Garden Knowledge

One sure way to improve your garden next year is to increase your garden knowledge during the slower season. This is easier than you might think.

First – review how your garden did this season.

Do a high-level flyover of the season either in memory or with notes.

If you took them, look at the notes in your garden journal and see what did well and what didn’t.

  • Were there weather events that boosted your plants or punched them in the nose?
  • Once or repeatedly?
  • How were your insect populations – destructive as well as beneficials?
  • Were there more of one than the other?
  • Are there more beneficials or are the destructive insects gaining?
  • Did you plant something new as a trial – how did that work?
  • Would you plant that again, or try a different variety?
  • What do you want to try next season?
  • How would you describe the overall health of the garden? Look at the plants, insects and pollinators, earthworms and soil critters as well as disease pressure.

If you could learn one thing for next season that would make a positive difference, what would that be?

Second – If you didn’t keep a garden journal this season, now you might see why it is highly useful.

It helps in keeping track of what happened, what went well and what didn’t.

You don’t need to document everything, and some notes are much better than none. You will see this especially a few years down the line when you can’t remember what you did that worked that one year!

  • You can still profit from this year’s experiences and knowledge by downloading our Garden Journal. Get some notes down while they are still fresh in your mind, creating a basis to start from.
  • Next, print one for next year and use it to start planning and making notes of what you want to do or try next season.

Now is the perfect time to start learning, sharpening your skills and expanding your knowledge for next season. We are talking about this early, as it is much too easy to think that there is enough time left to do it later. Ask us why we know this…

“What do you get when you don’t get what you want? That thing is called experience.”

There are two ways to gain experience – directly and indirectly.

Direct experience is your mistakes and missed opportunities that you learn from. Indirect experience is learning from other’s mistakes and knowledge.

Everyone learns directly, but smart people focus on learning from other’s lessons. This greatly shortens the time needed to gain that knowledge. 

We hope this will boost your learning curve!

Direct Sowing Anasazi Bean

When to Direct Sow

Direct sowing can be done almost any time of the year – in early to late spring for the summer garden, mid to late fall for the cool season garden, as well as succession planting a row after a crop has been harvested to grow something else delicious!

Direct sowing simply means planting the seeds directly into the garden soil, instead of starting them inside, nurturing and then transplanting into the garden once they are several weeks old and several inches tall.

If you are in doubt as to when your last frost date is, read Planning and Planting Your Spring Garden.

For more on cool season gardening, read How to Plan for Fall and Winter Gardening.

To discover how succession planting can help you grow more, read Succession Planting – Boosting Garden Production.

Some gardeners think they have no “luck” when it comes to direct sowing certain vegetables, while others are hesitant to try again after past challenges or outright failures. Inexperienced gardeners sometimes think their lack of experience dooms them to failure.

The root causes of most challenges, problems or outright failures can be traced to a shortage of good information, incomplete understanding of seed germination and a lack of patience.

Direct Sowing Lemongrass Seed

Direct Sowing Lemongrass Seed

All of these can be overcome, and we’ll show you how!

At its most basic, direct sowing is simply inserting a seed into the garden soil so it can grow. There are factors which affect how successful the results are, but they are easily understood so you can set yourself up for success by using them.

There are three main parts to direct sowing – preparation, sowing and care.

1. Preparation

Well Aged Compost

Well Aged Compost

Amend the soil

Soil or bed preparation sets the stage for the seed and is usually done a couple of weeks to a month before direct sowing. This includes amending the soil with well-aged compost, minerals, fish emulsion, milk and molasses or anything else the soil needs.

“Amending” means to add the nutrients to the soil, then work them in with a garden fork or roto-tiller. If using a roto-tiller, make sure it is set to a shallow depth to avoid disrupting too many of the soil layers and the micro-organisms that live in those layers. 

A comprehensive soil analysis can be extremely valuable here, as you’ll know exactly what the soil needs to be at its best. A simpler approach is to add the commonly used nutrients mentioned above and closely observe the plants to see if they are showing a lack of specific nutrients.

Weed the beds

After amending the soil, wait a few days for the first weeds to sprout, then remove them with a small hoe just below the surface of the soil. Weeds thrive in disturbed soil, so you won’t wait long!

When the weeds have just sprouted, they will have released a very potent plant hormonal signal – called auxins – into the soil, signaling all of the other weed seeds to remain dormant. The soil has a tremendous amount of weed seeds in it, just waiting for the right conditions to sprout, and the first weeds up send this signal to keep other weed species from competing with them. This hormone lasts from 4 – 6 weeks, giving you a head-start with little competition for the seeds you want to grow! 

Weeds have the most serious effect on garden production during the first week to ten days after sprouting – this is why it is so important to spend more energy and time up front in weeding than it is later in the season.

After your seedlings have sprouted, they add their own particular auxins to the soil, inhibiting other seeds from germinating for another couple of weeks. After the garden crop is a foot tall, weeds have much less affect on their growth and can’t as easily out-compete for water and soil nutrition. 

Yet another way is to use a flame weeder to kill the young weeds, while damaging the uppermost, soon to germinate weed seeds in wait. No hoe is used and this method is quite fast.

Row Marking Tools for Direct Sowing

Row Marking Tools for Direct Sowing

Layout the bed

Some gardeners prefer to create furrows to sow their seeds in, while others use a garden row marker – two pegs with string attached – to lay out where they will direct sow their seeds.

There are several different approaches, and there is no one “right” way. If you are growing a smaller garden a row marker makes it easier to plant seeds closer together than creating rows. It’s also easier to do succession planting closer together with a row marker, as you plant the seeds along the line of the string without trying to open and then close a furrow and not disturb neighboring seeds or young plants.

2. Sowing the seeds

Direct Sowing Basil Seed

Direct Sowing Basil Seed with a Widger

Direct Sowing

Before direct sowing your seeds, consider how the vegetable will grow and be used. If you will be harvesting the entire crop for young greens, then plant fairly close together, as you want the most production possible. If the plant will be harvested regularly and allowed to mature, like leaf lettuce, spinach, kale or leafy broccoli, then give a little more space for the plant to mature without crowding.

Water the soil the day before planting to make sure it is properly moist to start the germination process.

Read the spacing recommendations on the back of the seed packets as a good starting point. If in doubt, plant two seeds at a time to ensure the best growth, as you can always thin once the seedlings are up. When thinning, never pull the seedlings out as this seriously disturbs the roots of the neighboring seedling – just snip off the unwanted seedling with a pair of small scissors.

One of the more important things in planting any seeds is to be aware of the proper depth to sow them. An excellent rule of thumb is no more then 2 – 3 times their diameter.

Seed orientation is also an overlooked, but equally important thing to be aware of when sowing. The radicle – or part of the seed that was attached to and fed by the plant or fruit – should be planted pointing down, as this is where the root will emerge from. Corn, pumpkin and squash are easy to see – just plant the pointed end down. Smaller or more rounded seeds don’t matter as much, as there is equal distance all around.

After sowing, gently press the seeds into the soil for small seeds, or press the soil on top for larger seeds. This allows for better moisture transfer to the seeds as they start the germination process.

Direct Sowing Okra Seed

Direct Sowing Okra Seed

Water the seeds

After sowing, give the seeds a good drink. Make sure the soil is well moistened on the first watering, then wait about 24 – 48 hours to water again, depending on your climate. The most common mistake all gardeners of any experience do is to over-water the garden.

It’s simply a human trait to want to make sure the garden is watered!

Seeds need three things to germinate – moisture, temperature and light once they are up.

The soil moisture needs to be very damp initially, then slowly decreased after the seeds sprout until it is slightly moist. You won’t have much control over the temperature unless you can provide some weather protection such as a plastic row cover or black plastic on the soil a week before planting to warm it up. Light is needed once the seedlings are up, but the sun will take care of that!

3. Care after sowing

After sowing care is pretty simple, but needs to be well-attended during the first month after the seeds start sprouting. Care can be split into three areas – weeding, re-sowing and weather protection.

Handmade Garden Row Marker

Handmade Garden Row Marker


Keeping your emerging seedlings free from weeds when they are young will give them a serious boost, as young weeds can effortlessly out-compete your vegetables for needed nutrients and water. This severely limits their future growth, strength and production.

Removing young weeds is very easy, especially if using a sharp, thin hoe to slice them just under the surface of the soil. If you’ve allowed the initial crop to sprout and then removed them, you should have less weed pressure to worry about, but still keep on top of them!

Make sure to distinguish between the weeds and what you planted. If in doubt, wait a few days to see the shape of the leaves and how it matches (or doesn’t) the seedlings where you planted.  


Due to the variabilities of weather outside, some of the seeds may not germinate, or do so very slowly. This may require some re-sowing in the thin spots to make up, but is easy and usually only needs doing once.

Keep a sharp eye on your young seedling crop, as they are absolutely tasty for wild critters – birds, mice and squirrels all love to munch on young, tender seedlings. If you see chewed or “disappeared” seedlings, look very closely to see if you can determine what ate them and take appropriate action – excluding them with netting or row cover or groundcloth, then re-sow.

Weather protection

You don’t have as much control the temperature and humidity of the garden, but you can moderate some of the temperature swings – all season long.

For cooler weather such as spring or later fall, row cover is a lightweight plastic sheeting which is easily spread over the seed bed, capturing some of the warmth from the sun and soil and raising the temperature for the seeds just a bit. As the seedlings grow, a small hoop house can be made from bent wire or 1/2 inch pvc pipe inserted into pvc elbows, creating a square hoop to support the row cover plastic.

Cooling in warmer weather can be done with shade cloth and the frames mentioned just above. Leave the ends open with shade cloth to allow for air circulation and so pollinators can get in.

