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If you’re a gardener who has high hopes of a good garden crop only to be disappointed by the results, you’re not alone. Believe me, we’ve been there plenty of times.
Maybe you’re frustrated with it. It’s easy to give up and brand yourself as having “a black thumb”. I’ve heard people say, “I kill everything I try to grow!”
But in reality, it’s a matter of not having the knowledge and knowing how to work with the soil to make your garden thrive.
We’re going to talk about the most critical component to any successful garden, THE SOIL FOOD WEB.
What Is the Soil Food Web?
In simple terms, it is a symbiotic web of living organisms that naturally occur in healthy soil. Left undisturbed, this web of organisms has an interdependent relationship which is quite remarkable really being that there are billions upon billions of these guys all acting together for a common cause; to create a habitat that supports a truly living soil. This process is just short of a miracle.
So, how can you become the caretaker of this soil food web? It’s not complicated. There are 5 simple rules, so to speak, that are listed which will start you on this journey right away and see amazing results year after year.
- Switch to a NO TILL method
- Avoid soil compaction
- Use only organic compost
- Apply mulch and other organic matter
- NEVER use synthetic fertilizers or add any chemicals
Okay, so this goes against the traditional farming technique that has been practiced for centuries. To understand why you should never, ever rototill, you need a basic understanding of what makes up soil.
Good soil is alive and teeming with billions of microscopic creatures. There are beneficial bacteria, fungi, microbes, and animal life that all work together below the surface to make the plants thrive. Plants are ultimately in control, because their roots have a symbiotic relationship with these organisms.
Tilling, however, destroys so much of the soil food web (the relationship between all the organisms, bacteria, and fungi under the surface) that nothing works the way it’s supposed to anymore. The plants that were once strong and healthy have lost the connection to everything that allowed them to grow well in the soil. Suddenly they’re prone to diseases and pests, or they just don’t perform very well.
The no-till method has gained a lot of popularity over the last several years, and with good reason. Farmers are getting better results without tilling.
Avoid Soil Compaction
Like tilling, soil compaction destroys those fragile microbes and other organisms under the surface. Once that happens, you begin to lose the soil food web. And that’s disastrous, leading to more problems and work for you.
Soil compaction happens quite easily. Heavy equipment, stepping on your soil, or pressing it down too hard when planting all mess with the balance of the soil food web. Avoid using any of those methods and be careful not to disturb your plants near the roots.
And speaking of not disturbing the roots, keep in mind that we can also inadvertently kill off parts of the soil food web by being too rough in the soil. When we plant, we get our hands in the dirt and move it around, making room for our seedlings, digging down deep.
While we have to create a space for new plantings, it’s important not to be too rough. Your goal should be to disturb the soil as little as possible, preserving whatever life you can so your plants get a good start.
Add Organic Compost
You probably know that compost is beneficial for your garden. But getting the right compost is important. It should be well-aged and rich in organic matter. If you’re not sure where to find it, The US Composting Council website allows you to search for suppliers in your state.
By adding organic compost to your garden soil, you help the natural processes of the soil food web continue to work the way they’re supposed to. Remember not to go crazy with mixing it into existing soil. Try to disturb it as little as possible.
We discuss the benefits of compost tea in this post.
Leaves and other mulches are important to add to your soil, along with compost.
Mulch is another important aspect of building up the soil food web. Aged leaves are one of the best things to put on the surface of your garden soil. When broken down and lightly wetted, they add carbon and feed the beneficial bacteria (dampening them speeds up the process).
Mulch is an essential part of the equation to reduce weeds from sprouting up.
Avoid Synthetic Fertilizers & Chemicals
Organic gardening is common now, but many times soil has been damaged by poor management in the past. Chemicals are often sprayed around houses and on lawns. If you’ve used any of these or don’t know what’s been applied to your area in the past, simply start with not using anything like that ever again.
Progressive gardeners have found that in the absence of toxic chemicals, soil is teeming with life, alive and active. They realize that all those chemicals have been causing serious harm by killing off the good guys that actually make the soil healthy and self-regenerating year after year.
When you kill off the bad guys you also kill off the good guys and this creates a series of events that are not so easily overcome. You see, the very thing in the soil that fights the bad guys has been eliminated as well and that means recovery will be a long time coming.
But the good thing is, it CAN recover.
Pay attention to what goes into your garden soil from here on. A good start is DO NOT put ANYTHING in your soil if you don’t know what it will do to the life underneath. After all, if it keeps killing off the essential lifeline your plants need to thrive, does that make sense?
Realize that the beneficial life forms, and there are literally billions under there, are the fighters that will take their task very seriously to keep the soil food web balanced. Once this soil food web is restored, it will work for you forever.
