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garden tip: building good soil

2013 April 17
by Rachel Turiel

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It’s mid-April and I’m roaming my property like a fat land baron, bending down to sift the gold of our soil through my fingers, cackling at my riches. Actually, I’m really doing this. I just called Dan out of the root cellar to witness how you can knead your fingers into the silk of our carrot bed without hitting so much as a smidge of obstructionist clay.

It all starts with good soil

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I am freaking out a little bit over this soil. Full disclosure: I *have*  been investing in it for 14 years.

If you’re lucky enough to farm some river bottom loam, rich in mineral deposits and friability, well then, great, go toot your horn in the Easy Farming Parade. However, if you garden on a sea of packed clay, like myself, then, congrats!, you get the pleasure of building your own soil.

Everything I’ve learned about creating good soil, I’ve learned from the forest, which is always quietly building its most precious resource. It takes a village: ants and centipedes push embedded minerals to the surface. Leaves fall and are slurped by webs of fungal mycelium. Billions of microorganisms go about their invisible lives, sipping nitrogen and dying in the arms of hungry nematodes. Deer, birds and foxes perish, leaving their remains to nourish plants, and in turn their own relatives.


The local forest floor doing its thing: Candytuft (edible wild mustard) surrounded by leaves and sticks and fir cones, which will break down into next year’s surface layer of soil.

Every thriving plant starts with good soil.

How do you build good soil?

Organic matter. The end.

I just did a search on my blog using the word “manure.” Thirteen entries; my fave.

Manure. Leaves. Grass Clippings. Kitchen scraps. Compost. Straw. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I follow no more exact recipe when making soil than I do when making soup. Soup is the result of what’s in the fridge. Soil is the result of what organic matter is freely available. Often it’s goat manure from up the road, sometimes horse or cow if we get a good lead, and one year it was a truckload of little rabbit pellet stink-bombs from an octogenarian who went by “grandma,” all free for the taking.

Well-cured manure (lots of it) goes in the garden, dry things (leaves and straw) go on top of the soil as mulch, and anything that still has a scent (kitchen scraps) goes in the compost pile. In my yard, there is always a pile of something decomposing, because I’m partial to the notion of doing absolutely nothing while trillions of microorganisms spin scraps into soil.

Notes on soil building:

* Protect your soil. Cover with straw, leaves, dry grass clippings. You have neighbors who will thank you for taking these off your hands. Every year, we cover our soil with dry organic matter, and by spring it  disappears, incorporated into the matrix of soil.

* If manure is “finished,” having sat for a year, add it directly to your soil.

* Don’t despair over clay soils. Clay is great at holding water, but not oxygen. Plant roots need both. Lighten your soil each year with organic matter.

* Tend a compost pile. There are a million ways to do this. A little article I wrote on making compost.

* If you have chickens, put dry fall leaves in their coop/run; they will shred the leaves and mix them up with their poop, creating the perfect ratio of  nitrogen to carbon for decomposition.

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Tween chick. (I promise to remove these words if it brings all sorts of Googling weirdos to my site)

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“Chicken camp” on the Oregon Trail, a direct result of studying Pioneers and the Oregon Trail in homeschool co-op. Though, I can’t explain why some of the pioneers had British accents.

* Be patient. My oldest garden beds are insanely luscious, but the newer ones still contain curse-worthy proportions of clay.

* Try to layer organic matter rather than dig. Digging and tilling disrupts the underground networks of fungal mycelium, which feed nutrients to your vascular plants. More on that here.

* I like the idea of planting a cover crop in fall and digging it under in spring, but have never actually been organized enough to do so.
* Leaf mold is an easy and exciting thing to create.
* Be joyful and sing hymns to your soil (just seeing if you were paying attention, and I meant it).


Any ideas to add? Questions?

Linking with Simple Lives Thursday 



31 Responses leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013

    ah love this post!

    ‘Try to layer organic matter rather than dig. Digging and tilling disrupts the underground networks of fungal mycelium, which feed nutrients to your vascular plants.’

    I was wondering about this recently thank you! x

  2. April 17, 2013

    I just clicked on your San Jan article about composting. I can practically smell your compost, the writing was so vivid!

    Also, I liked: “…go toot your horn in the Easy Farming Parade. However, if you garden on a sea of packed clay, like myself, then, congrats!, you get the pleasure of building your own soil.” (I’ve been working with our current patch of clay for 4 years now, so we’re still getting to know each other.)


  3. Michele permalink
    April 17, 2013

    Rachel, our baby garden is only one year old and is built on what used to be a corn field. LOTS of clay. Last spring/fall we amended the soil with a local compost product, top soil and grass clippings (we have no trees for leaves). My question are:

    1) Do I till my garden this spring or just dump oma-gro (they have a website if you’d like to see what it consists of) on top of it. I think I’m reading that you do not want me to till but got confused with the digging it under suggestion.

