Soil Basics

“If we want clean water, we have to get the biology back in our soils. If we want to grow and harvest crops, we have to build soil and fertility with time, not destroy it. The only way to reach these endpoints is to improve the life in the soil.” --Dr. Elaine Ingham

What You Will Do

  • Learn why the soil structure created by soil biota is important to plant health and water cycles.
  • Understand ecosystem succession and the soil life succession that parallels and supports that growth.
  • Determine the needs of your soil through observation and hands on tests, and apply strategies for repair.
  • Learn how to create and fix compost recipes.
cover crops build soil and provide habitat for a huge diversity of species

​Soil basics: renewal and relationship

This section by Lichen June

Learn about the history of our relationship with soils, the soil biota interaction with plants, the succession of plant growth, and the succession of soil life that supports different kinds of plants within an ecosystem. Explore weeds as paramedics, soil structure and function, easy soil assessment, pH effect on nutrient availability to plants, soil amendments, many compost recipes, and refractometers for measuring nutrient density in food and the effectiveness of compost.


Life in the soil

​Plants are active participants in the vibrant and diverse community of soil life. There are more than 50 million genera of bacteria in the soil, and more than 50 million genera of fungi. Humans haven’t named more than a small percentage, and we know very little about those which we have named. Thus, the vast majority of life in the soil, along with their relationships and functions, are unnamed and unknown.

Through photosynthesis, each plant creates starches which it can trade with microorganisms in the rhizosphere for a wide array of nutrients. These exchanges are happening mainly with fungi and bacteria, but also with protozoa and nematodes. This soil biota then uses starch for various functions, including making sticky substances to prevent them falling into the comparatively giant gaps between soil particles. 

This thriving culture of starch exchange creates the sticky, crumb-like structure of healthy soil. The sponge-like structure leaves lots of space for the movement of both air and moisture. ​This means:

  • Aerobic life can multiply in the soil.
  • Gases can be exchanged between plants and soil.
  • Enough water can be absorbed, slowing water cycles.
  • Aquifers are recharged.
  • Floods and droughts are moderated.

Take a look at The Rhizosphere, an interaction between plant roots and soil biology.​

Learn more about the Soil Food Web and the functions of soil biota.

Watch this video, about Life in the Soil

​Healthy soil, much like a healthy human body, contains a whole ecosystem of flora and fauna. This video, a classic film from Japan, shows us the many layers of life that exist in healthy soil, and demonstrates the lack of life in soil that has been mistreated with chemicals and monocropping. 

We apologize for the low quality…this video is unparalleled, yet hard to find. If you happen to have a better-resolution copy, please send it along but meanwhile we really want you to see it!

When did modern agriculture lose its relationship with the life cycle of soils? ​

Chemist Justus von Liebig, the founder of organic chemistry and “the father of the fertilizer industry” had a part to play.

In the 1840s, he argued against humus playing a role in plant nutrition, and championed the idea that nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) were the primary nutrients necessary for plant growth. While you can grow plants with proportions of those, there is at least 42 elements and trace elements that are essential for plant health, vigor, and immunity, aiding survival in changing conditions and  providing ample nutrients. (Ingham, 2014)

The manufactured nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) (NPK) is stabilized in salt pellets and spread on fields, so that the farmer can choose when to water it into the soil. With living soils, the plant gets to choose a balanced diet from a wide array of possible trades. With NPK, the plant doesn’t get to choose because it has to drink, so it is drinking NPK, along with great quantities of salty water. 

My students have had some disgusting debates over the human diet equivalent of this pumped up salty meal. They sometimes describe it as hot dogs and cheap ramen. However, it’s worse than that, because the plant is being force-fed NPK in water. The plants become bloated, while the salt kills some of the soil life.

If you have a monocrop of big, bloated, unhealthy plants that are not resilient to hardship and disease, what does nature do? Bugs infest the weak plants, the farmer applies pesticides, which kills more life in the soil. Because the plants are bloated, they are more susceptible to fungal infection. To counter this, the farmer applies fungicides which also kills the helpful fungi in the soil. The soil conditions are now so poor, that weeds germinate to repair the damaged soils. Again, the farmer applies herbicides, killing even more soil life. This is sometimes called a biocide cocktail. 

