SOIL 101: What Makes Good Soil (and how to fix crappy soil)

SOIL 101: What Makes Good Soil (and how to fix crappy soil)

      For people first entering into the gardening world there's this belief that you're either born a gifted, talented gardener through a millenia of equally gifted gardening ancestors, or  are really terrible at it and have a black thumb.

       Firstly, there's no such thing as a black thumb!

       All a black thumb is, is a person who hasn't ever learned to properly garden.

       And I'm here to help! At the end of the day, the thing that makes a garden good or not is good, healthy soil!

       That's right soil

       Without good soil you wouldn't have magical gardens hidden behind ivy covered walls, or fresh veggies and fruit. So before you go and run off to get a bag of 'organic soil' from your local nursery or big box store, read this blog first! I'm going to give you the lowdown on what soil is, what makes healthy soil, and how to  make  your own healthy soil if you're dealing with crappy soil (like I was). 

      Also, really, don't buy from box stores. I'll cover what's really in those bags, further down in this post!

                                   WHAT THE HECK IS SOIL!?

      Healthy soil is the product of lots of dead things breaking down to become fluffy soil that feed plants! And when I say dead things, I mean any dead thing. Plants, twigs, fallen fruit, worms, fungi, dead bugs who've fallen in battle while at war with each other...

      All of that equals soil! But more importantly, it equals healthy soil! Healthy soil is actually very very alive! Soil isn't dirt (that light brown stuff that's dry and sand like and lacks all nutrients), so never confuse the two! Now don your imagination cap (or go watch the Magical School Bus episode on soil) and join me as we first see the 6 layers of soil! 

1) Organic/Hummus Layer (1-2 inch depth) This is where a lot of the action happens! Plants decay, bugs fight and die and eventually turn into....

2) Top Soil Layer (5-10 inch depth) This layer! The top soil layer is filled with nutrients and minerals and is the OG compost! That's right, we humans are still trying to be as cool and efficient as the earth already is!

3) Eluviation Layer (2-5 inch depth) This thin layer is the layer where top soil and subsoil meet

4) Sub Soil Layer (30 inch depth) This layer is where deeper minerals and metal salts are!

5) Parent Rock Layer (3-4 feet deep) This is where partial whether and crushed rocks. Not much lives here except sometimes tree roots and gnomes. Let's not disturb them shall we?

6) Bedrock Layer(48+  inch depth) Stone that's as old as the earth and has never seen the light of day. These stones are old and grumpy and will eat you. Let's leave them alone, too. 


      So now that you know what soil actually is, let's concentrate on the two layers we'll be working with the most as gardeners--the Organic Layer and the Top Soil Layer! 

       Mother nature is way older and wiser than us, and has this whole 'growing everything and keeping it healthy' thing down. Our goal as gardeners, is to learn from her and mimic. Healthy soil is alive. It's filled with worms, bugs, fungi, and other microscopic creatures that have created cities, towns, and communities that all work together to keep the soil healthy. And whenever you dig your shovel or rake deep into the ground and dig it up, you're destroying countless of civilizations and lives (don't worry, I feel like a murderous god, too).

       Now, I'm not saying don't ever dig in your garden--digging is good in moderation! But digging deeply into whole swaths of land is super bad. You remember the dust bowl in the 1920's? That happened because farmers planted the same crops in the same soil over and over and turned the soil and never replenished it with anything. Bad soil means no food.

       So what does good soil look like? I'll show you!

       I've created a list of what makes healthy organic matter and top soil and I even included pictures!

       Because who doesn't love pictures!?

             BIO MASS 

      Bio Mass is exactly what you think it is! It's all of the dead plants, twigs, bugs, and food that have fallen to the ground to decompose! This layer is super important! Now, the best way to add bio mass is to do the 'chop and drop' method! This means that instead of ripping plants up from the ground, you cut them at the base and then roughly break and chop up the plant and drop it right there on the soil.

      The bugs will thank you by eating and breaking down the plants and releasing nutrients store in the leaves back into the soil for other plants to get! Plus now you're not ruining the citizens living in the roots below!

               WORMS & ROOTS

      Worms are the work horses of the soil world! Not only do they make holes in the soil for roots to grow through, they also leave behind extremely nutrient dense soil! In the gardening world it's considered black gold and debatably better than compost! I once had to take a struggling tree from a pot only to find that TONS of worms were in it and had turn once fluffy, airy soil into dense, thick, black ultra rich soil. It was too rich for the tree and it almost died! Oops!

