how to build excellent soil easily

When I was a young fella, trying to absorb information about plants, the information age did not exist. We had to find books in order to learn stuff back then. Ha! yea, now that we’re getting older, we can say, instead of “we had to walk six miles through the snow to get to school”, we’ll say “before the internet… we had to get these things called books and we went to buildings called libraries to find these books…….).

The best book I could find back then was a monthy, actually, called Organic Gardening magazine.

I couldn’t afford to buy a subscription so I bought them used at the local Good Will salvage store. I’d buy them by the stack. They were packed with tips on horticulture and I could not get enough of that at the time. I would read them all voraciously and then go back for more. This  affliction of plants started to fester really badly about 1980. Organic Gardening mag was my cure. I then was presented with the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening one fine Christmas by my friends Ed and Ruth Paulsen. I wore that book out.

I started collecting organic materials for compost and had for many years, large compost piles that I used as test models to see what stirred up the most aroma. I could get some hugely amoniac smells going on in my piles. And I could heat up concoctions to high degrees. I had fun with all of that.

I was consumed for years with understanding how soil worked and what made it better. I remember asking soil questions of anyone that I knew or met, that gardened.

Back then I was all about vegetable-gardening.

You couldn’t give me an ornamental plant. I wouldn’t take it. I had had my fill of that. I had worked in a tropical wholesale greenhouse for a summer and then in a Garden Center for a summer and then as a helper for a landscape semi-average landscape company.

When I was able to find my place in “the country” I wanted to grow all the food I could and have my career on the side, working for a living. The priority for me was the garden.

I learned a lot. Most importantly, I learned there’s two rules of thought on soil.

Its pretty simple really, it depends on how gungho you are…or how …gung-slow you are.

Soil rule 1.  sheet compost! This is simply accepting the soil you have as sufficient to work with, even though it is deemed to be “horrible”. Clay soils aren’t so bad and can be converted to decent soils by just adding organic matter. Sheet compost is an easy way to do this but like anything good, it takes work. Moving lots of bales of hay or compost or manure is not for the aged or the down in back: unless you are determined. But hay and other mulches are the best way to suppress weeds and it takes a lot if you have a lot of gardens. And hay breaks down so you add more and it breaks downand so the term “sheet composting” or : composting in “sheets”. Best sheet compost I ever used was soybean hay. Awesome. But I used to spend a lot of time finding and slavaging old rotten bales that weren’t suitable as forage for livestock. They ahd gooten rained on and moldy and were not good for feed so you can get that stuff for cheap. Often the farmer will let you haul it away for nothing if he feels sorry for you so wear a frown when asking. But you can surely build good soil this way over the long-haul. Just mulch until you’ve got a several inch layer down and let it compact/compress over time to about three or six inches and this will get you a solid barrier for the suppression weed seeds for a good while. You can coast when you mulch. No hoeing and “chopping cotton”. Rooted perennial weeds may be a horse of a different color since they may come up through the mulch. This may be a big problem but try adding another layer of mulch as soon as you see new weeds poking through the old and suppression may eventually come. Experiment. You’ll see. It works.

I controlled torpedo grass this way pretty well using single trunked trees and shrubs in a garden in New Orleans for many years. Torpedo is the worst of the worst and “severe mulching” method kicked its butt.Theres a great book on the subject that was part of my reading collection back in the day called How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, by Ruth Stout. She was seventy or eighty when she wrote the book back in 1975 or about then.

It tells the story of her doings with organic gardening in Arizona or somewhere out west. She was a third degree Black Belt in vegetables at 80. Awesome. Heroic!

Experimenting with repeated mulchings and the liberal use of cottonseed meal and fish emulsion and other organic beneficials will enable you to build beautiful soil without you turning a single clod of dirt.

You start the process of building big populations of earthworms and other micro and macro fauna in the soil and you’ll be growing cabbage like they do in Alaska!


