"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Friday, February 12, 2010

Some Unusual Frugal Potting Soil

With no snow to speak of and the ground even starting to thaw a bit I have been out and about hunting for the right soil medium in which to start my onion, leek, celery, and celeriac seedlings. Normally we try to make our own "homemade" potting soil that does differ slightly each year depending upon what type of materials we can come up with. For the most part I just try to produce a semi-fine soil that is able to retain moisture and remain pliable without hardening up. Our house is heated with a wood stove and the one drawback of this is the lack of humidity in the air, this lack of moisture tends to cause the soil in our seedling trays to harden very quickly making it difficult for the plants to germinate and grow. So when it comes to potting soil my focus is on keeping the dirt soft and arable.

This season I am using a rather interesting mixture. I am lucky in the sense that I have a massive pile of decomposed sod which will make up the bulk of my potting mix. This combination of topsoil, dead grass, and fine little roots should work well.

Also added is my own version of peat moss, in this case a common green moss that grows in great abundance around here. After I fill a tote it is dried by the fireplace before being added to the mixture in order to help with water retention.

Lastly, strange as it may seem, I incorporated a couple of vacant red ant nests to help keep the soil from hardening. I scoped these potential amendments out last summer. Every once in a while for reasons unbeknowst to me the nests are abandoned never to host ants again. Red ants in these parts build large mounds using materials gathered from their surroundings, in my case these materials are largely made up of very small twigs, pieces of dead grass, and other debris that should provide excellent soil aeration. I hold these particular ants in high regard as they are very omnivorous, thus helping to keep many of the so called "bad" insects in check as nature intended.

A wheelbarrow full of ant nest, we have lots of these nests around but only a couple that were abandoned.

Here is a closeup of the materials ants use to build their mounds.

Yes Silke, he does tend to be quite the little helper. Rowdy's job was to break up all of the clumps.:)


Roasted Garlicious said...

Mr. H... never thought of using an old ant hill for soil amendments... red/black ants are in bountiful supply here... there is a huge nest over at daughter's house which daughter has deposited dead mice, rats (kitty killed) or leftover fruits on.. they definately are workers!! we found another huge one over by my winter pond (it dries out in summer) which i hadn't decided yet if it stays or not... it's relatively close to my house, and in summer i tend to be over run with satellite hills... but they do their job... natures amazing workers!!

ThyHandHathProvided said...

What gorgeous potting soil you've made. I love your additions of ant hill and moss. Ingenious. What seeds wouldn't love germinating and sprouting in that?

Do you keep "recipes" so to speak so you know which potting soils have worked well? I am imagining you writing in a notebook like Scott and Helen Nearing:-).

Stefaneener said...

The size makes sense. I wonder why they leave?

Nice local ingredients. I have bags. . .

randi said...

Funny, just made a bit of a mixture myself this morning,seedling time begins...I'm also interested in the moss usage, good idea! Having my own mixture available has become an important thing to me too so I experiment. Days are gettin' longer Mike!

Heiko said...

I must admit to using shop bought seeding compost. Our soil is just so hard with clay, that it needs years of addition of organic compounds to soften. Ants are more of a pest for me. They hollow out even my hard olive trees, leaving them vulnerable to disease and have killed several other fruit trees. And unfortunately once they are nested inside a tree, they show no intention of ever leaving again.

Accidental Huswife said...

Very clever to combine local materials in this fashion, for their qualities. Until last year I really believed that if you didn't use some sterilized mixture (which I had to buy) then seeds would never germinate. Wow, it's pretty crazy now that I think about it.

Diane@Peaceful Acres said...

You didn't have to rub it in that you have no snow to speak of!!! As I'm promising all my blog friends who seem to have missed out on it this year and sent it all to Maryland...I'll send you some UPS if you'd like! We've had more than our fair share and then some!

Wow, that's an incredible mix! You are so talented. I was just wondering this morning how I'd make my own. And now I know...but I don't have all of your ingredients. I'll have to figure this one out, bc I think I need to know this. Thanks.

Have a lovely Valentines weekend! It's sunny here today and I'm lovin it!

Mrs. Mac said...

You keep making me think all the time about what can be made from the land and not purchased at sprawlmart;)! With your potting soil ... do you pulverize it a bit or sift it to use with your seedlings?

LynnS said...

Your keen eye and observational skills (and that basic frugality) are so fine. Kudos to you for creating soil. Pretty soon, I may just need to start calling you Father Earth!

