feeding the soil first!

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Hello I am a new gardener and not very good at it either. I guess you could say I have a brown thumb. But nonetheless I love gardening and expecially fresh veggies.

About a month ago, my husband built me 2 beautiful raise beds and so I went to lowes and home depot and decided to buy their organic manure and compost. After reading the book lassange gardening I decided to take some of the ideas from the book and implement them to my gardening method, so I went ahead and just layered the compost the cooffee grounds the manure and peat moss, unfortunately I did not have old leaves or straw to place in my beds but I decided that I would just use what I had in hand.

I was so happy with my new beds that I started planting right away, in one bed I placed some Kentuky bush beans and beets and in the other my poor cucumber plants which did not look too good and some chard, and so my lets say experiment begun. It's been raining constantly here in Mobile AL for the last month or so so no need of watering, in fact I think my plants were over watered.

About a couple of week later my beans seemed to be doing well and so I was very happy with the results, my cucumbers were doing poorly they never got really big at all and my swiss chard and beets never came out. About a couple of days later I was horrified to watch half of may beans beign devoured by something, some of my beans leaves had maybe a leaf left and nothing else just stems, I started looking for the pests that were doing this damage and nothing I could not find a single cattterpillar in sight, so I took diatomaceous earth and started sprinkling the dust all over my beds, unfortunately like I mentioned before it was raining constantly so the diatomaceous earth just did not do the job killing the pests, then I decided to use BT a organic encyme that kills all kinds of catterpillars amongst other bad stuff, that seemed to work a little, but by the time I prayed, my plants looked extremely bad.

Before I started gardening I decided to purchase a couple of DVD's called organic gardening made easy just so I could learn a little more, practickly the Dvd's talk about how to plants vegetables in a small space using organic methods of gardening only. He always makes the point that if you feed the soil first and have a good heatlthy soil with good microorganisms and worms that can make castings that your plants will end up growing strong and that will help the plants deter any bad critters that can damage the plants, oviously he does use organic methods of killing bad critters but he also does point out that thanks to the healthy soil he is able to use a lot less pest controll.

This time I decided to take his advice and do exactly what he said on his DVD. So I practically pulled out all my plants out of my raised beds , thru them in my compost pile.
The first thing he recomends to feed the soil is to put alfalfa hay or meal in the beds and dig them into your raise beds, this will help put good bacteria and will create more food for the worms and therefore will decompose in your garden. Step two is to plant a cover crop such as legumes which will help add nitrogen into the soil and add other beneficial bacteria, once the legumes grow tall but just before you are getting the flowers is when you have to chopped them down and dig them into the soil as well.

I just purchased my cover crop seed from peaceful Valley I love this web store they practically have everything you need as an organic gardener. I already digged the alfalfa hay in the beds about a week ago and I am planing to start my leggumes in September, I would imagine it will take a good 3 -4 months for the legume to get to a good height and then I am planing to chop this down and digg it to the soil, then let the soil rest for a couple of weeks put some bone meal, fish meal and kelp meal down (NPK) this will add additional nutrients to the soil and start planting your crops, by this time the soil will have all the nutrients and added beneficial bacteria necesary for healthy plants.

I am just starting with all this and I wish I could tell you whether or not it works but hopefully I will be posting my results later on the year. You obiously don't have to buy his DVD's to learn his method, in fact his website provides tons on info and he does personally answer e-mails even if you don't buy his product, but for me it did help me see it first hand, I guess I am just a very visual person. His website is organichomegardener.com if you are interested in learning more about his method.

Another thing that has helped me is to catalog all my seeds acording to growing dates, I was able to find a really good site that tells me when to plant what in my area, sometimes the seed packages don't have a lot of info on them.

I would love to hear from anybody that has tried this or other methods of feeding the soil and that had good results with it. I will be posting pictures as the experiment continues. Also if any of you want to start this method of feeding the soil please let me know your results as well.

This message was edited Aug 20, 2009 8:06 PM

Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

Carminator1 I live about 30 miles from downtown Mobile so I think our conditions are the same except Mobile County has far better soil. I've got relatives in Grand Bay that are small commercial farmers. I think your lasagna bed would have worked but it takes more time to break down.

