Deep Mulch Gardening: Building a Habitat for a Whole-Soil Ecosystem

Tags: gardening, soil ecosystems, mulch, Colorado, David R. Braden IV

According to the literature, hügelkultur can remain fertile for up to 30 years without adding new materials. However, it can be difficult to plant into the logs and branches. We call our latest experiment a hügel mulch. It is a base of logs and branches covered with a wood chip sheet mulch that should give us many years of growing without any labor except planting and harvesting.

At the Living Systems Institute we work with the theory that nature maintains a habitat for a whole soil ecosystem that retains nutrients. By “whole soil ecosystem” we mean a complete set of organisms that cycle nutrients through complete growth, decay and regrowth cycles. I have been working with the concept over ten years now and I know I can grow more vegetable with substantially less work using a deep mulch system than with any of the other gardening technique that involves turning the soil. In my experience maintaining a habitat for that whole soil ecosystem is why it works.

Experimenting with Deep Mulch Systems

August 2011I started the experiment in 2004 using the permaculture technique called sheet mulching.[1] By 2011 our gardening teams were incorporating ideas from a technique called hügelkultur.[2] One third of our 2011 experimental sheet mulch garden was built with varying sizes of branches, sticks and wood chips twelve inches deep, then covered with an inch of horse manure. The section using hay has been renewed annually, the section using only wood chips will need to be renewed this fall. We planted the section built with branches for the 4th year in 2014 and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Typically, organic gardening involves a cycle of composting, tilling in compost, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and removing plant debris for composting. We spent a morning. We followed the sheet mulching formula contained in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden except that we used the sticks instead of the recommended materials. I then went in and “drew” pathways on top with more wood chips and put in drip irrigation. Since that morning we have done nothing but plant and harvest with an occasional mulching of volunteer plants. You can see how productive it is in the pictures.

August 2014I have given this explanation to people in my garden where they can see the results and yet they go home and crank up their rototillers. Many gardeners who have achieved success using labor intensive methods seem loath to try the deep mulch approach. How is it that we can do so much less work and still get this kind of production? Let’s look at how the theory of whole soil ecosystems applies to our observed results.

Building a Habitat for a Whole Soil Ecosystem

Have you ever wondered how nature grows things without depleting nutrients from the soil? How can nature increase the nutrients in the soil while the land is fallow? Why is it that human gardening and farming depletes the soil?

The way a forest builds soil is by a regular addition of carbon on top. The wind blows, branches break off, old trees fall over, and the leaves fall each autumn. The animals make their contribution of nitrogen. That process creates layers of decomposition. That is the habitat for the soil ecosystem that developed in the forest. The ecosystem itself is a complete set of organisms that evolved to decompose the carbon and nitrogen raw materials and convert them into the food required by the forest plants which in turn produce the food for the forest animals. As soon as something excretes a substance, or dies and releases the nutrients contained in its body there is another species there ready to take up those nutrients and process them further. Nutrients of all types are produced continuously. The nutrients cycle through the system over and over. The nutrients build up in the system rather than being depleted from the system.

When we till the soil we destroy the habitat for that whole soil ecosystem and start losing the participation of specific species. Without the participation of the primary decomposers we have to gather the carbon and nitrogen and do the composting ourselves. When we till in the compost all of those nutrients are available for our plants immediately. Our plants do not need all of the nutrients all at once and the unused nutrients are taken up by weeds or leach out in the rain. Then we have to supply more nutrients next year.

Tilling creates the perfect habitat for nature’s pioneer plants. Because we have no bare soil in a deep mulch system many of the species considered weeds are not a problem. Seeds will blow in or are carried in by animals and those plants may volunteer in the mulch. These volunteers are rooted in the mulch, not the soil, and are easy to pull. A weed, by definition, is a plant growing where it is not wanted. If we want that plant for mulch it is not a weed. It is a gift and when you pull it and lay it down the decomposers with take up and cycle those nutrients right away.

We also have no pests in our gardens. We want to foster a healthy system that includes as many different species as possible. That means that the insect eating our plants is not a pest. It is food for the species that want to protect our plants. Each species participating makes its contribution by processing nutrients as a part of its life cycle and excreting them and releasing them in death as a part of the nutrient cycle. The more species participating the more “whole” our ecosystem becomes.

This fall, when the first hard frost is predicted, I will dismantle the drip systems and bring in the head strings for the winter.[3] Every thing in the garden, tomato cages and all, will stay just where they are. That way, when the wind blows, the garden will collect organic matter and improve the habitat for our soil ecosystem. In the spring we will plant directly through the accumulated mulch. The habitat that we maintain for our soil ecosystem forms the basis for the integrated closed loop production systems we explore at the Living Systems Institute.

Building a Hügel Mulch

Hugel Mulch

1. Start by soaking the area to be mulched with water.

2. Spread manure over the area about 1/2 to 1 inch thick.

3. Assemble a weed barrier by laying down a layer of cardboard with as little over lap as possible. Take newspaper and lay it out over the seams in the cardboard. Don’t do a lot of unfolding. Just lay it out whole sections at a time. You will want to wet the paper as it is laid out if there is any wind at all. Lay out a second layer of cardboard and cover all those seams with newspaper.