Once you have applied fertilizer and biocides, so much soil life has been killed that the farmer becomes utterly dependent on this system of fossil fuel inputs. The companies that are creating and profiting from crops that attract pests, fungus, and weeds, are also profiting from the sale of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to manage the problems that they create. Plants can’t get nutrients from the soil when the microorganisms in the soil are dead.

When life in the soil dies, the sponge-like soil structure collapses. It no longer slows water or holds it long enough to divert it to deeper aquifers. Instead, topsoil is washed away in greater and greater quantities, as water comes through the landscape in big bursts and long droughts. 

If you look at satellite photos, you can see plumes of topsoil being washed into the oceans. As all of this soil life is lost, so are major stores of carbon. This tremendous carbon loss, along with mechanization, transportation and an overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel based fertilizers, greatly contributes to global warming.

​The root meaning of the word agriculture is the enrichment of the soil. However, this is certainly not a good description of agriculture today. It is an extraction process, more like mining. If humans are going to survive, we have to partner with a soil creation process. We have to partner with life.

Even organic farms can radically deplete the soil if. they don’t make sure to give back what they take. Look at this one–image if they never add compost or grow cover crops or mulch these beds…how long do you think they would continue to produce like this without replenishing the soil?

Carbon farming

​Life is made of carbon. Plants fix carbon from the atmosphere and use it to grow, while also sharing some of that carbon with the life cycle of the soil. When that life in the soil is destroyed, carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. 

By some accounts, humans have destroyed 50-80% of earth’s topsoil. I find this so troubling, I almost don’t know what to write next. However, this is a very clear case of, “the problem is the solution.”

There is so much land devoid of life, so many layers and niches just waiting to be filled with diversity, life cycles, and carbon. Soil is an incredible and established reservoir that is ready to hold carbon, if only we nurture it back to life.

The bodies of plants that die, their leaves, their roots that die back, each give carbon to life in the soil through decomposition. We too are made of carbon from the bodies of the plants that we eat or animals who ate plants, etc. Every organism on Earth is a storage of captured carbon that is not in the atmosphere. We have to partner with life cycles to capture carbon. Modern chemical agriculture is running in the wrong direction.

image: San Francisco Urban Carbon Farming Project

Carbon farming seeks to partner with photosynthesis and use farming practices which capture, hold, and increase carbon in vegetation and soils. At the same time, it implements strategies to harm as little life as possible, and to reduce carbon emissions and carbon loss. 

For example, exchanging tilling for no till practices, or adding compost to your soils to increase life, carbon holding capacity, and diversity to manage pests, rather than using fossil fuel based fertilizers and biocides that kill soil life. Carbon farming is a re-framing which prioritizes processes that support life. 

​Indigenous and land-based communities successfully lived in a mutually beneficial relationship with soils for many thousands of years. They  passed on a broad range of practical knowledge for working with soils and ecosystems, knowledge which was tested and proven over long periods of time. The foundations of modern soil science are built on testing those observations, and building on that indigenous knowledge. (Barrara-Bassols, Sandor, WinklerPrins, Zinck, 2006)

Here’s a great introduction to Carbon Farming as a solution to climate change.

Biochar, also known as terra preta, char, or agrichar can significantly reduce carbon in the atmosphere, and greatly increase agricultural yields.

What is this valuable substance? 

Take a look at this short video with Elaine Doyle, before moving on.

Biochar can be made from local materials such as wood, bones, manure, or food waste like nut shells, fruit pits, crop waste, etc. When these materials are put through pyrolysis (heated in an oxygen limited environment), the liquids and gases are released, leaving mostly carbon. The structure of biochar is very porous. As Elaine stated, this means that even a very small piece can have the surface area of a basketball court. For your soil microbes, it is like installing a vast metropolis with a big, flashing, vacancy sign. Not only does its structure allow for the water and air your beneficial microbes need, it also has a “high cation exchange capacity.” This means that it attracts and holds positively charged nutrients, and prevents them from leaching into your soil.

When you make compost to add to your garden, that fertility boost may benefit the soil for one year, or a few years. Biochar can last for thousands of years. It sequesters carbon that plants have fixed from the atmosphere and removes it from the carbon cycle for very long periods of time. All while improving the structure and long-term holding capacity for water, nutrients, and beneficial microbes.

