Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Build and Maintain Rich Garden Soil Naturally


As a gardener, I get really excited about dirt. I love playing in the dirt, and I really love seeing rich dirt, full of little composted pieces of nutrient filled particles. There is just nothing as wonderful as tilling up loose rich soil to plant in the spring. I have always heard stories of people who started growing vegetables on land with terrible soil and were able to slowly build it up over time to become very rich, well composted soil. I always wondered, how is that possible? Wouldn't growing vegetables further deplete the soil of nutrients? Is it really possible to build bad soil back up to awesome, rich soil without just pumping it full of synthetic fertilizers? 

After doing a lot of experimenting with self-sustaining backyard homesteading, I have discovered how simple it is to build up the soil and keep a highly productive garden while not stripping the soil of necessary nutrients in a natural way. Here's how it works!

Think of your yard like a bank account. Everything that you do either counts as a deposit or a withdrawal in terms of nutrients. In nature, all of the deposits and withdrawals balance at the end. A tree grows leaves in spring using the nutrients in the soil, then drops its leaves in the fall which decompose back into the soil, replacing the nutrients that then go back into growing new leaves. God created a beautiful system! In your yard and garden, there is a lot of human intervention which can sway the balance to your advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you interact with the nutrients you have.

Let's look at some withdrawals that we make on our yards and think of ways to limit those withdrawals or not make them at all.

Nutrient Withdrawals
1. Mowing the grass
Grass grows using the nutrients in the soil. If you have a lawnmower that spits the grass back out, then those nutrients go back into the soil and you're fine. If you have a mower that bags the grass and then you leave it at the street to be picked up, you are gathering up your nutrients and throwing them away! Bagging the grass is still fine (we bag our grass) but don't let it go to waste! Use it as mulch around garden plants or put it in your compost pile to be used in the garden later.

2.  Bagging leaves
This is the same idea as the last one. When you rake up leaves, don't bag them and leave them at the street- use them as mulch around plants or compost them. If you don't care what your yard looks like, you could always leave them on the ground and let them decompose right where they are. Consider mowing the leaves to mulch them into little pieces so that they decompose even faster.

3. Growing vegetables
When you grow vegetables in the garden and then eat them, you are making a withdrawal. Since this particular withdrawal is the reason we even care about nutrients in the first place, it is the most necessary one we make. By all means, eat all the vegetables! There are other nutrient-consuming parts of growing vegetables that we don't eat, though. What about all of the plants that you pull up at the end of each season?


4. Prunings, Branches, and Sticks
At the end of each season when cutting back bushes, trees, and perennials, chop up all of that stuff and put it in your compost rather than putting it out at the street. If you trim trees or end up with a lot of sticks and branches, the easiest way to keep some of the nutrients is to have a bonfire and add the ashes to your compost. If you want to keep even more of the organic matter in your yard, buy a mulcher and run all of your branches through it (leaves and all!) to add to your compost pile. The mulcher we bought on craigslist gets a surprising amount of use at our house.

Basically anything that grows in your yard and then goes somewhere else is a withdrawal, including the fruits and vegetables that you eat. Now let's look at ways to make deposits back into the yard.

Nutrient Deposits
1. Composting
Instead of throwing away organic matter, keep a small compost pail by the trash can to collect your kitchen waste- fruit peelings, vegetable ends, and egg shells- and put them into your compost pile. There are nutrients all around you that other people are throwing away that can be yours, too! When your neighbor puts out their grass clippings or leaves, drag it to your compost pile and dump it in there! My neighbor, after seeing us do this several times, now puts his bags over the fence into our back yard instead of at the street. After we have dumped them in the compost, we put the empty bags back over the fence until next time. If my neighbor wants to make a withdrawal from his yard and put a deposit into mine, I won't stop him :) You can also get compostable material from stores. Most coffee shops collect and save their coffee grinds for individuals to pick up for free. Some grocery stores throw away old produce, but will keep some aside if you ask them. All of this is great to toss into your compost pile. Check around your area- you will be surprised how much organic matter is thrown away that can be yours!

2.  Mulch
Many places have free mulch available through the city. The city picks up all of the branches, leaves, and grass clippings, mulches them into huge compost mountains, and then offer free truckloads of mulch to anyone living within the city limits. We have gotten LOTS of free mulch over the last few years to build up our soil. So if you got excited about taking your neighbor's leaves, you should be thrilled to know that you can now have a helping of the whole city's leftovers!