4. Spread another layer of manure 1/2- to 1-inch thick.

5. Keep the water running and wet each layer as you go.

6. Cover the area with logs and then fill in the gaps between the logs with smaller branches and sticks.

7. Fill in any remaining gaps with wood chips.

8. Spread a third layer of manure about 1-inch thick.

9. Add 12 inches of wood chips on top.

10. Spread a final layer of manure about 1-inch thick.

11.You can now mark your pathways by laying out a line of wood chips about 2 feet wide and maybe 1 or 2 inches thick.




[3]The head string is the timer, filter, pressure regulator and back flow preventer that attach to the outdoor faucet.

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Continuously Learn

Design your world.

Design your world.


Life is in continuous motion. It never stops. Same is for learning. I have shared many articles from many different sources, and everyone of them goes into my folder. Folder. Yes folder. I keep a lager three ring folder, and every articles that I read and like gets printed and put into that folder. Many times I like them so much I share them with you here. I continuously read and watch videos on permaculture and homesteading.  I love this medium where information is so freely shared. I hope to keep sharing for many many years.

I also listen to The Survival Podcast, podcast, and Permaculture Voices podcast. Podcast are great when I am in the car going to work and while working.

If you have any tips on continuous education please comment or hit me up on Twitter @freedomfarmtv .

8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil

Use these organic and natural methods to make healthy garden soil from common dirt.
June/July 2007
This garden needed room to grow!Photo courtesy WALTER CHANDOHA


Starting to build a new garden isn’t difficult. Most people begin by going out into their yards with a shovel or garden tiller, digging up the dirt and putting in a few plants. Following the organic and natural methods, add a little mulch or compost, and you’re well on your way to make good soil for your homegrown vegetables. But in the long run, the success of your garden depends on making healthy garden soil. The more you can do to keep your soil healthy, the more productive your garden will be and the higher the quality of your crops.

In the last issue, I discussed the value of soil care methods that imitate natural soil communities. These include protecting soil structure, feeding the soil with nutrients from natural and local sources, and increasing the diversity and numbers of the microbes and other organisms that live in the soil.

In this article, I’ll focus on specific ways to achieve these goals. There are many ways to do this, but they all revolve around two basic concepts: For more fertile soil, you need to increase organic matter and mineral availability, and whenever possible, you should avoid tilling the soil and leave its structure undisturbed.

Add Organic Matter

For the best soil, sources of organic matter should be as diverse as possible.

1. Add manures for nitrogen. All livestock manures can be valuable additions to soil — their nutrients are readily available to soil organisms and plants. In fact, manures make a greater contribution to soil aggregation than composts, which have already mostly decomposed.

You should apply manure with care. Although pathogens are less likely to be found in manures from homesteads and small farms than those from large confinement livestock operations, you should allow three months between application and harvest of root crops or leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach to guard against contamination. (Tall crops such as corn and trellised tomatoes shouldn’t be prone to contamination.)

However, because some nutrients from manures are so readily available, they are more likely to leach out of the soil (where they’re needed) into groundwater and streams (where they’re pollutants). Also, if manures are overused, they can provide excess amounts of some nutrients, especially phosphorus. Because of this, it may be best to restrict fresh manures to heavy feeding, fast-growing crops like corn, and process additional manure by composting.

When thinking of manure, it’s worth considering our own. Flushing “humanure” away disrupts aquatic ecosystems, and represents a net loss of potential fertility from agricultural soils. On the other hand, human manure requires cautious management to avoid spreading disease. I recommend Joe Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook, the bible on this subject.

2. Try composting. Composting is a means of recycling almost any organic wastes. It reduces the bulk of organic materials, stabilizes their more volatile and soluble nutrients, and speeds up the formation of soil humus.

Regular applications of modest amounts of compost — one-quarter inch per season — will provide slow-release nutrients, which will dramatically improve your soil’s water retention and help suppress disease. Classic composting is relatively simple (for more about how to do it, see “Start a Compost Pile,” below), but it can be labor intensive if you try to do it on a large scale. The older I get, the more interested I am in an easier alternative. Fortunately, I’ve found two.

One is “sheet composting.” In classic composting, you build tall piles in bins, alternating layers of fresh, high-nitrogen “greens,” such as grass clippings, with high-carbon, difficult to break down “browns,” such as dry leaves. Instead, you can keep these two compost materials separate, and apply them in two layers directly to the garden bed.

The moist, volatile, high-nitrogen “greens” go down first, in direct contact with the soil and the microbial populations ready to feed on them, while the drier, coarser, high-carbon “browns” are used as a cover to keep the first layer from drying out or losing its more volatile elements to the atmosphere.

The second alternative is vermicomposting: using earthworms to convert nutrient-dense materials, such as manures, food wastes and green crop residues, into forms usable by plants.

Earthworm castings are a major part of my fertility program. I started vermicomposting with a 3-by-4 foot worm bin. Then last year, I converted the center of my greenhouse to a 4-by-40 foot series of bins, 16 inches deep. My worms process horse manure by the pickup load from a neighbor. Not only do the worm castings feed plant roots, they carry a huge load of beneficial microbes that boost the soil organism community.

3. Tap chicken power to mix organic materials into the soil. Typically, I use electric net fencing to manage my chickens, rotating them from place to place on pasture. When needed, however, I “park” them on one of my garden spaces. I dump whatever organic materials I have handy in piles, and the chickens happily do what they love best — scratch ceaselessly through that material, looking for interesting things to eat. In the process, they shred it and incorporate it into the top couple inches of soil, the zone of most intense biological activity. Their droppings are scratched in as well, and they give a big boost to the soil microbes.