What are the drawbacks when using biochar? If you do not inoculate your biochar with water and microbes before introducing it to your soils, it can rob your plants of moisture and nutrients, and stunt their growth. Luckily, it is easy to inoculate your biochar simply by adding it to compost or worm castings before applying it to your garden. This is most effective if the conditions are moist and if the biochar is mixed in at least a month or two before use in the garden. The increased microbial populations thriving on your biochar will provide more food for earthworms, and thereby increase their numbers to cycle even more fertility in your garden. It is also important to note that biochar is slightly alkaline. This makes it a perfect amendment for acidic soils, but be mindful of use if you are already gardening in alkaline conditions.

There are a variety of high and low-tech methods for making your own biochar.

Here is just one low-tech example in a short video.

You can also mineralize your soils by the supplements that you feed to your animals.​

The following is a mineral feed recipe based on the work of Pat Coleby:

  • ½ teaspoon copper sulphate dissolved in hot water.
  • 1 tablespoon animal dolomite.
  • 1 tablespoon sulfur.
  • 1 tablespoon kelp.
  • 1 tablespoon rock dust.
  • ½ cup organic apple cider vinegar.

Mix this into pollard with enough molasses to make it sweet. You can add this to cut forage and mix it all up.

This mineralizes the meat, milk, eggs, manure, and poo in your compost toilet. For chickens and ducks, mix it with just pollard and not greens. ​For dairy cows and milking goats, feed this mixture every day, and just once a week for other livestock.

Soil Structure, Composition, pH

​Without equipment, you can observe soil color, smell, taste, texture, structure, moisture, location, clay or sand content, and plant and animal indicators. The darker your soils, the more organic matter content and carbon sequestration. 

Rosemary Morrow defines organic matter as:

“Any material in the soil which has been living or is living, and includes excreta, exudates, and slough off. It is eaten by soil biota and can be leaves, peat sponges, fruits, timber, bones, skins, fibers, and through fall washed off plants, e.g. insect and animal excreta.”

Red and lighter brown soils commonly have less organic matter and are oxygen rich, allowing more oxidation. Red soils also contain more iron. Yellow soils contain more iron and aluminum. Pale grey or greenish soils are lower in oxygen. More aerobic, alkaline soils will have a sweeter taste, while anaerobic, acidic soils will taste more sour.

Clay particles are far smaller than sand. That is why they can pack together so tightly, and why soils with more clay content tend to have less air. 

Here is a short video of a simple shake test or jar test that you can do to look for percentages of clay and sand in your soil.

If you want to get more detailed about what you see in your jar, you can look for four layers. First and heaviest, coarse sand and gravel will settle to the very bottom, and finer sand, which also drops quickly, will settle around that.

On top of the sand, there will be a layer of silt.

On top of these you will see the clay layer.

​Organic material will form a darker layer floating on top of the water, or drop to settle on top of the clay.

Please watch this video, on how to test your soil texture.

Use this flow chart to conduct a home soil assessment:

Image source

pH: what it is and why it matters.

​Many plants have different recommendations for pH. Some plants, like blueberries, radishes, and sweet potatoes, prefer a more acidic soil. While others, like kale, cauliflower, and asparagus, prefer slightly more alkaline soils. If your soil pH becomes too acidic or too alkaline, your plants can’t take up nutrients, even if those nutrients are present in your soils.

pH stands for “parts hydrogen.” 7 is neutral on the pH scale. Each point on the pH scale is 10x more. For example, 6 is 10x more acidic than 7, and 5 is 100x more acidic, 4 is 1,000x more acidic, etc. 8 is 10x more alkaline than 7. 9, which is 100x more alkaline, and 11 is 10,000x more alkaline. 1 is sulfuric acid. 13 is caustic soda. Rain is 6.2 – 6.5 pH. This slight acidity is why it lathers better. Alkaline water from deep in the ground won’t lather as well.

