Saturday, November 6, 2010

'Soil to Live For'

I wrote this article in 2008, but forget where it was published...'Heirloom Gardener'? The basic principles in it should be valid in most climate zones. John

Have you ever walked through an old growth forest and felt beneath your feet that rich spongy layer of natural compost accumulated over many human lifetimes? Year after year, a steady rain of falling leaves, bird droppings, pine cones, expired perennials and annuals, fallen fruits and the nutrients dissolved in rain water recreate and revive the soil beneath the green canopy of trees. This life-giving mantle of organic matter is a far cry from the lifeless sprinkling of decorative red bark nuggets, or occasional bag of peat, or a "miraculous" blue chemical fertilizer that many of us have attempted to heal our soil with. So how can we bring Nature’s soil enriching methods into our gardens?

"Sheet composting". Many of us have never gotten around to conventional composting because we don’t have a compost bin, or aren’t thrilled by the thought of having to turn the compost pile monthly, or spreading the finished product all over the far reaches of our landscape only to start all over again. Sheet composting eliminates those hassles by simply spreading compost-forming materials all over one’s gardens in a "sheet" of compost that builds up and decays and feeds the soil directly and steadily. It is an easy way of duplicating the forest’s method of constant soil improvement. Just think, with every good rain or deep watering, that sheet of organic matter leaches into the soil beneath it a life-giving broth of nutrients and beneficial bacteria and fungi. What was once funky lifeless dirt soon is rich humusy soil teeming with earthworms and healthy garden plants, all for free.

Recycling has progressed from being a "hippie fringe behavior" to a respectable mainstream habit our society embraces more and more in an effort to protect an environment under daily assault by a burgeoning human population. "Sheet composting" allows each of us to keep valuable organic matter out of landfills by healing our soil with an intriguing array of freebies. Why buy expensive bags of lifeless perky red mulches made from killed trees once you start noticing the boxes of cabbage leaves and corn husks your grocer will give you, or the kitchen scraps you’ve always sent down the disposal? Duplicate that forest and mulch your veggie or flower garden with chopped up bush trimmings and pesticide-free grass clippings, or leaves covered up with the horse manure the neighborhood stall pays to have hauled away. Buzz each evening’s kitchen scraps in the blender with water and toss that nutrient-rich slurry onto your sheet compost to feed the soil without attracting raccoons and opossums with intact table scraps. Use cheap clay cat litter, or plain garden soil or tree grindings mulch instead of the anti-bacterial clumping stuff in the litter box and toss that nitrogen rich mixture into the rose garden. Stop at your local coffee shop once a week and bring home big bags of coffee grounds and sprinkle them onto that sheet of compost forming steadily in your landscape beds. You get the idea…..if it will rot and it is free, bring it home and sheet compost with it.

Of course, esthetics are important, and who wants to gaze at a flower bed littered with decaying fruit, cat litter and corn cobs…hardly the cover of "Better Homes and Gardens". Just sprinkle a more attractive mulch material over your newest "deposits" to your soil’s fertility account, like tree chips mulch, pine needles, raked leaves, or a bale of hay shredded quickly by hand…one $5 bale will easily cover a 10 foot by 10 foot area with a pleasing blond mulch hiding all those decaying treasures while minimizing flies.

As your sheet of compost becomes a continuous mantle over all your gardens, you’ll notice that the soil stays damp and dark and earthwormy between rains and waterings, and that your plants are perking up big time. You’ll notice too that your deposits to the garbage man have shrunk, and that you’ve started coveting neighbors’ yard waste… "Hey man, can I have your pine needles?" "What are you going to do with those bags of leaves?" You’ll also notice that your gardens need less and less fertilizer. Why? Compost is the gold standard of soil amendments. A light sprinkling of fish meal each spring and fall all over the sheet compost will insure perfect plant nutrition. If your soil is acid, a light sprinkling of dolomite or garden limestone each spring will keep your soil "sweet" while supplying vital calcium and magnesium. While ordinary mulch primarily keeps soil moist and cool, modifying it into sheet compost turns it into a continuous Thanksgiving Day feast for your gardens. And a thick damp mulch will help slowly acidify alkaline soils.

