Principle: Build healthy soil
Soil is the upper crust layer of earth where plants grow. Typically soil is a dark brown material consisting of a mixture of minerals, organic matter, air, water and a myriad of microorganisms that support plant life. Soil performs several important functions: it is a medium for plant growth, a means of water storage, supply and purification and a habitat for millions upon millions of microorganisms.
Plants and animals aid in the development of a soil through the addition of organic matter. Fungi and bacteria decompose this organic matter into a semi-soluble chemical substance known as humus. Humus is the final stage of soil decomposition. Humus enhances a soil’s ability to hold and store moisture, is the primary source of carbon and nitrogen required by plants for their nutrition, it improves soil structure, which is necessary for plant growth. Larger soil organisms, like earthworms, beetles, and termites, vertically redistribute this humus within the mineral matter found beneath the surface of a soil.
Soils are strong when they are diverse. Add different types of organic matter to increase the soil’s resiliency to disease. As your soil matures, fungal nets will grow around the roots to physically protect plants from disease carrying organisms.
High food production starts with good soil. If your soil has good percolation, a good smell and good structure, you have good soil. With good soil, you have good nutrient uptake, resistance to disease, high water retention and strong microbial life. With good soil, you can grow food.
The layers of the earth look like this:
0 horizon – Surface, leaf litter
A horizon – Topsoil, humus
B horizon – Sub soil
C horizon – parent material
Bedrock – Rock / Minerals
Soil food web
A plant, like a person, needs food. Plants eat nitrogen. Through thousands of years of evolution, plants have learned how to pull soluble nitrogen from microorganisms in the soil. The soil food web is a whole system designed by plants to pass nutrients to their roots, their shoots and eventually to their fruits.
How the soil food web works
- The plant produces exudates secreted through pores in the roots. Exudates are carbohydrates and sugars released to attract microorganisms.
- This attracts bacteria and fungi to eat the sugars and carbs, respectively.
- Some bacteria and fungi are consumed by the plant.
- Protozoa and nematodes consume the rest of the bacteria and fungi in the soil
- Protozoa and nematodes release NO3 (nitrite) and NH4 (ammonium) as waste products, two forms of soluble nitrogen for plants.
- Nitrogen can now be consumed by the plant.
The plant then produces carbs and sugars (like exudates in the soil) as vegetables and fruit. Convienently, humans come along and pick and eat the vegetables and fruits, and create humanure, which over time turns into a soluble nitrogen to be consumed by the plants. Through this symbiotic relationship, plants are the great communicators between humans and the soil.
Note about chemical fertilizers: Chemical fertilizers are comprised of mainly three elements: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. While these three elements are the main ingredients in plant food, these fertilizers don’t provide trace elements. And over time, the lack of these nutrients causes the soil to lose fertility.
Soil typically consists of (note these figures range widely):
- 25 % Air
- 25 % Water
- 45 % Minerals (sand, silt and clay, from eroding rocks)
- 5 % Humus (decaying organic material, provides nutrients)
Soil is composed of clay, sand, silt particles. The best garden soil has: 30-50 % sand, 30-50 % silt, 20-30 % clay, although this figure varies.
Soil textural triangle
Building blocks: C + HO
Major: N, P, K
Minor: Ca, Mg, S
Trace: Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B, Cl, Mo
Minor trace: Cobalt, strontium, vanadium, silicon, nickel
What the nutrients provide
Building block nutrients:
C – Carbon is the building block of all life. Plants absorb Carbon in the form of CO2, mostly through their leaves. A plant’s weight is about half carbon.
H – Hydrogen (water)
O – Oxygen (air, water)
Note: All nutrients except carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are absorbed by the roots of the plants.
N – Nitrogen. Builds green matter, leaves, etc.
- Fixed into the soil from legumes and lightning
- Added by manures and decomposed animal and plant matter
- Abundant in the soil, often in the form of raw organic material which cannot be consumed directly. See soil food web to read how the plant creates soluble nitrogen.