Factories and cars are putting out massive plumes of sulfur and increasing the acidity of rain. At iIn- between 5 and 4 on the pH scale, heavy metals become soluble. Between 4 and 3, aluminum becomes soluble and creates “acid rain.” That is what killed the Black Forest in Germany. Lead can cause schizophrenia. Cadmium causes kidney and lung disease, muscle pain, and death. Mercury causes Erethism (Mad Hatter’s Disease). 

We are one biosphere. These pollutants are moving around the planet on the wind (along with all of the NPK, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that have entered our water cycles in agricultural runoff) and changing the pH of our water and soils.​

Acidic soils are found in humid areas, swamps and wetlands, and they tend more toward clays. They have less air and have more anaerobic life. Alkaline soils are found in drylands, deserts, coasts, beaches, new volcanoes, and calcium carbonate base rock. They contain much more space between particles, and because of this abundance of air, they support more aerobic life. You can remember the pH scale for soils by thinking that the lower numbers represent less space between soil particles, and the higher numbers represent more space between soil particles. Less air in your soil = more acidic.

More air in your soil = more alkaline.

If you want to make your soils more alkaline you can add lime, dolomite, or gypsum. To make your soils more acid you can add sulfur. However, adding organic matter to soils, feeding the microorganisms and allowing them to thrive, can often balance your pH without other inputs. This is why compost is pure gold for your garden. It will support your soil biota to correct a myriad of deficiencies and imbalances.

​Weeds and what they tell

Some of your greatest clues to the content and structure of your soils will come from weeds. There are “‘weeds’” that indicate pH, and there are plants which can harvest nutrients at a pH where other plants just don’t have access. Like thistles, they can harvest iron and copper when other plants cannot.

Here’s an excerpt from Heather Jo Flores’ article Wisdom of the Weeds:

Before you spend money on soil testing, go out into your garden and look at what’s already growing there. For centuries, organic gardeners have relied on the plants to indicate soil conditions, and common weeds provide excellent clues for how to improve your soil. By learning to recognize weeds (and what they tell) we can learn about our specific soil conditions and take action accordingly. We can also plant relatives of the wild plants that will thrive in the same soil conditions, or replace unwanted weeds with our preferred cultivars.

Here is a quick-reference guide to a few common weeds. Unsurprisingly, most of these plants are also edible and/or medicinal, but for now we will focus on what they tell you about your soil. If you don’t know what these plants look like, take some time to find out. As a rule, I never pull a plant I don’t recognize, and neither should you.

  • Yellow dock & horsetail. Soil is acidic or increasing in acidity. Plant cover crops, improve drainage, add non-acidic organic matter like straw and lime (but not wood chips.)
  • Morning glory/bindweed, wild mustard & pennycress. Formation of surface crust or hardpan. Plant deep-rooted cover crops such as ryegrass and daikon. Allow dandelions, burdock and other tap-rooted weeds to remain, as hey will help break up the compacted subsoil. Add thick mulch and consider tilling/digging less often.
  • Lamb’s quarters, buttercup, pigweed, teasel & thistle. Too much tilling and cultivation. Gardens that need a break will put out a lot of spiky and aggressive weeds. If it feels like you are constantly battling thistles and losing, consider letting that section of your garden fallow for a year or two. Sheet mulch with cardboard, straw and wood chips, and plant a cover crop of fava beans, vetch or ryegrass. Or, if you have the space, replant the area to perennial herbs, berries and trees, and start up a new veggie patch in a spot that isn’t so overworked.
  • Sweet peas, clover & vetch. Sandy or alkaline soil, needs nitrogen. These weeds are an excellent cover crop. Leave them alone and let nature do the work for you. When they start to bloom, cut them down and mulch over, then plant your veggies on top.
  • ​Wild lettuce, lemon balm, self-heal, cleavers, chickweed & plantain. Soil pH is balanced and/or ever-so-slightly acidic, soil is well-drained and fertile. Congratulations! These are the green-light weeds in your garden! This spot is ready for a fresh crop of vegetables. But be careful not to overwork, over-till, over-fertilize or add too much acidic material. Consider a careful rotation of crops to give your soil a chance to recover and re-adjust to the varied things you grow.

Working with succession by aiding soil repair


Increasing fertility with water, worms, livestock, and biochar

​If we are going to create healthy soils, and partner with the natural systems that create them, we have to understand how nature accumulates life in soils.