Growing Bed Moved

A growing bed can be made from many materials, but when you factor in the ability to make a growing bed from recycled components, then the opportunities become almost limitless. It makes sense in so many ways to make your raised beds from an already-used materials. You will often save a significant amount of money while contributing less to the growing landfills. In addition, you reduce the amount of raw resources used to make new building materials. Often you will find your options are much broader when looking at recycled stock, as the solution can more easily present itself when your mind is more open and relaxed, without a fixed design idea.

This is exactly what led to our finding and choosing this particular metal from our local salvage yard. We know we needed a structurally sound, ecologically friendly and long lasting substance for our raised beds in our garden. The pricing on new lumber which could be in contact with soil for long periods of time was not realistic for the amount of beds we needed to make. One by one, every other reasonably available construction material and method fell out as being much too costly, much too labor intensive or not suitable for our climate.

All of this led us to our local salvage yard. When we let the person know what we were looking to do, he immediately pointed us in the direction of some large-scale roofing they had recently recovered. After looking at a couple of different options, we came across these 3 foot wide and 20 foot long sections of really heavy galvanized steel with most of their avocado green paint still attached. They were heavy enough that it was hard to turn one section over to look at the other side.

When we turned a smaller section over and saw how well it dove-tailed into the long section, we knew we had a custom-made solution to our raised beds. All at a price that was pennies on the dollar of other solutions we had looked at, with a much longer lifespan as a bonus.

We have now used these as raised beds in our garden for almost a decade, with no problems. We recently moved the two smaller beds in our greenhouse and discovered photos of when we made the beds initially and wanted to share the process with you.

Please use this as a guiding hand, suggesting what can be done; don’t go out and expect to find this exact material waiting for you. If you go with an open mind, you just might be surprised at just how well what you find works in your particular garden!

Growing Bed Materials

The project started out with our finding some really heavy duty galvanized steel corrugated roofing at our local salvage yard. We then rented an electric nibbler tool to split them lengthwise, as they were too wide or deep to use by themselves.

This is the pile after getting it home, splitting it on the flatbed trailer and then unloading them. A full day’s work!

Growing Bed Details

The unusually large corrugations worked perfectly for us, as we flipped the ends over so they would mate with the sides, creating interlocking tabs. The material is heavy enough for us to just screw together, without needing extra supporting material.

Growing Bed Outside Details

The outside view shows the middle tab already cut, bent over and screwed together. These are strong enough to stand on the top of the sides, once the box is constructed!

Cutting Tab on Growing Bed

Using a Sawzall – an electric reciprocating saw – the tabs are cut. There are top and bottom screws in addition to the middle ones.

Bending Tab on Growing Bed

After cutting, they are bent over into the channel to be screwed together, making a very strong joint or connection.

Finished Tab on Growing Bed

A close-up look at the finished middle tab. We used self-tapping screws to eliminate the need to drill a starter hole.

Installing Heat Cable in Growing Bed

Another feature of the unique corrugations is the channel in the bottom of the side panels which perfectly fits a ¾ inch sheet of marine grade plywood that had been previously waterproofed and drainage holes drilled. After installing the plywood and securing it into the channels, we added a heat cable and hardware cloth on top to protect it from damage from gardening tools. The heating cable is desigened and made specifically for this use and is waterproof with an internal thermostat which shuts off at 70°F. 

You can see the channels in the steel in the second and third photos from the top.

Growing Bed Ready for Soil

For the first few years, we used the bottom heated growing bed in our greenhouse. We made two of them and grew cool season salad greens during the fall, through the winter and into the following spring in the unheated greenhouse.

We used overstock cinder blocks from the local block maker to support the beds.

Adding Soil to Grow Bed

After installing the beds on the cinder blocks, we put in a bottom layer of sand about two inches deep. The sand keeps the heating cable out of contact with decomposing soil and provides a better heat transfer to the soil on top when the moisture seeps down.

Fresh Greens in Growing Bed

Both growing beds were very successful in growing lots of greens throughout the winter. We often found we couldn’t keep up with all of the greens from just one bed!

Growing Bed Moved

The greenhouse is being updated and changed a bit to a grow room, with a solid roof as it gets way too hot in the spring and summer to grow anything, so the growing beds needed to be moved to be more useful and functional.

We experimented with a very simple container garden just off of our back deck last year – with great success. It was very close and convenient for fresh herbs and often used fresh greens – just a step out the back door! The containers were all recycled plastic – from old horse water tubs to industrial food shipping barrels cut in half. They were simply put on top of a base of cinder blocks three high for less bending and ease of gardening. Everything was arranged in a “U” shape, with access to standing on all sides.

They worked very well, so we expanded the container gardening space with adding the two growing beds on each long side of the “U”.

The slightly shorter growing bed is next to an old 100 gallon horse water tub, containing garlic chives and I’itoi onions, both acting as perennials in our climate. This photo is from the very beginning of March, after a cold and wet winter that turned warm in early spring.

Growing Beds in Back Deck Garden

Here’s a look at the updated container garden, just after moving the second growing bed. The two large plastic containers in the foreground were what we used last season and were moved to make room for the larger growing bed.

Cucumber Seedling Germination

Seed germination is affected by several factors – moisture, temperature, light, soil or seed starting media, time, observation and last but not least patience. We have covered most of these elements in “Starting Seeds at Home – a Deeper Look”, “Seed Starting Media for the Home Gardener” and “Are Seed Starting Mixes Worth Your Money?”  What we haven’t covered are time, observation and patience.

Recently we wrote an article on seed starting mixes, linked above, and did a small experiment to see how they compared to each other in germination of a single seed of the same variety in the same conditions. What we learned is interesting, but also taught us some things we want to share with you.

Two of the seed starting mixes had very good seed germination in about the same amount of time, while one did not. At the same time, a different variety of seed was planted in an adjoining tray with the same temperatures and very similar moisture and the seed germination was very good and consistent, yet was the same seed starting media that did poorly in the single seed test.

This is where time, observation and patience enter into our story.

Seeds need the exact right conditions to germinate. If one or two of the conditions are right, but another is not, the seed will simply remain dormant or in worst case start to decompose. It is only when every condition is right the seed germination occurs.

We gardeners make the mistake of thinking only we can provide those perfect conditions with our heated pads and thermostats, moisture probes, soil thermometers and lights. We forget the seeds left in the garden, untended and unmonitored which germinate in their own time, when the conditions are just right. The same goes for the seeds in the forest, in the ditch by the side of the road or anywhere we aren’t planting them.

Seed Starting MIxes Germination

This is the initial test – three sets of seed starting mixes with two cups of each mix. We planted the Crystal Apple cucumber as the test seed, since cucumbers have a good strong seed germination and we know the germination percentage as we had just finished doing seed germination tests on the new seed stock.

After 14 days, this is what the test looks like. The six seed starting cups have been in the same tray with the same heat from a heat mat underneath and with the same amount of water, as they were watered from the bottom by adding water to the tray.

The Jiffy mix has the tallest seedling, followed by the Black Gold and the Miracle-Gro cups only having one seed just starting to peek itself out.

Miracle Grow Seed Germination

A closer look at the Miracle-Gro cups with the tiny little yellow spot being the seedling just starting to peek out. There is no indication of seed germination from the other cup.

There is also no sign of mold or fungus that might be inhibiting the seed germination, either. 

Black Gold Seed Germination

The Black Gold cups have really good seed germination in one cup, with a much delayed seedling in the other. Both look strong and healthy, with the two yellow spots on the smaller seedling in the background from where the seed was holding on after sprouting and emergence.

The soil looks good in this set as well, no mold or fungal issues.

Jiffy Seed Germination

The Jiffy seed starting mix was the clear winner in this test, with both seedlings coming up within a day of each other and both growing strong and at about the same rate. Both have started putting on their first true leaf with the one in the background being just a little bigger.

What we found really interesting was Jiffy was the hardest seed starting mix to work with, being very water repellent, very light and fluffy. It was difficult to get into the cups without spilling it and Cindy had to really water it and work the water in for the first couple of times to get the media moist before planting the seed. The water would pool up and run over the lip of the cup, without any getting into the media. She had to dump the excess water out, add a little bit and carefully mix it in with a small tool to get the media to start to absorb the water. It took a few times of this to get the initial wetting done and after that there were no more problems.  

This soil looks really good as well with no mold or fungal issues.

Miracle Gro Pepper Seed Germination

The seedling tray next to the six pot test tray looks like this – it’s a test planting of another new Oaxacan chile we hope to bring to market and this is the grow-out test planting. All of these seeds are planted in Miracle-Gro and as you can see, they are doing well. The seed germination has been good and at an even rate, with almost all of the cups having a seedling at almost exactly the same stage.

If we hadn’t observed the difference in seed germination rates between the two flats, we could easily conclude the Miracle-Gro is a poor choice for starting seeds in. However, the chile seedling tray disproves that.

Cindy had almost given up on seeing any seed germination from the Miracle-Gro in the cucumber seed test, but then three days later the first seedling peeked out.

This is the lesson of patience; so many times we’ve gotten calls or emails from semi-panicked or frustrated gardeners saying their (our) seed hasn’t come up yet. Most of the time, the needed seed germination period hasn’t elapsed yet, so we ask them to wait until the normal germination time has passed, then let us know. Almost without fail, we hear back in a couple of days the seeds have sprouted.

Please realize, just because we had these results with our very small and informal test doesn’t mean you will get the same results. Seed starting mixes and potting soils are formulated differently in different regions across the country, and those ingredients often change from one supplier to the next, depending on the time of year and availability. It is well worth doing a similar test of your own to see what works best for you in your location. Buy a few different bags of seed starting mix and potting soil to see if you have different seed germination rates, then you’ll have a better understanding on how this part affects sprouting. 

Now you’ve seen our experiments and experiences, what are yours? Have you had a similar situation turn out completely different than you expected it to?

Kellog's Potting Soil OMRI

Potting soils come in all shapes and sizes, with most touting some form of “Organic & Natural” on the bag – but are they really certified organic? Do those potting soils really work as advertised and contain healthy, wholesome ingredients to help your precious seedlings get that critical head start they need?