        Roots are great to keep in the soil instead of pulling them out! When a plant or vegetable is done, chop it down at the base and leave the roots intact! The roots will slowly decompose and release more nutrients into the earth just in time for the baby plants who are starting to grow! 


       When I say fungi, I mean more than just your typical mushroom! Fungi come in a million different forms, some good, some annoying. But one of the most important fungi is the mycorrhizae fungi!

       This microscopic fungi sucks up phosphorous, copper, and zinc--all things that are  deeper in the earth and often hard for roots to get to--and gives them to the plants! As thanks, the plants give the fungi sugar, which it can't make for itself. Mycorrhizae also make any dangerous level of aluminum and heavy metals, less dangerous to plants! 

       And don't worry! You don't need to go to some fancy store to buy this fungi--it's naturally present and wild. If you have decently healthy soil, it will show up all on it's own! 


       Yep, poop! I know what you're thinking, 'poop is bad! Poop means my food will give my plant foods E.Coli and I'll die!' Never fear, it's not true! At least, not normally! Poop is extremely good for your soil (remember those worms?), even human poop! The best poop is actually rabbit poop as it's considered a 'cold' poop, meaning you can use it right away instead of having to let it decompose and age like other animals. Aged Goat, horse, cow, and chicken manure are wonderful for your garden and bring a lot of nutrients back to the soil and your plants! 

       Be careful with the chicken manure though, as it's highly acidic, so you'll want to be temper how much you put in, or combat it with adding equal parts sphagnum moss.

      Also, you may be surprised to note, but humanure (yup, it's a real word!) is actually totally usable for plants (even your veggie garden). Lots of studies have been done (yes, I did fall very deep down that rabbit hole) and uh, in case you didn't know, quite a lot of the farmers in good ol' America use humanure as fertilizer. Surprise?!


     Compost! That wonderful stuff that you make with food to turn into the dark soil that you plant seedlings in! Now, when we make compost we're just copying mother nature on a more hill-like scale, and since you're doing chop and drop (right? Riiiight?) you don't really need this. But it's always nice to have!

      If you live in an apartment there are counter top composter than you put your scraps into that actually turn it into compost within hours so that you can toss it into your plants! How cool huh?! But if you're like me and you have raised beds, a tumbler composter and counter composter aren't enough.  

      I highly recommend making a 2 system pallet compost bin system if you have the room (or unlike me, actually own your own place). Making one is super duper easy! Literally google "DIY pallet compost bin." You're welcome.

      There's a lot more you could do to help your soil, but it highly depends on where you live, and what your particular ground is like. But this is what healthy soil is mainly comprised of, no matter where you go. 

       If your brain hurts by now or you don't really care about making soil, then skip this part and read down further to why you should never buy bagged soil. For those of you reading on, grab your 3rd mimosa (or beer) and read on! I tip my floppy gardener hat off to all of you!

                            HOW TO MAKE GREAT SOIL & FIX BAD SOIL

        The place I moved into had (and has) really crappy, hard as iron, clay soil. I chipped one of my shovels on it! So what do you do when you have crappy soil? You fix it!

        There are two ways to do this organically. The first way is to bring in soil busting plants like Daikon Radish and sunflowers whose large roots and tubers will break up the compacted soil and leave giant holes you can fit soil into to amend it. The other way is my preferred method, the Back To Eden method. It's simply but oh my plant gods does it work! 

       Back To Eden mimics nature, and makes the best relatively fast healthy soil. Here's what you do: 

       Wet the ground you're working with. Put a layer of newspaper or cardboard over it and wet it. Then add a 1 inch layer of top soil or compost, and wet that. Next add a layer of wood chips (either finely chipped or variety chipped. But never get the large chips) and wet those. Repeat this layering process 3 to 4 times and then wait. 

      And I do mean wait. 

For each month you wait, your layered garden will turn 1 inch of crappy soil into soft fluffy, dark soil. So after six months, you'll have six inches of workable soil and after twelve months you'll have a foot! If I hadn't done this method myself, I wouldn't have believed that hard-as-iron compacted clay soil could turn into fluffy loamy soil. But it can! 