Poor soil, be it clay or sand, causes most of our ongoing gardening frustrations, and is crying out for us to imitate Nature’s ways. "Pit composting" is another dramatically effective way of recycling garden waste and organic soil foods into little "heavens" for extra hungry plants like peonies, roses, squash, asparagus, baby trees and fruit trees. Autumn is the perfect time to start creating them as we clean up our yards of garden waste and leaves, or in spring if we prefer to shield our gardens from winter’s harshness with freeze killed top growth and leaves.
Sounds fancy but "pit composting" is nothing more than digging pits of varying sizes, and filling them with organic wastes that decay into compost. Each pit then serves as a highly fertile planting hole for trees, shrubs, perennials and hungry veggie crops the following season. Long employed in highly alkaline regions of the desert southwest like arid Arizona cursed with caliche soils, this technique is a godsend for folks gardening in packed alkaline clay soils, or in loose nutrient poor sandy soils.

Dig a pit 2-3 feet wide and deep and pile the waste soil all around the hole in a big ring as you stand inside the deepening will look like a moon crater or low volcano when you are done. Then use that hole as a "landfill" for your household’s wastes…bush trimmings, limbs from this spring’s snow damage to your trees, organic grass clippings, autumn leaves, spoiled bales of hay, kitchen scraps, dog dooky, soiled kitty litter (not the scented deodorized kind but cheap clay), spoiled dropped fruits and such, old firewood, plus hopefully a generous dollop of fresh manure of some kind, horse poop being my favorite. If you are fighting highly alkaline soil as is the norm west of the Mississippi, sprinkle in 10 pounds of cottonseed meal from a feed store, or a few handfuls of agricultural sulfur. If you are dealing with acidic soil, sprinkle in a few handfuls of powdered limestone. When your pit is filled with organic wastes you will have a mound 2 feet higher than the hole’s rim: place into that "organic salad" several earthworms from your compost bin or garden soil so they can feed and multiply, then cover it all up with the soil you dug out. You’ll end up with a tall funny-looking "dome". (be mindful that until it is filled, the pit is a stumbling hazard for young children and tiny dogs.)

Give this a good deep watering and let it mellow and compost all winter long, or for 3 months if you make one in spring. It will settle until it is a slight dome a year later. At planting time go ahead and plant your hungry babies or seeds in the center. The roots will luxuriate in that humusy, fertile, pH-balanced underground compost-filled pit that will absorb and hold water wonderfully, yet that porous medium will allow for good drainage and oxygen flow for the roots. If you have never succeeded in growing a huge bumper crop of winter squash or pumpkins, (both are very hungry plants), planting their seeds above a "compost pit" may well bring to mind Jack and the Bean Stalk! And compost pits are perfect homes for super-productive asparagus if you sprinkle a 5 pound box of cheap rock or ice cream salt into the pit before covering it up with that soil. Why? Asparagus is a brackish water plant from European coastlines and some of us already sprinkle salt on our patches annually anyway.

By creating compost pits steadily, side by side, all over our property year after year, we can reinvent our soil, recycle our wastes, conserve water, elevate low lying areas, and enjoy vibrantly healthy plants. And transforming "garbage" into beautiful blooms, tasty fruit, plump squashes and pumpkins, fragrant Old Roses and sensuous peony blooms is a touch of the alchemist’s dream.

Once we have created healthy soil, we need to feed it. While you won’t find this recipe on the Food Channel, it’s been a staple of European gardeners for centuries. To brew that nutrient-rich elixir called "Manure Tea" or "Russian Tea" or "Poop Soup" relied on by millions, all you need is a non-leaky garbage can, water, a stir stick and, you guessed it, fresh manure.
Horse manure is far and away everyone’s favorite, but you can settle for bagged sheep or poultry manure...but do take a few garbage bags to a neighborhood horse stall and treat your self to "the real thing" for best results. Fill the garbage can four fifth’s full of water and let the chlorine out gas a day or two, then fill the remaining fifth with fresh manure, stir, and let it "brew" for two weeks with an old window screen on top to keep out flies and breeding mosquitos. Stirring daily with an old broom handle will mix the sunken "goodies" with the foamy top. At the end of two weeks, "it’s time for tea!"