Do you have a soil test kit? I would love to know what your chem analysis would show.

I always enjoy digging in the woods, just to see the layers and what lies underneath. The rich layering and Nature's way of creating soil can't be beat. We, too, have a moss that I have often gathered. Mostly for show, though, the moss I have under oak and some pine trees hasn't been used for a functional purpose yet (although I was going to attempt burning it to see if there is an aromatic quality). Your moss resembles a sedum -- have you ID'd it yet?

Anonymous said...

You just made me think - how did people start their seedlings before there was a store-bought potting soil. They probably did something similar to what you do. This is great idea and its worth trying it with any amendments that you can find.

We have been having snow fall now I think for 5 days. Its incredibly low amount of snow on the ground, considering it has been falling for so long.

Ruralrose said...

You are never ceasing to amaze! I would never have thought of this. Do you use chamomile tea to keep the damping off away? I use this with willow bark. I have also found that willow bark in the soil works as a humeculant (spelling is wrong but it helps retain water. Peppermint tea keeps mice and ants away. No snow here either, last year this time we had 3 feet. The willows are starting to bloom. Peace

Ayak said...

Absoluely fascinating Mr H. My only experience of ants here was when I discovered lots of them crawling up our largest fig tree. I was horrified, thinking that they would ruin the fruit...but then someone told me that they are actually the creatures that pollenate/germinate (I'm sure these are the wrong words) and are responsible for all the lovely fruit that grows. Is that right?

Mr. H. said...

Roasted Garlicious - They really are nature's amazing workers. I had to smile when hearing that your daughter feeds her ants as I have done the same.:)

Thy Hand - Thanks, I kept a garden journal for many years but have recently stopped writing in it as much of this stuff is very clear in my head...finally. I find that every year is so very different from the last that my "recipes" are always evolving and changing depending upon what resources are available.

Stefaneener - Last year we had a trail of red ants traveling through our garden from what would seem to be a perfectly good nest to destinations unknown...it took them almost 1 week to pack up and move. I never did figure out where they went.

Randi - It is starting isn't it? Surprisingly I am not quite ready but am preparing to throw myself into the whole procedure with a no holds barred attitude regardless. I have never been too fond of indoor seed starting preferring to be out in the actual outside garden...but none-the-less here we go.:)

Heiko - I also would most certainly have a different view on ants if they ate my fruit trees. We do have a few carpenter ants that have taken up residence in our bathroom wall that I am none to fond of.

Accidental Huswife - It is interesting how we are conditioned to think that way. I have, after many years, come to the realization that most everything I need is already there if I but look for it.

Diane - I do not want any of that nasty snow of yours!:) Thanks but no thanks.

We make our soil up a little differently each year depending upon the resources and it can be somewhat challenging at times. You also have a great Valentines day!

Mrs. Mac - I no longer sift it as I have in previous years, that makes it too fine and then I am faced with the whole hard soil issue. I do pulverize it with my hand shovel as I prepare it though.

It is amazing how many resources are right under foot when ones looks about.

Lynn - Thanks, believe me it was not I who created this soil but the real Father of the earth.:)

I have never tested my soil, I do know that it tends to be a bit acidic and I sometimes compensate for that with wood ash. I will have to do so sometime as it would be most interesting to see the results.

One of the best potting soil amendments is the decomposed layer of earth just beneath the forest floor. I have used this in my mix numerous times but do need to add a bit of ash to offset the acidity. I have not tried to identify our particular type of moss yet...there are so many of them.

Vrtlarcia - Five days of snow, wow, it sounds like winter is trying to hang in there. I would assume that people did use whatever was at their disposal in the days before store bought soil was available. It would be interesting to read about just how people in the past did start their seedlings.

Ruralrose - We have had luck using thyme water to prevent dampening off. The nice thing about that is we have a good supply of it growing outside regardless of the time of year as it is so very hardy. I should try the chamomile sometime too. Interesting information on the willow bark and peppermint tea, I have never heard of either of those uses before. Thank you.

Mr. H. said...


I'm not really sure about ants pollinating fig trees, I suppose it is quite possible. I know that ants do help with pollination on some plants and hinder the pollination of others. They are a very fascinating little creature and certainly are a important part of the whole ecosystem. I have read that earth dwelling ants are even better for the soil than earthworms.

Roasted Garlicious said...

Grandma Wilson would take her beefed up (composted) soil and bake it in the oven, then start her seedlings... i've baked soil in my oven.. PU... LOL but it did sterilize it....