Learn More About the Soil Food Web
This is just a basic overview of the soil food web and what you as a grower can do to help it in practical ways.
The world of agriculture has come so far in discovering what lies beneath us. A half century ago we thought soil was just, well, dirt. But in the last 25 years alone, it has increasingly become the hot topic of interest among gardeners and agriculturalists.
There is an excellent book to help you learn how to restore the healthy beneficial biology that was damaged or destroyed and gain some insight on what exactly this involves. An excellent publication that has been simplified for use by those of who are not scientists (in other words, for us common gardeners) is called Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. It was written by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, both of whom have devoted a tremendous amount of research into this field for decades.
You can find it on Amazon Kindle or get the hard copy.
Dr. Elaine Ingham, a leading microbiologist who has spent over 40 years studying the role of the soil food web, wrote the preface on this how-to guide. You’ll find it extremely helpful in understanding your garden and what to do next. Her website has many excellent videos explaining this in more detail.
When we first got the book Teaming With Microbes, I wondered how much more we could learn. I thought that because we’re organic growers with years of experience and a pretty successful garden that we wouldn’t glean too much new information. Little did I realize how much this book would change my approach to gardening and forever alter the way I look at the soil.
Some of the benefits of the soil food web are:
- Increased harvest yields.
- Protection from pests and diseases (and we all have trouble with those).
- More moisture retention, so less need for water.
- Eliminate the need for fertilizers (and save money and time).
- Suppression of weeds.
- Protect against soil erosion.
- Carbon sequestration.
- Protection of insects and birds.
It’s important to remember that we’re always learning. Much of this information wasn’t available until very recently. We were blown away by what we learned. This is a must read for any gardener wanting to create a sustainable and healthy garden without chemicals.
Not only will you have a better garden, you’ll end up doing less work because the soil is going to do the work for you. The less we interfere, the better.
Although we have not used any toxic chemical sprays or additives in our soil, we are learning how to do regenerative farming and how to make any necessary improvements by following the simple soil food web gardening rules. Over time, we’ll learn more and be able to share our continued progress.
Remember, we never stop learning. We learn, we discover, and ultimately improve.
What is compost tea? Why do I need it? How do I use it?
Those are questions every grower should ask before implementing compost tea.
Simply put, compost tea is a concentrated liquid blend of microbial populations that help your plants become vigorous and healthy producers, aid in moisture retention of the soil, and increase activity in the root zone so the plant can take up needed nutrients.
Let’s look at why it’s so important to successful growing. But if you just can’t wait, click here to find our recommendation for OMRI Listed Compost Tea that’s ready to use on purchase and available in multiple sizes.
What is the Difference Between Compost, Compost Extract, and Compost Tea?
Watch this video to see how we use compost tea in our raised beds.
Compost Tea allows transplants to thrive and easily adapt to their new soil without transplant shock.
Alright, we admit it. We’ve turned into soil nerds because of what we’ve learned. But we don’t mind. It helps us grow better food!
When I first heard the words “compost tea”, I thought it was essentially the same as compost, just liquefied. But they aren’t exactly the same. Of course, good organic compost is an important resource for the garden and we should use it. The organic matter and what it provides is very valuable.
Compost creates a good growing base and contains beneficial bacteria. Then we take it a step further and add other organic matter, such as chopped (cut) leaves. All the organic matter turns into food and carbon for the bacteria and other nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive.
A compost extract is the biological matter taken out of a good compost and brewed into liquid. It has a good amount of bacteria and beneficial biology. It can be used in soil drenches to help disperse those nutrients in the root zone.
Compost tea takes compost extract a little further. Instead of having only the nutrients from a compost extract, the active brewing combined with microbial food and catalysts multiply the bacterial population. With plenty of oxygen and food, there’s exponential growth of these microbes.
I like to call it “super concentrated” because there’s so many more microbes. 1 teaspoon of compost contains about 1 billion bacteria, but a good compost tea can contain about 4 billion bacteria in a teaspoon.
Wait, seriously? My head hurts trying to comprehend that one.
Anyway, this amazing liquid is particularly useful in foliar applications, but we also can use it in the soil.
Is Compost Tea Safe?
Some might worry that compost tea breeds pathogens or wrong bacteria we don’t want. But it’s important to keep in mind that the process of making compost tea is key to controlling what you get in the end. It starts with high quality compost so that the organic matter is diverse and healthy.
By keeping enough oxygen through consistent bubbling in the brew, it’s the perfect environment for all the microbes we want. Good microbes thrive with the amount of air coming to them in the brewer. Bad ones don’t.