For soil building in this area, Southern Peas or cow peas or field peas are a very cheap and effective legume. They're available at every seed and feed store and make for very good eating too. I just cut mine off at the ground because the roots are what holds the nitrogen. The tops are great for compost. I will eliminate the few weeds that were growing under them and hurry to plant some snap beans. When they're done, I'll cut them at the ground as well. By then, the old pea roots will have decomposed and released their goodies and any winter crop can then be planted. We are blessed to be able to grow something year round and you will soon want more beds.

I suggest you collect all the leaves you can this fall and start on more beds. Once you enjoy a little success you will never be satisfied as you think of more things to try. I'm going to try English peas (legume) in October. This week I've germinated broccoli, cauliflower and bak choy. I wish you lots of fun and success.

Toledo, OH(Zone 6a)

carminator1 - I just love your style of writing, storytelling at its best!

That being said, a few more paragraph breaks would have made for a little easier reading.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)


Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

Carminator I just realized I neglected to say anything about your pest problems. You will find we don't suffer any shortage of pestilence. Rabbits like to strip beans. There's something I think called leaf cutters. I've never seen them and haven't looked them up. They usually spare some of the leaves, move on and the plants recover. Rabbits and caterpillars usually leave some excrement as evidence. Neem will repel a lot of things so you might want to try that. I got some Greenlight 3 in 1 with neem at WM. It's organic.

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Wonderful twiggybuds, I guess we are neighbors! thanks for the pointers, I will definetely try the cowpea next time. Actually I did end up seeing some small catterpillars muching on the leaves before I decided to pull everything.

Bolino, sorry about not putting more paragraph breaks, yes I just reread it and it is kind of tough, also if I might add, english is my second language so please excuse my spelling.

Toledo, OH(Zone 6a)

carminator1 - Even so, the story was fascinating and I read every word. Even tho English is your second language, you are quite the story teller! That is a compliment!

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Thank you Bolino, I'll try to fix the story and try to put it in paragrahs so it can be read better.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

carminator1 - I loved reading your "new gardener" story, and I must complement you on "following directions."

I've been growing vegetable for 57 years, and I can tell you that you will learn from your mistakes, so look at them in a positive light. After all these years I've learned to grow more by instinct than by design.

As to those pesky bugs - learn to disguish the good guys from the bad ones - and don't be afraid to "squish" the bad ones with your fingers - I've only known a few that will bite back - such as Japanese Beetles and June Bugs.

If you don't know if it's a bad bug, my advise would be to leave it alone. Sooner or later a good bug will come along and have it for dinner!

Using organic methods - over time your soil will reward your efforts, so keep at it. This has been my third season here at my North Carolina home, and I've managed to transform hard-packed clay into beautiful well-drained soil. It wasn't cheap by any means as I purchased lots of bagged stuff from Lowe's.

Good luck with your future gardening - you are off to a great start!

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Thank you so much Honeybee.

I am thrilled to start growing veggies, and even some flowers as well, to try to attract more benefinial insects into my garden. I am paciently waiting for September to plant my cover crop, the instructions said that is will perform best if planted in September-october time frame.

Part of my problem is I am a very impacient person but I have to learn to be more patient if I want better results with my gardening, I am sure I'll make many mistakes along the road but hopefully just like you said I can learn from them.

My local Feed and Seed store gave me the number of a gentelman who raises horses, and according to them he has enough to give away for free, so as soon as I can get my third raise bed built, I will grab some of this free manure and mix it with some straw, coffee grounds and I even have left over alfalfa hay.

I intend to mix this up in my new raise bed water it really well and then cover it with clear plastic so no air escapes, leave it like this for 2 or 3 months, I would imagine by then the manure will be all cooked up and ready for planting.

Running Springs, CA(Zone 7a)

I'm also trying to improve my soil. I did much better this year by adding lots of amendments and it is paying off now with nice veggies. I now have two composters going and hope to add it to the beds before the first snow.

I need advice from you experts. As you can see, I have created terraces for my beds. Could I plant a cover crop to grow over the winter? Would that crop grow on the sloping edges to hold the dirt? In the spring, could I just cut the tops off, and leave the roots to help hold the soil during the spring? What crop would grow well in zone 7. We get snow at an altitude of 5700 ft.

Thumbnail by slopesower
mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Wow slopesower:

Yout veggie patch looks great. I am definetely not an expert but would check peaceful valley and see what tipe of ground covers they have available. The one I am planting says that it can be grown in the colder climates, one of the reasons I am waiting a little bit to plant it.

I am sure you'll get an answer from somebody that is a little more seasoned than I am though.

By the way I just had my DH build me a composter my second one, I can't wait until I can get some home compost made.

Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

One that's very popular around here is winter rye grass. It dies when it gets warm weather. I just don't know how hardy it would be for you.

Another popular one is red clover. I don't know if it's perennial or annual but it fixes nitrogen and honey bees love it. It is commonly planted on slopes to stop errosion.

I have a good gardening book written by a VT gardener that raves about the virtues of buckwheat.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

carminator1 -

I will grab some of this free manure and mix it with some straw, coffee grounds and I even have left over alfalfa hay.

Wish I could get free manure. I think I am right in saying that manure, coffee grounds and alfalfa hay will all add mostly nitrogen to your soil. You might want to even-up the nutrients by adding some other stuff, like leaves. The straw should break down and add some great humus to your beds.

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Yes the problem is I live in a new subdivition so I can't get any leaves, I do have tons of straw and alafalfa hay though.

Toledo, OH(Zone 6a)

I find my neighbors might leave leaves all bagged up by the curb in large really light bags for me!

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Twiggy and Honey,
I've been following this thread and a light bulb went on in my head. I think I've been mixing apples and oranges in my garden operation, and I need ya'lls help with some clarification. Here's what I've been working with:

My patented EBs call for potting MIX only. I've always used MG potting mix.
Last planting season, I introduced Bocabob's coco coir into the garden, mixing in 3 parts coco coir to one part MG potting mix, in last season's EBs.
I've been using 100% MG potting mix in all my homemade eBuckets.
I had a small raised bed that I grew root veggies in last fall. I filled it with 2 bags MG potting mix, 2 bags Black Kow composted manure, and approximately 1.5 bags of sifted homemade compost from my bin.

My question is this. What, if anything is organic in the equation above, and am I on the right track with mixing these 3 together? If not, what should I keep together?

Now. Fast forward to the upcoming Labor Day weekend, when I will secure 2 yards of Rose mix from a local Living Earth business. I have sifted one wheelbarrow full of my homemade compost.

The Rose mix is to fill up my two expanded raised beds to grow the veggies in.
I still have to empty out the eBuckets that currently have some varying ratios of MG potting mix and coco coir in them.

How do I incorporate the Rose mix into this planting equation, if at all?

I need help sorting out this madness I think I've created. After reading this thread, it got me to thinking I may be mixing the wrong things together (organic and non-organic?).

HELP ME, PLEASE. Thank you.


Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Linda - I'm unsure as to what "Rose mix" is. Is this something that roses have grown in, or is it a brand name? If the former, you will have to ask the rose grower what kind of mix it is - if the latter, the information should be on the packaging.

Mixing potting soil, coir, compost, and kow manure together sounds like a "good thing" to me! Personally, I throw anything organic I have together, and then add some natural fertilizers and a little dolomite lime. As long as you keep the mix light and well-draining, I don't think the ratio matters much. The earthworms and soil microbes break down anything organic, and that's what feeds your veggies.

It's persistant pesticides that you have to be careful of. If the mix you mention was previously used to grow Roses, it could very well have systemic pesticide residue as most roses are heavily sprayed.

I grow Knockout roses and my pesticide of choice is: "finger-and-thumb" (giggle)

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks, HoneybeeNC!

I'll check on the Rose mix composition, re: pesticides. One thing I have noticed about the straight MG potting mix is that it begins to compact over time, bonding together like hardpack.

The coco coir may help prevent this, and the compost is definitely fast draining as well.

Deep South Coastal, TX(Zone 10a)

Alfalfa also adds other nutrients to the soil. I use alfalfa pellets, I get them at the farm and ranch store along with dry molasses. Tractor supply usually has both also. I think it also improves the flavor of the vegetables. I know I've had lots of compliments on the taste of the veggies and melons.
Alfalfa pellets contain: Nitrogen, Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper, Manganese, Zinc, Magnesium and Selenium.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

How do you use the dry molasses? I thought that was just to get the compost started?

I saw pics of your turnips and the tops are very healthy. That's what I'm going for 'cause I love the tops. My first time last season, I grew nice turnips and beets, but the pillbugs invaded my root bed with a vengeance. I noticed none of your tops were chewed on. Please help me understand how to battle them this year. Thanks!


Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

My definition of organic matter is simply plant matter. It all works. I would say the coir is 100%. Your compost really depends upon how you make it. For instance, some people add plant residue to a pile and cover with a bit of soil in layers. I favor this because it introduces the soil microbes which speeds the process.