As you can see in the following list, when creating life, water is your most creative partner. The Hierarchy of Soil Creation in Natural Systems (Lawton 2013)

  1. Shallow Marine.
  2. Shallow Lakes and Ponds.
  3. Forests.
  4. Prairies and Savannahs.
  5. Mulched Crop Gardens.


Vermiculture, or worm farming, is the use of worms to break down organic material and turn it into worm castings which is one of the best kinds of organic fertility you can find. Vermiculture turns table scraps into compost and increases worm populations, which helps your garden in a myriad of ways.

To understand why worms are so important, go out into a forest and do some observation:

Observe the forest floor up close. Notice the layers of leaves, twigs, moss, fungi, and detritus all decaying at various rates. You will notice the top layer has the appearance of basic mulch. Scratch the surface and you will notice the layers below get broken down inch by inch into perfect soil. You’ll see that the rich humus that makes up the forest floor is a lot like fertile garden soil. It is composed of layers of the following:

  • Small stems and twigs.
  • Fallen leaves.
  • Grass clippings.
  • Compost.
  • Worm castings.
  • Aged sawdust (untreated).
  • Living organisms.
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps.
  • Other organic matter.

We strive to obtain these rich qualities in the soil by mimicking these natural layers in the substances we add to our own garden soil. Ideally, all of our garden beds would be exactly like a compost bin, alive with various layers, gently breaking down with no compaction. The soil is a living organism covering the Earth’s surface. Like all living things, it needs to be fed proper nutrients to thrive.

Worms are essential, because:

  • They are ecosystem engineers, worms, especially earthworms, play
  • Crucial roles in ecosystem functions. Earthworms improve soil structure by opening small channels or pores within the soil structure, which let air and water through, allowing plants to penetrate their roots deeper into the various layers of soil.
  • They break down and recycle organic matter into a useable growing medium.
  • They create space in the soil for bacteria and fungi, which help make nutrients available to plants.
  • They increase nutrient availability by adding and incorporating organic matter into the various levels of soil, and also unlock the nutrients contained within dead and decaying flora and fauna, making nitrogen, phosphorus, trace minerals, and other nutrients available to microorganisms and the roots of plants.
  • As part of the food web, they are eaten by predators.

PWG Faculty member Becky Ellis wrote a beginner’s guide to worm composting.

Vermicompost contains worm castings (worm manure, the material that moves through the digestive tract of a worm), partially decomposed organic materials and organic waste with recognizable fragments of plants, food and detritus materials. Vermicompost, which is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, also contains macronutrients and micronutrients, which all benefit plant health and stimulate growth. When you apply it, rich minerals are added back into the soil.

Vermicompost is similar to compost, but it uses worms such as red wigglers and earthworms to help break down organic material. Red wigglers can be purchased at a bait shop, online, or through mail order.

Vermicompost can be made into a nutrient-rich tea to water garden plants. We use one part vermicompost to ten parts water. Simply fill a burlap sack, potato sack, or mesh bag with vermicompost. Place the sack in a large bin such as a Rubbermaid container or 55-gallon drum. Fill with water. Steep the bag for a minimum of one day and a maximum of one week.

Worm castings are the final by-product of vermicompost. Essentially, they are the aggregate, dark brown rich soil medium found at the bottom of the vermicompost bin. They can be added to a seed-starting soil mixture or used to top-dress seedlings in pots, and to side-dress larger transplants in a garden bed or field. Worm castings can also be sprinkled on top of small garden beds.​

Please watch this short video, where Susan Levi-Goerlich talks about vermicomposting, and how to use red wiggler worms to make highly-effective compost for you garden. She covers setting up, maintaining, and harvesting from a worm bin in your home.

a classic home-scale, two-bin compost system built with recycled/found materials


All paths lead back to compost. 

However, if you want to be energy efficient, make your compost near where you are going to use it! Your food is only as healthy as the soil that it was grown in, so you’ll want to give your soil biota something good to eat.

​Pick up a handful of compost and rub your hands together. As it falls away, you’ll have a very fine matter showing dark in the lines and creases on your hands. That is the compost.

plastic bins like this fill up fast and break down slowly, and we do not recommend them unless you are in a very urban situation

​Compost recipes and variations.

