"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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An Eccentric Potting Soil

Last spring I wrote about some of the unusual and frugal ingredients that go into our seed starting mixture and this year's soil is very similar in that it provides our seedlings with a few important necessities. We shoot for a mix of friable soil that will not harden too much and is able to retain enough water that it does not easily dry out, a soil that also furnishes plenty of nutrition to growing seedlings. In a sense, we simply look at the natural soil around us and attempt to copy nature's already perfect medium. This time around we are using a mixture of sand, chicken dirt, and abandoned ant nest debris with a little burnt bone and shell meal thrown in for good measure.

The below ingredients make up our mixture and the percentages are totally guesstimated.

Chicken dirt - (50%) Throughout the winter months I haul wheelbarrows full of dirt that has been gathered from our sod compost pile and the forest floor to our chickens. They of course love this and reward us by removing any insects and weed seeds from the soil, fertilizing it as they work. After a week or so I remove the dirt and bring them some more, eventually ending up with a nice pile of what we call "chicken dirt"...our seedlings seem to like this.

Forest floor debris found in our back woods.

Weed seed and bug control agents hard at work.

Abandoned ant nest debris - (20%) Where we live red ants build large mounds using materials gathered from their surroundings, materials that are largely made up of very small twigs, pieces of dead grass, and other debris that seem to provide excellent soil aeration and water retention to our soil mix. We seek out these dormant ant nests during the summer months so as to be sure we are not plundering active nests, I posted more about this unusual ingredient last February.

Sand - (30%) This year I am also adding a little river sand to the mix having noticed how well wild onion, poppy, flox, and other seed seems to so easily germinate along the river banks.

So far so good as our newly emerging onion seedlings seem to like the added sand.

Shell, bones, and ash (maybe 1-2%) - A few years ago while way up in the forest gathering firewood we stumbled across a large pile of what I believe to be clam and other sea shells. How they got there so very far away from the ocean will forever remain a mystery. Anyway, we gathered the whole stinky pile up and brought it home to be used in our garden. I add the shells and any bones that we happen across to our fireplace during the winter and after removing am able to easily crush them into a fine powder. My thoughts are that adding a small amount of potassium found in the ash and bone plus shell meal for phosphorus and calcium makes for a beneficial additive.

Ta-da! The final product.

Something to keep in mind when using a non sterile soil mix, especially in cool and/or humid climates, is the issue of dampening off disease. We combat this by boiling a handful of thyme and sometimes chamomile in 2-3 gallons of water and letting set overnight or until the water turns dark. We use this thyme water mixed in a 1:3 ratio with regular water until the seedlings are well established. Thyme, chamomile, cinnamon, and a few other herbs all contain natural fungicides that can help prevent issues with dampening off....adequate airflow is also important. These herbs are a great source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Chamomile also contains sulfur and thyme has thymol, these being their potent anti-fungal agents.


Kelle at The Never Done Farm said...

Love it, we mix our own starting soil too! I never thought of abandon ant hills as a source, now I will, thank you!

We use thyme and rosemary water to prevent dampening off, but I've never had any problems with that anyway. As you said it add wonderful nutrients to the soil.

Thanks for sharing you recipe*wink*
Blessings for your week,

Mr. H. said...

Kelle - You will love the ant nest material, especially off one that has been abandoned for a couple years. It seems like the ones found in the summer that have grass or weeds growing on them are usually dormant.

Laura said...


Dani said...

Hmmm, chickens are needed more quickly than my husband has given thought to.

Clever - cooking shells to crush them more easily.

thanks for the tips :-)

Gardeningbren said...

I was very interested to read your words regarding using Thyme water to combat fungus problems. Have never read this previously and will give it a try. We have used Damp Off in the past but it is not possible to find that locally. Thanks. Really enjoyed your post. You are a hard working gardener.

Jeff Vandiver said...

Wow, i'd never thought of doing something like that! That's just another reason why i'm so impressed with everything that you and your wife do around the garden.

Roasted Garlicious said...

great post... i like your damping off recipe... so far so good with my seedlings but i'm thinking a few drinks of your recipe couldn't hurt.. especially when it comes to the more tender seedlings ... we have those red ants as well.. my daughter has a huge one near her house and any small critters she finds dead, she puts on the nest.. i have a large one not to far from my house too.. but can't say i'm into 'feeding' them...

Geno said...

