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The Natural Food Garden Part 1
Building Healthy Soil

Soil Nutrients

Macro Nutrients

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorous
  • Potassium

Micro Nutrients

  • Sulfur
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Boron
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Molybdenum
  • Copper

Basic Soil Structure




Lab Testing Soil

  • Important if you don’t know the land use history of your site
  • Cost: $80
  • Wallace Labs

Nature makes 1 inch of soil every 500 years

Industrial Agriculture can destroy many inches in 1 year

Tilling Soil (turning it over and mixing it):

  • Kills soil macroorganisms (worms, beetles, insects)
  • Kills soil microorganisms
  • Oxidizes soil nutrients (N,P,K)
  • Vaporizes soil moisture

How does nature build soil?

  • Organic matter(things that were once living or part of something living) drops on the ground
    • Organic matter examples: leaves, wood, branches, human/animal/insect manures, human/animal/insect flesh
    • Layers of material build up over time and decompose
  • Plant roots (especially tap-rooted trees) bury into the soil and break open the soil
  • Soil is “tilled” by soil micro- and macro-organisms such as worms, beetles, and bacteria.

Succession: a continuum along which ecosystems can develop or degrade

succession copy

  • The opposite of life is sterility not death.  To create life, we must utilize death.
  • Most “degraded” is a bare rock/exposed soil ecosystem where sunlight is not being utilized
  • Most “developed” is a forest ecosystem where a maximum amount of sunlight is being utilized (i.e. no sunlight hits bare ground)
  • Succession can be examined above soil or below:
    • Moving right along the succession continuum we see a preference above ground for trees along with large animals
    • Moving right along the succession continuum we see a preference below ground for fungi which decompose woody, starchy materials
    • Moving left along the succession continuum we see a preference above ground for leafy plants  and small animals
    • Moving left along the succession continuum we see a preference below ground for bacteria which decompose less-complex leafy, sugary materials

Method for developing healthy soil:

  • Soil Starter Culture
      • A handful of health soil used to inoculate unhealthy soil with beneficial microbes
      • Ask a friend/gardener/farmer with healthy soil for a handful of soil to use
  • Chop n Drop
    • Unwanted plants are chopped down at the ground level, and then chopped up and left to decompose as mulch
    • Plant material can also be fed to animals and manure brought back as fertilizer
  • Animal Tractors: A lightweight portable cage where chickens/rabbits/ducks/etc. can be confined to one area to eat weeds and leave droppings as manure
    • Especially useful in weedy grounds
    • Very easy, effective way of mowing down unwanted plant materials
    • Chicken tractors must include waterer, feeder, and nest box
  • Sheet Mulch: mimicking nature’s method of building soil by layering several inches to a few feet of organic matter  on the soil to decompose slowly over time
      • Can take anywhere from 6 to 9 months
      • Must have a balance of carbon  (brown) and nitrogen(green) materials
      • Best done in fall when rains can assist in decomposition of materials
      • DO NOT layer multiple green/nitrogenous materials on top of each other → leads to rot, not decomposition
  • Recommended Sheet Mulch Formula:
      • Step 1: Add starter culture & ½ inch of compost & Moisten
      • Step 2: Cover with non-toxic cardboard (no colored ink or wax, tape removed)
      • Step 3: 1 inch of compost
      • Step 4: 4 inches of wood chips
      • Step 5: 8 inches of horse stable bedding
      • Step 6: 2 inches of soil & starter culture
      • Step 7: 4 inches of compost
      • Step 8: Cover crop of leguminous plants (peas, fava beans, soy beans, etc.)
  • Right Now Soil Health Formula
    • Remove as much soil from the ground as your raised bed will be high
      • 12 inch tall raised bed = 12 inch deep hole
    • Fill in hole with tree stumps and compost
    • Create raised bed structure
    • Fill raised bed with equal parts compost and soil which you dug out earlier



Compost (large amounts)

Cal Blend Soils in Irwindale

$20/cubic yard, you will need a pickup truck or they can deliver for $75


Compost (small amounts)

Farmer’s Fetilizer bagged Organic Compost

$3/2 cubic feet, available at Ace Hardware


Soil Starter Culture

from TGH, $20

Or a good quality worm compost, fresh not from a bag.


Horse Stable Bedding

Google for local horse stables, most will let you come and pickup for free, some will even deliver


Wood Chips

Google for local tree trimming companies, most will deliver wood chips for free. DO NOT PAY FOR WOOD CHIPS.  Ask for a load that is 50% to 75% wood chips for use in sheet mulch. For use in walkways, ask for a load that is 90%+ wood chips.

Tree trimmers have to deliver full loads of chips, usually in 10 to 20 cubic yard quantities. Arrange with neighbors to distribute the wood chips if a full load is too much for you.