    2) I don’t have a composting area yet. (It is long overdue). Can I just chop up my kitchen scraps and put directly into the garden?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 17, 2013

      1) I’ve been thinking about the no-till method a lot. For our first 10 years here, I dug the manure into my clay soil every summer. So, by the time I started the no-till method, the soil was already pretty nice. I don’t like the idea of plant roots getting a nice couple inches of loam and then hitting solid clay. So maybe mixing well for the first 2-3 years, in which you really add A LOT of organic matter to lighten the soil. And then continue on with no till layering after that. I have noticed that what you add to the soil surface does sift down and mix in (probably due to worms and other insects moving stuff around).

      2)The kitchen scraps need to decompose before being added. They won’t do a whole lot of good in their rotting form. But compost piles can be super easy. See Jennifer’s comment below. That’s how I do it too: no turning, let the red wrigglers do the work (you can mail order them). Also, check out that compost article I linked too, there are some basic tips to get you started. Tending your compost pile is almost as fun as being a mother. You’ll love it!

  4. April 17, 2013

    …And way to go for launching your consulting business! Let us know what you learned/how it went at the end of the season!

  5. Andrea permalink
    April 17, 2013

    awe, tweens already?! they grow up so fast :)

  6. Melissa permalink
    April 17, 2013

    Do you just have to let the manue sit in a pile for a year to finish it? Does it need to get turned or anything like that? What does it look like when it’s finished?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 17, 2013

      I generally only bother shoveling manure that is finished. Finished manure should be light and dry and only mildly stinky. The farmer should know how long the pile has been sitting. If I do end up bringing home questionable-vintage manure, I let it sit until next season. And it is very nice to have a pile of manure waiting for you at the first wink of spring.

  7. April 17, 2013

    Wonderful! I would add: red wiggler worms. I bought a small Chinese take out container of worms once, all hot to build my own indoor worm bin for compost, made from a rubbermaid container. I kept it going for several years, despite the fungus gnats and difficulty with removing finished compost without removing a bunch of worms (and yes, I know the tricks, and they don’t ALL migrate over to the new bedding and food). Eventually, one summer, I just threw the whole thing into the outdoor compost bin. I figured I was done with them as soon as it froze. But the worms burrowed down into the pile and survived the winter, and I had some of the best compost ever the next spring. I’m a cold compost, no turn kind of gal. Seriously. Don’t these people have something better to do then the back breaking labor of turning your 4′ square compost pile every two weeks? My red wigglers survived the whole 10 years I gardened in Durango. Hopefully they are still there, doing good work. Compost, for me, became “just add worms and water” and wait a year.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 17, 2013

      I’m totally with you, Jennifer. Praise the red wrigglers. My friend brought me a handful—literally, a handful!—15 years ago, we put them in our compost and there have been copious red wrigglers ever since.

      Our compost piles stay cold, and have 8-12 month cycles, and because we always have one going, there’s always something to plop around a tomato plant in late May.

  8. April 17, 2013

    Nice! I was just shoveling my very clay soil into my first garden bed on our new (to us) land. I’ve been immersed in permaculture books lately that also advocate the no till method, and sounds good to me! I’ve been scouting out goat manure and and straw and planning to bring in truckloads of seaweed from down the road. Hoping to see that wonderful natural transformation process over the next decades of our time here. I was curious how this would work with that water holding clay soil, and very heartening to see that it can world wondrously! So thank you for sharing.

  9. Sarah Z permalink
    April 17, 2013

    Great post! Here’s another till/ no till question. I planted a cover crop last fall, planning to turn it under this spring. But then I started wondering if turning it under counted as tilling, and if tilling is “bad”, should I just smother it, or what? I ultimately just ended up turning it over, but it still keeps wanting to grow! Not sure what to do and it is time for me to plant out my starts. Any recommendations?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 18, 2013

      Sarah Z,

      Hmmm. Because I’ve never done cover crops, I’m not sure. Could you use a pitchfork and turn it over without disturbing the soil tremendously?

      Anyone else got an answer for this question?

      • April 18, 2013

        I did the same thing last season with my worst bed. In spring I planted Hairy Vetch for green manure. (Our growing season is so short that I have to devote an entire season to cover crops. I can’t just plant them in the fall–nothing would happen). Then, just when the vetch was starting to flower I covered it heavily with straw to suppress any growth. This spring I will use it as a bed for transplants: I’ll make little nests in the nappy straw out of ccompost and add broccoli plants. I haven’t done this before but I figure it is best to let the roots of the cover crop decay in place. I’m optimistic that the millions of decomposing root hairs will do more than my spade ever could. … Good luck (for all of us)!

