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Make Your Own Soil

Making Your Own Soil Layer by Layer

Worms: Red wigglers making great soil

Worms: Red wigglers making great soil [click to enlarge]

There is a book by that illustrates this concept titled Lasagna Gardening. I haven’t read it but did find this article in Mother Earth News describing the author’s experience when revitalizing and reorganizing her large garden using layers of compostable matter. She speaks of great results.

Most of this writing here is just trial and redos from my own gardening; there’re really no errors. As my Mom’s 3rd ex-husband used to say, “You know what the biggest room in the world is?” …. The room for improvement. So it goes with soil, you need to keep improving or amending it.

If you're starting with weak soils like me, you'd probably just rather have some soil delivered — that's a good start. But you'll probably find that though they label their stuff "garden soil", "compost blend" or "potting soil", the soil you usually get is on life support. By that, I mean it rarely contains any worms; there is very little life stirring the soup, so to speak. Worms are nature's fertilizers and natural rototillers making the soil loamy and fluffy. Other critters will join the mix depending on the food available: beattles, centipedes, potatoe bugs, mites, gnats, etc.

When in Washington, I enjoyed good damp soil in my yard, but now I live in New Mexico and the soil lacks nutrients; it's a mix of sand, dirt, clay and sometimes caliche. A good medium for plants that are high-desert appapted for lean soils, but not vegetables. So my work was in order.

Feed the Worms for Tuppence a Bag

Though it takes some time, if you want great soil, add some of nature’s little helpers: red wigglers. I bought a cup of worms for $5 at my local farmer’s market, and now thousands populate my compost bin and cedar garden bed kits. We started them in one compost bin, and now their offspring populate all the garden beds. We just let them do their thing, eating the fungus that grows on rotting matter and the decomposing layers leaving behind nutrients for your plants.

And even if you start your garden on delivered soil, you’ll find next season the soil level has probably dropped. Certainly after time and settling, the soil needs some rotating, but also your plants will suck up the nutrients and minerals from the soil. If you don't replenish your soils, you may find your plants lacking the next season.

The Key to Lasagna Gardening Is Layering Your Matter

Eventually, everything turns to soil. No spoiler alert there, but some things do so fairly quickly, e.g. especially aged manure, leaves and coffee grounds because they are easily digestible, small or thin for worms. Also ideally, these compostable ingredients are somewhere on your property or nearby or free. I prefer nature’s fertilizers and nearly free matter versus something blended and bagged as they get expensive. You can easily pay $20/bag (one cubic foot) for rich top soils.

But why pay that? When you probably have lots free or nearly free ingredients at your disposal. The layers of decomposing matter allow worms to swim freely through the buffet of wet and dry food. Some layers will be better for their eggs and young. Some are better to feed, some to sleep and exercise. Other layers will be better for moisture, warmth and tanning. Yep, worms have working layers and vacation spots too.

For our cedar garden beds shown here, we layered and mixed a variety of compostable ingredients:

  • Wood chips
  • Cardboard
  • Leaves — wet or dry
  • Used café coffee grounds
  • Aged manure — Find a local farmer, or you can buy at stores for about $1.25/cu ft = 1 bag.
  • Some sifted dirt

You may also have available:

  • Whatever was growing in your garden before, till it under or cut it up. Peas are good!
  • Lawn clippings shredded
  • Newspaper — Black and white, not color-coated, best if shredded. Or just lay over weeds, then wet 'em.
  • Brown bags — If shredded it makes good bedding

Here and there, we also added:

  • Trimmings from your kitchen fruits and vegetables — best to keep citrus, onions, garlic and ginger to a minimum
  • Left over bale of hay
  • Cut up sunflowers and stems
  • Worms with composted matter from my original bin
  • Mushroom compost
  • Wood fire ash — do not use coal ash
  • Lime and charcoal to improve alkalinity
  • Sprinkles of Azomite, and
  • Couple of handfuls of epsom salts (Magnesium sulfate)

Gopher Protection: Wire Mesh on the Garden Beds

To protect my work, I put a ½” wire mesh on the bottom of my garden beds to stop gophers. I stopped doing this because we feed the birds a lot of different seed, some of which are sunflowers. Now I have a lot of volunteer water-rich sunflowers, which the gophers seem to prefer to my other plants. It's comical to watch the cats; they are mesmerized as a sunflower disappears into the ground a quarter inch at a time. Indeed, their powers of focus are incredibly long over a gopher hole and make any meditation practice I might foster seem juvenile and restless.

