How to create a living soil – and dramatically increase the productivity of your growing

Soil life: the best kept secret to successful container growing?

 

Worm compost is rich in microbial life as well as worms - and is invaluable for creating a living soil when growing in containers in small places

Worm compost is rich in microbial life as well as worms - and is invaluable for creating a living soil when growing in containers in small places

 

If you want to grow food successfully in containers, nurturing soil life can make a huge difference. Worm compost, for example, is full of microbes and life. Add it to your containers and you will get more vigorous growth, and far fewer pest and disease problems. Discovering this, was the biggest turning point in my growing (more important, even, than self watering containers), transforming sporadic successes into something more consistent.

Why is soil life important?

Healthy organic soil in the natural world supports a web of life including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes as well as larger creatures like worms and slugs. These organisms play a vital role in the life of plants. They break down organic matter to make the nutrients available for plant roots. They condition the soil and create air spaces and tunnels in it – improving aeration and drainage. And they compete with other more harmful organisms in the soil, ones that will damage your plants if left unchecked.

Soil life is complex –  so the above is just my attempt to summarise some of the main benefits you can expect when you add life to your containers!

Why do you need to add life to containers?

Most commercial composts that we buy are sterilised and low in microbial life. So is municipal compost (it has to be made at hot temperatures to kill pathogens, killing much of the beneficial life, too).  So if you want life in your containers – and to mimic soil in the natural world – you need to add it.

How can you add soil life to your containers?

There are several different ways you can add life to containers. There’s also things you can do to support and nurture life in containers once you’ve got it –  and I’ll share these with you in a future post.

Be aware that some things – like pesticides, slug pellets (even organic ones), and inorganic fertilisers – will actually kill soil life, and may work against the outcome you are trying to achieve.

1. Worm compost

Worm compost is particularly rich in soil life. It’s my number one choice for adding life to containers. When matter is passed through the worms body it becomes inoculated with all sorts of tiny life forms. So worm compost contains bacteria, fungi and other microscopic goodies (as well as worms!). Unless you have a phobia of worms, I highly recommend you buy or make a wormery to recycle your waste food and make your own worm compost. They may be easier to make than you think – see www.bubblehouseworms.com, for a DIY idea – as well as some lovely wooden worm boxes (wood is my preferred choice for a wormery – again, it’s easy to make your own).

Add about 10 – 15 % worm compost to new compost to inoculate it with life.

 

Teeming with life - the small white things are pot worms - but there are also billions of organisms in this bowl  that you can't see

Teeming with life - the small white things are pot worms - but there are also billions of organisms in this bowl that you can't see

2. Homemade compost

Homemade compost is also rich in life. It’s not quite as rich in microbes as worm compost, but still lively!

Add 15 – 30% by volume to new compost to inoculate with life

3. Leaf mould

I don’t know many people growing in urban spaces who have the space or access to enough leaves to make leaf mould (would love to hear from you if you are). But if you do – or have a supply – this is another ingredient teeming with life. It’s a particularly useful ingredient for making seed sowing mixes as it is also low in nutrients.

You’ll find many recipes on line for seed compost but one is to mix about 40% leafmould, 40% multipurpose compost and 20% sand.

4. Manure

Manure is also rich in microbial life. In urban places you can often find it – free or at low cost –  at City Farms or police stables. Manure varies tremendously in quality and the goodies – and nasties like drug residues – that it contains – so ask around and try in small quantities first.

Add about 10 – 30 % of well rotted manure to new compost to inoculate it with life. Either put it into the bottom of the pot or mix it in thoroughly.

5. Bokashi

Bokashi is Japanese method of composting food quickly in a tightly sealed bucket. Benefits of bokashi are that you can add almost any food (even meat), it works quickly, can be done in a very small space, and doesn’t smell (much). The drawbacks are that you need to buy bokashi bran for it to work, and the pickled product is not as versatile as worm compost. But you can add it to the bottom of containers to add both organic matter and microorganisms.

Mix about 10 – 20% into the compost in the bottom third of a container. 