To answer these questions and more, we bought a few bags of potting soils from our local sources, brought them home and opened them up to take a close look at what is there. We looked at the bag and labeling, seeing what is being sold and why, what wording and marketing is being used and if they stood up to closer scrutiny. One of those potting soils we have used for a few years, so we let you know of our past experiences.

Please note – this article is in no way meant to be a comprehensive, exhaustive laboratory research and review of all potting soils available to the average home gardener. There’s just no way for us to do that, as many are only regionally available and the ingredients change from region to region in the bigger brands.

As with our seed starting mixes article, we suspect there are a few companies producing potting soils for different markets with unique branding and bagging for each channel. We saw this with one product – one bag design and color set for the big box stores and another one for the smaller independent garden centers. This only underscores the need to read the labels, know what the descriptions, ingredients and marketing-speak mean and be able to decide for yourself if that particular bag will work for you and is worth the cost.

As with our seed starting mixes analysis, we found confusing and sometimes misleading labeling.

What are potting soils and do I need to use one?

Potting soils are traditionally what seedlings are transplanted into from the seed starting mixes. The seed is germinated in the seed starting mix, then when it is 3 – 4 inches tall and starting to put on its second or third set of true leaves, it is transplanted into a potting soil. Potting soils have nutrients which are missing in the seed starting mixes, continuing the growth of the seedling by feeding and supporting the root structure it is starting to develop.

What goes into potting soils varies widely, from a basic seed starting mix with some aged compost added for plant nutrition to full custom blends with compost, soil and nutrients coming from different ingredients – all to supposedly help the seedling grow stronger and faster.

Not everyone needs potting soils, as some have the space and materials availability to create an excellent rich, aged compost to use as the starting point of mixing their own special blend, while others just don’t have the time, space or materials available to do that.

Let’s take a look!

Kellog's Potting Soil

The first of the potting soils we found was the Kellogg Amend Organic Plus at Lowe’s and it’s available at Home Depot as well, so it should be available in most big box stores in the western US. We were interested to see what was in the bag and do some testing, as we’ve had several of our customers email us in alarm after transplanting into the Amend potting soils and within a few hours the seedlings were almost all dead or severely wilted. We found a commonality with most of them using the Kellogg Amend potting soils, but haven’t heard anything negative in the past couple of years.

As we mentioned in our seed starting mix article, we are not impressed with the words “Organic” or “Natural” on bags of soil, so seeing “Organic Plus” prominently splashed across the bag was an alert for us. It is branded as a garden soil for flowers and vegetables.

One label that did catch our eye and add to the intrigue was the OMRI listing on the bottom left of the bag. This indicates the contents are certified for organic food production, and are the equivalent of a “Certified Organic” label on food.

The OMRI label piqued our curiosity because our previous research as to why the Amend potting soils were killing seedlings led us to the fact that Kellogg had been using bio-solids, or treated municipal sewage, and possibly industrial runoff or wastewater. This easily explained why the seedlings died when transplanted into the potting soil. 

So the question was – is this the same potting/garden soil, and if so, how is it OMRI listed?

In doing some reading, it appears Kellogg has used bio-solids or treated municipal sewage as a major ingredient in its composting program for a number of years. It seems that their OMRI listed products do not have any bio-solids as an ingredient in their products, but you can’t tell from the label.

In looking at the OMRI listing for Kellogg Amend garden soil, we found it is listed but with restrictions. OMRI lists it in the category of “Fertilizers, Blended with micronutrients” with the restriction being –

May be used only in cases where soil or plant nutrient deficiency for the synthetic micronutrients being applied is documented by soil or tissue testing.

Kellogg’s Amend product page has this to say about their OMRI listing –

Proven Organic

All of our products are listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), the leading non-profit, internationally recognized third party accredited by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). That means every ingredient and every process that goes into making our products has been verified 100% compliant as organic, all the way to the original source. Look for the OMRI logo on the bag, ensuring every product is proven organic.

All in all, it is OMRI listed – even with the discrepancies between Kellogg’s product information and the OMRI listing itself with the restrictions.

Kellog's Potting Soil OMRI

The OMRI listing is displayed in the lower left part of the bag, underneath the info box of what it is supposedly derived from and what it is good to use it for.

Kellog's Potting Soil Ingredients

The ingredients list compost as the primary ingredient with what makes up the compost. Recycled forest products are typically a blend of finely ground wood from leftovers of the timber industry. Arbor fines are finely ground tree trimmings. Hydrolyzed feather meal is crushed and boiled poultry feathers, used as a source of nitrogen.  

Dairy and poultry manure sound fine, until the source is looked at a little closer. What is the source of the dairy and the poultry manure? There is reasonable concern as to what is contained in the manure of animals from confined feeding operations – there are antibiotics and hormones used in the day to day operations which are passed through in their manure. Another concern is the possible presence of industrial herbicides and pesticides used in conventional grain production, which can easily be passed into the manure.

These are things to think about, especially if you want to grow as organically as possible.

One of our biggest initial concerns after getting it home and looking up both the Kellogg’s product listing page and the OMRI listing showing the restriction is there is no mention anywhere of the “synthetic micronutrients” from the OMRI listing on the bag or Kellogg’s website.

What are those synthetic micronutrients, and what is their source?

Kellog's Potting Soil Closup

On opening the bag we noticed it was moist and had some white mold spots on the woody material in the mix. This is not a bad thing, molds and fungi work to break down wood into more available nutrients. Woody material helps to boost microbial activity to do just this.

The bag had a rich, woody aroma but did not smell of raw or partially decomposed manure. It was a dark, rich brown verging into almost black.

A handful of the soil felt light and porous with a slightly damp feeling to it. There was a trace of dark residue left on the fingers after rolling a handful through the fingers and getting a feeling for it.

Kellog's Potting Soil Closup

On closer inspection, it is easy to see the woody residue of various sizes. Even though it is advertised as a soil, it was fairly light in texture without the more solid structure needed for long term growing of plants.

The white mold can be seen in the top right of the photo.

Organic Choice Potting Soil

The next bag we opened was Miracle-Gro Organic Choice. We also picked this up at Lowe’s and have seen an impressive selection of Miracle-Gro products at Home Depot as well, so any big box store will have this line. We’ve also seen this brand at every garden center, hardware store garden aisle and landscaping supply store we’ve visited. It’s hard not to find them.

Again, the word “Organic” is used as a marketing tool in the word choice for the name. This is advertised for use with in-ground vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. It has the “Natural & Organic” term next, above a statement that it will grow fresh vegetables in your backyard.

So far, pretty standard stuff and not really any different than the next pile of bags at the big box store.

Our concern with this Miracle-Gro product is much the same as we mentioned in our Seed Starting Mix article -their blend of plant food emphasizes vegetative growth and strong flowering, without the nutrients for fruit or food production. We have seen numerous gardeners with tomato plants growing lush, dark green leaves and covered in flowers but not producing a single tomato, or very few.

Organic Choice Potting Soil Container Warning

Looking at the back of the bag, we were surprised to see this product was not recommended for container gardening. It is also interesting to see the warning to wear gloves when using Organic Choice.

It’s labeled as “garden soil” on the front, but on the back the instructions say to mix 3” of Organic Choice with 6” of native soil, mix well to avoid a stratified layer, then plant. These instructions combined with the not for containers seems to indicate this is not a full potting soil and more of a soil amendment or fertilizer.

Organic Choice Potting Soil Ingredients

The ingredients listing says it is formulated with organic materials but doesn’t specify if “organic” means organic as in containing carbon, or organic as in certified organic.

It has much the same ingredients – forest products, compost, composted manure and pasteurized poultry litter. In addition it lists peat humus and sphagnum peat moss which are more commonly associated with seed starting mixes than potting soils.

The ingredients do vary regionally, which they do specify.

We searched the OMRI listing to see if this, or any, Miracle-Gro product was listed and found this is OMRI listed, along with several other products. This is somewhat surprising, as most other manufacturers proudly display the OMRI listing label. Another interesting detail is this has no restrictions, unlike Kellogg’s Amend. It is listed under fertilizer and soil amendments, which makes more sense of the instructions to mix with native soil.

Organic Choice Potting Soil Closeup

On opening the bag we noticed it was moist with a dark brown, rich earth color. There was woody material present, but seemed a bit more integrated and had an earthy, soil based aroma. There was no indication of partially composted manure or off odors.

It didn’t have any mold indication and a handful of the soil had more of a substance to the texture, while still being light and fluffy. There were smaller or finer components to the mixture.  There was less of a dark residue on the fingers after handling a handful for inspection.

Organic Choice Potting Soil Closeup

Closer inspection shows the more even distribution of size, along with the dark brown or earthy color. This seemed to be closer to a replacement soil but with enough lightness to allow good root development.

Square Foot Potting Soil

Square Foot Potting Soil

The next bag was Garden Time Square Foot Garden Soil from Gro-Well Brands. They are local to us, being based in Tempe, AZ. This was bought at Lowe’s and we’ve seen it at Home Depot also, and have seen garden forum threads where it is possible to special order it online in different quantities. We also saw it at our local True Value Hardware store in the garden aisle, with a different design bag – so it is probably also available in independent garden centers as well.

We have used this particular mix for a few years now with good results. We primarily use it as a seed starting mix and transplanting medium, but have experimented with it as a complete soil – like the bag’s labeling says – and have been pleased with the results.

Having said that, it isn’t perfect either and makes many of the same claims as the other brands. The “Natural & Organic” label is prominent on the bag, even though this is not OMRI listed. Some of the other claims are “Proven Formula for Optimum Growth” and “Great for Vegetables”. It does say “ready to use” and doesn’t need mixing with native soils, something that might be helpful for a container gardener with a small patio or apartment balcony.

