, compost-amended soil.

      It plays a role similar to conventional fertilizers in conventional agriculture. But without the harmful side effects. Because unlike conventional fertilizers, it doesn’t destroy soil life – it enhances soil life.

      Basically you steep compost in water for a few weeks, extracting the water soluble nutrients into the water. I would use water that doesn’t have chlorine. If you do that, many of the great micro-organisms in compost will also go into the tea. This is how compost tea enhances soil life.

      I try to rely on healthy soil for my plants’ needs. As they say, the soil is the plant’s stomach. But sometimes, as when you’re growing a heavy feeder, the plants need more than you may have provided in the soil.

      If it’s overcast, you can actually fertilize the plant directly by spraying diluted compost tea on the leaves. The diluted tea should be the color of weak tea. Or you can dilute more heavily and combine it with your irrigation water – take a 5 gallon bucket and fill with water plus some compost tea, drill a small hole in the bottom, set near thirsty plants (this is called “fertigation”). Here’s a good primer on compost tea: http://www.small-farm-permaculture-and-sustainable-living.com/compost_tea_organic_farming_and.html

      Also, the “probiotic” nature of compost tea has led to some pretty amazing claims – that it can help fight leaf diseases and fungi like powdery mildew.

      Compost tea is very useful as a supplementary strategy in the organic garden – just don’t let it replace proper feeding of the soil.

  12. LOVE this! I just read the article, but already started on the challenge. I turned my compost pile while adding layers of shavings and straw. I also dug up a portion of one garden bed and then buried some sticks and branches. I’m excited about the fertilizer recipe. Is this also a good formula for fruit trees?

    • Actually, with trees you hardly need to amend the soil at all. Their root systems are so extensive, they have more resources to draw upon. Also, the more you amend a single area around the tree, the tree is less inclined to spread its roots far and wide (this is known in landscaping as the “bathtub effect”). I try to plant my trees in large beds of mildly improved soil. They need some fertilization to take care of the missing trace minerals, but this can be distributed at a lower rate over a larger area. Here’s my favorite technique – some compost dug into the soil (maybe 3 inches of compost dug in, rather than the 6 for a new garden bed), mixed with maybe a quarter of the standard rate of fertilizer application, and mulched heavily, but leaving a 12 inch diameter circle of ground clear around the base of the tree – that’s the technique I prefer for new plantings.

      For existing fruit trees, you could broadcast very light applications of fertilizer periodically, but I have gotten by without it. The extremely slow trickle of nutrients from the mulch seems sufficient. Over-fertilized fruit trees grow luxuriantly and then become a cafeteria for aphids.

  13. Soil building?! Now this is a topic I am ferocious about; so I’m in for the challenge. I’ll be tweaking the topics to suit my zone 8-9 garden in Bakersfield, California.

    I have recently discovered that I have root knot nematodes in my raised vegetable beds. I will attempt to dissolve the population using nematode resistant plants and incorporating more French marigolds.

    Do you have a solution for root not nematodes?

    • Yes, I think crop rotation will be an important strategy for you. I’m not sure what variety of the pest you have. They differ by region, and perhaps they are a bigger problem in California due to your milder winters. Here we have some host-specific root nematodes that have attacked my carrots in years past. I didn’t grow carrots for years for fear of them, then planted them again and had no problem. Generally, protecting your soil will encourage soil life that competes with booming populations of a single pest. Nematodes have many predators: http://nematology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/westerdahl/courses/204NEM/BPREDATO.htm
      including other nematodes, so you could try adding beneficial nematodes, but they’re expensive and the lack of immediate visible results can be infuriating. If you need to pull out the nuclear weapons, you could let one bed go fallow for a year, planted with a nematode resistant, evergreen cover crop.

  14. Yes, I think crop rotation will be an important strategy for you. I’m not sure what variety of the pest you have. They differ by region, and perhaps they are a bigger problem in California due to your milder winters. Here we have some host-specific root nematodes that have attacked my carrots in years past. I didn’t grow carrots for years for fear of them, then planted them again and had no problem. Generally, protecting your soil will encourage soil life that competes with booming populations of a single pest. Nematodes have many predators: http://nematology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/westerdahl/courses/204NEM/BPREDATO.htm
    including other nematodes, so you could try adding beneficial nematodes, but they’re expensive and the lack of immediate visible results can be infuriating. If you need to pull out the nuclear weapons, you could let one bed go fallow for a year, planted with a nematode resistant, evergreen cover crop.

  15. We started composting again this month! I had let it fall by the wayside about 8 months ago, and decided to get us back in gear! Thanks for the encouragement. :)

  16. Pingback: Passive Composting and Why I Think That’s Important – a Contrarian Post | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat Gardens Communal Project

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  18. My family really enjoyed doing this project over the week break that we have had here from school. I posted about it on my blog, Worms!: The Urban Farm February Handbook Challenge. I am looking forward to more challenges ahead and thank you for organizing all of this.