6. Mycorrhizal Fungi

Mycorrhizal fungi form partnerships with plant roots and, in basic terms, help the plant extract more nutrients from the soil. They are now available to gardeners in several different forms  - I’m trying some that come mixed in with chicken manure pellets. I can’t say much about them yet from personal experience (watch this space!). But from what I’ve read, it’s worth experimenting.  If you’ve tried any, I’d love to learn from your experience.

These are six ways you can introduce soil life to containers – do you have a preferred option? Or know of another way not mentioned here?

14 comments… add one

  • Hi Mark
    I looked at your ladder pic, and though it’s a great idea, it won’t work in my tiny courtyard garden as there’s a bench at ground level. I’m thinking of trying to recycle pallets and fixing them to the wall. Will ponder a bit on this one. Have you tried using pallets yourself? Check out my small garden ideas pinterest board http://pinterest.com/dustyfeeder/“>Pinterest to see what I mean.
    Oh, by the way I saw a ladder similar to yours at a garden centre yesterday – £99!

    Reply
    • Hi Lynne, thanks for sharing your pinterest board – you have an inspiring collection there. I haven’t done much with pallets yet but have just found a good supply near our new home so plan on doing some experimenting this year. Wow, £99 for a ladder…. I made mine for £4 :)

      Reply
  • I’ve just set up some larger planters in my courtyard garden, hoping to grow aubergines, cucumbers and tomatoes next to a south facing wall. I’ve filled them with a mixture of council compost, horticultural grit, leaf mould, garden soil and a sprinkle of mycorrihizahe. So I think all that lot should inject some soil microorganisms and help drainage. Now I’m thinking of adding some planters to the house wall but wondering if this might cause dampness, or indeed if it might be dangerous – we have had some pretty fierce winds here lately. Any tips?

    Reply
    • Hi Lynne, one option could be for you to grow on ladders leaning up the wall? Ladders are easy to make (and you can buy them too) and the containers on them wouldn’t be in contact with the wall so you wouldn’t have to worry about dampness if that could be an issue for you. You can see a picture of one of my ladders in the ‘What to do in April’ post. I’ve added some hoops as well so that I cover it with plastic and protect it from the winds you mention. Hopefully the winds will die down soon.
      Love the sound of your soil mix! Do come back and let us know how it performs, would love to hear.

      Reply
  • I do not know whether it’s just me or if everybody else encountering problems with your website. It appears as though some of the written text on your content are running off the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This could be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had this
    happen before. Many thanks

    Reply
    • Sorry about the problems you’re experiencing, and many thanks for letting me know about it. I just checked on a Mac and a PC and a smartphone – and all seemed to be displaying OK. It looks like it might be an issue with your browser – but if anyone else is having problems, can you let me know?

      Reply
  • How did you get on with the mycorrhizal fungi/chicken manure? I’m keen to try some some if it works well.

    Reply
    • To be honest its a bit difficult to say because I had a pretty miserable year all round last year. But I did notice that, when I used it, the salads seemed to fair better than the others. I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s worth a try. I hope I’ll be able to learn a bit more about it this year. If you do decide to try it, I’d love to hear how you get on.

      Reply
      • Thanks Mark. Yes it was a bad year and I’m hoping for a better season. With all the rain, I’m thinking there’s probably been a lot of damage to any soil not covered with crops or mulch, so I’ll try this mix myself and see if it gives my plot a bit of a pick me up. will let you know if I discover anything interesting.

        Reply
  • To decrease the amount of slugs put some oat meal in your garden and the slugs will go it dihydrate then so they die for what I understand I heve been doing it for less than a year and it seems to work, also against pincher bugs, but not as well as for slugs.

    Reply
  • Hey Mark
    Really enjoying your blog.

    Dissapointed to hear that organic soil supports slugs as they are nothing but a pest to me and eat everything in sight! Do you have any good tips to discourage them??? Thanks

    Reply
    • I use table salt to control them. Usually make a circle with salt around the pot. Or keep salt water in an old plate and throw the slugs and snails in to it.

      Reply
    • Beer

      Reply
  • Cemeteries are a great source of leaves , composted too, if you find an undisturbed corner, and usually fairly litter free

    Reply

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