Just use an old mop bucket to bail out the barnyard- scented elixir onto your hungriest plants like corn, all manner of greens, squash, sunflowers, annual flowers, bananas, hibiscus, taro, true yams (Dioscorea species) and especially roses.. Then water it in deeply. They will lap up the combination of dissolved plant nutrients and beneficial bacteria, and you may soon be convinced you can see them growing.

For young seedlings of veggies and flowers just feed them a dilute mix of one half "poop soup" and water, then water that in too. This weakened strength insures you won’t "burn" those teensy young stems and roots. And use this dilute formula for a real pick-me-up for all your potted patio and indoor plants and orchids too...don’t worry...that musty barnyard fragrance many folks actually like will pass in a few hours.

When the tea is all drawn off, just spread the dregs at the bottom around your gardens as part of your ongoing mulching habit. Or toss it atop your compost heap. Hey, many of us save our tea bags and coffee grounds for the garden, why not this too?

As with all recipes there are variations, and people think of new ones all the time. Us "rose freaks" like to toss in five pounds of alfalfa pellets from the feed store. Passionate veggie gardeners will add a few pounds of dried kelp meal from the feed store to add the valuable trace minerals all plants need for optimum health. Tossing in two cups each of Epsom salts and rock phosphate supplies extra magnesium, sulphur and phosphorus. Stir five pounds of menhaden fish meal to make your own home made ‘fish emulsion’. Sprinkle in sources of beneficial bacteria and yeasts like compost starters, Calf Manna (from a feed store) or ‘Primal Defense’ (from the health food store) to broaden your garden’s ecology to ward off fungal and bacterial disease. If you are lucky enough to have access to potent poultry and pig poops, use one part to ten parts water.

When I moved to Denver in 1987 I devised a potently acidic version to combat the excess alkalinity that is the norm on the plains, and that many coastal and south Florida folks here face. I called it "Puke Juice" due to the effect its horrid smell on the human gag reflex has when being applied. Don’t worry...that charming "perfume" fades a few hours later in the garden. Plus it is easy and FREE to make.

Just toss in a bushel basket of FRESH green, pesticide-free grass clippings and some manure, stir, then brew with the garbage can lid tightly on for two weeks also....with no air available your tea will soon be being brewed by anaerobic bacteria who will produce so many natural acids that the resulting tea dissolves egg shells and chicken bones! Sure it stinks, but is a remarkably fast, cheap and natural way to acidify alkaline soils while also supplying a whole range of dissolved nutrients. I made and used many many gallons of "Puke Juice" my first year of gardening in my northeast Denver yard back in 1988 to quickly heal my then-packed, 8.5 pH bentonite clay "soil". Julia Child was a gardener I hear, so I bet she’d even give these recipes a try...ready, set, brew. (But don’t sip!)

Vibrantly healthy soil is the key to successful, pleasurable organic gardening....give these techniques a try and watch your soil evolve into a living fertile medium that some gardeners would either kill or die for.


  1. hey john i have to ask i raised baby chicks and placed them into a coop i built from old pallets wrapped in chicken wire except for the floor, roof, and front gate which is wood lattice.. the first night they all were slaughtered by something... thinking either a raccoon or possum.. how do you keep you chicken safe from predators?

  2. Bummer! I lost NINE baby chicks in one night in what I'd THOUGHT was a secure cage...turns out racoon wrists DID fit between the bars! So I've now moved it, with a heating pad inside since it now chilly, inside my VERY secure henhouse. Keep me posted as this is an ongoing challenge. I hear folks in Pinellas are losing adult chicks in daytime to coyotes. John