Skip to main content

Man in Overalls - Geeking on Good Soil

"I just don't have a green thumb! I kill everything I plant!" Or, so folks say. Having grown up in the Deep South with a heavy cinematic helping of Fried Green Tomatoes, every time I hear such woes, I can't help but think, "The secret's in the [soil]."

Picking up on my "#GrowYourGroceries - The Easy Way" series, second to sunlight, the next most important thing for ensuring a productive food garden is great soil. (I outlined where I was headed with this series in my post, The Big Picture.)

- - -
My spring garden in '97 or '98
I remember taking a trip to Indiana when I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old. By this point, I had already been gardening every spring for a few years. Due to my wonderment, we stopped on the side of the highway to inspect a field of Indiana corn. The stalks were a solid 10-12 feet high, maybe taller! Each stalk had 2 or 3 ears of corn. But the thing that really hit me was the soil itself. It was jet black! Having been trying to build soil in my childhood garden, I asked my mom, "What did they put in their soil?!" She explained, "That's just how it is in Indiana." 

But for those of us in the Deep South-- who don't live in the Bayous of Louisiana or in Belle Glade, FL, we don't have the luxury of inheriting eons' worth of jet-black soil.

Before I go into how to build soil for better crops, which I'll explore in my next post, let's talk background: what is soil? And, what makes it great?

Notice I didn't say dirt. Dirt is a 4-letter word for that dusty crap that piles up at the base of your driveway, the stuff smeared on your backdoor by your 3-year-old, the skeletons in your closet that someone has on you. Don't call your soil dirt.

Okay, sometimes I say dirt, like when I fill a bed with my Magic Mix and say, "Look at that great dirt!"

But the point is that soil is more than dirt. Dirt is just the "mineral" part of soil, which is- mostly - sand, silt, and clay. And, you should know that this sand, silt, and clay often contains nutrients like nitrogen, phosporous, potassium (aka "The Big Three" - which you'll see listed on bags of fertilizer) and, even things like sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron, boron, and a host of other micronutrients. So, clearly, dirt is important but, by itself, won't grow very good crops.  To explain, let's talk about what distinguishes soil from dirt.

Good soil contains as much as 45% dirt but is also comprised of roughly 25% water, 25% air, and- here's the kicker- at least 5% organic matter. At least 5%. Sometimes good soil can be as much as 49.9% organic matter, with just a "smidgen" of dirt. But, however much there is, it's the organic matter that's key to great soil.

Organic matter, is everything that is 1)alive, 2)recently dead, and 3)once alive but long-ago eaten up, pooped out and probably digested again, again, and again. (This last type of organic matter is called "humus," which is what makes soil dark, or, in high amounts, black). These three types (or stages) of organic matter are both the food and the lodging of beneficial microbes that continually breakdown nutrients, so that they are "available" to the plants you're trying to grow. You can consider good bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, and the rest of good soil's microbe community as the chefs of the soil. Most nutrients in the soil are much like whole potatoes. Just as you'll need to chop up and cook your potatoes before expecting dinner guests to eat them, your microbes have to breakdown the nutrients in the soil, so they're "available" to your plants. 

Another benefit of organic matter is that the worms (and other visible creatures) will move in because they've got something to eat. They'll open up channels in the soil for air & water to flow. They'll poop out sticky stuff that helps hold the soil together in clumps, so it doesn't collapse into a bunch of anaerobic mud when it rains. These channels and clumps allow it to quickly absorb water as well as drain, so it doesn't water log.  

This "soil structure" that helps water flow into and through good soil also helps air penetrate deep into the soil, which helps maintain the 25% air, 25% water balance - key to keeping the beneficial soil life alive and well. Another way of saying this is that good soil is both moist and aerated. 

Good soil is awesome! It's a whole ecosystem in and of itself. Everything you learned about ecosystems: primary producers, herbivores, predator-prey relations, nutrient cycling,... it's all happening right there in the top couple inches of any good soil, and it's key to plant health. In fact, according to one of the foremost soil biologists in the country, Elaine Ingham, plants are largely in control of the "soil food web" since they have the ability to secrete sugary substances (called exudates) through their roots. 

Plants' exudates are specifically tailored to benefit the growth of specific nutrient collecting bacteria and fungi, so, for instance, if a plant needs chromium, the plant will put out exudates that encourage the chromium-finding bacteria and fungi to reproduce and gather chromium. However, it's not until another, larger, soil microbe, further up the food chain, like a beneficial nematode or protozoa, eats the bacteria or fungi that the nutrients will be "mineralized" or made "available" to the plant.  So, without a well-developed soil food web, your plants won't be able to get what they need no matter how nutrient rich your soil might be. This is what I meant when I said that dirt, by itself, won't grow good crops.

(As a side note, all this, I'd guess, is why bagged soil always seems mediocre: by being sealed in plastic, all the beneficial aerobic soil life dies.)

