In our last post we spoke of making an excellent soil base for our plants, if you are interested in knowing more about why each component is vital, and what important characteristics it should have, please read on. I always suggest experimenting and trying to find a mix that works perfect for you in your specific area. This recipe was developed in Houston, Texas but I have had equal success with it at my parents in Salem, Missouri. The key components to building our own soil mix are: vermiculite, peat moss, compost, composted chicken manure, MicroLife fertilizer, soil moist, kelp meal, fish meal, and worm castings.
Coarse grade vermiculte can be difficult to find in bulk but is worth the search, I suggest checking with the local feed store, garden center, or agricultural supply, it can be found online but the shipping would probably make the costs prohibitive. The reason I prefer vermiculite over perlite is it seems to stay mixed with the soil better, being so light it will have a tendency to float to the top of the soil but in my experience the pearlite will do this to a much larger degree and much more quickly. However, perlite is often easier to find and will work as a substitute if needed. The reason you want to use vermiculite is because the particles are large enough they will create air spaces in your soil, which are vital for plant growth. Also, vermiculite will retain water like a sponge and when it has reached its capacity it ignores the water letting it trickle on to prevent holding too much water against the roots and drowning them.
Peat moss is another ingredient that will absorb moisture and hold it until needed by your plants. It is not a renewable resource though so I use it sparingly. As time goes on you will need to add more of all the components except these first two. You only need to add the vermiculite and peat moss once. Peat moss also helps absorb nutrients into your soil. It resists decomposition, though there may be suitable substitutions I have not been able to test these yet. Coir may be a good choice as it is renewable but it is unavailable to me in quantities needed for good testing at a price I can afford. Peat moss is readily available at most “box” home centers such as Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Next on the list is compost. In my opinion the most important of the components. Compost carries vital nutrients for your plants and promotes microbial soil life to thrive. It also provides the soil with necessary organic compounds. You want as varied a compost as you can get, by that I mean that you want not just one ingredient in your compost, such as cow manure compost or mushroom compost. You want a compost built off of several ingredients, like one you would build at home off of your kitchen and yard scraps. One that would contain fruits, vegetables, grass clippings, sticks, and hedge clippings. If this is not readily available the best thing to do is buy as many varied ingredient composts as you can and mix them all together.
Composted chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and also has a lot of potassium and phosphorus. The high nitrogen can be dangerous if the manure has not been composted properly. Too much nitrogen can burn or even kill plants. The balanced nutrients of this composted manure make it a very valuable addition to your soil mix. This counts as one of your compost types and if you happen to know someone who keeps chickens you can get the manure for free and compost it yourself. This will save you money and help you find a source of chicken manure that is antibiotic free.
As you know I preach on a regular basis about the awesomeness that is MicroLife fertilizer. I love that it is a convenient pelleted organic fertilizer. Made from dozens of ingredients and those ingredients are listed for you to see. I have always used the regular to great effect but they also have an Ultimate, and Azalea version. Once our soil is built I recommend adding MicroLife per manufacturer instructions every three months or so. If you are in South Texas like I am, we get to grow things year round and that means year round fertilizing, though keep in mind the plants needs. The thing I like about organic fertilizers like this is that they encourage microbial life in the soil and they cannot be washed out be heat and water like non organic fertilizers can. If you are unsure how much to fertilize, remember, you are better safe going light than killing your plant with too much.
soil moist is mostly for if you are using your soil as an indoor potting mix. It will keep you from having to water plants as often and the polymer contracts and expands helping to keep the soil less compacted which can be a serious problem for indoor potted plants. The brand you use is not important and as this is not an organic ingredient it can be omitted if you desire but I find it does miracles for my indoor plants when I have to go away for a few days.
kelp meal is a type of seaweed and it makes for a wonderful soil amendment and I also recommend adding it to your compost pile from time to time just toss a handful in as it is a great bioactivator. Meaning it will set the microbes that break down compost into action a lot faster and with all the trace elements that kelp contains it helps promote good healthy diverse soil. When I have a sickly looking plant I use liquid seaweed to perk it back up. It is amazing how well and how quickly it works, just make sure to not over fertilize.
Created from the grinding of whole fish and waste parts from fish used for food fish meal is most commonly found as a brown powder. It is exceptionally high in nutrients and I have you add it to build your soil as an activator of sorts. It makes a lot of nutrients readily available to plants and microbes until your soil has sufficient life in it to maintain the processes so beneficial to your plants. You can make your own fishmeal if you have easy access to fishing. The most common method is to let any superfluous fish or inedible fish bake in the sun or oven until thoroughly dried out and then grind them fine. The drying process is important as it removes the moisture making grinding and storing easier.
It is hard to find a better fertilizer than worm castings, it is however frequently expensive unless you make your own and even then they are usually hard to come by. The liquid that drains from your worm bins can also be used quite effectively in the garden. Use as much of this as you can conveniently get your hands on. The worms make easily digestible remains that microbe life loves and in turn those microbes will feed your plants. The overall goal of all good soils is to feed your plants. In the end you should have a good friable soil that smells sweetly earthy and is crumbly but capable of holding water and draining for your plants. Worm castings help with not only the nutritional content of your soil they also help it hold water and they let excess water drain away. The worms used to make vermicompost, red wigglers will not live well in your garden but by adding their castings to your garden you will bring on changes that will attract worms to your garden!
When I first moved to Houston, I was depressed thinking I would never get anything to grow in all that black clay. However, after a couple years work and diligent weeding, I started seeing worms. Not just one or two, they were all over the place. How they got there through all the neighbors clay I do not know but I know the effects were astounding. I have thick, rich, alive soil that people have even offered to pay me to get some. After some trial and error the above ingredients are the ones I found to work the best for me but that does not mean that there are not other good amendments out there. Just that for the most part I was able to get mine for super cheap by doing the work myself or trading services with others. If you know someone who has an over abundance of compost or other amendment you can use trade them something you have. Maybe you make your own vermicompost (worm castings) or maybe you can grow seedlings for them in exchange, or save/share seed. Most people are interested in sharing the work load so it doesn’t hurt to ask as long as you are willing to offer something fair in exchange and don’t get upset if they choose not to trade.