P – Phosphorus. Helps build flowers, fruits and seeds
- Comes from fish, fish meal, seaweed, bird manures
- Some plants can fix it, casurina and some palms
- Mycorrhizal fungi help the plant to get this nutrient
K – Potassium. Helps build roots and adds to plant health
- A number of plants mine it
- Pot ash (ash from citrus and brassica)
Ca – Calcium, Strengthens cell walls
Mg – Magnesium, Aids in the uptake of phosphorus
S – Sulfur, Helps form proteins and chlorophyll, essential to plant vitamin synthesis
These micronutrients are required in very small amounts but are essential to plant health. When soil lacks these nutrients, it becomes degraded:
Fe – Iron
Mn – Manganese
Zn – Zinc
Cu – Copper
B – Boron
Cl – Chlorine
Mo – Molybdenum
Minor trace nutrients enhance the health of a plant:
Cobalt, strontium, vanadium, silicon, nickel.
pH means “power” of hydrogen, derived from the German word Potenz. The pH can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil. The pH indicates how easily roots can absorb the elements in the soil, or the dissolvability of nutrients in water. pH is measured using a scale – 0-14:
Plants prefer soil at a pH of 5.5-7.5. Some (strawberries, potatoes) do prefer more acidity, some plants prefer more alkalinity, 7 or below = Humid plants, 7 or above = arid plants.
0 Battery acid
2 Lemon juice
4 Tomato juice, wine
4.5 Acid rain
5 Black coffee
5.5 Normal rain
7 Blood, water
8.5 Baking soda
9 Cement, caustic chalk
10 Milk, soft soap
12 Bleach, ammonia
14 Drain cleaner
The easiest way to fix soil with the right pH is to add one ton of compost and spray with 20 liters of compost tea per acre. If your soil is too acidic (0-6), add lime, sea shells or bones. At 4.5 pH certain toxic heavy metals, like lead and mercury become soluble in water. If it falls any lower and aluminum becomes soluble, plants die. If it is too alkaline (8-14), add sulfur, pine bark or woodchips. Organic matter always adds nutrients and neutralizes the pH of soils.
There are a few ways to measure pH:
- Litmus test, thin strips of paper with a testing kit. Blue = alkaline, red = acidic.
- pH kits, similar to the ones used for swimming pools.
- Submit soil samples to any local agricultural university for lab testing.
- Plant hydrangeas – the color of the flower reflects the pH of the soil.
Compost is decayed or decaying organic matter. Composting speeds up the process of the soil food web. Inoculate the soil with a broad diversity of microorganisms (MOs). And add structure and diversity to the soil – Good compost can have billions of fungi, bacteria and microorganisms, which help retain micronutrients.
How to make compost
The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1. For every part of nitrogen consumed by a plant, the plant consumes 30 parts of carbon. To determine an appropriate C:N ratio, you can add the C:N ratio of each added component listed below.
Carbon (brown material), 50%
– Wood chips, sawdust, shredded cardboard, shredded paper, straw (shredded), pine needles, cornstalks (shredded), brown leaves.
Nitrogen (green material), 40%
– Fruit waste, nut shells, weeds/fresh cut leaves, fresh hay, food compost, grasses, seaweed, humus (local soil), manure
High nitrogen (green), 10%
– Urine, fish or animal carcasses, biogas slurry, manure, coffee grounds alfalfa, pond plants, worm tea, manure, plant matter/legumes, eggshells
Methods of composting
Short-term compost pile
You can make beautiful, rich healthy soil in just a few weeks when you make a short-term compost pile. This method is also called 18-day compost, Berkeley compost or thermophilic compost. This compost heats up and breaks down organic material relatively quickly.
Making the pile
When making a short-term pile, it’s good to use material thinner than your index finger. This will enable the material to break down quickly. A typical compost pile is 1–1.5m3. This is to make it easy on yourself when you turn the pile. If you have more material to add, you can extend the pile in any one direction.
– Make each layer 10-20cm inches thick. After adding each later, add a lot of water. Add local soil as well to inoculate pile with indigenous microorganisms (IMO).