10 year old Keevan Dinkel of Wasilla, Alaska with his 92 pound cabbage, winner of the Alaska State Fair and now current giant cabbage world record holder! (click photo to enlarge)

Just remember this when using cottonseed meal. Once, I clearly remember telling my client that he could use 100 pounds of cottonseed meal to fertilize his garden. He wanted to do it himself. So I come the day he and I are supposed to plant and he proceeds to tell me he put out 300 pounds of cottonseed meal. oopsey! We planted in fermenting soil that day. Ick! and the plants grew like, amazingly. I learned then that you can hardly use too much of the stuff. Its 16% protein, I believe, and has the ability to transform soil conditions amazingly. Alternating your fertilizers is best. For instance, use cottonseed meal one month and next month use fish emulsion solution and two months later use kelp meal and the next fertilizing could be a manure tea concoction. Get the point? You cover many bases that way in providing the essentials for soil activity. When you do this you’ll see, in the soil, large and medium earth worms and lots of tiny-baby earth worms. When you see this, you know you’re doing something right.

Soil rule 2.  Double-Dig. I did this once. Hard work. Will Flemming, of Hempstead, Texas, who is an expert in the specific genetics of the flora of texas and a person I consider to be one of the region’s leading horticultural experts, happens to be a landscape contractor and amazing garden designer. Everyone should know of Will. He was, at one time and for many years, protege of Lynn Lowery, one of the famous native plant nurserymen of Texas: a legend in Texas. Will double-digs gardens when he plants. He plants a lot of plants and all of his trees are double-dug. He uses compost for this. He knows compost like I don’t.

He grows gardens of exceptional beauty and of exemplary design. And his plants grow! Try double-digging if you havn’t. You can use different materials to try to see what works best for you. In the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening was a list with all organic materials and a rating for their Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potash rating number although today you can probably just google or safari it. If you can find good compost locally, which is really typical around here, use it. We aren’t that fortunate in this part of the country. What is sold as compost is generally not compost at all, but sand and bark and if you’re lucky a smidgeon of compost is in it. Just double-dig old manure right out-the-stall, “hot”, horse stable manure. I used to spend my spare time prying sheets of compressed manure and bedding shavings from the floor of the local veterinarians horse stables with a pitch fork to get that rare, priceless, and worthy commodity. The Vet used to love me! I’d do it just to get those fine rare vintages. Its best if you get barnyard manure “dry”(from the stable) instead of wet(from the pile out back out in the rain because the urine is the most important element of the “manure”). This is hard work since you have to wheel barrow it out of the stall and into a trailer or worse yet, a pick-up truck. I would spend a few hours rolling my wheelbarrow into the trailer, stacking it up high high. Its manuel labor, yes, but a manual labor of love. Take that “hot stuff”or the manure piled at the back of the horse barn and work that in liberally, six months ahead of planting time. After that, to test if the area’s still “hot”, plant some rye grass or some millet or zinnia seed on it to see if its calmed down heat-wise. If the seed grows, you’re probably in good shape to plant without any concerns. The point is you can burn up your plants by adding uncomposted manure if you mix it in the soil. If however, you are sheet composting, and you’re not mixing the manure into the soil you’re safe to by adding some around the plants or the entire garden area and mulching over the top of that. Just don’t mix “hot” manure in. Let the earthworms and the rain do it for you if you have to plant soon! Just plant into existing soil and mulch liberally with manure. Cover with mulch, to finish.

What’s probably good is using a little bit of both of these approaches.

Oh, one other thing. For those who are lazy or really busy or aged, use old cardboard as a mulch and fertilize by putting the solid fertilizer underneath(then add some additional cardboard if you mess up the “cardboard seal”). When you overlap the cardboard while putting it down, you hide any places where sunlight can contact soil and this is how the mulching is most effective. Any opening will let weed seeds in the soil germinate. thats when you need more cardboard. If you’re using liquid fertilizers you may have to lift the cardboard to get the juice in the right spot: to the roots of the plant. The restocking guys and gals at wal-mart will generally give you all the boxes you want if you show up early- early in the morning when the “night crew” is done and bundling it all up for recycling.


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