This recipe is a variation of the 18 day Berkley method, and can teach you the basics. As you gain more experience, you can change the recipe. The greater variety of matter you put into your compost, the richer your soils become. You’ll need 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Some examples:

  • Sawdust is 500 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
  • Fish is 7 to 1.
  • Urine 1 to 1.
  • Chicken manure 12 to 1.
  • Rabbit manure 8 to 1.
  • Horse manure 20 to 1.
  • Green weeds 25 to 1.
Heather Jo with a big fresh pile!

If you can increase surface area by chopping or shredding, it will speed up decomposition. You will need a lot of materials. Don’t go over 4 feet high or it will squeeze the air out. You can use a gravity fall pile, or a piece of wire fence. You’ll need a long handled pitch fork with 3-5 prongs, a rake, and a cover to maintain moisture.

You need 1/3 of your materials to be manure, 1/3 high carbon material, or browns, and 1/3 fresh greens. Pitch them all together and mix them up. Then water the hill until it starts to leak water. If you have food scraps, those can be incorporated into the layers and covered. Make sure to avoid: meat, bones, grease, and dairy products. Avoid materials that have come into contact with: Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotic medications, and anything that will take your pH to one extreme or another.

Once you’re more familiar with this recipe, you can put an activator in the middle when you start the pile. These could include: Dead animal, fish, chopped comfrey, yarrow, nettle, or old compost. You have to be certain that you know your recipe, so your pile will cook and not go putrid. Some people urinate on their compost piles to increase the nitrogen. Some add menstrual blood as an activator.

Other common activators, by % of Nitrogen:

  • Alfalfa meal 2.4%.
  • Blood meal 15%.
  • Bone meal 4%.
  • Chicken manure (dry) 8%.
  • Coffee grounds 2.1%.
  • Rabbit manure (fresh) 2.4%.
  • Rabbit manure (dry) 12%.

Once you have built your pile, you will want to cover it if you are expecting rain. Place branches on top of the pile to hold the cover off the surface, allowing air to pass through. You can also build the pile inside to heat a greenhouse. If conditions are very hot, place your pile in the shade.

If you want to look at your compost activity under a microscope, put a handful of compost in a jar with water and shake for 10 minutes. Then get a pipette and drop one drop on a slide, under a cover sheet, to view under the microscope. Take five minutes to look at this and you will see thousands of organisms every second.

Carbon is more of a fungal food. Nitrogen is more of a bacterial food. Non-woody plants and pasture prefer bacteria rich soil. Trees prefer fungal/carbon rich soil. Flour, paper, cardboard are all fungal food. If you want more fungi in your compost, you can add something like oat flour on every turn.

You can test the temperature of your pile with a good quality compost thermometer. If the pile is hotter on the inside than the outside, then your pile is too dry. If your pile is hotter on the outside than the inside, then your pile is too wet. Compost kept between 131 – 140 degrees for 15 days will kill pathogens, parasites and weed seeds.

If you want to speed up the compost turning process, you can turn your pile every day for 10 to 12 days and get it done faster, but it will be more work. Make sure you put the outer layer in the center when turning your pile, and the inner layer on the surface.

Step-by-step guide to fast composting:

  • Day one: Create the pile.
  • Day four: turn it over, ideally putting the outer layers in the middle and the center on the surface, as you move and rebuild the pile. Replace branches and cover.
  • Day six: turn.
  • Day eight: Turn every two days.
  • How do you know if the moisture in your pile is adequate? Squeeze a handful of the matter from the compost pile. If one drop falls, it is perfect. More water than that, and the pile is too wet. No drops, and it is too dry.
  • The pile should also be very warm. If you put a glove on and push your arm into the pile up to your elbow, it shouldn’t be so hot that you say, “Ow”.
  • Turn the pile on day ten, day twelve, day fourteen, day sixteen and by day eighteen it should be done. When it is just warm, dark brown, fine with only a few chunks, and an earthy smell, not putrid, then it is done.


How do you fix problems with your compost recipe? If you get to day 6 or 8 and your compost is not hot enough, ask yourself:Is the pile high enough?Is the pile wet enough?Is the pile too wet?Have you shredded the carbon small enough?