Anyway, if you geek on soil science like I do, here are a few additional resources to explore:

-  - -

In my next post, I'll talk about how to build great soil. For now, to close, my tip is: avoid chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that disrupt and kill your soil ecosystem (Yes, this includes Miracle Gro). In the meantime, learn all you can about caring for and improving your soil food web. If I had to venture a guess, one day soon, we'll openly wonder at the fact that we once used chemical fertilizers, broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides on our gardens and farms because working with natural systems is wildly more productive-- not to mention less poisonous. 

Just take a look at this picture from a recent webinar with Elaine Ingham, the agricultural soil biologist I mentioned above.
The pictured fence line separates two farmers' dairy pastures. Until the year pictured, these two fields had been managed the same. This year, the field on the right was re-seeded (to fill in ruts & gaps in the grass) and fertilized with "conventional," chemical fertilizer (your standard "seed and feed"). This is the standard and recommended practice. On the left, per Ingham's suggestion, the field was not reseeded or chemically fertilized. Instead, it was inoculated with beneficial soil micro-biology by a few applications of compost teas. By late in the growing season, the grass on the left had grown so prolifically that the farmer had grazed cows through the field 5 times and, at the time of the photo, just weeks later, was 6-12" tall again. The farmer of grass on the right, which had been chemically fertilized was only able to graze cows on it once, and by season end, it was looking brown and patchy, in need, again, of re seeding and fertilization.

If you were farming or if you were in ag-business, if you were trying to buy milk for your children, or, if you were simply trying to #GrowYourGroceries in your own raised bed food garden, which of these two methods would you gravitate towards?

Though I tell people to #GrowYourGroceries, the real secret is to focus on caring for your soil, because good soil (with a little sunlight), will grow your groceries for you. If you've got good soil, your food garden will produce more than you can imagine. Then, you'll hear people say things like, "How do you do it? I kill everything I touch. You must work in your garden all the time!" You'll just smile and think, "The secret's in the soil."

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls' Email
Man in Overalls on Facebook, Instagram
Blog - About - Services - Projects - Resources

If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" updates, which include a story and food gardening tip please click here.

Most viewed Man in Overalls posts of all time

Why Can I Eat Bread in France, but not the USA?

Updated 10/31/2017 as the National Organic Standards Board meets in Jacksonville, FL. This may well be the most important thing you read this year for your health. (Originally written in 2015 while I was traveling-- and eating bread-- with my wife in France.)

I've got a food riddle for you from Paris, France: Why can I eat bread over here when it makes me sick at home?

I'll share my best guess in a minute, but first, a little personal background.

Since my senior year of high school, I've not been able to eat much bread at all. For five years, I was severely hypoglycemic, and everything I ate had to have more protein than carbohydrates. That meant, in effect, that I spent my years of college beer-less and eating lots of salad with meat on top. I ate tons of vegetables, very little fruit, basically no carbohydrates to speak of, meat, nuts, eggs, and cheese. If I accidentally ate, say, meat loaf that was, unbeknownst to me, made with bread in it, I'd spend the next 2-3 da…

Man in Overalls - It's Like Washing Your Dishes

I often hear folks joke, "Yeah, I had a garden once. I put in all this money & effort, and I only got a handful of tomatoes. Each one of them cost $27!" And they usually end by saying something about not having a green thumb.

I smile and think about a mental model I've been working on: Growing your groceries is like washing your dishes.

While they're raving about how many plants they've killed, I'm thinking, "It's not your thumbs. I bet you don't have a sink. And if you do, are you using decent soap or that garbage from the dollar store? And did you mention you've never washed dishes before in your life? And you're surprised you broke a couple wine glasses with no more experience than a four-year-old?" My eyebrows furrow involuntarily belying my thoughts, "Really? That doesn't seem all that surprising to me." But, of course, not only would saying all that confuse people, it'd kill the moment, so I just smile som…

Man in Overalls - The Valley of Food & Ag Startups: Warren Wilson College

If you're interested in tech, pay attention to Silicon Valley. If you're interested in food and agriculture, Swannnoa Valley, more specifically Warren Wilson College, is the place to keep on your radar.
I'm an alum and proud of it, class of 2008. I studied community organizing, wrote a 140 page thesis about social movements as my capstone.
It's a work college, one of seven in the country. Think universal work-study, so in addition to whatever one's academic track, students are also working in the cafeteria, the library, admissions, as carpenters, lock smiths, lab techs, and-- per the agricultural legacy of Warren Wilson-- as row crop, animal, and vegetable farmers, gardeners, and edible landscapers.  Personally, I worked on the electric crew and then on the landscape crew where I led the edible landscape sub-crew in managing a 1-acre edible (Permaculture) landscape around the "Ecodorm."

Per the "triad" of Warren Wilson's educational system,…

Man in Overalls - Growing Great Soil

Good soil will basically grow your groceries for you, but how do you build great soil? 
The answer is that there are two options: a quick & easy way and a DIY, hard(er) way. 