It's a fact that plant residue nourishes and conditions soil so the important thing is to apply it to our gardens. If we simply get in the habit of ALWAYS gathering and incorporating everything we can reasonably acquire, our soil will improve exponentially. That's the best advice I could give. Cover crops are great too. You will know you're on the right track if, at the end of the season, you can find worms in your soil. That includes normal open containers. I think a variety of amendments such as leaves, grass, weeds and vegetables is better than a single source because they harbor micro-nutrients in different amounts.

Gymgirl I don't see a need to sift. Whatever you are trying to exclude will either break down by microbes or plant roots will penetrate and further break it into smaller units. The only time sifting helps me is for a fine cover of small seeds so it's easier for them to emerge.

I'd say just jump in and don't stress about it. Much of it is simply intuitive. The richer the soil, the healthier the plants and the less fertilizer, lime, etc. Some recent studies have also noted that really healthy, naturally grown plants can better repel some disease and insects.

I just previewed and can agree with Honeybee and Cala. I've used alfalfa pellets with good results.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks, Twiggy!

When I arrived at terra non gratis (grata), I believe there were 5 earthworms in the dirt. When I lifted my compost pile to sift into the wheelbarrow (I sift because I think it's the prettiest "dirt" I've ever seen, and I just love how it looks when it's all nice and uniform. Also, the root crops don't have to fight to grow in it, 'cause it's loose enought to plunge my hands into, up to my forearms) I could not do so without lifting a shovelful teeming with HUGE, 5-7" earthworms.

So, if earthworms love organic "soil," I guess I'm well on my way, and on the right track.

I was concerned about the addition of REAL DIRT (the rose mix) to my equation, and whether it constitutes as "organic," 'cause the stuff I found when I got there was simply pitiful, hard, dry, and clumpy, like clay.

Thanks for the feedback, ya'll. I'm confident now that I can mix what I've been working with together. I'll keep finessing the ratios to get a consistently good growing medium.


Thumbnail by Gymgirl
Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

Gymgirl you made me laugh out loud for real. I know what you mean about that beautiful sifted stuff. So long as you are enjoying it then, by all means, indulge. I'm not convinced that the plants really care though.

Yep those worms know more about it than we do. Now you can officially quit stressing. lol.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Twiggybuds, thanks for setting me at ease. BTW, here's how I've been "making" my compost:

I started on a bare patch of dirt in a corner of our yard. Layered confetti shredder paper from work, spent coffee grinds from the coffee bar at work (can get a 5 gallon bucket almost every 1.5 weeks), leaves and grass from the lawn (although it just occurred to me that my DH spreads Scott's weed and feed on our grass....hmmm....), and all my veggie peels and non-protein table scraps.

These ingredients are layered and sprinkled down between each layer, and kept as moist as I can stand in the summertime holding the hose. Then it handles itself in the rainy season. I used to turn it regularly when I was an UBERnewbie, then I learned better. Now I manage to move it around periodically when I pull a trench open to chuck in my scraps to feed the wormies. And, maybe when I get a bug on me and I'm feeling like I need a good workout, I've actually shoveled it all out, then shoveled it all back in -- but -- only in the fall, when it's at least 50 degrees out and I can push the sleeves up on my sweatshirt -- learned that as a newbie!

I used to lament it wouldn't get "hot" but then I learned I could have "hot" or "worms" but not both, so I chose worms. I love the worms, cause they represent "good earth!"


mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

That's a beautiful clump of real dirt you have there gymgirl.

How long did it take for all the materials to decompose to the finish product?

I just stoped adding things into mine, hopefully this will speed things up. :)

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Hey Carminator1,
Actually, the compost I sifted a coupla weeks ago in the wheelbarrow has been breaking down since last summer. I didn't need it for anything before now, so I just kept adding to it, and kept it watered down and well-fed so my worms wouldn't go house-hunting elsewhere. I could've pulled from the bottom after about 2-3 months or so.

Once I sift the other 1/2 of the pile, I'll start layering again for next fall. I think I'll start using more of it, and sooner from now on, though.

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

Gymgirl, one thing you can do with the compost as well is compost tea, it is great for plants, I have done it with my worm castings but you can also use your ritch compost to do it as well.

Mine is starting to break down but I can still see a lot of the woody items I put on it, the straw and all, it is taking on the dark brown color though.