So yes, using compost tea is safe if you start with a high quality compost and brew it properly.
Watch this video from The Soil Food Web School to learn more about brewing these mixtures.
What Will Compost Tea Do for My Plants?
You might think it won’t make much difference if you don’t use it, but applying compost tea can dramatically increase the health of your crops, help in disease and pest resistance, and give you a better yield when you harvest.
This is because when you introduce the tea and let the microbes do their job, you’re encouraging the soil food web to work properly. At our farm, we’re passionate about soil and soil health. We believe that a healthy soil is the foundation of organic agriculture and is where everything starts. Even if you’re only growing on a small scale for your family, you need good soil.
Plants are going to take everything they need from the soil they’re grown in. If the nutrients aren’t there, they can’t give you the end result you’re looking for.
How Do I Make Compost Tea?
It can be overwhelming to learn about how to brew your own compost tea. If you’re new to growing it can be especially daunting. However, if you decide you want to give it a try, there are many kits available now to make it easier.
One easy kit that’s great for many different size applications is made by TeaLAB. The brew kit comes with everything you need to get started and the company has other amendments and catalysts that are needed for brewing good compost tea. Plus, you can get support and questions answered by TeaLAB.
What If I Don’t Want to Make My Own Compost Tea?
If you prefer not to dive into something like brewing your own tea, you have another option. A great choice for organic and OMRI-listed compost tea is made by AgMent LLC based in Texas. You can buy 1 gallon or 5 gallons (and even more, but you likely don’t need even that much). Find QUE4BE – OMRI Listed (Note that “Micronutrients” means compost tea).
For a reasonable price and easy application when you don’t want to invest in making your own, this is a great option.
How Do I Apply Compost Tea and How Often?
Compost tea is liquid, so it needs to be sprayed on. We apply it to the raised beds in our greenhouse by using a 56 oz. hand sprayer from Home Depot. It’s easy to use and spreads the tea evenly over the soil. Our recommendation is 1 tbsp. per full sprayer (if that is the same size you’re using).
The rate of application is once every 3 months. You can’t overdo the tea in the sense that you can fertilizers. When you apply too much fertilizer, even organic ones, it can create problems for the plants. Not so with compost tea. It won’t hurt them to use a little more than strictly needed. However, you don’t need to go overboard with it. The plants only need so much. Why waste it?
Spread the tea solution over the plants and on the soil. It’s best if you don’t do this in extremely warm weather. The microbes are sensitive to too much heat when first applied.
Other Factors to Keep In Mind
While using compost tea is a great help to your garden (or even lawns), remember that it’s not the only thing that will make a difference for your crops. It’s not a cure-all. You need to keep your soil alive by not using any chemicals and maintaining the growth that’s started.
Avoid tilling your soil since this will destroy the microbes an the surrounding soil food web. Read our post about improving your garden soil to learn more.
Adding red wiggler composting worms and mulched leaves are good ways to enhance your soil.
Topping off raised beds with organic compost every year is always a good idea. If you grow directly in the ground, the same principles apply.
We became fascinated with the soil food web after stumbling across the information through our own research. Wanting to understand how to make our crops healthier and prevent issues such as pests and diseases as much as possible, we found the book Teaming With Microbes on Amazon. In it, Jeff Lowenfels explains more about the soil food web and the relationship between plants and the soil materials.
Teaming With Bacteria is the newest book in the series (there are 4 total) helping you see how to implement the soil food web and make it work for you. Instead of relying on outside amendments and fertilizers (even organic ones), we want to make our soil as regenerative as possible. The less we have to do to it, the better. Encouraging its own processes to create the right balance for growth means better yields, fewer pests and diseases, and greater end results.
Dr. Elaine Ingham is a leading microbiologist and is responsible for much of the information about the soil food web we have today. Her website has videos and courses that are invaluable resources for us as we continue to learn more. Watch this video on her site for an easy to understand guide to how this works.
(Warning: you might become a soil biology nerd after reading and watching these)
We never stop learning and finding ways to improve our growing techniques.
Have you used compost tea? How did it turn out?
There are lots of recommendations about soil for raised beds, but knowing the difference between adequate and superior soil is key to having growing success.
Here’s a breakdown of what we recommend:
1. 50% Topsoil
2. 30% – 40% Organic compost mixed with crushed dry leaves
3. Azomite trace minerals
You might be thinking, that’s it?
We’re going to dig deeper (pun intended) into why this combination works, but first we’ll share a little of our own struggles with this question.
What Not to Do
We started our journey back in the 1980’s experimenting with growing a few of our favorite lettuces. The trouble was we had no idea what we were doing. We planted the seeds in the back yard in a dirt space about 4×4 ft.