First layer: Garden bed with dry leaves

First layer: Garden bed with dry leaves [click to enlarge]

Second layer: Garden bed with used café coffee grounds

Second layer: Garden bed with used café coffee grounds [click to enlarge]

Thin layer: Worms and decomposing kitchen scraps with eggshells

Thin layer: Worms and decomposing kitchen scraps with eggshells [click to enlarge]

Finished bed: Growing pea starts with layer of leaves

Finished bed: Growing pea starts with layer of leaves [click to enlarge]

Layering Your Garden Beds (or Area)

Ideally, you should do your garden layering in the late fall and let the winter of your discontent and the worms do the real work. Your plants will get a happy start in the spring.

My garden bed is only 11" deep, so it was quite full when finished adding my layers.

Garden Layers: Cardboard Sheet to Start to Inhibit Weeds

In your gardening site, if you are placing your garden bed on top of grass or weeds, then start with a layer of cardboard sheets to retard any weeds from coming up thru. Get the grasses wet or turn them over then lay the cardboard over; the moisture and denying them light will encourage rot and worms to consume the weeds. Water the cardboard as well. The layers are in no particular order, we're just creating a variety for the worms to do their bizness.

Garden Layers: Dry Leaves

In my case, I’m laying about 3-4" of dry leaves onto the bottom of the cedar garden bed. A resort two blocks away gladly gives me bags of leaves, and my wood chips were brought by a tree service company that brings 12 yards for $60! Then, I water the leaves thoroughly to hasten the composting process. Earthworms love rotting leaves; it’s one of their favorite foods besides my goodies from the kitchen. Moreover, the red wigglers love the fungus that grows on the coffee, fruits and vegetables, avocados, manure (aged is best else it may run too hot for your plants), hay, sunflower steams, cob of corn, tea bags, etc., and crushed egg shells, adds that much needed grit for the worm’s digestion. Avoid too much citrus, garlic, ginger and onions they’re too strong for their moist bodies. Sometimes I just put the citrus peels on very top until the sun turns them into a crunchy dry rind. Then they’ll break down easily in the soil.

Garden Layers: Used Café Coffee Grounds

Next layer is the coffee. To get the coffee, we just pass by our café hangs and ask. Often, they’ll give you a couple of buckets daily — again for a great price, free. They’re glad someone saves it from the landfill. Red wigglers eat coffee and the fungus that grows on the coffee. Earthworms love rotting leaves. Both leave a soil rich in microbes and nutrients behind for your plants roots.

Garden Layers: Shredded Brown Paper or Cardboard Strips

Brown paper or cardboard strips — ideally bags are shredded makes good bedding, and also attracts fungus, which breaks it down for the worms to go to work. Again water the layer. Never use color-coated or bleached paper. Newspapers are fine too (only black and white, not color-coated); just water them so they break down faster.

Of course, you can repeat these layers depending on the depth of your garden beds and the amount of your materials and your gardening fortitude.

Garden Layers: Add a Bag of Aged Manure

Next, I keep going with the mix: a little soil and some aged manure. You can get the manure from Home Depot or Lowes for about $1.25 / bag per cubic foot which fills most of a 5 gallon bucket. If you can haul, look on Craigslist in the farm and garden category in your city. It’s amazing what you can find. Often farmers are giving away their manure to any taker. Lama manure is the great. When I have shoveled lama manure, I have never seen more worms in one shovel load! Also, lama poo does not smell.