– Cover with a tarp to maintain moisture (In wet climates, cover it to protect from getting too wet. In dry and hot climates, cover it to keep from drying out.)
– Turn the pile after 4 days. Then turn the pile every other day for two weeks. A pitchfork works well to turn the pile. Take the outside and turn it to the middle so every bit of compost gets time in the heat. Note: After 4 days if the pile heats up, a white fungus will grow in the middle of the pile. This means the process is working. This fungus eats pathogenic microorganisms.
Checking for moisture
– Grab a handful of compost and squeeze. If a few water drops run down your wrist, you’re in good shape. That’s about 50-60% moisture content. Add water accordingly.
Checking the temperature –
Each time you flip the compost, stick your hand in the middle of the pile. If it is too hot to keep your hand there, the thermophilic process is working. You can also use a thermometer. If temperature is above 50ºC starts to kill weed seeds and harmful MO. Ideal pile temperatures are 55-65º C.
Long-term compost pile (Huglekultur)
A long-term compost pile uses thicker sticks and branches. Thick branches are thicker than your index finger. Anything smaller than that will decompose within a few weeks. When you start the pile, add a thick pile of sticks and branches to the bottom layer. This increases air flow to increase oxygen to the pile. Depending on the size of the pile and the materials used, this pile can take 6-12 months or longer to break down.
Whether short-term or long-term compost, once the soil has broken down, add compost directly to the base of trees and throughout your garden. It is best to apply on a cool part of the day. Always add mulch for shade protection – you don’t want direct sun on your compost or soil.
Mulch is organic material spread around vegetation to enrich, insulate and retain moisture in the soil. Nature already mulches itself. For example, trees create the perfect conditions themselves by literally growing a thick layer of their own detritus. Mature forests have a thick layer of mulch on the ground (especially temperate forests). Mulching provides many benefits:
- Reduced competition from weeds by blocking sunlight
- Retains moisture
- Regulates temperature
- Over time, mulch breaks down into soil
These benefits create:
- Increased nutrient uptake by the plants
- Ideal habitat for microorganisms, which attract insects and lizards, which attracts frogs and birds, which attract mammals
- More diverse and healthy soil food web
You can use green matter, but beware of it getting too thick and matted, as it will start to compost and create heat, which can damage new roots. Avoid putting rocks in your mulch. Rocks work great as a garden barrier, but the rocks can heat up in the sun and damage new root growth.
Good mulch materials: Dried leaves, straw, cardboard, sawdust, wood chips, used clothes (cotton or other natural materials), newspaper, branches (chop and drop).
Methods of mulching
Chop and Drop
The chop-and-drop method is when you chop down fast-growing pioneer (ideally nitrogen-fixing) plants for mulch. Because these trees grow very fast you can chop the whole tree down. It’s best to allow the shade to fill in before the dry season. Shade is more beneficial in dry times. Legume trees like leauceana, glycidia, pigeon pea, acacias are good chop-and-drop types of plants. There are many.
Coppicing, pollarding and pruning
These are ways to trim a tree for healthy growth and create good mulch material. More on these sections in Trees and Forests.
Mulching around trees
The root structure of trees goes out beyond the drip line of the canopy, so mulching as much of the area as possible under a tree is good. Mulch in a donut shape around the trunk of the tree – leave some space around the base of the tree to prevent rotting. Let the tree breathe.
Fungi are unicellular or multi-cellular spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter. Fungi include molds, yeast, mushrooms and toadstools.
Mycelium is the main body of the fungi. We can see it under the leaves at the base of a tree. Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments. It is comprised of a large underground network of fungus in the soil. Mycelium builds soil very fast by grips the soil, holds it in place and holds moisture in the soil.
Instead of feeding on chlorophyll (the sun), fungi feed on decaying organic matter.
In exchange for the food, fungi transfer minerals over long distances to supply trees and plants with nutrients, as if to aiding the process of succession.
This enables trees to survive without sunlight. There have been experiments where trees were completely covered from light and stayed alive from mycorrhizal fungi passing nutrients and sugars from one plant to another.
