Building Garden Soil with Free, Local, and Abundant Resources

One of the keys to continually improving soil fertility is to always give more to the soil than we take. With each harvest, we remove nutrients from the soil, and it’s important to give them back in order to ensure the success of the next crop. A great place to start is with the plant waste generated on site. We return all healthy plant waste back to the soil in the form of compost, vermicompost, or mulch. Thousands of earthworms help in this process, chewing through the mulch, working their way through compost piles after they’ve cooled down, and happily consuming food scraps in our worm bins. But even if when we return all healthy plant waste, the soil is still at a deficit. The nutrients in discarded, diseased plants are lost, as are the nutrients in the crops that we eat. In an ideal world, I suppose, all humanure would be safely composted and returned to the soil, but even then the soil would be at a slightly greater nutrient deficit with each harvest. To compensate for this deficit, we look to external inputs. And there are so many to choose from that it can boggle the mind. For organic gardeners, there are npk fertilizers, bat guano, alfalfa meal, fish fertilizers, kelp fertilizers, blood and bone meal, composted manure, Epsom salt, rock dust, greensand, and lime just to name a few. Looking at all the available options, one might come to the conclusion that growing your own fruit and veg costs an arm and a leg. Many years ago, when faced with this confusing array of products, I asked myself “what would happen if we didn’t use any of them, and instead relied only on resources that are free, local, and abundant? Might we be able to reduce our gardening expenses dramatically, continue to get great results, and also keep valuable resources out of landfills?” With these questions in mind, I started to consider what free external inputs were available. We were already composting all fruit and vegetable waste from store-bought groceries, but what else could we do? I remembered that my father always piled leaves on our garden in the fall, so we started collecting leaves from around the neighborhood and added them to our garden beds and compost piles. Around here, people pay to have their leaves hauled away, so it’s pretty easy to convince people to give them to you. Leaves not only provide nutrients and improve soil structure and water retention; they’re the very definition of free, local, and abundant. The next free resource we started using was used coffee grounds from a shop that’s only minutes away. I’ve estimated that with coffee grounds alone, we add 25.6 pounds of nitrogen and 3.84 pounds of both phosphorus and potassium to the garden each year. You’d have to buy 256 pounds of a 10-10-10 fertilizer to get that much nitrogen, and 38.4 pounds to get that much phosphorus and potassium. Again, at least around here, used coffee grounds are free, local, and abundant. Next, we discovered that our city has a municipal wood chip pile. At first we only used the wood chips to cover the walking paths. Later, I realized that if I dug deep enough into the pile, the wood chips were already fairly well decomposed and made a great addition to garden beds as well as compost piles. The wood chip pile was also full of red wigglers, which I collected along with the wood chips. Last year we expanded our search even further and found free, local, and abunda nt sources for spent brewery grains, and horse manure. These new materials further diversified the nutrients in our compost and enabled us to make enough compost to fill a number of new raised beds this spring. So, let’s get back to the question I posed earlier: “what would happen if we didn’t use any of the store-bought fertilizers and amendments, and instead relied only on resources that are free, local, and abundant?” Well, it turns out that our garden soil has only gotten better over time as have our yields. I’m convinced that, with the exception of a soil acidifier for our blueberries, no store-bought fertilizers or amendments are needed and that we’re giving more back to the soil than we’re taking. I’m further convinced of this by the results of our rock dust and biochar field trials so far. To learn more about the benefits of some of the free, local, and abundant resources we use in our garden, please see the links at the end of the video and in the description below. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for watching, and until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time.

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