Garden Layers: Add Worms and Compost

Next, I take a few shovel loads of composting matter from my first bin, worms and all. I find this is the real catalyst for good soil with plenty of worms and microbes to colonize the new bed. If you don't have a compost bin, add your red wiggler worms. If you're not sure where to get these, then I suggest online or a garden club. The latter is way better because you'll meet some fellow gardeners and the worms will have a quicker trip to your garden. Add your worms to your garden bed. I put one cup of worms per 4'x6' garden bed (my bed is 11" tall).

When you keep a compost bin you will see worms' cocoons. A mature red wiggler (3 months old) can produce two to three cocoons per week. Each cocoon averages three hatchlings. Cocoons take up to 11 weeks to mature and hatch. Hatchlings require two to three months before they grow to be mature breeding worms.

Feeding your worms is called vermicomposting. Remember to keep feeding your worms by just tossing stuff from your kitchen, but keep out bread and pasta. Starches may attract rodents into your yard, but if you have sealed bin you're good. Just make sure they stay moist and don't let them freeze in a free standing compost bin. Also, no fat, meat and bones; there are worms designed to devour these too, but it takes a while.

Garden Layers: Work in Any Extras: Wood Chips, Hay and Some Sifted Soil

In the garden bed to keep things tasty for the wigglers, I add some remnants of an old decaying bail of hay and some wood chips to hold moisture. I cover again with the leaves, coffee, whatever I have the most of. Mushroom compost is another goodie that helps break down matter into stuff your plants can actually use and it's a cheap bag. You'll probably see mushrooms when conditions are right in the spring. In my yard, the sunflowers old stalks are fair game as well, so I cut those up; worms like the soft interior. I finish with more soil from a part of the yard sifting out any sticks and stones.

Several months of decomposing and their appetites will make some potent soil for the next spring.

Ideally you do all of this in the fall and let the worms do their handy tubular work til spring. If you do plant anything in this decomposing mix, make sure your plants better like wet feet, or add a layer of top soil and plant somewhat shallow. And you probably won't need to water for a long while. Check every time before you water. 

In the early spring I suggest growing peas ... while they grow well in the colder weather, they do not like wet feet, so fluff up the soil a bit to make sure it's draining. Peas will create more nitrogen for the next planting. Also, the small butterflies love the flowers. Your kids will love foraging on a fresh peas. They’re sweet and tasty and will teach your youngens to appreciate their own garden one day, as well as fresh vegetables. It’s easy to leave some pods to dry, so you have seeds for next year. Also after they’ve fruited, leave the plant stalk and work it into the soil later – it improves the organic soup!

Garden Layers Bonus: Add Azomite, Wood Ash and Epsom Salts

Oh yes, we also sprinkle the Azomite, a volcanic rock dust; it’s called such because it contains minerals from A-Z. They didn’t know what to call it, so Azomite made sense. Volcanoes put out ash full of minerals. Every wonder why the tropics are so lush even though they’re largely growing in clay? Yep, the minerals do a plant body good. I paid $44 for 44 pounds using my Amazon prime account, but you can buy less for your garden.

Also, save the ash from your fireplace. Ash and lime helps to rebalance acidic soils. But, don't use it around acid-loving plants such as blueberries and azaleas, or on potatoes, which get scab disease if the pH is too high.

Occasionally, we also sprinkle a hand full or two of Epsom salts, a magnesium sulfate compound on top of the soil. Epsom salts, a popular home remedy most commonly used as a foot/bath soak is full of magnesium, the mineral at the center of the chloroplasts which facilitate sunlight/CO2/O2 energy exchange (photosynthesis) that makes a plant green. A little goes a long way! A tablespoon for a mature plant is fine. Do NOT think that if it’s good, more is great. I also sometimes water my seedlings with water diluted with Epsom salts.

Ok, now go take that garden back from your lawn and start eating your homegrown foods; you’ll never be the same!

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