The cap of the mushroom – the part we typically eat – is actually the fruiting part of the mushroom, and is vital to its reproduction. The cap will last only a few days, but during that time it will create millions of spores. Spores are single cells, each capable of developing into a mushroom.
The cells that produce spores on the fruiting body are either asci (internal spores) or basidia (external spores). Spores are released when either the tip of the asci breaks off or the spores break off from the basidia. After the spores are released, they are carried by the wind, and it is possible for them to land far from the parent mushroom.
When they finally land, spores send out a tendril to find another spore. When they find each other they mate by what is known as the hook and clamp method. A tiny pipe is opened by the tendrils and genetic information is exchanged. This mycelium connection forms fruiting bodies in the form of a mushroom. There are over 3,000 species of mushrooms found throughout the world.
Fungi Life Cycle:
- Fruiting body (which we call mushroom) produces spores
- Spores fall and grow into mycelium
- Mycelium spreads
Four types of fungi
These fungi have beneficial interactions with the roots of plants. Mycorrhizal mushrooms consist of some of our favorite wild edible mushrooms like chanterelles, porcini, truffles and matsutake. 95% of plants have beneficial relationship with “the mighty mycorrhizal” fungi.
This type of fungi eats dead materials. It plays a very important role as decomposer in our world. They have hyphae at their tips, which break down lignin and cellulose. We eat all kinds of saprophytic mushrooms like portabellas, shitakes, oysters and straw mushrooms.
Parasitic fungi are harmful to people and cause us problems. We should try to keep a good balance in our system so that these kinds of mushrooms don’t do too much damage. When parasitic mushrooms appear in your system, they indicate imbalance. Parasitic mushrooms include honey fungus, caterpillar fungus, lion’s mane and chaga.
Endophytic fungi partner with plants by invading the host tissue. However, unlike with parasitic fungi, the host remains healthy and seems to benefit with increased nutrient absorption and resistance to pathogens. Much is still unknown about this category of fungi.
Plastic eating fungi
A strain of fungi called Pestalotiopsis microspore, can actually eat plastic. Researchers found certain strains found in the Amazon forest can decompose 5% of plastic material after being exposed to UV light over 1 year. In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi. There is still plenty of research to do on this strain of fungi.
Mushrooms thrive in areas that are grassy, wooded, damp and moist. Here are a few methods for growing mushrooms outside:
Indigenous microorganisms (IMO1)
Leave cooked rice in a wooden box, 7cm thick. Leave it in the woods buried in dirt for 1 week. A white fungus will appear. Add to your compost pile. This can be used as a starter for other fertilizers. See fertilizers.
Inoculating trees with mycorrhizal fungi when they are saplings increases nutrient circulation. This helps trees grow more vigorously.
Growing on logs
- Drill holes in a freshly cut log, every 15 cm or so.
- Drop a few mushroom spores in each hole and plug with sawdust
- Keep the logs in wet environment at all times. Try soaking them in a pond. You can’t soak the logs enough.
- After one year the log should start producing and produce for years
Growing mushrooms on straw or grain
- First sterilize the straw, grain or sawdust before inoculating
- Sterilization of every part of the process is important. We want only our /strain.
Growing mushrooms in bags
It is common in Thailand and India to grow mushrooms in plastic bags. Each bag is filled with sterilized rubber tree sawdust, then inoculated with mushroom spores and sealed. Each bag will produce 3-5 batches of mushrooms. Plan wisely or else you will have heaps of mushrooms all grow at once.
Mycologist guru Paul Stamets (author of Mycelium Running) once took a piece of wasted land covered with oil spills, toxic waste and gasoline saturated soil. He first inoculated the soil with mycelium. He arranged three tests piles and a control pile. After four weeks, hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms came from the land. The control had basically nothing. After more time, insects came, plants came, and life returned. This process is called bioremediation, using biology to improve a piece of land.
Indigenous microorganisms (IMOs) live in the soil, water, air and forest. They are everywhere. We can collect these organisms to inoculate our soil with the local mini-beasts.