  19. Your post was very inspiring and I learned a lot. I finally got my post up for the challenge. You can find it here: http://homesteading-chic.blogspot.com/2012/02/building-soil.html


  20. Love compost! We have three wooden bins, plus two plastic ones (one bought used at a master gardeners plant sale, the other an extra from a friend who bought it through a county Earth Day event, looks like R2D2 — check with your county if they do it, think the brand is Earth Machine). We are lazy when it comes to turning it so we just let it take its time…
    We’ve also started mowing up all our leaves and stockpiling them in a “holding pen” made of chicken wire and a few stakes til there is room in the compost bin and we can go to a local coffee shop and get them to fill 5-gallon buckets with the spent coffee grounds (that and leaves = nitrogen and carbon for the compost). We may use some as leaf mulch this year instead of buying mulch to keep down weeds around our flower beds.
    Over the years, we’ve definitely noticed an improvement in our soil! And we side with Mike McGrath (“You bet your garden” on NPR), who suggests compost as the solution to just about every garden problem (or so it seems to us!).
    Have written about our compost at times in my blog alliumstozinnias.wordpress.com (my online garden journal)

  21. Hi Joshua. Four friends went in together to mix organic fertilizer in bulk. We bought ingredients in the quantity you specificed & added each in parts by volume (gallon, quart, pint). However, for 160# alfalfa meal, 50# cal phosphate ended up being only half what recipe called. IE we had 8gallons each alfalfa, but could only get 1 gallon cal phosphate each.

    • Glad you caught that Katie – the calculations can be tricky as the items are sold by weight but measured by volume. I think the problem is I overestimated the am0unt of alfalfa meal you’d need to supply 4 people with the correct volume. To bring it back into balance then, you’d need more cal phos. I have about 3 gallons you can have at cost if you want – it’s most of what you need, close enough to bring you within a reasonable balance. I’m in Ballard, in Seattle.

      So that others can avoid this, I’ll amend the post to say (1) 50# bag of alfalfa per two people (rather than one 50# bag per person). The actual fertilizer recipe measures by volume anyway, so the consequence of the error is not significant – someone would have extra alfalfa meal around to store (inconvenient but no consequence for garden soil). The recipe, if measured by volume as suggested, will still be fine.

  22. Great challenge! We have a three-bin compost system made of pallets, but will be “upgrading” to a sturdier, more aesthetically pleasing 5 bin system this summer. We also have a “Worm Factory 360″ stacking worm bin that has worked out great. I’m all for buying your own fertilizer ingredients in bulk. We also have had success with Steve Solomon’s recipe (we live in Portland, OR). Our soil needs lots of work, so this was a good reminder to put on my rain boots and get out there.

  23. Pingback: Soil Building Link Up – Show Us Your Stuff! | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat Gardens Communal Project

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  26. Last month I added a “Dry Pile” next to my compost bin so I can let yard trimmings breakdown and add them in layers with my kitchen waste rather than throwing everything in all at once. I also took advantage of my nephews visit to pick up five bags of free city compost which I’m applying around my fruit trees and landscape plants. Just started my first ever raised bed and layered it with alfalfa pellets and compost so looking forward to comparing the results with my traditional garden.

  27. Wonderful challenge, especially for me here in Czech Republic. ALready have a compost area, can’t find more than 3 of the fertilizer ingredients, though I can find organic fertilizer, but made a worm bin. I wrote about it here: http://sittingonpumpkins.wordpress.com/

    I’m worried about my worms though. They don’t seem too lively…DO they just really not like being looked at? Or might they be suffering? From what?? They are moist, there are air holes and I gave them food scraps (carrot, cucumber, apple). What could be wrong?


    • Hi Karen, thanks for your interest in soil building. Looking at your blog post, it appears you’ve translated most of the ingredients into Czech. You can always leave out one of the limes/gypsum if you can’t find it, or kelp if you can’t afford it. Try not to do that every year though, if you can help it, or any major nutrient deficiencies in your soil could amplify over the years.

      It’s intimidating to build your fertilizer from scratch, until you’ve done it once. You can probably find good-enough organic fertilizers around, as you seem to have done – but you’re right, they are very expensive. Making my own is the only way I can afford fertilizer in the quantities I need.

      It would also be worth asking around to determine if there were major soil nutrient deficiencies in your area that might not be addressed by this general fertilizer. No crisis, but this is just something to keep in mind as a goal as you progress as a gardener over the next couple of years. A soil test could also provide you a more localized prescription.

      I’ll let Annette answer about the worms.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Hi Karen – is it very cold where you have them? And remember it’s colder on the ground then up at your height. They are more sluggish in the winter, and more active when temperatures warm up in the late spring. That could be your problem.

  28. First, I have the book and love it! It’s clearly laid out, easy to use and full of practical info. I decided to tackle a worm bin. With a little help. I highly reccomend making friends with other gardeners and going to local gardening groups to find out what grows well and as a resource for information. I posted a step by step of the bin I made on my blog: http://dyhanaverse.blogspot.com/2012/02/getting-ready-for-spring-by-building.html

  29. Joshua, I am now in my fourth year and wonder how I have made it this long without your site!
    Actually I have made several very good friends who garden and have been more than willing to help me stumble through.
    I will follow along and report back where necessary.
    Can I let you know about http://www.eggscartonclub club ? It will now be what is left of my life’s work with a goal to see our nation consuming 100% more plant foods by the year 2020 ( great year for ‘vision’). Graham Kerr

    • Annette Cottrell

      Graham I LOVE this vision and will be including it in the April Gardening challenge – thank you for your life of service and tremendously huge heart! xo, Annette

  30. I started PLANNING this in February and finally got it completely executed: http://gardeninthewoods.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/piled-higher-and-deeper/

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