I have to say reading your blog with all of its diversity on gardening seems of more use to me than a lot of the books we have collected over the years! I have thought about mixing soil but have never looked for any info on it and here you go just typing it up in case anyone finds it helpful. Now we just have to figure out our garden so I can start using a sampling of your ideas!

Anne said...

Nice... good to know about the tea. I will give that a try!

Bellen said...

Thanks for the thyme water tip.
Unfortunately we don't have any real dirt near us so we bought 10 cu yds of finished compost labeled potting soil. We are filling newly built raised beds. Living in SW Florida we do have access to shells and our dirt is sand so will be using both.

We make instant compost from kitchen scraps in the blender with cooking water. Bury it daily, gone overnight except for the odor which right now is citrus!!

Lynda said...

Thank you for the post...I will add the herb tea to my worm casting compost tea...

I don't have any ant hills, but what a curious thing to know.

You have a beautiful garden.


It is inspiring to see just how much you guys can find and create. We are working on our foraging of medicinals while hiking after reading all your great posts.

MikeH said...

In a sense, we simply look at the natural soil around us and attempt to copy nature's already perfect medium.

Generally, I think that watching Nature and trying to mimic Nature is a good policy. Having said that there are times when watching the $ sign is "better". Specifically, the plant industry has huge dollars riding on having the right seed starter mix. I think it's worth looking at what the pros use and then checking your own mix to see how the values compare.

A quick google suggests that there are cheap but comprehensive test kits available locally.

We don't make our own starter mix yet. At the moment, it's mostly an input/output decision, ie., a compressed bag of Pro-Mix is dirt cheap vs what's involved to get our own mix properly balanced and the consequences of not having the right balance. Having said that we'll move to making our own to lessen our input dependency.

To sterilize or not to sterilize? Thoughts?

Patricia said...

Great post! Never knew about the herb tea to prevent dampening off. I do not make my own soil mix but I do deal with dampening off. Thanks!

Heiko said...

Fascinating! It looks like great soil. How do you convince the ants to abandon their nests? Do you have an ant eater?

Sense of Home Kitchen said...

I was just thinking about making my own potting soil the other day as I wandered the gardening aisles dreaming of planting seeds, which is still so far off. :-(


Anonymous said...

You mean you don't bake it in the oven? ;) I'm curious as to why no moss this year - did it prove to be troublesome somehow? Your hens are sure fat and sassy! Anna P.R.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

Brother, you're a genius! goes without saying of course, but today i was out there trudging along thinking about your post (see? i hang on your every word) and i realized i could solve 2 problems at once. hen dirt, or hen mud, as we have here could be scraped off the gravel and trolley-ed up to enrich the garden soil.

not so much about potting soil and there were no ant eaters involved... but you gave me a great idea about using what i have and not buying some elsewhere. THANKS! we are grilling pork chops on the grill today and i'll have one in your honor.

Gingerbreadshouse7 said...

You are working my fingers to the bone! How much more can I learn and try to do..I need more than "Almost an Acre" and while the prayer is at it a few chickens too!

randi said...

I never tire of your posts kiddo! This one is important and informative, especially liked the info on helping to prevent damping off. Once I clear away the 4' of snow blocking my entry to the seed shack I'll be right with ya!

Mr. H. said...

Laura - That's what the plants said too.:)

Dani - Yes, burning the shells and bones really does make them easier to crush. We started making our own soil years ago when I read on a bag of potting soil that it contained "acceptable amounts of lead"...no thanks.:)

Gardeningbren - Thyme water works great at keeping the dampening off issues under control. A fellow blogger from Canada taught me this quite a few years back and I have been doing it this way ever since.

Engineeredgarden - Thanks, if there is one thing we got around here it's plenty of dirt to work with so we do or best to put it to good use.

Roasted Garlicious - Feeding the ants, I love it. The funny thing with dampening off is that it is only an issue on our indoor seedlings, I have never had a problem with it outside.

Geno - Thanks so much, you know I almost didn't bother to post about this as it seemed a little too unconventional and weird so I am really glad you found it interesting.

Anne - Yes, the tea is a cheap, very effective, and renewable resource for this issue.

Bellen - Wish I could trade you some dirt for shells as I doubt that I will ever find another pile in the woods.:) I love how you make your instant compost, what a great idea.

Lynda - I would be careful using thyme water on the earthworms themselves as it could be somewhat toxic to them in large doses but should work great as an additive to your compost.