4.“Mine” soil nutrients with deep rooted plants. As I explained in the previous article, when you first start gardening, it may be necessary to use rock powders, and other slow-release sources of minerals, to correct mineral deficiencies in the soil. In the long run, however, you can supply minerals without purchasing inputs. The organic materials we add to our soil supply most of the minerals healthy crops need. In addition, we plant “fertility patches” to grow a lot of our own mineral supplements.

These fertility patches include plants that function as “dynamic accumulators.” That is, their roots grow deep, and “mine” mineral reserves from the deeper layers of subsoil, where it has weathered out of the parent rock. The roots of comfrey, for instance, can grow 8 to 10 feet into the subsoil. Stinging nettle is another extremely useful dynamic accumulator. Both nettle and comfrey, in addition to high mineral content, are high in nitrogen. They make excellent additions to a compost heap or can be used as mulches.

If you have some pasture, think of it as a fertility patch par excellence. When growth is fast and lush in the spring, you should be able to take one or two cuttings, perhaps even more, for use in composting or as mulches. If you don’t have a pasture, consider using parts of your lawn instead. I overseed my lawns each fall with the same sort of grass/clover mix I use on the pasture. In the spring, I allow some areas to grow about 8 or 10 inches before cutting it with the scythe and using it for fertility applications elsewhere.

A final thought about fertility patches: Many gardeners are a bit paranoid about “weeds,” but some weeds are deep rooted, and can be used like comfrey as dynamic accumulators to bring minerals up from the deep subsoil. An example is yellow dock (Rumex crispus). Why not allow some yellow dock to grow here and there, in edges and corners where it is not in the way? When the plants start to make seed heads, cut them off just above the crown to prevent huge numbers of seeds from blowing loose in the garden, then use the plants in mulches or composts.

5. Plant cover crops. Growing cover crops is perhaps the most valuable strategy we can adopt to feed our soil, build up its fertility and improve its structure with each passing season. Freshly killed cover crops provide readily available nutrients for our soil microbe friends and hence for food crop plants. Plus, the channels opened up by the decaying roots of cover crops permit oxygen and water to penetrate the soil.

Legumes (clovers, alfalfa, beans and peas) are especially valuable cover crops, because they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms available to crop plants. Mixes of different cover crops are often beneficial. For example, in mixes of grasses and clovers, the grasses add a large amount of biomass and improve soil structure because of the size and complexity of their root systems, and the legumes add nitrogen to help break down the relatively carbon-rich grass roots quickly.

Try to work cover crops into your cropping plans with the same deliberation that you bring to food crops. The easy way to do so is to maintain two separate garden spaces: Plant one to food crops and one to cover crops, then alternate the two crops in the following year. But most gardeners cannot devote that much space to such a strategy, so effective cover cropping must be fitted into a unified garden plan, a concept that in practice can get fiendishly complex. Gardeners who like jigsaw puzzles will love the challenges.

There are cover crops that work best for each of the four seasons, and for almost any cropping strategy.

Fine Alternatives to Tillage

In last issue’s article, “Build Better Garden Soil,” I discussed ways excessive tillage is detrimental to soil life and contributes to greenhouse gases. Proper soil care reduces the need for tillage. Nurturing soil life by constantly introducing organic matter helps keep a loose and open soil structure. Protect that improved structure by keeping the soil covered at all times. Repeat after me: “No bare soil!

6. Cover the soil with mulch. An obvious way to keep the soil covered is to use organic mulches. Some people advise against using high-carbon materials such as straw or leaves, since soil microbes “rob” available nitrogen from the soil in order to break down the excess amounts of carbon. This is only true, however, if we incorporate these high-carbon sources into the soil. I once tilled in some coarse compost containing large amounts of oak leaves not yet fully decomposed, and found that crops grew quite poorly there the entire season.

However, if high-carbon materials are laid down on top of soil as mulches, there won’t be any problem. The mulch retains soil moisture and protects against temperature extremes. Microbes, earthworms and other forms of soil life can “nibble” at the mulch, and slowly incorporate their residues into the topsoil. Actually, high-carbon mulches are preferable for weed control to materials that decompose readily, since they persist longer before being incorporated into the soil food web. (Every gardener who has used mulches knows the story: You put down a thick layer early in the season, then suddenly one day notice — the garden ate my mulch!) Even so, it is usually necessary to renew mulches that are in place for the entire growing season.

It is often recommended to turn manures and composts into the soil, but to reduce tillage you can apply the manure or compost on the soil surface, and keep it from drying out (hence degrading) with a thick high-carbon mulch (along the lines of “sheet composting,” described above).

Grass clippings should not be lost as a resource — shipping them off to the landfill is a true crime against sustainability. Grass-clippings mulch in paths can be slippery underfoot, and unpleasant to work on. I prefer to let lawn or pasture grasses grow to 8 to 12 inches, then cut them with a scythe, rake them up after a couple days of drying, and apply where needed.