So we're on the same page, I'm continuing my #GrowYourGroceries The Easy Way series by digging into the how-tos of growing great soil. These stories and techniques will likely make the most sense after reading Geeking on Good Soil, my last update. (I outlined where I was headed in The Big Picture.)

As I was saying, the easy way to build a great soil is to fill raised beds with a terrific compost-based soil mix like my Magic Mix to jump start your food garden productivity from year one. From there, seasonally, you simply top-dress each season before planting with another few inches of compost-based soil mix. This is how I manage my own food garden and those of my customers. Why? Because at the root of things, I'm a lazy food gardener, and long ago I decided to embrace it. 😎

But if you're not in th…

Man In Overalls - My Compost System

Composting, they say, is an art form. But, truth be told, I'm just too lazy for all that. My own compost philosophy is, "Crap rots in the woods, doesn't it?"

But really. :)

Whenever I think of home gardening systems, I always reflect back on my grandmother. She gardened up until the week she died at 93. She planted by the signs and assured me that's why her collards were not eaten up by bugs and were able to grow for 3 years running and up to 8 or 9 feet tall. She had a little rototiller, planted straight rows, mulched by spreading leaves to keep the weeds down. She threw out a little 10-10-10 from time to time and kept the cabbage worms at bay with Sevin dust. She hoed if the weeds called for it. But mostly, she harvested. Her pots were always full and her freezer always stuffed with produce: collards, mustards, turnips, peas, tomato gravy, squash, you name it.

Now, I don't use 10-10-10 or sevin dust, and I'm not big on tilling. However, the thing I cont…

Man in Overalls - Summer Garden Blues & What To Do

Welcome to mid summer in the Deep South! If you're anything like me, you're actively looking for excuses to avoid going outside this time of year. The heat doesn't so much radiate down from the sun as it seems to rise from the side walk. Rain helps- for about ten minutes- and then simply adds to the humidity as it vaporizes on the payment, so that it feels like you need a snorkel to make it from the house to the car, but of course, it only gets worse when you turn on the AC, and that first puff of hot air feels as though someone just wrapped your face in a plastic bag - not to mention that if you cut your grass yesterday, you're going to have to do it again... tomorrow. And, lets not even talk about how fast the weeds grow this time of year! Or the insects seem to multiply! Oh, home... :)

Here's the good news: If your garden looks a little worse for wear, it's okay. Really. Mine does too. As much as I aim for- and largely achieve- a productive & beautifull…

Man in Overalls - When to Plant Tomatoes

"Plant 'em in the spring. Eat 'em the summer. All winter without 'em's a culinary bummer," as John Denver sings in "Home Grown Tomatoes." 
So, just when should you plant* your homegrown tomatoes? Or, more generally, when should you plant your spring food garden? (For an abbreviated version of this post revised & published in Edible Northeast Florida, click here.)
Since tomatoes along with other spring favorites like squash, corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, and the like are "frost sensitive" (in other words, they'll die if it freezes), it's all about the "last frost date" for your area. Unless you're a weather savant and remember the last freeze for the past twenty years, you'll have to do some investigating.
You could look up your Plant Hardiness Zone on this cool "interactive" map from the USDA, and you'd learn that Jacksonville is in zone 9a, Tallahassee is in 8b, and Atlanta is just bar…

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Design

Before you get to build your school garden like this,
before you can help kids get their hands dirty like this,
 or teach kids in your school garden like this,
there are a few things you've got to take care of first.

The #1 most important thing you've got to do is build your team. I say- with no exaggeration-- that human infrastructure is THE most important aspect of developing a successful school garden. But, I already wrote about building your school garden team last time. Assuming you're on track with that, a simultaneous step is to begin developing yourschool garden design.

Here are a few things to should consider as you develop a school garden design:
In your school garden interest meeting, one of the first questions you should ask is: "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Interestingly, this question serves two purposes. First, it helps the team gel because there will likely be a lot of overlap in answers. This will lend itself to a sense of s…

Man in Overalls - An Ode to Collards (Now with my recipes)

I love growing my groceries in the fall - watching the miracle of growth, having ready-access to the freshest produce money-can't buy, the many flavors, getting to try new varieties - all while the temperature drops to more and more pleasant levels. I enjoy growing most anything in the fall, but, if I had to choose just one thing to grow every fall for the rest of my life, it would be collard greens, hands down. 
It's a health thing and an effort-to-yield calculation, but in the beginning, the roots of my collard green passion were seeded by family.
When I was a kid about 9 or 10, just a couple years into gardening in the front yard, my aunt, the family documentarian showed me a clipping of my late grandfather from the Graceville New (or was it the Jackson County Times?) beneath his 9ft collard greens that he had kept alive multiple years, growing them into small trees. Seizing the moment, my mother suggested that I grow some collard greens too. "But I don't like col…