      Of course, as the woodchips break down your layering will shrink and you'll need to add another round of layering to it every once in a while, but it's worth it! When you're ready to plant (wait at least 6 months) add a nice 3 to 4 inch layer of compost and plant! You'll be amazed at how little you have to do thanks to your soil! 

      Back To Eden Method can be used in your raised beds as well, but I strongly recommend doing hügelkultur beds inside of them instead, as it's cheaper to do and honestly, it's the same thing as Back To Eden, just with logs at the bottom! But I'll talk about the different ways to make hügelkultur beds another time! 

       Just remember that when creating soil and planting things, to never pull your plant out (if in the ground or raised beds). Just chop it down at the base, and leave the roots intact to decompose. Help communities, don't destroy them!

                            THE BIG LIE ABOUT BAGGED SOIL
                             (and why you shouldn't buy them)


Look, I know it's tempting to get bagged soil. But don't. Please don't. It's not worth it. Bagged soil is a gimmick and a terrible one. What is in those bags (even the 'organic' ones) is wood chips and moss. That's it. 

       I make my own soil mixture to fill my raised beds with because it's cheaper and healthier than what's in the bagged soil. Bagged soil (and I looked) no matter if it's for 'garden beds' 'in ground soil' or 'potted plants' is 70 to 80% woodchips with sphagnum moss, perlite, a handful of actual soil, and (if not organic) chemical fertilizer.

       What ends up happening is that you get one good crop out of them and then the moss, piddly amount of soil, and  6 months of fertilizer in it is depleted and all your left with is wood chips that won't decompose. How's that for 8.99 to 12.99 a bag? 

        The WORST offender however, is Miracle Gro. 

        Miracle Gro promises lush plants for six months because of the high amounts of chemical fertilizer it puts in their bagged 'soil'. And even if it's not the soil and just the fertilizer itself, it's awful. Their chemicals are so intense that it scorches the earth and renders the soil useless. And who wants to do that? 

        Companies that bag  soil do it to get rid of excess materials and not in a healthy way. Very little of it is ever actually good for your plants or soil's health long term. But their goal is to get you hooked and then make you come back for more because it keeps depleting every 6 months. So don't do it. 

       Making your own soil is easy. For every 2 bags of top soil (2.99 at Lowes) add in a bag of chicken manure or cow manure (1.99 at Lowes), a bag of perlite for aeration, and sphagnum moss (water retention and fluffs up the soil). Seriously I think It only cost me 20 dollars in total to fill my 4x4 raised bed. 

        Don't let the bagged soil lure you in--they need you more than you need them! 

      WELL! That's the end ! You made it! I really hope you enjoyed this post. I did a lot of research for it (besides my own trial and errors) and read a lot of books! Honestly the best book on soil you could possible get is The Ultimate Guide to Soil by Anna Hess. 

    It's such a good book and easy to read and she seriously covers just about everything under the sun when it comes to soil. If you think did a lot of research you should see with she did! Of the many books I read and articles I researched and organic farming youtubers I followed, I'd say  Anna Hess covers and corroborates everything they say and then some! 

     If you have any questions, comments, or wanna chat all about soil please comment below! I would love to chat with you guys and not be the only weirdo who likes talking about soil and gardening! 

     Next week I'll be talking about Tomatoes since it's tomato season! I'll talk about where they came from, how they came to be, how to take care of them, and if you subscribed to my site you'll get a newsletter that's going to have not one, but two tomato recipes in it!

       I look forward to chatting with you  guys! 

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Hi Erin! For me, I like chicken manure because it just tends to have a lot more nutrients than cow manure (i.e cows eat hay so it’s mostly carbon, but chickens eat bugs, worms, and fruits/veggies, so their poop has a lot more mineral options for the soil).

Chicken manure is acidic and also breaks down ‘hotter’ than cow manure. The PH of soil doesn’t really get affected by manure in general but chicken manure is a bit more alkaline than cow manure, so isn’t good for acid loving plants like blueberries.

I personally use a mix of the two (1 chicken, 1 cow) when making a BIG batch of soil but use only chicken when adding a layer of new topsoil to an already mature bed. I hope this helps!

Katie Masters

Hey! So, what would make you choose chicken manure vs cow manure for your recipe? You mentioned that chicken manure is acidic… Is cow the same ph for the recipe or does it matter? Would it be better to use a mix of the two?


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