An undervalued source of organic matter is the wood fiber in newspapers and cardboard. All the reading I’ve done on the subject convinces me that modern newsprint in this country, and cardboard produced in the United States and Europe, do not pose environmental hazards. When establishing “kill mulches” (mulches over a living grass sod intended to kill it in preparation for planting trees and shrubs), I lay down a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard, then cover with leaves, grass cuttings and other organic materials. Wood chips also make good mulch for some situations, especially for pathways and kill mulches, and they often are free from tree-trimming services.

7. Use permanent beds and paths. A key strategy for protecting soil structure is to grow in wide permanent beds and restrict foot traffic to the pathways — thus avoiding compaction in the growing areas — and to plant as closely as possible in the beds. Close planting shades the soil surface, which benefits both soil life and plants by conserving moisture and moderating temperature extremes.

You also can use paths to grow your mulches, or mulch the paths and take advantage of foot traffic to help shred or grind materials such as straw or leaves. From time to time, this finely shredded material can be transferred to the beds, where it will break down much more readily than in its coarser forms.

8. Try low-tech tillage. There are almost always better alternatives to tillage, especially power tillage, which inverts and mixes the different layers in the soil profile, disrupts the soil food web and breaks down the “crumb” structure we have worked so hard to achieve. Even in the case of cover crops, which must give way to the planting of a harvest crop, it is not necessary to turn them into the soil, as usually recommended. Instead, consider these alternatives.

You can bury the cover crop under a heavy mulch to kill it. If the soil is in loose, friable condition, it is easy to pull the cover plants up by the roots and lay them on the bed as mulch. Certain plants such as rye and vetch are difficult to kill without tillage, but cutting them immediately above the crowns after seed stalks or flowers form will kill them. Use the upper ends of the plants as a mulch to help break down the roots more rapidly.

If you have chickens, you can use them to till in your cover crops. They cause some disruption of soil life, but only in the top couple of inches. The damage they do cause is quickly repaired, because the birds’ droppings boost soil life.

When it’s necessary to loosen soil at depth — as in a young garden whose soil has not yet mellowed sufficiently to grow good root crops — I recommend the broad fork, a hand tool that, like the scythe, makes joyful, all-round use of the body in a rhythm that becomes a garden meditation. Unlike a power tiller, the broad fork loosens the soil without inverting the natural soil layers or breaking down the “crumb” structure of the soil. The broad fork is much easier to use in soil that is already in fairly good condition — it is not the tool of choice for converting a tough grass sod over compacted soil to new garden ground.

Does that mean that in this case we are forced to revert to power-driven steel? Not on my homestead, where once again chicken power comes to the rescue. Normally, I would rotate the birds onto another plot after a week or so to prevent excessive wearing of the pasture sod, but in this case “excessive wearing” is exactly what I want. I use electronet to “park” a flock of chickens on the sod I want to convert to garden. With their constant scratching, the birds kill and till in the sod. I remove the birds, grow a mixed cover crop, then return the chickens for another round of tilling. Now the new ground is ready to start working as garden. Be sure to note the state of the soil before you start — the changes by the end of the season will amaze you.

If you don’t have chickens, a no-till way to develop new ground is to lay down a sheet compost, as previously discussed, which is heavy enough to kill the existing sod. If you can be generous with watering through the germination phase, you can start a cover crop in the top layer of the compost, and the roots will greatly accelerate the breakdown of the mulch. Plant a second cover in the fall. This strategy works better if you can give the area over completely to soil building for a full year. If you have to get some production out of the ground the first season, simply open up holes in the compost and plant (a strategy that works better with some crops than others).

You can also try using potatoes to do the heavy work for you. Lay your seed potatoes directly on the sod, and cover with a thick mulch. Renew the mulch as needed to keep the growing tubers well covered. When it’s time to harvest, simply push the mulch aside and pick up your spuds. The new garden soil still has a long way to go, but it’s well on its way.

The only time I do massive tillage in the garden is when digging root crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and burdock. With such crops, I dig deep and thoroughly with the spading fork — a total disruption of soil structure and inversion/mixing of its natural layers. My goal, however, is to make such intensive disruptions the rare exception rather than the rule. That way, the intact soil life communities in surrounding beds soon help rebuild the soil food web in the disturbed areas.

Start a Compost Pile

To build a compost pile, start by layering organic materials. Alternate more readily decomposable materials — fresh, high-nitrogen wastes, such as manures, crop residues, kitchen wastes and weeds — with less decomposable materials — drier, coarser and high-carbon wastes, such as autumn leaves, straw and corncobs. Microbes feed on all these materials and break them down into simpler, more stable compounds.

The microbes need water and oxygen, so keep the pile moist, but not sopping wet. As they break down the organic matter, the microbes generate heat. Make the pile large enough to retain heat, but not so large that oxygen cannot penetrate to the center, about 4 feet on each side is a good size. To encourage aeration, mix the coarser elements throughout the pile to ensure plenty of air space. When the pile cools, turn the heap — with the outer layers going to the inside and vice versa — to incorporate more oxygen and generate a new heating cycle. The compost pile may need to be turned more than once to complete the process.

Life in the Soil

It’s often said that organic material in soil consists of “the living, the recently dead and the very dead.” This is a helpful way to understand the processes that shape soil and make it fertile.

The living portion of soil is made up of plant roots, and of the numerous microbes and other living organisms that improve soil structure by breaking down organic material.

The recently dead components include deceased soil organisms, green plant material and fresh manures. They decompose readily, and release nutrients quickly.