Square Foot Potting Soil Ingredients

Square Foot Potting Soil Ingredients

The ingredients are compost, peat moss, coconut coir, vermiculite, bloodmeal, bone meal, kelp meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal and worm castings. The peat moss, coir and vermiculite are classic seed starting mix ingredients, with the compost, different meals and worm castings adding nutrients to the soil for the plants growth and health. We use this as both a seed starting mix and potting soil or transplant soil because of the nutrients, which are lacking in straight seed starting mixes.

The same concern we voiced above at the vagueness of what is in the compost is valid here as well. In reading around a bit, I haven’t come across Gro-Well Brands using bio-solids in their compost, which is good news. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the compost is organically sourced and not feedlot manure, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The more extensive list of ingredients give this some substance in nutrition so it can be used as a transplanting medium, a potting soil or as a complete standalone soil.

As another plus, we’ve not experienced seedlings dying when transplanted into this mix, nor have our customers said anything.

Square Foot Potting Soil Closeup

On opening the bag, the soil is slightly moist with a very dark, almost black color. It had almost no odor and felt light in weight but with some substance. This makes sense with the compost being 30 – 40% and much of the rest made up of lighter weight seed starting ingredients that have no odor of their own. The shiny vermiculite specks are easy to see and the texture is fairly even without lots of larger, identifiable chunks of wood.

A handful of the soil showed more of the smaller size particles making up the mix with an even and light feel to it. There was a trace of black residue on the fingers after a handful for inspection.

Square Foot Potting Soil

Square Foot Potting Soil

 A closer inspection shows the darker color, with the specks of vermiculite showing through.

Garden Time Potting Soil

Garden Time Potting Soil

The last bag was also from Gro-Well Brands – Garden Time Potting Soil. This was also bought from Lowe’s, and is available in big box stores. It may be regionally available in independent garden centers with a different bag.

The same technique of word use – “Natural & Organic” was in play, but the other trigger words were missing. This is advertised as an all-purpose potting soil for indoor and outdoor use in containers and garden beds, as well as for transplanting.

Like the Square Foot Gardening soil, this is not OMRI listed.

Garden Time Potting Soil Ingredients

Garden Time Potting Soil Ingredients

The ingredients are different, with fewer of the seed starting ingredients and less of the nutrient amendments. It does have peat moss and coconut coir fiber, common in seed starting mixes, but is without the perlite and such.

The standard forest wood products are there, as well as the compost listing again. What we found interesting is the addition of sand as the last ingredient.

Garden Time Potting Soil Closeup

Garden Time Potting Soil Closeup

When opening the bag we noticed this mix had a more woody aroma and was less earthy. It was also the driest of the mixes, leaving almost no residue on the hand after sifting through a handful of mix. It wasn’t dry, just much less moist than the other mixes. It had more substance and weight to the mix, probably as a result of the sand. This mix looked, smelled and felt the woodiest of the ones we inspected. It had no odor of compost or manure at all, only slightly of decomposed wood.

One thing we immediately noticed with a handful of soil is the white specks in the mix. In looking closely at them, they look much like perlite even though there is none listed on the ingredients. This could be an older bag with a new mix formulation, or a mistake in adding perlite to this mix. The perlite isn’t a negative, but the fact it isn’t listed in the ingredients makes us wonder a bit.

Even with this, the mix looks like it would be good as an amendment to loosen up native soils. The overly woody composition would be beneficial as it decomposed more, but might not add much to this season’s growth. 

Garden Time Potting Soil Closeup

Garden Time Potting Soil Closeup

A closer look shows the woody texture and color with the white specks of what looks to be perlite throughout.

Potting Soil Cost Chart

Potting Soil Cost Chart

In looking at the related costs, a couple of things stand out. The two best-looking soil mixes are also the most expensive – Miracle-Gro and the Square Foot Gardening Soil. They are also the smallest size bags. When adding in the positive benefits of an OMRI listing, the Miracle-Gro becomes the initial winner – something that surprised us.

In making a recommendation, an OMRI listing helps to assure a home gardener that the materials and ingredients used are of better quality and higher nutrient content than a non-listed mix. With that said, we would not recommend avoiding mixes which aren’t listed if you can be sure the ingredients meet reasonable standards. For example, compost from a neighborhood friend’s horses won’t be able to be OMRI listed, but would probably be excellent compost if the horses are fed well and wholesomely. The same would go for a grass-fed farmer in your area, who doesn’t feed growth hormones or regular antibiotics.

From this list, our two choices are the Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Garden Soil and the Square Foot Gardening Soil, with the others being a distant second choice if the first two weren’t available. This is conditional upon our testing some seedlings in each of these to see if they can actually support healthy seedling growth, but that will be another article!

For you, the best choice depends on what is available in your area, the amount of potting soil needed and what you can afford. Some gardeners, like ourselves, much prefer to make our own compost with multiple amendments to create a complex and wonderfully fertile soil amendment, while others simply don’t have the space or availability of materials. Some better options include creating a composting system as part of a community garden, or partnering with a friend or neighbor who has the space and is willing to boost their garden’s fertility. You might offer to do the work in setting up and maintaining the compost in return for some of the finished product for your garden.

Now you’ve got an overview of what to look for and be aware of when shopping for potting mixes, what are your thoughts and experiences? Do you have a dependable “go-to” potting mix you’ve used and loved for years? Or, do you have a tried and true recipe for mixing up your own potting soil that has never let you down? Please share!

Square Foot Potting Soil Closeup

Seed starting mixes can be confusing – there are so many at different price points; who’s to know what’s good and what’s junk? Is the extra expense worth it, or is the cheapest mix just as good?

We looked at a few examples on the market to see what is available from a range of prices and suppliers. Starting with the big box stores and going to a local hardware store with a good gardening selection and then to a garden center, we chose a representative sample to give you a good starting point in choosing what to use for your seed starting.

This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive review of all available seed starting mixes. From what we can tell, there are many different brands and types of seed starting mixes. We suspect that a few companies are producing many of the re-bagged or re-branded mixes, much like there are exactly two car battery manufacturers in the US, selling dozens of brands of batteries through different outlets. Our goal is to provide you with an educated overview of some middle of the road seed starting mixes so you will be better informed when confronted with the “Great Wall” of seed starting mixes at your local garden center. 

Along the way, we found seed starting mixes are seemingly designed to be confusing – especially when they are stacked next to each other in the garden section of the big box store or in the garden center. None of them were the same size, so easily comparing costs while in the store was difficult, requiring converting different prices to the same volume. We chose a quart size as the standard for the seed starting mixes, as most home gardeners will be using smaller amounts than market growers.

Another interesting thing we found was the labeling on each bag and the claims made. Some had the word “Organic” prominently displayed or used as part of the name, with no verification that the contents were, in fact, organic. “Natural” was also strongly used, with no substantiation.

In addition to the seed starting mixes, we have included a potting mix we’ve started seeds in for several years and have recommended to our customers. This is included as a reference point, as gardeners in some areas won’t be able to use a potting soil to start seeds due to high humidity and the associated fungi and mold challenges. Others, like us, will be able to use it to their advantage.

What are seed starting mixes and do I need one?

Seed starting mixes are not soil, they are blended to create a good environment to get the seed germinated and into the seedling stage, where it is transplanted into a potting soil or garden soil. For a closer look at the components that typically make up seed starting mixes, read Seed Starting Media for the Home Gardener.

Not everyone needs seed starting mixes, some gardeners do very well starting their seeds in potting soil or a rich garden soil. This often saves the work and stress of transplanting, but if you need a sterile soil because of mold or fungi pressures, then seed starting mixes will really help. Other gardeners just trust a sterile seed starting mix and have had good results for their garden.

Let’s take a look!

For all of the photos, click to enlarge them for more detail. 

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix

First up is Jiffy “Natural & Organic” Seed Starting Mix. We bought this at our local True Value garden center, so it should be available at independent garden centers and possibly the big box stores. There are several interesting things about this seed starting mix. First off, there is no ingredients listed, either on the bag or on Jiffy’s website. Second, this is an OMRI listed product, meaning it is approved through the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)

OMRI is an international nonprofit organization which certifies which input (fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, etc.) products are allowed for use in certified organic agriculture. OMRI Listed® products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program. This is a big deal, there is no way to buy or sneak a product in and most companies will prominently display the OMRI listing on their bags, as you’ll see below.

Jiffy doesn’t mention it, or list the ingredients. With the OMRI listing, we feel pretty comfortable in using this, but would like to see what makes up the seed starting mix.

Here is what the bag looks like. On first read the “Natural & Organic” label is somewhat misleading, especially with no mention of the OMRI listing. The bag has 12 quarts for $6.99, so not a bad price, especially for a smaller home gardener who will use less than one bag to start their tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds. 

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix Closeup

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix Closeup

An initial look at the soil shows what looks to be some coconut coir, possibly some peat moss, perlite and maybe some compost, but it’s hard to be sure. It had a good, rich soil aroma and was finely textured with no large lumps or woody chunks in it.

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix

Jiffy Seed Starting Mix

Here’s a closer inspection. 

Overall, we were pleased at what we saw, with the caveat of wishing to know what the ingredients were making up the mix. On the plus side, OMRI listing is very good – indicating it is accepted for certified organic agriculture.


Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Potting Mix was next up. The labeling seems to be trying to straddle the seed starting mix/ potting soil applications without specifying if it is suitable for both. The bag says it is enriched with Miracle Gro, which is no surprise, and the mix is excellent for starting cuttings. The bag has 8 quarts and is $4.77 at Lowe’s or Home Depot, which is enough for a small gardener to start seeds with. This mix is not OMRI listed. Here is Miracle Gro’s online listing. 

Our concern with Miracle Gro is their blend of plant food emphasizes vegetative growth and strong flowering, without the nutrients for fruit or food production. We have had numerous customers call or email asking why their tomato plants had such lush, dark green leaves and were covered in flowers but not producing a single tomato, or very few. When we asked if they were using Miracle Gro, they seemed shocked that we could know what they were using!


Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix Ingredients

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix Ingredients

The ingredients are listed – peat moss, perlite, Miracle Gro fertilizer and a wetting agent. Not terrible, but not the greatest either. If you’ve read Starting Seeds at Home – a Deeper Look, you remember that during germination, seeds have no need for fertilizers as they carry everything they need to sprout and establish a seedling inside the seed coat. The fertilizer might be beneficial during the seedling phase, but more soil nutrients are definitely needed to sustain a healthy plant, so this is not a seed to garden transplant mix. The wetting agent will be beneficial in the germination stage, but could contribute to mold and fungal issues for the seedling if the gardener isn’t aware and careful in not over watering and inadvertently saturating the soil, which the wetting agents will make worse.

There is valid concerns raised about the harvesting of sphagnum peat moss from Canada as being sustainable or not. It takes peat moss bogs several hundred to a thousand years to mature, depending on the conditions, so it is hard to “sustainably” manage them.

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix Closuep

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix Closuep

Looking at the soil it was fine and fairly light with some perlite easily seen among the peat moss. It looks a bit chunky, but the feel wasn’t. It did seem to have a few larger chunks of material, but that shouldn’t matter in starting seeds.

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix

Miracle Gro Seed Starting Mix

Not a bad seed starting mix, and we would take this over several store brands we’ve seen.

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix

Black Gold Seedling Mix is another of the seed starting mixes listed by OMRI, and it says so on the top right side of the bag. Black Gold is a well known supplier for hydroponic growers and would be considered one of the premium or super-premium seed starting mixes.

We sourced this from True Value, so it should be available from an independent garden center but probably not from the big box stores. The bag has 16 quarts for $6.99, so is a good value with enough to start seedlings for a very large garden or for sharing between a couple of neighbors or a community garden. Black Gold’s online listing. 

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix OMRI Listing

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix OMRI Listing

In addition to the OMRI listing, the label shows this seed starting mix to be enriched with silicon for thicker stems and improved root mass. While it is true that silica and silicon are important components to strong cell, stem and root growth, there is no mention of the silica in the ingredients. This might be a marketing approach, or it could be something worthwhile, but the bag doesn’t expand on the benefits.

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix Ingredients

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix Ingredients

Black Gold’s ingredients are pretty standard for seed starting mixes; peat moss, perlite, dolomite lime and Yucca extract as the organic wetting agent. Dolomite lime is calcium magnesium carbonate and increases the pH of soil, but also aids in organic decomposition. It is high in magnesium and calcium, which could be good for acidic soils but could be trouble for alkaline soils like we have in the West. The amount of dolomite lime is probably small and wouldn’t cause much of an effect in the amounts used in seed starting mixes, but might not be the best use as a garden or container amendment.

It is good to see what is used as the wetting agent – Yucca extract.

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix Closeup

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix Closeup

The appearance confirms what we would expect to see from the ingredients – lots of white perlite specks on a very dark peat moss background. It is light and fluffy, allowing good root penetration and establishment.

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix

Black Gold Seed Starting Mix

Because this is OMRI listed, we would choose it over a non-OMRI listed seed starting mix.

Square Foot Potting Soil

Square Foot Potting Soil

The final comparison is included even though it is labeled as a potting soil and isn’t one of the seed starting mixes. Garden Time’s Square Foot Gardening Potting Soil is about as close as you can come to a complete garden soil in a bag, and we’ve used it for a number of years to start seeds, transplant seedlings into and have been quite happy with the results.

The “Natural & Organic” label is prominent on the bag, even though this is not OMRI listed. Some of the other claims are “Proven Formula for Optimum Growth” and “Great for Vegetables”.

We sourced this from Lowe’s and have bought it at Home Depot in years past. We also saw it with a different bag in True Value. The company name is Garden Time and is a part of Gro-Well brands in Tempe, AZ. The bag is 1.3 cubic feet, which translates to 38.9 quarts for $8.98, making it by far the most cost effective seed starting medium. Garden Time’s Square Foot Gardening online listing. 

Square Foot Potting Soil Ingredients

Square Foot Potting Soil Ingredients

The ingredients are compost, peat moss, coconut coir, vermiculite, bloodmeal, bone meal, kelp meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal and worm castings. The peat moss, coir and vermiculite are classic seed starting mix ingredients, with the compost, different meals and worm castings adding nutrients to the soil for the plants growth and health. We use this as both a seed starting mix and potting soil or transplant soil because of the nutrients, which are lacking in straight seed starting mixes.

Square Foot Potting Soil Closeup

Square Foot Potting Soil Closeup

Looking at the mix it’s easy to see the vermiculite granules, which are gold colored specks instead of the white of perlite. It has a lot darker look due to the compost and additional nutrients.

Vermiculite is mica expanded by intense heat and is used much like perlite to retain water, decrease soil compaction and improve water retention.

Square Foot Potting Soil

Square Foot Potting Soil

Here’s the closeup look. 


Seed Starting Mix Cost Chart

Seed Starting Mix Cost Chart


The breakdown of the costs per quart tell a story – they are in the ballpark of each other, with the exception of our rogue potting soil thrown in. Most of them have similar ingredients, with a few different additions.

If we had to buy a dedicated seed starting mix and couldn’t use the potting soil we do, our choice would be one that lists the ingredients and is OMRI listed. Having said that, any of the seed starting mixes with the primary ingredients of coconut coir (our preference) or peat moss with perlite or vermiculite would make a satisfactory seed starting mix.

What you choose will depend largely on the availability for you, how much you need and the cost.

As part of the test, we are starting seeds in all four mixes and have documented our results in Seed Germination Observations. Our Potting Soils article gives you some details on what to look for in good soils to transplant your young, tender seedlings into. 

White Sonora Wheat Head


White Sonora Wheat is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today all across the country, thanks to restoration efforts in Arizona and South Carolina. Introduced in the early 1700s by Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino to the Sonoran region of Mexico and Southern Arizona, White Sonora Wheat was the staple wheat for the western United States for almost 200 years, from the early 1700s to the 1900s. Starting in the early 1800s, California planted Sonoran wheat almost exclusively.

Its popularity was partly due to its resistance to Fusarium fungus, drought tolerance and its exceptionally sweet flavor for baking. It was also prized as a brewing grain, again for its flavor it gave the beer. During the Civil War, much Sonoran wheat was exported from Arizona and California to the eastern states making up for lost production due to the war.

Young White Sonora Wheat

Several factors contributed to its demise as the staple variety of wheat, from expanded cattle ranching in Mexico, the droughts and loss of water as a power source in the 1950s, the closing of many flour mills in Sonora in the mid-1960s, the Green Revolution with its hybridized wheat varieties and the switch from wheat production to vegetables as dams closed off the rivers in northern Mexico. By about 1975, there were no more commercial sources of White Sonora Wheat available.

Modern Interest

A lot of attention is being paid to wheat today, mainly due to the rise of gluten intolerance or celiac disease in which a person cannot digest the gluten part of wheat in their diet. For a more in-depth look at this issue, read my article “What’s Wrong with Our Wheat?”.

This is one of several areas where White Sonora Wheat really shines, as it is lower in gluten and higher in protein than today’s super-hybridized dwarf varieties. White Sonora Wheat is an extremely flavorful semi-hard white spring wheat that can be used for whole wheat flour in breads, cakes, pancakes, tortillas, and more. By many accounts this is the best flour for cakes, breads and tortillas ever. Because it is a white wheat, not a hard red wheat, it makes lighter products that have a sweeter and lighter flavor than those typically associated with whole wheat. The berries can also be boiled and used like rice or sprouted for wheat grass.

White Sonora Wheat Husk


Another advantage the White Sonora Wheat has is a thinner, more paper-like husk, unlike other ancient cereal grains that require a mill to remove the husk and then can be ground. When we recently visited our grower, we were shown a large bag of the wheat that had just been harvested, with no other cleaning or sorting. You can see the video below, and see the weed seeds among the wheat, but also the very few seed heads that have any husks on them. The husks are removed by the mechanical action of the harvester, with the remaining ones rubbed off easily with a couple of fingers.

Processing and Cleaning

For the home gardener or small scale grower, this can be done fairly easily with some hand or kitchen tools. Depending on how much wheat you have to process, a kitchen food processor such as a Cuisinart fitted with the plastic dough blade can separate the husks from the grains. Pulse the blade to prevent from breaking too many of the grains and making it harder to separate the wheat from the husks or chaff. Fill the bowl up about 1/2 to 2/3 full and work in batches.

White Sonora Wheat in Cuisinart


Another method is to use a 5 gallon bucket with a paint mixer attachment on a hand power drill, either the spiral or traditional cross or paddle type. Use a moderate speed and move the mixer around the bucket to create the friction that loosens the husks. You will need to stop and check the progress, but will quickly get a feel for how long to use the mixer.

White Sonora Wheat has a root structure much like a perennial prairie grass with long taproots and a web of smaller feeder roots, unlike the simple and shallow hybrid roots of today’s wheat. These longer taproots bring water and nutrients from deeper in the soils, making the plant less susceptible to moisture fluctuations. It also helps to open up the soil when the wheat is harvested as the root system decays, leaving behind a network of air and water passages. The wheat can thrive on marginal soils and actually produces better flavor on these soils, though production volume is lower than modern ones.

With all of its advantages, flavor and nutrition, ease of growth and harvest, along with being adapted to dry climates and improving the soil, it is easy to see why White Sonora Wheat is regaining its rightful popularity! It is usually planted as winter wheat in areas with mild winters and as spring wheat everywhere else.

Customer Processing Method

One of our customers graciously sent some photos showing how he processed the wheat after harvesting it. He started with 3 oz. and the end results are pretty impressive! Thanks to Paul from California for sharing these with us!