Effective microorganisms (EMOs) have many benefits to soil fertility and all stages of the plant growth process, from seed to fruit. By adding EMOs in the form of fertilizers to your soil, it increases the fertility of the soil, which increases the amount of nitrogen, the food for the plants.
Natural fertilizer recipes sourced from Natural Farming by Arnat Tancho from Maejo University, Thailand. Many thanks Dr Tancho and his team for this research.
Preparing fertilizers is a good, cheap and easy way to increase the microbial activity and make more food for your plants. Listed below are types of fertilizers you could make to increase plant growth, sugar levels, repel insects, provide deficient minerals among many other benefits for your plants. The benefits of each fertilizer are listed in parenthesis below. Following are the recipes for how to make each EMO solution:
Rocks or gravel (natural mineral)
How to make: Smash rocks to increase the surface area exposed to the water (locally available or purchased gravel), Put small pieces of rocks inside some of the mesh bag or wire basket, Fill container with water, when adding water pass through a mesh bag filled with IMO3, Add seawater diluted 30 times to increase minerals. Benefits: Cures diarrhea in livestock, Increases health and drought tolerance of plants.
Cooked rice (Fungus, IMO1)
How to make: Place 7cm fresh cooked rice in a wooden container. Don’t press the rice. Cover the box with dirt and leaves for 1 week. After 1 week, white fungi will appear on the surface of the rice. Called Indigenous Microorganisms, or IMO1, as referenced in the Natural Farming book. Benefits: Add to compost pile to speed up microbial activity. This indigenous microorganism agent can also be used to inoculate other IMOs.
How to make: Add sugar or molasses to a portion of IMO1. Mix thoroughly. Sugar slows down activity and is food for MOs. Cover with cloth. Keep in dry shade. Benefits: Improves soil fertility
Fresh plants (hormones, nutrients, lactic acid, MOs and yeast)
How to make: Pick leguminous plants before sunrise, Chop into small pieces. Add sugar at ratio of 3:1 in a container, Fill container 2/3 full with water, Cover and place a rock or heavy object on top of the mixture to force out any air, Leave to ferment for 20-30 days . Add IMO1 or 2. Keep in a dark cool place. Benefits: Increases beneficial microorganisms to plants.
Legume plants (potassium)
How to make: Grind or pound the plants thoroughly, put in a clay container, add 100 liters of water to 2-3 kg of ground material, cover with cloth, leave to ferment for 20 days in a cool dry area with no direct sunlight. Benefits: Stimulates photosynthesis, increases sugar and starch content in leaves, improves yield quality, crop weight and sugar content.
Animal compost (protein)
How to make: Place fish or animal bones and meat in container. Add sugar. Leave for 1 week. Add IMO2. Benefits: Stimulates microbial activity. Contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Rice (fermented rice water)
How to make: Soak uncooked rice in water (brown rice if available), cover with cloth. Keep in cool, dry place for 1 week. Benefits: Nourishing formula for seeds, promotes stem and leaf growth and flowering, increases resistance to insects and bacterial diseases, can absorb more nutrients.
Milk (lactic acid bacteria)
How to make: Add milk to rice water, 10:1 (water: milk). Leave for 1 week. The yellowish layer on the bottom is lactic acid bacteria. That’s what you’re looking for. This liquid can be kept for a long time. Benefits: Dissolves and absorb natural elements and attach them to soil particles. Promotes stem and leaf growth and increases resistance to fungi disease.
How to make: Dry eggshells in sun, then smash them into small pieces, add 10 L of rice water and 2 liters of wood vinegar, leave to ferment for 9 days. If bubbles appear during fermentation (from reaction between fermented rice water and shells) add crushed shells until the bubbles stop. Benefits: Increases sugar levels of fruit if added just before harvest.
Fruit (hormones and enzymes)
How to make: Put fresh fruit and roots in a bowl. Fill 2/3 full. Add sugar. Layer the fruit varieties according to sugar content. The sweetest fruit goes on the bottom. Cover with cloth. Leave for 3 weeks.
Benefits: Strengthens plant development.