The very dead portion is humus, the final residue of organic matter breakdown that’s important for soil structure and disease suppression.

For fertile soil, all three forms of organic matter should be present at all times.

Pick a Cover Crop

There’s a cover crop for every season, climate and gardening strategy. Here are a few options to consider.

Fast-growing grain grasses (rye, oats, wheat, barley) are a good choice in early spring.

Cold-hardy legumes, such as peas, can be started in late winter and allowed to grow two months or longer to precede a warm-weather, heavy-feeding crop, such as winter squash.

Warm-weather legumes, such as soybeans or cowpeas, can fertilize beds that will be planted to fall crops that need rich soil, such as broccoli or fall-planted garlic and shallots.

For a quick-growing “filler” between spring and fall crops, nothing beats buckwheat, the “instant cover crop” (30 days from seed to flower.)

For winter, a mix of hairy vetch and rye (cereal rye, the sort of rye used to make bread, not perennial rye or annual grass rye) is a top choice.

Another good winter cover is a mix of oats and “field pea” or “winter pea” (Pisum arvense, a close relative of P. sativum, the common garden pea). Both plants are cold-hardy, but reliably winterkill if the ground freezes in your area. You can leave them in place as mulch, and make spring transplants right into it.

Try undersowing to grow a food crop and a cover crop together. For example, you can put Dutch white clover in a bed where you are planting tall crops with a small “footprint” such as trellised tomatoes or pole beans. The clover comes up fast, establishing a tight cover that suppresses weeds and retains soil moisture. Since it is low-growing, it does not interfere with managing or harvesting the taller crops above it.

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Quality over Quantity – Growing Nutrient Dense Food in Urban Gardens


By Kat Gawlik, forgreenies.comIf we are to grow and produce enough food to meet our families’ nutritional needs in an urban situation, we need to go beyond organic, to remineralise the soil where there are deficiencies, cultivate soils rich with microbes and to grow food that is nutrient dense.

The Koanga Institute’s 200sqm Urban Garden Project’s aim is to showcase how people living in small urban sections can satisfy their nutritional needs following a Weston Price diet; that is whole unprocessed foods including eggs and meat from rabbits and guinea pigs. The project garden located at the Koanga Institute in Wairoa, New Zealand includes 40sqm of bio-intensive gardens, a top bar beehive, rabbits over a worm farm, a chicken scratch yard which is where all the compost is made, a passive solar cloche incorporating water drums as thermal mass, guinea pig tractor, a forest garden area with 34 different heritage fruit/nut trees, bushes and vines planted with understory and nitrogen fixing plants, soldier fly farm and water-wise wicking beds. The garden was designed during a Permaculture Design Certificate at the Koanga Institute a few years ago and has been flourishing for 16 months now. See previous blog posts for further background information.


The Urban Garden project is ‘not just a pretty and functional garden’. It is a research garden where the soil is tested, inputs and outputs are recorded, nutrient levels of the foods are tested using a refractometer, and a monetary value is put on what is harvested showing the economic viability and savings that could be made by people with a similar setup. Last month, $793 worth of food was produced in the urban garden, and that is just the beginning. Once the fruit trees start producing, it will be a different story.

There is a focus on growing nutrient dense food because in an urban situation where we have minimal space the emphasis is on quality not quantity. At Koanga Institute, they are very focused on adding minerals from seaweed, animal bones, phosphorus accumulators such as lupins and oats, garden lime, liquid iodine and pre-mixed cocktails of minerals such as EF Nature’s Garden from Environmental Fertilisers into the compost to add to the calcium and phosphorus deficient soils in NZ.


An Essential Tool- The RefractometerA refractometer measures the sugar, mineral and protein levels in plant material and reflects nutrient level and pest/disease resistance in the plant. Extract the sap from the plant using a garlic crusher and add a few drops to the glass before covering it. Hold it up to the light to see the brix reading.


The refractometer measures the amount of light that is refracted or bent, which reflects the amount of water and dissolved solids in the sap/liquid.

Below a brix reading of 12, the soil needs some work, anything over 12 is considered to be nutritionally dense, and of high quality- fit for human consumption! A recent test at Koanga Institute revealed the hulless oat which is grown for eating and also to add to compost as a highly ligneous carbon additive, had a brix level of 22! This is great as the minerals and nutrients will be recycled through the compost pile and eventually given back to the plants.

Watch the video below to see how a refractometer was used to test the brix levels of chinese cabbage harvested from the wicking beds in the 200sqm Urban Garden.

Kay Baxter Tests Nutrient Density from a Wicking Bed in the 200sqm Urban GardenTry using a refractometer to test the quality of food bought from the supermarket and compare it to your own home grown food. It is also a good tool to measure the effectiveness of any fertilising regimes. The best time to test is at least a couple of hours after the sun has hit the leaves in the morning, and usually the brix levels may change at night when the sugars in the leaves are more concentrated in the roots. They can be bought from Koanga Institute in NZ, or from the PRI shop in Australia.


The Koanga Institute currently has a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds to keep maintaining and testing the techniques in the 200sqm Urban Garden, and to further develop it to include a council-approved legal composting toilet, passive solar food dryer, permanent wicking beds, aquaponics, and to convert a concreted area into a plethora of horizontal and vertical food growing systems. We want our urban garden to be an example for the rest of the world of how we can be food secure and nutritionally resilient in cities and urban areas.