        • Rachel Turiel permalink
          April 18, 2013

          Ooh, this comment reads like poetry to me (with some practical hell yes’s, too).

      • April 18, 2013

        i also hear a lot about the chop-n-drop method, in permaculture circles. it sounds about like what tricia is saying, except using the cover crop as the straw that smothers its own roots, basically. i can’t say i have experience yet to confirm this “working” though. more supplemental mulch might (probably) be needed. i am sure it depends what crop you use as a cover crop, as some might lend themselves to becoming their own straw while others might be more likely to re-root themselves.

        • Sarah Z permalink
          April 18, 2013

          Thank you Rachel, Tricia, and mb for the thoughts!

  10. Rachel permalink
    April 17, 2013

    Billions of microorganisms go about their invisible lives, sipping nitrogen and dying in the arms of hungry nematodes= best line ever

  11. April 17, 2013

    Oh, I am so bummed that I don’t live in Durango! It would be so much fun to learn from you!

    I learned two main things when I took the Master Gardeners class up here in Snohomish County:

    1. If three gardeners get together and talk about gardening, there will be least five opinions and a lot of “spirited discussion.”

    2. The most common answer to a gardening question is, “It depends.” It depends where you live, what the tilth of your soil is like, what crop you’re planting, what the weather’s doing, how you irrigate, etc., etc.

    I think the most important take-away is that there really isn’t one set, right answer to any question. The best way to learn to garden is to find someone who’s already pretty good at it and go play in the dirt with them! Gardening really is a hands-on learning thing. Also, keep in mind that there really is no such thing as a “Master Gardener.” If you’re doing it right, you continue to learn each season. Time slows down for you but becomes so much more meaningful. We all wish we had more time to spend with a loved one; gardening is what it feels like to get that time.

    Rachel, I’m figuring out which story I want to send you. Hoping to get that to you in a week or so. Thanks! I’m so excited!


    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 18, 2013

      I so agree.
      Experience has been my best teacher.

  12. April 18, 2013

    An article I just published on gardening contained the following quote from a gardening guru here, “There is no problem in the garden where compost is not the answer.”
    Sounds like you might agree.

  13. April 18, 2013

    we do have a layer of loam that is wonderful (and forest-made) but not too far down begins the clay. (i’m not marching in the parade, in other words. also we have a funny natural imbalance of nutrients here “west of the cascades” that steve solomon writes about, that makes it harder for things to grow in ways other than producing tall woody stems. if you are a doug fir, you’re good to go.) i love your soup analogy- i am the same, with both soup and compost. and smoothies. whatever i have on hand. that is why i (like melanie) have been gathering seaweed lately- it’s what i have close at hand (and steve would add that it helps balance our imbalance with crucial minerals that are depleted from all the rain). i also just hit on a rabbit manure connection, which is exciting. i cleaned my friend’s goat barn while she had goats (she doesn’t anymore.) i’ve put fish carcasses and crab shells in- same principle as the seaweed. and out here in the pacific northwest, coffee kiosks are every 5 feet, so having them fill up your bucket with coffee grounds is another good way to glean some organic matter to add to your compost. organic matter, the end. indeed. i love your poetic paragraph about the forest’s slurping mycelium. oh and i am a no-till girl too, but like another commenter above, i can only really get behind that after i dig up the salmonberry thicket and till it up the first time. also, i find i end up tilling wherever i’ve planted potatoes. actually, since i have finally put this all together, and since i seem to still be expanding the garden, i now plant the potatoes in the new bed, feeling less worried about digging it “nicely”, pile a bunch of organic matter on top, and then by next season after the potatoes are dug the new bed is starting to be nice for planting the next thing. maybe not carrots yet.

  14. April 18, 2013


    So there’s been a lot of talk (i.e. in Zone 4 magazine) about using horse manure in the garden bed. Namely, finding horses who were only feeding on organic hay/pasture is pretty rare, due to expense. Around here, most livestock are munching “weedfree” hay that has been sprayed with herbicides. The herbicides slip right through the animals and into their manure. I have heard some horror stories about the effects on garden beds. Do you know anything about this? We have some manure from a neighbor that’s been sitting in our yard for a year. I’m thinking it’s good, but I’m nervous. Thoughts?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      April 18, 2013

      Ooh, good point. My friend put some manure in her garden last year from (locals beware!) the fairgrounds (where she’d been getting manure for years) and found that several of her crops (especially the early ones) were completely stunted and messed up. She later discovered that “certified weed free hay” contains a very strong herbicide which is getting through the digestive tract and into the manure. It supposedly leaches out after a year but yes, I would not trust manure from any animal who is fed “certified weed free” hay.

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