I did not want to spend a lot of money on a second composter so I had my husband build me a second composter with mesh wire, the other one I have is a biostack and it works great.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Gymgirl -

One thing I have noticed about the straight MG potting mix is that it begins to compact over time, bonding together like hardpack.

I usually add perlite to this potting mix so it doesn't pack down.

By next year (my fourth growing season here in NC) I hope to have enough "home grown" soil as to not to need to buy potting soil again. The earthworms have been turning all the leaves hubby gathered last fall into wonderful soil. We put the leaves between the raised beds to keep the weeds at bay. These areas are finally clear of Burmuda grass. When the weather gets cooler, I'll take-up all the worm castings and add them to the beds.

Then I gotta get a drip-irrigation system going, 'cause my hubby gets worn-out hand watering!

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks, Honey!
So, perlite come in bags at the Box Store? What ratio of perlite to potting mix/soil?

Also, isn't there a huge difference between potting MIX and potting SOIL? It's ok to mix these two? That's the dilemma I'm trying to resolve now, cause most of my eBuckets have potting MIX and coco coir in them.

How does the SOIL fit in this equation?


Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

My take on it is that potting soil is dirt plus some organic stuff, often referred to as compost, mixed in. It's usually not much organic content or if it is, it will usually be a cheaper type such as composted tree chips and bark.

Potting mix is supposed to have much more organic content, usually peat and those little white beads (pearlite?). It may or may not actually have some dirt depending on the brand. The mix usually is higher priced and is often billed as being sterile.

I don't see any reason you couldn't mix it. I would question the rationale of purchasing the more expensive potting mix and then diluting it. Gymgirl you are now comfortable in the conviction that you know how to make some excellent compost. In your position, I'd take potting soil or even soil from your yard and mix it with about 1/3 to 1/2 of your good compost and call it better than store bought.

I haven't had any problems with soil-borne disease in my pots or with starting seeds. I start seedlings with peroxide water and that kills anything that might be lurking in it. I just keep adding organic materials and recycling. I'm using some potting soil that I know is 4 years old, with good results. I get some foliage disease on my tomatoes but so does everyone else. It's in the air and inevitable. I just remind myself once in awhile that humans have been growing crops in the soil for a long time.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks Twiggybuds. You make good sense. The only reason I'm entertaining soil at all is to fill those two beds. It'd cost WAY to much to fill em with potting mix. I'm gonna do as you suggested. Get the soil, fill those beds, and build on them with my homemade compost. I think I'll stick with the mix for the EBs and when its time to rotate it out, I'll dump it into the raised beds. Thx again!

mobile, AL(Zone 8a)

It sounds like a good plan Gymgirl. Yes it does cost quite a bit to fill up your beds when you use the stuff from the stores, I think I have spent about $60 in my 2 raise beds.

I am planning to build a 3rd one and will use stuff that I have at hand. The soil you made is way!!!! better than the one you get from the stores that's for sure. You can also add some organic materials in your beds as well, like straw or leaves, they will eventually dicompose as well.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks for the affirmations, guys!

Headed to Cancun this weekend and back Labor Day weekend, racing like the wind to planting stuff out!

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Gymgirl - Enjoy your vacation!

As to the difference between potting mix and potting soil - I don't know the answer. I usually poke a hole in one of the bags, and whichever looks "good" to me is the one that goes home (LOL) I seem to remember buying bags of Miracle Grow garden soil this year. I added perlite, vermiculite, coir, compost, and an endless assortment of other organic stuff to it. There was another brand at Lowes, but there seemed to be too many wood chips in it.

I never measure anything - just throw it all together into my garden cart, mix it well, tip it onto the garden and grow stuff in it. Maybe when I was much younger, I worried about the correct amounts of what, but now I just grow by instinct. We get enough to eat/share each year and that's whart I love best about gardening - especially the eating part :)

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks, Honey.

Anybody out there got any spare short-day onion plants for sale?

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Gymgirl - I purchased my "Candy" white and reds from Jung - they were a good size and grew very well.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

Thanks, HoneybeeNC,
Dixondale Farms here is completely sold out of onion stock....

Moss Point, MS(Zone 8b)

Gymgirl I thought you were going somewhere. Go have fun and when you get back, I'll share my seeds.

SE Houston (Hobby), TX(Zone 9a)

I've been up all night upoading songs to my new MP3 player. It's a wonderful thing! Now, I'll go get on the plane!

Holler at ya'll when I get back next Saturday.

Hugs and Crosses!


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