3. Store bought dirt
I rarely buy bags of dirt. If you compost a lot then it may not ever be necessary, but every now and then the garden expands faster than the compost pile can support and we have to buy a few bags of dirt. Store bought dirt doesn't have a high content of organic matter in it, but adding it is still better than nothing.


4. Manure
Animal poop is great for the garden! Why? Think about it- they eat up all the organic matter and then spit it back out into a compact form of nutrients that are already broken down! If you have a friend with a horse, cow, goats, etc. see if they will give you their manure. Most people with large animals have more than they know what to do with, and will give it to you free if you offer to get it yourself. Just remember to compost new manure for around six months before using it in the garden. This natural fertilizer is so hot it will burn your plants!

5. Fertilizer
I try to avoid this at all costs! As long as you know and understand the deposit/withdrawal cycle and make good use of what's around you, you may avoid this altogether. If the soil is so depleted that you must bring in fertilizers to give it a jump start on the road to recovery while your compost matures, look into organic fertilizers. I like my dirt as natural as possible.

Creating a Self-Sufficient and 
Highly Productive Nutrient System

Now that you know which things are withdrawals and deposits, let's look at creating a cycle that can repurpose as many nutrients as possible to get the most out of them and wasting as little as possible. There are ways to introduce other components into your yard that will create systems of nutrient self-sufficiency!

1. Chickens
A great way to give nutrients back to your lawn naturally is to free range chickens. Chickens will eat the weeds and some of the grass, as well as bugs and insects, and in turn deposit those nutrients (in the form of poop) all over your yard. While free range chickens eat a lot less feed, it is still important to buy some high protein laying feed for eggs or regular feed for meat chickens. The feed you buy and add into the system counts as the deposit that will balance out the withdrawal of you eating the eggs or meat. You will also buy some hay to put in the bottom of the coop, and when you clean that out it all goes in the compost for another deposit. Chickens play a role in transferring matter efficiently while also producing more food for you!

Withdrawals- eating grass, eating bugs, laying eggs for you to eat, becoming meat for you to eat
Deposits-  feed that you buy for them, poop in the yard, hay bought to put in the coop


2. Rabbits
Rabbits are amazing little composting machines! And an added bonus is that rabbits are one of the few animals whose manure you can put into the garden immediately- no composting or waiting necessary. While you can put your green plants in the compost to break down, a much faster way is to feed it to a rabbit. When I pull up old plants in the garden (broccoli, tomatoes, beans, you name it!) I feed it to my rabbits. Then I scoop out that manure from under the cage the next day and till it back into the garden where I pulled up the plants. That's a one day turnaround of green plant to nutrients in the soil for the next season of planting! On top of that you will buy rabbit feed as another deposit into the system. We grow our rabbits for meat (an added level of productivity), but if you don't want to go that far rabbits make great pets and will do the same job.

Withdrawals- Meat that you eat, eating garden greens
Deposits- Best poop for gardens, rabbit feed


3. Aquaponics
I won't go into all the details of aquaponics here, but aquaponics is a system of using container raised fish (more specifically their poop) to fertilize plants growing in water rather than dirt. The plants clean the water which cycles back to the fish in a completely self-sustaining system that grows fish and vegetables with the only input of fish food! If you have never heard of it, do a little research- it's awesome!

Withdrawal- Fish to eat, vegetables
Deposits- fish food

4. Bees
Bees are sneaky little nutrient ninjas! They fly around and take all of your neighbor's pollen (I don't think they will miss it- besides, they do them a favor by pollinating everything) and then bring all of the bounty back to your house where they turn it into honey and beeswax. This system creates a lot of output for a little input while increasing the productivity of all of your plants by pollinating them.

Withdrawal- honey, beeswax
Deposit- your neighbor's pollen

5. Goats
Backyard dairy goats can also play a role in nutrient making. They will be a fats composter for leaves and tree branches in the same way that rabbits are for all things green. The food you buy is a deposit for the manure they create as well as the milk and/or meat that you will get out of the system.

Withdrawals- Making milk, meat, eating leaves
Deposits- Feed, poop

Each time you add a new animal or system to your yard, the cycle becomes more complex, but also more complete. You will be amazed how adding just one animal to your yard will transform the way to use and recycle the organic matter to create even more output for the input while keeping your nutrient balance stable.

Do you have any other ideas to add to the list of deposits and withdrawals? What creative ways do you use to build up your soil?