Processing White Sonora Wheat

He starts with dumping the uncleaned wheat into a sack or heavy pillowcase – heads, chaff and remainder of stems – all of it.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

Then using a large, lightweight wooden mallet, he applies physical friction to the bag and wheat, loosening the hulls. This isn’t a pounding action, and he tries not to hit through to the bottom of the sack, only gently thumping the top and going down about halfway into the wheat.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

After a few minutes of friction, this is what the wheat berries look like – very much the same as what comes out of the combine, but with some stalks and stems in the mix.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

Next is winnowing the wheat, or separating it from the husks or chaff. The basics of this process haven’t changed since it was written about in the Bible – use a breeze to blow the lighter chaff off of the heavier wheat berries. Paul said he had to repeat this step a couple of times, but got a really clean batch of wheat.

Finished White Sonora Wheat

Here are the results! Pretty good harvest from a 3 oz. start. This is fairly typical return with wheat, it should be in the range of about 40:1, meaning if you plant 1 oz. your harvest should be around 40 oz. 

Adding Sardines

Fish Emulsion Feeds Your Plants

Fish emulsion has been a go-to product for the organic and natural home gardener for years now, as it has proven its effectiveness in feeding the soil and plants with biologically available nutrients while increasing soil and microbe health. The main drawback to commercial fish emulsion is the cost and the smell. While we can’t do anything to help you with the fishy smell, we can help you make your own fish emulsion that will not only save you a lot of money in product and shipping costs, but just might make a better product than you can buy! This homemade fish emulsion will almost always supply more nutrients than commercially available, but also supplies much more beneficial bacteria from the brewing process. In order to ship, commercial emulsions have little to no active bacteria, because they make containers swell as they continue to grow!

All fish emulsions are good organic nitrogen sources, but they also supply phosphorus, potassium, amino acids, proteins and trace elements or micro-nutrients that are really needed to provide deep nutrition to your soil community and plants. One of the benefits of fish emulsion is that they provide a slower release of nutrients into the soil without over-feeding all at once. It is usually applied as a soil drench, but some gardeners swear by using it as a foliar fertilizer as well.

Adding seaweed or kelp to the brewing process adds about 60 trace elements and natural growth hormones to the mix, really boosting the effectiveness of the fish emulsion. The seaweed or kelp transforms the emulsion into a complete biological fertilizer. Beneficial soil fungi love seaweed. Dried seaweed is available at most oriental grocery stores. The amount you need to add will depend entirely on your soil needs. If you are just getting started in improving your soil, add up to a cup of dried seaweed or 2 – 3 cups fresh. If your soil is doing pretty good then add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of dried seaweed and up to 1 – 2 cups fresh.

Making Your Own Fish Emulsion

Fish Emulsion Ingredients

To make your own, obtain a dedicated 5 gallon bucket for this project. Trust me; you won’t want to use it for anything else once you’re done! Buy 10 cans of herring type fish such as sardines, mackerel or anchovies. Sourcing these from a dollar store or scratch and dent store makes perfect sense, as you don’t care about the can and aren’t going to eat them.

Zeus with Compost

Rich, well-aged compost is a key ingredient to great fish emulsion, as it has lots of active microbes and other biological life which will help kick-start the fermentation of the fish. A good compost hunting dog is not required, but really helps. We’ve found the Doberman breed to be very helpful in finding just the right compost! Dalmatians do a pretty good job as well. 

Adding Compost to Bucket

Fill the bucket half full of well-aged compost, aged sawdust or leaves, or a combination of all three. You are looking for the dark brown, crumbly compost that smells like rich earth. 

Adding Water to Compost

Add water to about 2 inches from the top…

Adding Sardines

add in the cans of fish, rinsing the cans with the water to make sure you get every last drop of the “good stuff”. The juices or oils in the can will breed beneficial microbes and supply extra proteins.

Blackstrap Molasses

To supercharge the brew, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of blackstrap molasses to provide sugars and minerals to the fermenting process. The sugars also help control odors. Next, add the chopped or powdered seaweed to the mix. If you need extra sulfur and magnesium, add 1 Tbs Epsom salts.

Stirring Compost and Sardines

Stir well and cover with a lid to control the odor, but not tightly as it will build pressure as it brews.

Be Careful!

NOTE – Make sure that flies do not get into the bucket or you will have a marvelous breeding ground for maggots! One solution is to drill several holes in the lid for the bucket and glue screen mesh on the inside of the lid, allowing air flow but keeping those pesky flies out. Remember, you are brewing the most delicious aromas the flies have ever smelled!

Let it Ferment

Let it brew for at least 2 weeks, a month is better. Give the contents a good stir every couple of days.

Once it has brewed for a month, it is ready for use!

There are a lot of ways to use this brew, so be creative. Some folks will strain off the solids, put them in the compost pile and use the liquid as a concentrated “tea” to be diluted with water. Others keep everything together and stir the mix well before taking what they need. What you have is a supply of bio-available nutrients in a soluble form.

Use as a Soil Drench and Foliar Fertilizer

For a soil drench, use 2 – 3 Tbs per gallon of water and apply to the roots on a monthly basis during the growing season. 1 Tbs per gallon of water makes a good foliar fertilizer. Just make sure to apply it by misting during the cooler parts of the day, not drenching the leaves in the heat. Half a cup per gallon will give your compost pile a kick start.

This brew will keep for at least a year, but you might want to make fresh each season. If you need less than 5 gallons, halve or quarter the recipe. It will smell, so store it where the odor won’t knock you out. I don’t trust the “deodorized” fish emulsions, as to remove the odor, some component of the fish product was removed either physically or chemically and is no longer available as a nutrient.

Picking Heirloom Tomatoes

Finding and picking perfectly ripe heirloom vegetables or fruit seems second nature to some, but those new to gardening can be confused and frustrated by the seemingly endless choices. One the one hand, you don’t want to pick too early and miss out on the scrumptious flavors, but you also don’t want to pick too late and not only miss the flavors, but lose the time and work of growing the vegetables in the first place. What’s a hard-working home gardener to do?

Do not use size (or color) alone to choose when to pick, as most of us are used to the size and color of the supermarket produce, which is not an honest or accurate measure to use for your veggies! Most home grown produce will be a bit smaller, more colorful and a bit less uniform in appearance than the supermarket equivalent. Heirloom vegetables grown at home will mature over a span of a few days to a couple of weeks, so you have time to let things get a bit riper if needed. No need to rush.

Use your sense of sight, touch, smell and taste to determine when to pick. Gently feel the tomato to see if it is soft and slightly yielding, or still just a bit firm. If it feels like it is ready to pick, gently pull the tomato just a bit. If it is truly ripe, it will almost fall off into your hand, if not it may need a day or two more. Give the melon vine the slightest pull to see if it slips from the melon. Smell the skin to see if it has that deliciously ripe tomato perfume, that heady melon scent or if it needs just a day or two more. Watch the colors change on the peppers, feel the skin and flesh change from firm and unyielding to slightly pliable to see when the flavor is best. Gently squeeze the okra, fondle the eggplant, watch the translucence of the pea pods fill with young luscious peas. Gardening is a full contact sport, and not just in the physical sense. It requires, engages and tunes all of your senses to learn when everything is at its absolute peak ripeness and therefore peak flavor and nutrition.

When in doubt, always take a taste test to see if your other senses are right, or they need a little education and fine tuning. Don’t be afraid to taste! Most of us have been educated on what to expect with vegetables from the supermarket, which is very misleading. Supermarket produce is specially selected to be picture perfect; everything else is discarded or used for other products. Every time you do a taste test, you become more in tune with the flavors and timing of your particular garden, and your particular vegetables that are growing there. This is called terroir, and your garden has its own special brand and flavor of terroir! With a little time, you will know exactly when everything will be at the peak of its flavor, and can plan some scrumptious meals around them. Once you have experienced the magic of a ripening garden, you will never forget the sights and smells.

It’s usually best to pick in the cool of the morning, as the evening’s growth is completed and flavor is at the day’s best. Cool evenings are a good time to pick as well. Make sure to plan ahead if you need chilled vegetables such as salad makings and pick ahead of time. Harvesting the day before will give plenty of time to get things chilled without losing any flavors that you’ve worked so hard to grow.

Home gardeners are starting to get the itch to get their yearly heirloom seed starting tradition under way about now. In some parts of the country it is warm enough that folks are able to direct sow cool season crops into their gardens, while in others it is time to start seeds inside to get them big and sturdy enough to transplant once the frosts have passed.

This leads to something of an eternal question- how do I start my seeds and what is the best method? If you are new to this series of articles, you might want to read Successful Heirloom Seed Starting for the Home Gardener where we show the equipment and space needed to be successful in starting your seeds at home, and Seed Starting Media for the Home Gardener, which examines the different materials used in making up a great seed starting media, and why you should use them. This will bring you up to speed on everything that brings us to this article and video.

Heirloom seed starting is actually pretty easy and straight forward, once a couple of basics are understood. The whole reason for starting seeds inside is to get a jump-start on the season by growing vegetable plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant inside to a stage where they are able to produce much earlier than if their seeds were directly sown into the garden soil once the frosts have passed. For example- it is common to start tomatoes 6-8 weeks or up to 2 months early inside, then transplant them into the garden. This means for many parts of the country that tomatoes will be ripe in late June or early July instead of September, as they would be if planted directly.

You can use this technique to your advantage and start a few select plants much earlier and have a small harvest within a couple of weeks of transplanting, then stagger some starts every couple of weeks for a month. What this will accomplish is the same as succession planting in the garden with carrots, beets, radishes, etc.- it gives you a continuous harvest of the vegetables that are in demand over a longer season without flooding you with too much at once, then having it all run out later. This is exactly the technique that highly successful market growers use to have a full stand for the first Farmer’s Market, as well as having produce for the year-round CSA. They will start everything– lettuce, beets, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, mustard, spinach- inside and transplant to the hoop-house or high tunnel once they are big enough to handle whatever season they are being planted into. Eliot Coleman has been perfecting this method for 30 years in Maine where he grows year-round without heating the growing houses.