Roots (herb hormone, insecticide)
How to make: Soak roots in water overnight (roots such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, neem, derria root, eloptica, stamina are good). Pound thoroughly. Place in a clay container. Add molasses, rice wine or beer to cover the herbs. Ferment for 2-3 days. Add sugar and fill with water up to 2/3 full. Stir thoroughly. Leave for 4-5 days. Benefits: Used for nourishing plant seeds, also increases resistance to insects and diseases
Human urine (nitrogen and other nutrients)
How to make: Pee in a bucket, Add molasses or worm juice (equal parts) to get rid of the urine smell. Ferment for 21 days. Dilute heavily before using.
Benefits: Lots of nitrogen
Manure (magnesium and phosphorus)
How to make: First, air dry whatever combination of manures you have in the shade. Cow, horse, chicken and even human manure are good. Add 10 liters of molasses or 10 liters of wood vinegar per 1 kg of manure.
Benefits: Magnesium helps the photosynthesis process. Phosphorus builds cell nucleus which promotes flowering, increases sugar content in fruit and helps with carbohydrate transferring.
Rice husks (silicon)
How to make: Make a pile of 100 parts rice husks + 1 part ground up rice bran, Water the pile, keep moisture level at 60-70%, Cover with plastic and leave to ferment 4 months, After 4 months, the bottom of the pile is full of silicon and ready to be used.
Benefits: Used to strengthen cell walls of plants to resist insects and diseases.
Worms eat organisms in the soil and produce worm castings and urine (also called worm pee, worm tea or worm juice). “Red wrigglers” are a common type of worm used in permaculture. They are good for compost and propagate very quickly. 1 kilogram of worms = about 1000 worms.
To propagate worms, you can make a worm composting bin:
How to make a worm compost bin
What worms like to eat: Anything green, especially leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, brown paper, black and white newspaper, crushed eggshells.
What worms don’t like to eat: Citrus fruit peels (like orange, lemon or lime), fats, oils, salad dressings, breads and cereals (attracts gnats), sugars or processed food, meat, garlic or onions (creates odors) or salts – no seasoned food.
Feeding – Leave the food on top without mixing it in. Let the worms do the mixing. When the food is nearly eaten, add more. Just like compost, if it’s too wet, add carbon (brown material), if it’s too dry, add nitrogen (food scraps, coffee grinds). It’s good to feed them a few times a week.
Keeping them in – The worms may try to climb out of the container at night. Leave ¼ empty so they don’t climb out! Also try rubbing soap around the top inside rim of the worm container to keep them in. Or a good cover.
Moisture – Maintain 50-60% moisture content. You want water to drip down your hand when you squeeze it, like compost.
Castings and worm juice – How you harvest your worm castings depends on how you construct your bin. Generally speaking though, worms move toward food and leave castings behind. Add castings anywhere you have soil – garden, forest, compost pile. Dilute worm juice (actually worm pee) 20:1 and also add to soil.
Compost tea is aerated compost liquid fertilizer. This is also called Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT). Liquid fertilizers are soluble, meaning it is easier for plants to consume the minerals.
How to make compost tea
The following method for making compost tea can work for any size and any system depending on your needs and interests:
- Use 20L bucket, 200L drum, large tank or any size container
- Fill container 10-20% with compost or compost materials – 2 parts carbon + 1 part nitrogen + high nitrogen additive). Fill 20-30% if using compost materials
- Fill bucket/tanks ~80% full with water
- Attach a 2-inch PVC pipe to an air pump, aerate the mixture from the bottom of the mix for at least 24 hours.
- Use immediately
- Mixture adjustments
- To increase bacteria content add molasses, cane juice, fruit juice or maple syrup
- To increase fungus add kelp, humic acid or rock dust
Compost tea application
You cannot spray too much or too often. Apply early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is not strong. Water on garden, leaves, trunks, soil and mulch, compost piles, toilets, even in ponds. For broad acre land, spray 20 liters compost tea per acre. It is good to give your garden a good soak at the beginning of rainy season. Microorganisms will flourish everywhere, and will find the appropriate place they can thrive and benefit the system.