Mr. H. said...

Roasted Garlicious,

We prefer to live with the few weeds that come up. Besides, do you know how much trouble I would get in if Mrs. H caught me filling the oven with dirt.:) I wonder what it is that makes the soi smell, I have never tried it before and am surprised to hear that it stinks...hmm, I would really get into deep water over that.

kitsapFG said...

Brilliant! I use forest floor compost all the time for soil amendments but never even have considered making my own starting medium. It would make a great addition to a seed starting mix and I have it in great abundance all around me. When we lived in eastern Washington we had ant hills like you are showing in abundance... not so much now that we are on the west side. However, the point of your post is to look around and use what is at hand and you certainly do a good job of that. Well done!

Mr. H. said...


Yes, that layer of soil just under the leaves and debris does make an excellent addition to the garden, I might add some to ours this spring. I counted 10 of those big nests in our bottom field the other day but only two were vacant.

Anonymous said...

A very large pot of water on the stove or wood fireplace will keep the humidity levels up. The only drawback is that you have to monitor the water level to prevent burning the pot.


Mr. H. said...


Thanks, I think I will take your advice and give the pot of water on the stove a try.

Sylvie said...

I love your ingenuity Mike in using what you have. Some of it does take planning and patience (the composted sod), but is is so eminently sensible at so many different levels.

Such a good reminder to use your eyes and our brain!

Sunny said...

Glad to have found another north Idaho garden blog...lots of great info..I will definitely be back.

Sunny said...

Glad to have found another north Idaho garden blog...lots of great info..I will definitely be back.

Mr. H. said...


Hi, thanks for visiting. It looks like you and I might be able to get an early start on gardening this year for a change. Leastwise we won't be shoveling any paths to our greenhouses.:)

Sunny said...

Mr. H...on getting an early start: Yes and I think we deserve it after the past two winters....ya know?

Mr. H. said...


We do indeed.:)

Silke said...

Mr. H.! You are so clever! I love reading these posts about how you come up with your own mixture/version of different things. I would have never thought about using moss to help with water retention - but thinking about it, it makes such sense!!

How interesting that you are having such a mild winter. Ours is quite cold for this region. I am loving it since I know the heat is coming again...

Hi to Mrs. H. and Rowdy, who I hope is keeping you all entertained... :) Silke

P.S. Does Rowdy help with the potting soil project? Winslow would love it! He's constantly digging outside to loosen up the soil ;)

Mr. H. said...


I added a picture to this post just for you. Click to enlarge for a closeup of that dirty little nose of his. He wants to be just like Winslow when he grows up.:)

By the way, I loved your pound puppy story. We have a similar one that I will have to share with you sometime.

Silke said...

I love it! Rowdy is doing very well - Winslow is quite proud!!

Winslow has become more sneaky - he doesn't sit on the dirt where he can be caught. He just casually lays around on the deck and pretends nothing's going on like in this post http://silkepowers.blogspot.com/2010/01/of-food.html

Those two would be good friends, I think!! :) Silke

Roasted Garlicious said...

Silke and Mr.H.. my Dora would love both Winslow and Rowdy... i'm sure they all could have my garden all dug up for me... i'd just have to rake and plant!! both Winslow and Rowdy are handsome fellows too!!

Mr. H. said...

Roasted Garlicious and Silke,

Your Dora is also quite lovely, she is colored like a rottweiler? I'm sure that Rowdy and Winslow would love to help her dig up your garden.:)

Silke, Winslow does indeed look a tad guilty in that picture.:)

Robbyn said...

How interesting about the abandoned red ant nests...wish we could convince our numerous fire ants to vacate so we could use their old ones :)

Mr. H. said...


I get along quite well with the ants as long as they do not build their nests in my garden or the walls of our house.:)

karenandjeff said...

Here is an interesting link about the properties of the ant hill material that you are using. We're excited about finding a new material to add to our compost pile!


Mr. H. said...

Karen & Jeff,

How fascinating, I'm so glad you shared that link...I thought perhaps I was just weird but now I see that my thoughts on the ant nest material are verified. Thank you for posting that and please let me know if you try it. Our seedling seem to be doing very well in that medium.

Aanee @ Flower Delivery Dublin said...

Wonderful about the soil mixture.
It great to see it in images.
It really gives you a sense of it in action.
I hope Rowdy is still enjoying the clump breaking :)

Aanee xxxx
Flower Delivery Dublin

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