Please help us reach our target by contributing to our crowd-funder (get ebooks, seeds and perks in return!) and following Koanga’s 200sqm Urban Garden Project to see how you too can replicate a productive system in an urban situation that grows healthy plants, animals and people!

Indoor Seed-Starting Calendar

Tags: seed starting, Midwest, Kentucky, Melodie Metje

Aerogarden seed starting

I know it seems spring is far, far away in January. Luckily for us gardeners we get to start spring early! End of January into February is seed starting time indoors. I have outlined by month the plant seeds to start indoors between now and April for our Zone 6 garden.

Many big box stores will begin getting in their seeds this month. There are great varieties that can be ordered on line.  Some of my favorites are Abundant Life, Territorial Seed Company, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Territorial Seed gives a month by month planting guide along with detailed growing guide. Johnny’s gives a seed germination temperature guide. They will send you free catalogs or you can go on-line to visit their web page. High Mowing is offering free shipping this season.

Here is a link that shows a map of where many seed companies are located.

Seed packets will tell you how far in advance of your last frost date to start your seeds indoors. Here is a web page to look up your last frost date.

January and February are cold season crops seed starting time. March and April is the time for warm season veggie and herbs to get their indoor start.

10-12 weeks prior (end Jan/beginning of Feb in our Zone 6 garden)

• Artichokes
• Arugula
• Bay
• Beans (dry & lima)
• Blackberries
• Blueberries
• Broccoli
• Cabbage
• Catnip
• Celery
• Chives
• Edamame
• Endive
• Escarole
• Fennel
• Fenu
• Fruit trees & bushes
• Garlic
• Horseradish
• Leek
• Lettuce
• Mache
• Mint
• Mizuna
• Onions
• Parsley
• Peas
• Potatoes
• Rhubarb
• Shallots
• Strawberries
• Summer savory
• Sorrel
• Spinach

8-10 weeks prior (mid-February in our Zone 6 garden)

• Bee balm
• Celeriac
• Eggplant
• Kale
• Kohlrabi
• Lavender
• Leeks
• Lettuce
• Lovage
• Marjoram
• Mustard
• Onions
• Oregano
• Parsley
• Peas
• Rosemary
• Scallions
• Spinach
• Thyme
• Turnips


• Artichokes
• Broccoli
• Chamomile
• Chard
• Cilantro
• Comfrey
• Fennel
• Lemon verbena
• Lettuce
• Okra
• Onions
• Peppers
• Raddichio
• Sage
• Spinach
• Summer squash
• Tarragon
• Tomatoes


• Basil
• Beans
• Cucumber
• Lettuce
• Melon
• Winter squash
• Stevia

You can also start perennial flowers indoors as well. For any plant, look at the seed packet for when to plant according to your frost date. Then back up the time from there on when to start indoors. Typical seed starting is 6-8 weeks prior to the plant out date.

For more tips on small space organic gardening, see Melodie’s blog at

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Knowing your Strengths.

Design your world.

Design your world.

I tend to be a proud and stubborn guy. I have to play more to my strengths, and allow other to help out when possible. One of my strengths is my strength. I’m a big strong guy ( hence my stubbornness), but I cannot lift the world. Another strength is logic and problem solving. I can design a garden. I can design a swale, but I am lacking on the artistic ability. I am planning to involve my wife more on that side of the design. We have always worked best as a team. She is a great planner and has that artistic flare I just don’t have. I am that when the fit hits the shan kind of guy. We can accomplish more as a team than individuals. We can stack this idea for more results. Think on the family scale and community scale. We all have strengths and weakness. Find a pairing that works for you. Bottom line build connections and get out there and do it. Find that niche of your passion meets strengths. Live free.

Please comment or hit me up on Twitter @freedomfarmtv

Time for Planning is Here.

Success starts now.

Success starts now.

After many years of paying off debt the time is almost here. Debt freedom is just around the corner. And that means its time to plan now. For so long we have has to postpone projects because becoming debt free was top priority. It’s nice to be able to dream of what everything is going to be like and look like. My wife Jessica and I have been browsing Home Depot and such to improve our house and outside living spaces. It’s time to make lists of the things we want to do, and set priorities to these projects by price of the project and desire of the project completion. So first things first a garden/tool shed.

We need a out building so badly. All of my tools and such are now in our utility room, and we really have no room to wash clothes without feeling cramped. I will start the build next month of a 10’x14′ garden shed. Afterwards comes finished touches on the hoop house, and starting tomatoes, bell pepper, and cabbage plants. Then comes the utility room remodel. Exciting times! I will post pictures and video of the projects.

Feel free to comment or hit me up on Twitter @freedomfarmtv and follow me on Facebook

Best Shade-Tolerant Vegetables


Again from Mother Earth News. They have had some great articles lately. Please comment or hit me up on Twitter @freedomfarmtv

Even in shady conditions, you can bask in great garden harvests if you choose the right crops and make a few easy adjustments.

By Colleen Vanderlinden

When considering which crops to grow in shady areas, think of them in terms of leaves and roots. Crops we grow for their leaves (kale, lettuce, spinach) and those we grow for their roots (beets, carrots, turnips) will do fairly well in partially shady conditions. (The crops we grow for their fruits — such as eggplants, peppers and tomatoes — really do need at least six hours of full sun per day.)

