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

Home made compost or worm compost is full of soil life.

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

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.

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

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, 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?

36 thoughts on “How to create a living soil – and dramatically increase the productivity of your growing”

  1. Biochar with Mycorrhizal Fungi is my best bet for living soil. Heaps of info and books out there lately for Biochar, just rediscovered after a 2000 year old habit in the Amazon. I produce it since 2 years in Australia, started for the sake of helping the environment, it has turned out we could reverse engineer climate change with this substance. Heaps of info about Biochar on the net lately.
    Best soil improver and it last for thousands of years, ones implemented into the soil it stays for good, just needs moisture and nutrients (worm- and/or compost tea) to stay recharged. I use it in pots, raised garden beds, normal garden, hydroponics, aquaponics and hybridponics, vertical garden and everywhere anything is grown with living soil/bacteria.
    Probably a good starter for a new blog

  2. Vermicompost layer is great for germinating carrots grown in 17 litre polypots. A dribble below the seeds, a dribble above. I got a 7.5lb harvest from 11 carrots this year doing that, using three year old compost from my wormery. See a September 2017 article at for more details.

    I have around 20 litres of almost mature leaf mould after stuffing four 35 litre pots with leaves in sutumn 2016. By spring, four pots fit into one, so you can use the others through summer for tomatoes, potatoes or whatever. I collected my leaves from where neighbours had swept them into a pile, also from ditches by the side of a golf course. Asking neighbours to let you have their swept up leaves rather than sending them to the council is also worth it….

  3. Fall leaf clearing time is a great source of collected leaves in extra large trash bags at area churches put out for trash ! I have also left the leaves in the bags through the winter with great results and you could add earthworms ! Or visiting with landscape guys about allowing truck dumping of collected leaves if you have room ! One of our guys raises earthworms in the large pile of collected leaves !

  4. I smear a 1 and a half inch band of Vaseline around all my pots. I find this works well to deter the slugs.

  5. Hello
    I thought vertical growing was more than growing in containers. Is there a good method for terracing as an example of vertical growing?

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  7. A small bowl of fresh beer right before sundown will catch all the slugs that come out…been doing it for a couple years works great wouldn’t do anything else 🙂

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  9. I had this problem with slugs and snails. What an awful mess a slug can do to a seedling tree over night. ! As you say, pellets and such do kill all kinds of good things. Then I got 2 ducks and an enclosure. My wife loves the ducks and supervised they will eat every slug and snail in my garden. So easy to keep, friendly souls, ducks will do the job. 1 hour a day trolling round my Bonsai stands, that`s all it takes. Oh ! and do remember to wrap all stand posts in copper tape, slugs cannot and will not cross copper.

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  12. I re-cycle old compost by gradually feeding it into my compost bin.
    I mix it in by layering with i) Shredded Paper, ii) Kitchen Veg waste., I keep it moist with my Urine daily which is the best activator by far.
    I “kick start” the compost bin each year with a layer of well rotted horse manure which has been kept in a seperate compost bin, moistened of course with Urine and turned at least twice in the 12-months. Worms love it!
    I described this to our grandchildren as – “Re-charging” our soil.

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  14. I saw your comment about leaf mould. I havea garden in an abandoned lot in Columbia, SC and set aside a 1,000 square foot of space where i piled leaves 6-12″ high last fall. The leaves were all but consumed and they have left a rich layer of soil, 2″ thick, dark of color with a highly granular structure (looks like BB’s). In the southeast with all of our deciduous trees there is plenty of opportunity to gather leaves because most people see them as waste and not an asset.

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  16. I’m using horse manure 1:1 with John Innes Number Three Compost as my final potting mix for my tomatoes this year.

    The first observation at this stage of the season is that the tomatoes which have set on the rapid bush variety are the sort of shimmering green colour that I’ve always seen on photos but never had on my plants grown solely on JI3 before.

    A handful of basaltic rock dust also goes in, so somewhere in the horse manure (6 months old in my garden – unsure how old when collected from stables) and the rock dust is a health-giving system. There were defintely still live worms in the horse manure when I made the potting mix, so maybe organic life is helping in 30cm pots?

  17. 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“>Pinterest to see what I mean.
    Oh, by the way I saw a ladder similar to yours at a garden centre yesterday – £99!

    1. 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 🙂

  18. 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?

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  19. Jacqueline Trefault

    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.

  20. 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

    1. 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.

    2. Good old egg shells with the pointy sides up . You can also try building minie masquito cages and using the eggshells around it. Also, you can use compost and wood mulch on the spot where you dont want them. The egg shells act like broken glass. Slugs will be sliced! I hope you try it!

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

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