Monday, July 4, 2011

Soil is the most important factor in your organic garden

The most important factor in a healthy, productive, and tasty organic vegetable garden is the quality of the soil. This means a little more time, effort, and in some cases investment to begin with, but it will pay off in the long run. When plants are in soil that they love, they will be bigger, more productive, stronger, and more resistant to pests and disease.

I am not an expert on soil and how to nurture it, but I have learned that when you focus on your soil, rather than your plants, you will be able to create an organic garden that will continue to get better with each season. How to go about doing that is a subject of vast discussions among gardeners.

New planter boxes made by our friends at Sonny San Diego
The first thing I consider when planting a new garden is the type of planting conditions I will be working with. There are several ways to plant a garden such as in the ground, in large raised beds, and in containers. We're going to show you how we approached building the soil for these two large containers. We planted 3 Habanero peppers and some beans in the furthest container, hoping that the beans will trail down the wall behind it. In the other one we put in some basil that will only be there long enough for the Golden Zucchini plant to take over the whole box. We'll see if a Golden Zucchini is a good idea here or not; they are very large plants. 

In containers like this, making sure the drainage is adequate is one of the most important factors. These have numerous large drainage holes that I covered with a very shallow layer of rocks. We wanted to get the most value for our dollar and create a soil mixture that will keep our plants healthy from the beginning so while we would have liked to buy a pre-made, excellent quality soil like FoxFarm, we opted to make our own mixture.

We started with Grandma Mary's potting mix that is made from California's Lake Almanor forest products
I've learned some hard lessons about bagged soils. It would be fantastic to have access to a forest where we could go harvest our own soil, but we live in the city so we must rely on commercial soils. Nothing is more frustrating than finding that your plants are covered with fungal disease and in general poor health because of bad soil. Now when I buy a new brand, I will use it for awhile with strictly flowers and ornamental plants before deciding if it's good enough to try with the vegetables.

We used 2 parts Mary's and 1 part good quality topsoil and mixed that together. We get our topsoil from City Farmers.
We added E.B. Stone organic fertilizer according to the directions 
And we also added organic perlite to the mixture to further improve drainage and air circulation
We worked in layers mixing as we went because it was easier for transporting the components 6 feet up into the containers. 
In addition to the fertilizer, we added worm castings to the box with the squash because they have a high nitrogen  content that squash like, and worm castings are a great way to build up the quality of any organic soil. 
We added some calcium to the box with the peppers because Habanero peppers are calcium lovers.
We are hoping this is a good start to keeping the soil in these boxes healthy for seasons to come. We will continue to build and enrich this soil by adding organic matter in the way of small amounts of organic granular fertilizer, more worm castings, and compost as time goes on. 

An empty EarthBox
We did invest in FoxFarm soil for many of our EarthBoxes and want to get as much use out of it as possible. To keep it fresh and healthy, we sanitize it in full sun in a pod made of clear sheet plastic. I took one long piece of sheet plastic and put the soil on the bottom half in a 2-3 inch layer, then folded the other half over the top. I take some of our landscape rocks and put them all around the edges of the plastic, you could use bricks or whatever you have handy to secure the plastic. 

We will leave the pod here for at least 5 very hot days and may leave it for a few weeks in cooler weather, we want to make sure it gets as hot as possible. Doing this reduces the chances that you will spread disease to next season's plants. We will also thoroughly clean the EarthBox with non-chlorine bleach and water.

Soil sanitizing pod.
The plants in this box did not show any sign of disease so I feel comfortable planting in this soil again but we do have an EarthBox With 2 tomatoes in it and the tomatoes are suffering from early blight. I will take that soil out of the rotation completely because I do not want to risk infecting other plants with that disease. 

One of the things I am most excited about learning during my internship at Urban Plantations is more about how to love and nurture my soil so our plants will be even happier in Gidget's Garden.

Gidget guarding the compost because she knows how important it is to her garden. 


  1. Wonderful blog post. I recently interviewed someone on the whys and hows of compost:

    can't garden well without it! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed and informative article. Keep up the good work..Gravel Supply

  3. You've outdone yourself with this excellent posting. Thanks very much for the great photos and witty prose. Keep it up! Soil Recycling NJ