If it is high enough and wet enough, then you don’t have enough nitrogen. Get some convenient nitrogen and spread it into the pile on each turn, such as blood and bone meal, rich manure, or molasses. You have probably lost 4-6 days, or rather, you will have to turn the pile for 4-6 extra days.

If the pile is too wet, you’ve got to put a hole in the center with your pitchfork handle and place a chimney in the middle to let it steam off. If it is too dry, just water it.

If you have too much nitrogen it will loose volume fast and smell very bad. Carbon is your sponge and carbon will slow it down.

If your compost goes a little anaerobic in places for lack of air, it will present a white moldy looking powder. That is the first indicator that you’ve gone over the line in temperature or moisture and need to make an adjustment.

You want 10 compost heaps to an acre if you want to kick off an organic crop garden system. Your soil will hold more water at the end of this process.

​When you get skilled at turning your pile, you can do it in 20 minutes. That’s 3 hours of work total for this 18 day recipe. One compost heap this size, spread around a garden, will grow vegetables for one year, for one person.

Slow compost.

Turning a pile every two days is not for everyone. If you are too busy, you can turn your pile once every 7-10 days. At that rate your compost will be finished in 1-3 months.

If you need to go more slowly, that’s okay. You can always assess what your compost needs are when you turn it, and add accordingly.

Alternately, you can make an add as you go pile. This requires even less effort, as there is no need to separate your kitchen waste, yard debris, and clippings. Unfortunately, it decomposes at a slower rate of 3-8 months. It is prone to odor problems because the lack of turning allows it to go anaerobic. It doesn’t heat up well, which means it does not kill weed seeds and pathogens. It will be less nutrient dense. It might attract pests if uncovered.

If you mix your sieved compost with sharp river sand from the inside bends of creeks or rivers, you can make your own potting mix. The smaller the seed the more sand you want in the mix, for example, carrot seeds, etc. With large seeds you can use 50/50 compost and sand.

You can also extend your compost by making compost tea.

image from this article about how to make fertilizer teas


One way that you can measure the success of your compost is to use a refractometer.

The refractometer measures refracted light through plant fluid. Inside is a gauge, and in that gauge is a blue line. It is used to measure the starch and sugars in fruit. If the starch goes up, the plant is probably feeding and happily using your compost. This shows an increase in the nutrient density in food. Caution: If you use this to measure the nutrient density of food from the supermarket, you won’t find it easy to spend money on commercially grown produce ever again.


Biodynamic compost preparations.

This is an optional section of this class, but you may find it interesting, and some of our faculty members are into it!

I’ve seen biodynamic compost created by breaking up a bale of hay and making a structure like a long triangular tunnel with a base. Adding moisture, manure, and green clippings in layers while the stable air tunnel remains, allowing more air into the process without turning as frequently. As part of the process, special plant based preparations are included to add nutrients and energies that stimulate the health and vigor of your plants. 

This pdf goes into more detail about the preps.

healthy soil means happy plants!


Questions for Review

  1. What are the qualities of your soil? How is the structure? What is the pH?
  2. Which organisms and microorganisms can you find, and which are known to be prevalent in your soil?
  3. Are there potential problems/solutions you can foresee?
  4. Name three “weeds” and what they can indicate about the health of the soil they are growing in. Are any growing near you?
  5. How can you most efficiently work with nature in soil creation, given your soils needs and the resources that are available within your design?

Recommended Hands-On

  • Collect a soil sample and investigate the color, structure, and life you can see. Observe how your soil absorbs water, during different levels of rain events, or by applying water yourself. Consider what your soil needs to increase fertility.
  • Build a compost pile.
  • Map the soil microclimates on your site, and learn the names and relationships of all the organisms you can find there.
  • Create an evolving recipe book of teas, amendments, inoculants, and concoctions to help build your soil. 
  • Include spaces for compost, cover crops, and soil conditioning in your design.​
  • Make a worm bin for your home.
  • Install a worm tower in your garden bed.
  • Create a hugelkultur garden bed.
  • Look at your compost activity under a microscope. Watch this video of selected invertebrates of the soil food web, and then see how many you can find in your local soils.
  • Learn about earthing and grounding and get your feet in the dirt.