To learn more about how to grow crops in shady gardens, check out Best Vegetables to Grow in the Shade.

Crop Shade Notes Growing Tips
Arugula At least three to four hours of sun per day. Arugula welcomes shade, as this crop is prone to bolting as soon as the weather turns warm if in full sun.
Asian greens At least two hours of sun per day. Asian greens such as bok choi (also spelled “pac choi” and “pak choi”), komatsuna and tatsoi will grow wonderfully with a couple hours of sun plus some bright shade or ambient light.
Chard If you grow chard mainly for its crisp stalks, you will need at least five hours of sun per day; if you grow it mainly for the tender baby leaves, three to four hours of sun per day will be enough. Expect chard grown in partial sade to be quite a bit smaller than that grown in full sun. Baby chard leaves are excellent cooked or served raw in salads.
Culinary herbs At least three hours of sun per day. While many culinary herbs need full sun, chives, cilantro, garlic chives, golden marjoram, lemon balm, mint, oregano and parsley will usually perform well in shadier gardens.
Kale At least three to four hours of sun per day. You’ll notice only a small reduction in growth if comparing kale grown in partial shade with kale grown in full sun.
Lettuce At least three to four hours of sun per day. Lettuce is perfect for shadier gardens because the shade protects it from the sun’s heat, preventing it from bolting as quickly. Often, the shade can buy a few more weeks of harvesting time that you’d get from lettuce grown in full sun.
Mesclun One of the best crops for shady gardens. Grows in as little as two hours of sun per day and handles dappled shade well. The delicate leaves of this salad mix can be harvested in about four weeks, and as long as you leave the roots intact, you should be able to get at least three good harvests before you have to replant.
Mustard greens At least three hours of sun per day for baby mustard greens. Mustard grown for baby greens is best-suited for shady gardens.
Peas and beans At least four to five hours of sun. If growing these crops in partial shade, getting a good harvest wil take longer. Try bush and dwarf varieties rather than pole varieties.
Root vegetables At least four to five hours of sun per day for decent production. Beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes and turnips will do OK in partial shade, but you’ll have to wait longer for a full crop. The more light you have, the faster they’ll mature. Alternatively, you can harvest baby carrots or small new potatoes for a gourment treat that would cost an arm and a leg at a grocery store.
Scallions At least three hours of sun per day. This crop does well in partial shade throughout the growing season.
Spinach At least three to four hours of sun per day. Spinach welcomes shade, as it bolts easliy if in full sun. If you grow it specifically to harvest as baby spinach, you’ll be able to harvest for quite a while as long as you continue to harvest the outmost leaves of each plant.

The estimates in this chart are based on the experiences of the author and the experts mentioned in Best Vegetables to Grow in the Shade.

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Seed Starting Made Simple

Again from Mother Earth News.

Starting seeds indoors is a sure cure for the restlessness that plagues gardeners during the off-season. Just follow these basics steps to prevent mistakes, such as damping off or using the wrong seed starting mix, and watch your seedlings — and your savings — grow.
February/March 2012
You can start seeds indoors and experiment with unique heirloom selections to find the best varieties for your garden.


You’ll love the benefits of growing your own transplants. You can grow unique heirloom selections as well as the best varieties for your garden’s conditions — which will boost your yields and reduce losses to pests, disease and severe weather.

The potential money savings aren’t small potatoes, either. Consider the cost of filling a single 4-by-12-foot bed with purchased transplants — typically selling for $4 to $5 each — versus paying $2 to $3 for a packet of at least 50 seeds. If you grow a big garden, the savings can quickly grow to hundreds of dollars. Indoor seed starting is easy, and the small initial investment in equipment will pay off quickly. Learn how to start seeds indoors with these 11 steps.

1. Sow What? Starting seeds indoors gives you a jump on the growing season, allowing you to harvest heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers and melons earlier and over a longer period of time. (If you have a short growing season, it’s the only way to get mature produce from these crops.) Some cool-weather crops, such as broccoli, also benefit from an indoor start so they have time to mature outdoors in spring or fall, before midsummer heat or winter freezes set in.

Not every crop is a good candidate for indoor seed starting. Beans, peas and root crops should be sown directly in the garden because they don’t transplant well.

2. Seed Matters. Start with high-quality seeds and varieties suited to your region’s conditions. Buy from reputable suppliers who do their own germination tests and, preferably, their own variety trials, advises Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore., and author of Gardening When It Counts. Quality seeds sprout faster and at a higher rate, they grow into stronger seedlings, and they produce more, he says.

Try getting seeds well-adapted to your region from local seed swaps, or you can buy from regional suppliers. Companies that do their own germination tests and field trials usually say so in their catalogs. Most seed companies offer a free catalog, or you can order seeds from their websites. For background on nearly 100 mail-order seed companies, go to our Directory of Companies Offering Mail-Order Seeds and Plants. To search for varieties among a stock of more than 500 seed companies, use our Seed and Plant Finder.

3. Timing Matters. Most beginning seed-starters jump the gun, says Rob Johnston, founder and chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. Transplants held indoors too long can become root-bound and weak — a setback that makes plants more susceptible to problems outdoors. However, starting seeds too late can mean you miss the optimum growing window. To find out when to start seeds of specific crops in your area, check out our What to Plant Now pages and click on your region.