We have prepared a new video showing how we do seed starting for our trial garden and food production here at Terroir Seeds. There are several methods that we share with you, as there are many ways to reach the same goal. Please enjoy and as always let us know your questions and thoughts!

Tomato Seedling

When it comes to starting their own heirloom seeds, home gardeners seem to be in two distinct camps- those that are really positive about the process and results, and those that aren’t. The folks that aren’t too excited about starting their own seeds usually have a good reason- they’ve had some failures with die-off and had to scramble to buy starts at the local garden center and wound up with something that they didn’t really want. Others haven’t tried their own starts, but feel that it is complicated or difficult. There are some very compelling reasons to start your own seedlings, but there are some challenges to overcome as well. We will look at several items to consider in making the decision of whether or not to do your own starts, along with some tips to get you started successfully.

Why start your own seeds? What advantages/disadvantages are there?

  • You have a much greater range of choice on what to grow as you are not limited to what’s available at the local garden center, hardware store or Farmer’s Market.
  • Gives a great creative outlet to “cabin fever” that sets in before the garden can be worked, allows you to be “growing something” early on.
  • There is greater flexibility on timing to get them started. You can start them to work with your schedule, or to take advantage of getting bigger, earlier producing plants in the garden sooner.
  • Starting your own seeds gives earlier veggies from the garden, as you start on your schedule, not depending on a regional greenhouse schedule.  For example- here in AZ, most starts come from the central valley of CA, where timing is completely different, sometimes by a factor of several weeks.
  • Home gardeners can usually  grow bigger, healthier plants than a commercial greenhouse, as there is more attention per plant. Less diseases/issues than from large scale grower.
  • Seed starting does require some planning and effort, not as easy as going down and picking out what seedling to buy.
  • Does require some set up and equipment, but not much to get started. Will require some space, but not much on start-up.
  • Transplants give you a head start on weeds and the weather. A tomato or pepper that is 2 feet tall will have little to no competition from weeds that are just getting started.

Now that you know the pro’s and con’s of starting your own seeds, how does one go about actually doing it? As with just about anything, there is some planning and preparation involved, but not too much. Remember how we talk about getting started in the garden- start small, start simply, but get started? The same thought process applies here as well. Set yourself up for success, not frustration, headaches and failure. Take the time to do some initial planning  and set up and you’ll be off to a great start.

Plan and arrange the seed starting area

  • Start simply and easily, you may have most of the items on hand.
  • A key factor for successful germination is a warm area to sprout seeds- can be the top of a refrigerator, freezer, window sill in south-facing room. etc. Most of the calls we receive about seeds not germinating is traced to this factor. When the temperature of the soil is optimum- seeds can and will “pop” in 5 days, no matter if they are tomatoes, peppers or eggplant! When the soil temperature is less than 70F, it can take 2 weeks to sprout- there is that much of a difference!
  • Supplemental heat may be needed. Soil temperatures need to be above 80F for faster germination. The ideal soil temperature for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant is 85F. Rarely are people comfortable at that temperature!  Air temperature may be 5-10F different than soil temperature due to evaporative effects of moist soil. Heating pads, germination heat mats, old electric blankets, etc can work to raise soil temperature to where it needs to be. Monitor soil temperatures to avoid over-heating. A heat mat will work even if the air temperature is 60-65F.
  • Supplemental lighting may be needed after seeds sprout and develop true leaves. This can range from specific grow lights to common fluorescent fixtures with grow bulbs. Lights need to be moveable to keep about 2-4 inches above plants. Seedlings need 14-18 hours of light per day.
  • Humidity levels need to be high when seeds are sprouting, then less so as they develop and continue to grow. Domed lids on grow trays are great and have adjustable vents to maintain humidity levels. Plastic sheeting, such as painter’s drop cloth, will work just as well. Make sure to inspect the seedlings for mold or fungus growth on top of the soil, which is an indication of too much humidity and too little air circulation. After the seedlings grow their second set of true leaves, humidity is less important.  Of course, in areas of high humidity, often nothing else is needed.

Once the area is planned and prepared, the equipment is all that is left and you’re ready to start some seedlings! The equipment can be very basic of pretty involved, but again- start small and simple. It is amazing how well seeds sprout in a soil block that is free or paper pot that is next to free! Sometimes they sprout better than in much more expensive and complex equipment.

Gather the equipment needed

See our Seed Starting Department for books and tools to help you be more successful in starting your seeds.

  • Plastic trays for seedling sets and containers for individual seedlings. Domed lids or plastic sheeting may be needed in low humidity areas.
  • Seed cups or containers. These can range from peat pots to homemade paper pots to handmade soil blocks to recycled yogurt/dixie cups. What is needed is something that will support the individual seedlings and feed them until they are ready for transplanting.
  • Soil or seed starting mix. These range from several readily available commercial ready to use seed starting mixes that have no soil and are sterile to lessen the chance of fungus and diseases, to a number of ingredients that make for a great homemade seed starting mix.  We will cover some of these in more depth in another article.
  • Misters or sprayers. A small squirt bottle sprayer or mister works great to apply very small amounts of water to the seedlings. A small hand pump sprayer can be valuable as well to give a bit more water without having to pump constantly, especially for larger amounts of seed trays.
  • Soil thermometer. This gives you an accurate indication of what the soil temperature is, regardless of the air temperature.

Introduction to Seed Starting video with Terroir Seeds

We have created a short video showing how we have started seeds for several years now. This is the result of many experiments and really works well for us. By no means is this is the only way to do it, as we know of several different but equally effective ways to get seedlings started at home. This is just what works for us, and the expense didn’t break the bank. We constructed this in stages after experience and experiments taught us what works in our situation. This takes up little space and produces a lot of seedlings for our trial garden. Take a look and please let us know your thoughts, ideas and experiences that we can share with everyone else!

Compost Feeds and Improves Your Soil

Compost is one of the best mulches and soil amendments available, easiest ways to feed your garden soil and can (and should) be used instead of commercial chemical fertilizers. It is easily improved or customized for your specific garden conditions and best of all, compost is cheap. You can often make it without spending anything, or very little.

Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, while at the same time improving its drainage. All you need are some feedstocks, moisture and time.

Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter in compost provides food for the microorganisms that digest and break down the matter, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Feeding of the microorganisms also makes foundational minerals more readily available to the plants such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, boron, silicon, magnesium and trace elements.  Well fed, properly produced compost applied to the garden soil can create a condition where few if any soil amendments will be needed.

We will examine several aspects of compost and techniques to build the nutrient value of the compost for the garden. One of the most useful aspects of compost is it’s adaptability, as it can be “customized” or enhanced with many additions that will increase it’s fertility and value to the garden. This is not meant as an introductory how-to compost article – see our article Compost – What We’ve Learned for that. You can use the techniques shown here to customize your compost for your garden’s needs.

For our discussion, we will assume a manure based compost, combined with leaves or straw for the close to ideal 25-30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C/N). Here are some examples the C/N ratio for common compost feedstocks-

Compost Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios

Compost Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios

One of the common techniques of the Genetic Engineering industry is called “Stacking”, or combining several traits into one variety to try to achieve multiple benefits. I’m not sure if it works, but the same thought pattern can be applied to our compost, with results that don’t need to be studied for a decade or two to determine if they are indeed dangerous. We will be looking at and discussing several of these techniques, all of which can be “Stacked”, or combined to achieve greater benefits. Some of these techniques are common use in the garden and will have similar effects in the compost pile.

Ingredients That Boost Compost


Azomite or Elemite Trace Minerals

Azomite or Elemite trace minerals

Mineralization– If you’ve followed the previous soil building blog posts, you understand the importance of adding minerals to your garden soil and the incredible benefits it has. For those who haven’t read it, read Mineral Restoration of Your Garden Soil for the first part and Mineral Restoration of Your Garden Soil Part II for the second. Adding a broad-based mineral supplement to your compost will kick-start the decomposition and feeding of the microorganisms, and give them a powerful, healthy start. This will carry over when you apply the compost to your garden, as the remainder of the minerals and trace elements will benefit the garden soil, your plants, veggies and ultimately – you.


MycoGrow soluble mycorrhizal fungi mix

MycoGrow soluble mycorrhizal fungi mix

Mycorrhizal Fungi– An ancient microscopic group of fungi that develop symbiotic relationships with about 90% of crop species. They colonize in and around the roots and root hairs, sending out hyphae– strands that are about 1/25 the diameter of a human hair- into the surrounding soil anywhere from 15 to 25 inches. This increases the nutrient “reach” of the plant from 10x to sometimes 100x! Mycorrhizae create enzymes to mobilize and release phosphorus, nitrogen, zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, sulfur and several other nutrients from the soil and transport them to the roots of the host plant. They also produce antibiotic and other defensive compounds that fight damaging root diseases by other fungi and bacteria.


Jug of Molasses

Jug of molasses

Molasses– From Wikipedia: Molasses is a viscous by-product of the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. Sulfured molasses is made from young sugar cane. Sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative, is added during the sugar extraction process. Unsulfured molasses is made from mature sugar cane, which does not require such treatment. There are three grades of molasses: mild or Barbados, also known as first molasses; dark, or second molasses; and blackstrap. The third boiling of the sugar syrup makes blackstrap molasses. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has been crystallized and removed. The calorie content of blackstrap molasses is still mostly from the small remaining sugar content. However, unlike refined sugars, it contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients.

Molasses is a very valuable addition to the compost pile, as well as to the garden itself. Unsulfured blackstrap is the preferred variety, due to the mineral content, but any of the unsulfured ones will do fine. The benefits beyond the minerals are the natural sugar content that will feed the microorganisms in the compost or soil of the garden. Use one cup to a gallon of water and spray onto the pile, or add to the drip system of the garden. The readily available sugar content will skyrocket the microbial activity. Blackstrap molasses is also commonly used in horticulture as a flower blooming and fruiting enhancer, particularly in organic hydroponics. Use the before mentioned mixture in the drip system, or sprayed alongside the roots of fruiting vegetables as they start to flower to increase their flowering and fruiting.

