using raised beds for planting

Everybody Plants Now

Hey guys, aside from my art, another big passion of mine is gardening. I’ve always liked plants but my interest in them never really went past liking how they look. But thanks to a friend, my girlfriend and I fell into gardening about two years ago. Since then, collecting plants and gardening has become an addiction. 

Through a lot trial and error, I’ve picked up a few things I thought I’d share with anyone interested. Diving into something new and trying to sift through endless information is always daunting. I’m going to try to provide more in-depth information than a generic e-how page, but also keep it accessible and welcoming to newcomers. 

I’m not a master gardener and I’m still learning new information all the time. The tips I’m providing is just what I’ve come to find works well for me, and is always subject to change and develop overtime. That being said, let’s start off with…

DIY POTTING SOIL

Don’t Use Bagged Soil 

Most people new to gardening will probably start with potted plants. Because of that, bagged soil is usually the go-to for most folks. I did the same but later ran into different problems surrounding bagged mixes. The major issues being cost and ingredients. Here in LA (depends where you live), a good bag of potting soil runs about $10. Not bad if you’re only growing one or two plants, but definitely adds up if you start a serious garden system.

Another major problem was the use of sphagnum peat-moss. Peat-moss is a commonly used agricultural ingredient that’s harvested from wetland bogs and used in bagged soils. It’s a soil amendment that aids in water and nutrient retention. However, peat is harvested at a very fast rate even though their native bogs grow only a few inches per year. Peat has the added problem of deflecting water if allowed to fully dry out. It also has the tendency to compact as it decays, solidifying and suffocating plant roots. 

As for the nutrients, I feel bagged soil is a bit limited in its nutritional quality. They do come with organic matter (manure, compost, etc), but they don’t often get anymore complex than that. I’ve learned that nutrient diversity is a big part of soil health which bagged soils just don’t have enough of. 

Why Make My Own Soil?

Good soil retains water, but drains properly so that it’s not constantly soggy. It contains a variety of long-lasting nutrients to benefit the plant overtime. It’s also light and airy enough for roots to push through so they’re not compressed and suffocate. I find that bagged mixes show a lack of these qualities as it ages - hard soil compaction from decay, stops retaining water, etc. 

It’s important to think of your soil as a living organism. You’re keeping BOTH the soil and plant alive, not just the plant. And for anything to be truly healthy, it needs water, food, air, and a well-balanced diet. With this recipe, you’ll know exactly what’s going into your soil and how that benefits both it and the plant. This recipe will give you the starting point to a healthier mix that will have your plants thriving rather than just surviving. 

Although an investment at first, you’ll also have a significantly larger amount of soil in the long run as opposed to buying bagged. All of these ingredients will also be used in raised beds and ground planting, saving you money if you decide to expand beyond potted plants. 

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Tools

  • Gloves
  • 1 bin to mix soil
  • 1 bin to mix coconut coir
  • 1 empty gallon jug or any equivalent
  • Hand shovel for mixing
  • Bowl/cup for measuring (any size will do)
  • Face mask/cover

Soil Ingredients

  • Earthworm castings (EWC)
  • Coconut coir
  • Vermiculite
  • Perlite

INGREDIENT BREAKDOWN

EWC

It’s worm poop. Earthworms are one of the best soil builders you could have in your garden. They eat organic material which then passes through their system and is broken down and refined into a fertile amendment that’s rich in both macro (N,P,K) and micro nutrients. Its light, airy, and malleable texture gives it great water retention, good drainage, and lots of aeration to promote vigorous root growth. However, these qualities aren’t what makes EWC so special. 

What makes EWC special is a unique enzyme that coats digestive matter as it passes through the worm’s system. This coating causes the nutrients within the worm’s droppings to release slowly over time. In comparison, other animals whose manure we also use for fertilizer (cows, chickens, goats, etc.) lack this digestive enzyme. If too much of this type of manure is used or applied incorrectly, it can actually burn, stunt and kill plants as nutrients are released immediately instead of over time. This is why I prefer EWC as the enzyme makes it difficult if not impossible to burn your plants.

On top of that, it doesn’t stink and just smells like rich soil. They don’t call it “black-gold” for nothing.

Coconut Coir/Peat

This is your replacement for peat-moss. Coconut coir is the husk byproduct of coconut harvesting. It functions the same as peat-moss but without all the drawbacks. It has superior water retaining properties, but won’t compact as much or deflect water if allowed to dry out. It prevents valuable nutrients from leeching out of the soil by having better liquid/nutrient absorption. Its texture is fluffy and aerated which promotes vigorous and healthy root growth. As its decomposition rate is slow, plant vigor and overall shelf-life is also increased. 

Along with all that, it’s a resource that is far more renewable and environmentally friendly than peat-moss. It usually comes in a compressed brick form that expands (3x I’m guessing) when soaked in water. Put one coco brick in the spare mixing bin and follow the watering instructions - the brand I use calls for 2.5 gallons of water per brick. Give the brick about 30 minutes to absorb the water and be sure all parts are evenly soaked and broken down. 

Vermiculite 

Vermiculite is a heat treated mineral that turns it into a lightweight soil amendment. It lightens soils and acts like a sponge, releasing water and nutrients as the surrounding soil begins to dry. When added to soil, it also makes other important micro nutrients available for plants.

Some bags of vermiculite might contain asbestos, so try to find one without. Either way, wear a face mask or damp the vermiculite before use as the dust can be irritating. 

Perlite 

Harvested from volcanic glass, perlite is also another heat treated soil amendment. When heated, it expands into an incredibly lightweight and porous material. Its porous nature provides additional drainage while its light weight adds aeration. 

Again, asbestos may or may not be present in your product. Damp before use or wear a face mask to be safe.

NOTE: I talk about the importance of sustainability, but I also have to emphasize that both perlite and vermiculite are mined resources. If I come across another more eco-friendly amendments that work just as well, I’ll be sure to update my recipe. 

THE RECIPE

  • 2 parts EWC 
  • 1 part coconut coir
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • ½ part perlite 

Before you start mixing everything together, put on your face covering and wet the perlite/vermiculite to keep down any dust. Using your measuring bowl, toss in each measured ingredient into the mixing bin. The size of the bowl or cup doesn’t matter, so long as you follow the 2:1:1:.5 ratio of each amendment. With all the ingredients added, use your shovel to mix everything up as much as possible. Once mixed well, you now have a general purpose potting mix! Although it doesn’t have any extra amendments, this recipe is still a high quality, long lasting, and nutritious mix. 

What Can I Plant In This? 

Vegetables, herbs, perennial and annual flowers, shrubs, tropical and semi-tropical, indoors and outdoors, etc.  This mix works on just about every plant type EXCEPT SUCCULENTS.   

Is This All I Can Add to the Soil? 

This is the soil mix in it’s most simple and straightforward form. It’s the solid base on which I add all my other amendments. With this mix, you’ll be able to grow healthy and vigorous plants. But if you’d like to get more out of your soil and plants like better blooms, better foliage or pest prevention, that’s where additional amendments come in handy. In the next post, I’ll go into detail about what these other amendments are, their unique roles, and why you might want these in your soil.