4. Cells, Flats or Blocks? You need 2- to 3-inch-deep containers with drainage holes to hold your seed-starting mix. If you have plastic six- or eight-packs from nursery transplants, use them. Many people use recycled yogurt cups, or you can buy a simple seed-starting tray with cell pack inserts. Some come with a plastic dome that will help preserve moisture (more about that in a minute), but covering trays with a sheet of plastic wrap will also work. Some gardeners sow their seeds in furrows in a single flat, but sowing in individual cells saves time and reduces the risk of disturbing roots at transplant time. Smaller cell inserts called “plugs” are useful for bigger transplants — such as tomatoes — that you plan to pot up indoors. Soil blocks, made by squeezing prepared starting medium out of a tool called a “soil blocker,” are another option. Soil blocks use no containers at all — each block serves as its own seedling container.

5. The Planting Mix. It’s important to use a loose, well-drained mix for indoor seed starting. Commercial peat-based mixes are widely available in garden centers and hardware stores, but peat moss is virtually nonrenewable because of its extremely slow growth rate and because harvesting it destroys the wildlife habitat provided by the peat bogs. You may be able to find seed-starting mixes that contain coir instead of peat.

“Coir, a byproduct of the coconut industry, is a better alternative,” says Solomon, whose homemade seed-starting mix consists of one-third coir, one-third compost and one-third good garden soil. “Coir provides the same porous texture as peat moss and is easier to keep wet,” he says. To supply nutrients for the seedlings, the mix should include quality, screened compost and an organic fertilizer blend, suggests Eliot Coleman in his book Four-Season Harvest. The compost supplies trace nutrients and helps prevent disease.

6. Feed and Water Wisely. Several hours before you fill your containers with seed-starting mix, put the mix in a bucket and stir in enough water to moisten it uniformly. (This is much easier than watering the mix after you sow, and it prevents you from dislodging newly sown seeds.) Fill your containers with the pre-moistened mix, then plant two or three seeds per cell at the depth recommended on the seed packet. Cover the containers with plastic wrap or a plastic dome if you have one — the plastic will hold just enough moisture to encourage germination. Remove the plastic as soon as sprouts emerge. Water seedlings gently when the soil feels dry to the touch, either with a mister or by filling the tray below the cells with water. If your starting mix didn’t contain an organic fertilizer blend, feed seedlings a diluted, liquid organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion) when they form their first true leaves.

7. Prevent Damping Off. Too much moisture and humidity can encourage damping off, a fungal disease. Prevent this problem by adding a half-inch layer of light-colored sphagnum moss to the top of your seed-starting mix. Research from the University of California at Davis shows that sphagnum moss absorbs 20 times its weight in water while offering excellent aeration for seedlings. The moss also contains bacteria known to inhibit certain plant diseases and fungi that attack young seedlings. The researchers estimated that using sphagnum moss could prevent 80 to 90 percent of damping off problems.

8. Warm Up to Heat Mats. Ideal germination temperature for most vegetable seeds is between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit — a range most homes can’t provide steadily in winter. Encourage fast sprouting by providing warmth from below your seedling flats, which is easiest to do with an electric germination mat (about $40). You could also simply set the container on or near another source of heat, such as a shelf placed above a radiator (not on the radiator itself!), near a furnace or in the same room as a woodstove.

9. Light Right. Seedlings need brighter light than the average home can provide in late winter. You could buy grow lights for your seedlings, but standard fluorescent lights will do just fine. Keep the lights suspended an inch or less above the tops of seedlings, raising the lights (or lowering the containers) to maintain that distance as seedlings grow. Seedlings do best with 14 to 18 hours of light per day. Using an inexpensive timer (about $20 or less) makes achieving that range easy.

10. Strong and Steady. Help your seedlings grow steadily, without interruption from insufficient water, nutrients or root space. After they’re well established, pinch out the weakest seedlings in each cell, giving the strongest survivor room to grow. Lightly brush your hand over the tops of seedlings daily to promote sturdy stems (this simulates the effect of wind). If your starts appear to be outgrowing their containers, move them into bigger ones as soon as possible.

11. Transitional Tactics. After four to six weeks, your seedlings will have grown into sturdy plants ready for the outside world. Help them make the transition by allowing them to adjust to outdoor conditions slowly, a process called “hardening off.” To do this, keep your transplants in a sheltered location, such as on a porch, for about a week, bringing them in at night and gradually moving them into brighter sunlight each day. (If you move seedlings from indoors into a full day of sun, they’ll sunburn.) After your plants have been hardened off, they’re ready to grow in the garden, where they’ll reward you with a bounty of tasty, nutritious food.

Seed-Starting Problems and Solutions

Seedlings suddenly keel over and die: Prevent “damping off” by using a porous seed-starting mix, and don’t over-water.

Seedlings look tall, pale and spindly: Increase the light. Use fluorescent lights (not a window), and keep them no more than 1 inch above the tops of seedlings. Keep the lights on for 14 to 18 hours daily.

Tiny dark “flies” show up: These pests likely are fungus gnats, which can damage seedling roots. The gnats commonly feed on decaying organic matter, so be sure any compost you’re using is mature. Don’t over-water and use yellow sticky traps or Knock-Out Gnats, a biological pesticide to control these pests.

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