See Milk & Molasses – Magic for Your Garden for the whole story!


Pitcher of Milk

Pitcher of milk

Milk-Using milk on your compost and in your garden will probably come as a surprise to most. Upon closer inspection, however, it starts to make sense. The amino acids, proteins, enzymes and natural sugars that make milk a food for humans and animals are the same ingredients in nurturing healthy communities of microbes, fungi, and beneficials in your compost and garden soil. Raw milk is the best, as it hasn’t been exposed to heat that alters the components in milk that provide a perfect food for the soil and plants. Using milk on crops and soils is another ancient technique that has been lost to large-scale modern industrial agriculture.

Recently a Nebraska farmer completed a 10-year study on applying milk at different rates to his pastures and recorded the results with the help of the local Agricultural Extension agent, a university soil specialist and weed specialist. What they found was amazing- the grass production was drastically increased; the soil porosity or ability to absorb air and water doubled; microbe activity and populations increased; cows were healthier and produced more milk on treated pastures; the brix or sugar level in the pasture tripled, indicating more nutrients were stored in the grass than before. Grasshoppers abandoned the treated pastures- the sugars are a poison to soft-bodied insects as they do not have a pancreas to process the sugars. This also explains why insects will leave healthy, high brix level plants alone, as they contain more sugars than the stressed and sickly ones.

The ratio can range from 100% milk to a 50/50 mixture with water, with no loss of benefits. Use as a spray on the compost and garden soil prior to planting, and as needed when insects appear. Spray directly on the insects and around the areas they inhabit.

See Milk & Molasses – Magic for Your Garden for the whole story!


Well aged compost

Well-aged compost

Manure– Earlier, I had said the assumption was a manure-based compost. Manure is usually available, even if you don’t have horses or cows. If you get to know farmers at the Farmer’s Market or growers that sell in your area, most have animals and that usually means excess manure. Most folks with animals are happy to have someone pick up their excess manure. The more different animals that contribute to the compost pile will ensure a healthier and more diverse population of microbes and critters in the pile, meaning a better, healthier compost. Horses are not ruminants, so their manure is pretty much just chopped grass and alfalfa. It decomposes well and provides a good compost. Sheep and cattle are ruminants, so their manure has been broken down further and has a lot of beneficial bacteria and microbes that will jump-start the compost. When these are combined, you get the best of both- to your soil’s benefit!


Coffee grounds

Coffee grounds

Coffee Grounds– Another unusual but highly beneficial and productive addition to your compost. The grounds of already brewed coffee are usually about pH neutral, yet have shown to have a great buffering capability. This simply means that if you add coffee grounds to acidic or basic soil, it will help to minimize the acidic or basic effects and bring the pH back toward neutral, about 7.0. Grounds are a Nitrogen source for the 25:1 C/N ratio, so depending on what feedstock is being used, coffee grounds can be very valuable to keep the decomposition moving along. The upper limit on grounds is 25%, so a LOT of coffee grounds can be added if needed! Worms absolutely love coffee grounds, so this acts as a “worm attractant”.

So, now that you’re considering adding coffee grounds to your compost, where in the world do you get them? Your office or work is a good start, as well as home. Starbucks has a corporate policy of working to reduce waste, so they usually have a covered bucket next to their stand that they put the used grounds in. The paper filters are compostable as well, being that they are usually unbleached paper. Coffee shops, diners, restaurants and donut shops are also great resources. If you feel funny asking for coffee grounds, you will probably be surprised when they respond enthusiastically when they understand what you’re trying to do.

See Coffee Grounds Build Compost and Soil Health to learn more! 


Shovelful of charcoal

Shovelful of charcoal

Charcoal or BioChar– This is another of the soil building articles previously written. Please read Terra Preta- Magic Soil of the Lost Amazon for part one and Terra Preta Part II to get up to speed. Charcoal needs to be hardwood or lump, not briquettes and should be crushed to smaller sized chunks, about the size of a corn seed. It needs time to “activate” where it absorbs minerals and trace elements as well as providing a home for the microbes, beneficial bacteria and fungi that make the compost so nourishing to the garden. Charcoal will last at least 100-300 years, so it isn’t something that will be depleted quickly. Adding it in small amounts to the compost, and thus to the garden for several years will only increase the health, fertility, and productivity of your garden soil each year.

Where to Start

Work with what you have. You may not have a lot of nitrogen (green) or an abundance of carbon (brown) ingredients. Use what you have readily available. It’s not complicated, if you don’t have the “correct” ratio, just substitute some time and everything will be just fine. Use the above chart and this article to get the ratio close, and don’t sweat the small stuff. The gentle folks in India have been composting for something like 5,000 years without compost tumblers or fancy enclosures. Work with your local conditions- for instance, we have to water our compost to keep it alive.

Now you can see what is meant by “Stacking” of these techniques! Compost by itself is very valuable, but when combined with some or all of these techniques, things will really start moving, and in a positive direction! The health and fertility benefits will increase exponentially, and not only once, but each time the compost is added to the garden soil, which should be twice a year- in the Spring prior to planting and again in the Fall. This creates an ever increasing spiral of benefits for the garden, the plants, the fruits and vegetables and of course for you and your health.

This proves what Sir Albert Howard said to the House of Commons in England at the end of the 19th Century when he said, “As goes the health of the soil, so goes the health of the nation.” He was laughed out of the House of Commons, but we are realizing now, 120 years later, that what he said is absolutely true. Improve the health of your soil, and your health will be improved from the produce of your garden.

We recently completed our second salad growing bed in our greenhouse, and here’s how we did it!


We started the salad growing bed so that we would have fresh salad greens during the Fall, Winter and early Spring when the garden wasn’t growing or things were just coming up. We can supplement our diet with fresh, healthy and extremely nutritious greens like lettuce, Swiss Chard, beets and beet tops, carrots, mustards and even some kale if we want to.

The salad bed has it’s own heat cable buried at the bottom of the sand under the growing soil, so the roots stay warm and don’t need external, expensive heat in the greenhouse during the colder seasons. We grew fresh greens almost all winter in one bed, and have expanded into a second bed.

Both beds are 6 ft long, 18 inches wide and 13 inches deep. The material was from a local metal recycling facility and is really heavy corrugated sheet metal. We bought 3/4 inch thick exterior grade plywood, drilled 21 drain holes in the bottom and sealed it with an exterior decking stain. We then screwed the corners of the sheet metal together and inserted the plywood bottom into the bottom slot made by the corrugations, and screwed it to the sheet metal as well.

Next we put the heating cable in. This is a sealed unit made to heat seed beds that has a built in thermostat. We attached it to the bottom side of 1/4 inch hardware cloth- a heavy metal mesh- to prevent damage to the cable if we needed to dig into the soil. You can see the drain holes in the plywood here.

This is part of the magic that allows us to be able to grow tender greens year round in an unheated greenhouse. Many people don’t realize how little it takes to be able to grow their own fresh green produce year round at their home. They are used to the idea of the Spring through early Fall garden, but that is it. The thought of growing farther into the year, and starting earlier, is new to most people.

However, there is much more time available to grow if you look at things a little unconventionally, and look at ways to manage the temperature and moisture to extend your growing season. Whether it is a weekend project like this, or it is constructing a small row cover from PVC and heavy weight painter’s plastic drop cloth from your local hardware store, you can positively affect your growing season with a little work that will pay you back for several years.

After the cable/mesh was laid down, we put about 2-3 inches of sand. The sand acts as a medium of heat exchange to heat the growing soil from the bottom up. It is surprising how little heat is needed to make a real difference. We had several nights at freezing after we started the salad pit growing, with a plastic sheet draped over the top, and the little “saladlings” did just fine. The water trickles down and keeps the sand moist, which acts as a perfect heat conductor to the soil above.

The soil was put in next- about 5-6 inches of good organic potting soil. We saved some time and bought some pre-made potting soil that is certified organic and has mycorrhizae added to it to help the roots develop into the soil better. The mycorrhizae are microscopic fungi that help both the plant get more nutrition out of the soil, as they extend the reach of the root’s micro tendrils into the soil and bring in nutrients that were out of reach of the roots. The plants will grow stronger and have more vigor, production and disease and pest resistance. In return the plants feed a sugar substance to the mycorrhizae. A wonderful symbiotic relationship!

After some gentle watering to get the soil and sand below well moistened but not wet, the salad bed is ready to plant! The new bed is in the foreground, with the established bed in the background. You can see the difference in growth in the first salad bed from this photo as compared to the top photo.

One of the hidden benefits to growing salad greens this way is the lack of dirt in the greens when harvested. There is no wind or rains to push dirt up on the leaves and stems, so the greens only need a light rinse before they are ready to eat. As we don’t use any type of chemicals to grow with, we don’t have to worry about chemical or fertilizer contamination to wash off.

The white box in the foreground is a small hydroponic setup, the blue top is rigid foam with 5 holes in it for the lettuce cups and growing medium, which is rock wool. There is a small aquarium pump in the bottom to recirculate the nutrient solution to the roots. We have grown lettuce indoors in the winter in our small house, so the greenhouse will be an expanded experiment. If if works well, and it should, we might expand this to be a vertical hydroponic rack made from several sections of roof guttering along the North wall, which is straw bale and tires.

This could give us a substantially expanded growing opportunity with very little square foot commitment. We will keep you posted on the progress!

If you don’t have your own greenhouse, a similar container system can be done in a sunny window, in your garage under some lights or even on a back deck. Let your imagination be your guide. If you are interested in the heat cables, post a comment. If there is interest, we may carry them in the near future.