How hard could it be, right? I mean, it’s lettuce.
Well, it was a total flop! But a few years later we tried again and got peas and green beans to grow by adding some compost to the soil. Hmmm, the light bulb came on. Compost made a difference.
To say the least, this sparked our curiosity and encouraged us to do some research and learn from successful farmers and gardeners so we could build our knowledge base and apply what we learned from their expertise.
Year by year we gained much more understanding about the soil and its role in the health of what grows in it, how soil structure works, and how it becomes sustainable.
What Type of Soil for Raised Beds?
Now let’s get into why these soil materials work so well.
Quality topsoil made from recycled garden prunings, food products, and/or vegetable trimmings and sand. You definitely don’t want topsoil that is too sandy or that’s so compact it’s sticky or sludgy. Feel the soil for yourself. Not all topsoil is equal, so find a reputable nursery or landscape company to source a good one. This will be 50% of your raised bed soil so be sure not to skimp.
Add organic compost over the topsoil and mix in thoroughly. You will only be doing this thorough mixing the first time you fill your beds. This should be at least 30% or a little more but remember to leave a bit of room at the top of your bed. Use a good, certified compost to ensure its high quality. Find a supplier in your state here.
That makes up most of your bed. As a note, you only need to add topsoil the first time you’re filling the raised bed. Add some compost to your established beds once a year in the early spring before planting. To make your soil take off even more, read our post about compost tea.
You then top it off with a few things to enhance the nutrients even more.
Adding the leaves make a great deal of difference. Your neighbors may be happy to give you their fall leaves if you ask them.
Leaves add a lot of beneficial matter to the soil and feed it. It has carbon which plants thrive on, so this is something you shouldadd every year.
A leaf shredder is the easiest way to cut them into smaller pieces. Just mix in the shredded leaves with your compost before you put it in the bed. It makes the soil airy and light, allowing oxygen to penetrate it.
This is a natural mineral substance found in the Utah desert—specifically, an ancient volcanic ash deposit. AZOMITE stands for “A to Z of minerals including trace elements”. The trace elements of these minerals complement the more commonly replaced nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in the garden and help nourish the soil.
You don’t need a lot. Calculate what you need using our handy quick reference chart, which you can download here.
You only need to apply this once a year for maximum benefits. Find Azomite on Amazon here.
By using a combination of these and mixing them with the topsoil and compost, you can start creating an excellent foundation for your crops.
As organic growers, we like to teach people that soil is something to respect and so important, because if you care for it and feed it all the good things it needs, it will provide you with outstanding results.
What Makes Healthy Soil?
The texture of soil can tell you a lot about what’s going on with the structure of it. You want to have loamy, crumbly soil. A loamy soil results from a good structure, or in other words, how all the soil particles are bound together.
Soil that is in optimal health is made up of water, minerals, gases, and organic materials and doesn’t compact too much.
Good soil also contains microscopic organisms, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, etc. This a most important relationship because the resulting produce will be so much fresher and taste a thousand times better than anything store-bought. That’s garden to table!
Raised beds allow you to create the best soil from the start, rich in organic matter, because you can control each input from the beginning. Learn more about the soil food web.
You can continue to improve on your soil in raised beds and make it more self-sustaining year after year as the active food web in your soil continues to grow and thrive.
A Note on Mulch
Mulching the top of your soil is a great way to help retain moisture and keep the soil warmer when it’s cold. The best mulch in our opinion is aged, shredded dry leaves. We talked about this in the soil recipe above but using them as mulch on top of your plants nourishes and feeds the soil.
They break down over time and make the soil even better and healthier, meaning your crops will thrive even more with each growing season.
I wish I’d known this when I was raking up leaves from the yard all those years ago!
Some growers prefer to use straw. At first we used it too, but we stopped after we noticed its tendency to mold, which introduced unwanted bacteria into our beds. So we don’t recommend that.
Pine bedding (such as for horse stalls) can work, and while it doesn’t usually mold like straw it isn’t going to provide the same nutrients as leaves. That being said, use whichever one you like or what’s available to you.
Whether you’re new to gardening or have some experience, you’ll benefit from adding organic matter to your soil and building on the microbial web. Starting somewhere is the key.
Bronte and Candy are a mother and daughter team who have been operating their organic farm, Girly Girl Greens, since 2017. They deliver microgreens on a weekly basis to the local community and chefs in Seattle and Bellevue. For them, growing success is all about healthy soil.
When they’re not writing posts or working with the crops, they like to enjoy the outdoors, spend time with family and friends, or relax with a cup of coffee and a good Hallmark movie.
Read more about them.