Granola Girl - Please do share on any medicinals and edibles that you come across as this is extremely interesting to my wife and I...perhaps our favorite excercise in this whole self-sufficiency thing is learning about what nature has already provided for us.:)

Mike - Thanks for the information, we have been using our own soil for around 6 years now and have had great success with it so far. Luckily we live in an area that has pretty balanced soil but I would love to and will do a test on it someday just to see. We have never sterilized our soil which of course is why we need to use the thyme water on our young seedlings. I worry that sterilizing the soil not only gets rid of the bad but good soil organisms as well and as I do not fully comprehend the consequences of this to the plants health I have chosen not to use that option. So sorry about the spam thing, I will have to look into removing that annoying feature when I get a chance.

Patrica - You will definitely have to try the thyme tea as it really works well to combat dampening off.

Heiko - We do not have an anteater at this time but might look into getting one. I could use it in the garden to help control the little black ants that always take up residence in the summer. Welcome back!:)

Brenda - It is snowing outside like crazy as I type this but I am hoping that winter is on it's last legs and that I will be able to plant these onion seedlings in mid-April or early May...fingers crossed.

Anna - There is no way my wife would let me shovel wheelbarrows full of dirt into the oven even if I wanted too.:) As to the moss, it worked great but I just did not get around to collecting it this past fall but I might still rustle some up when it is time to seed the tomatoes.

Ohio - After all these years I think that is the first time you have ever given me such a nice compliment.:) That chicken muck will work wonders on the garden, but the very best stuff will be found in your pigs quarters...wish I had some pig poo for this years garden. Thanks for the pork chop.:) (don't tell anyone but I use to love porkchops...shhh.)

Ginny - Just think how nice a few fresh eggs everyday would be, and the chickens love to eat leftovers and scraps...better talk to the hubby:)

Randi - Wow, 4' of snow, I don't envy you. It is snowing out pretty good here today but we certainly don't have anywhere near as much as you. Time to go feed the chickens their evening snack and collect the days eggs before it gets dark.:)

Leigh said...

I appreciate this post. I've been experimenting with making my own potting mix, but have been pretty clueless about what I actually need to mix. Love the chicken dirt idea. I hadn't thought to actually give my chickens dirt to work over. They would definitely love it. Thanks too, for the tip about thyme water. Thyme I have! I learn so much from reading your blog.

meemsnyc said...

Wow, that is quite a mix! Pretty cool.

Ms. Adventuress said...

A marvelous potting soil!

Year Round Vegetable Gardener said...

What an interesting soil mix - we too use seashells in our garden soil - but we live just a stone's throw from the ocean. We pound them down and dig them in. Also, lobster shells and buckets of seaweed! I just love seaweed and other kelp products in the garden. An application of liquid kelp extract should also help prevent damping off (and provide a heaping dose of micronutrients)! Thanks for sharing this mix!

Mr. H. said...

Leigh - Glad you found this post interesting. The chicken dirt is a great way to get rid of all those weed seeds and the birds are very willing to help out with this. The hardest part is trying to get into the coup with them jumping all over the wheelbarrow...they get so excited as they know what it contains.:)

Meemsnyc - We change it up a bit every year but so far the plants always seem to grow well in the homemade soil mix.

Ms. Adventuress - What's in the box?:)

Niki - We live close to a lake and one of my goals for this year is to use a little seaweed on the garden. How neat to have access to such a wide array of valuable resources from the ocean for your garden. Thanks for the info. about kelp extract.

fiona@fionacampbell.ca said...

I have never read such an interesting and innovative post on making your own potting soil. I've said it before but you are such a wealth of interesting information!! Thanks for sharing.

Daphne Gould said...

I usually sprinkle cinnamon on the top of my soil blocks when I seed them to ward off damping off. We use a ton of cinnamon and buy it in huge jars. I replace it every year and the leftovers are used for that. It seems to work. Sometimes when I have a lot of extra chamomile I use that as tea too. It is pretty common for me to us an unsterilized mixture so I try to be careful.

Cinders :p said...

I love all of your posts!!!!!! :D they're so unique!

farmer said...

your post's are always so wonderful and useful,thanks for sharing!!

Mike said...

Hey Mr. H,

Kelsi and I are getting ready to do some indoor starts the next couple weeks. Since you try so many varieties, some which work well in the area, some that dont. I wanted to know what your favorite types were for the inland northwest for the following:

Tomato, non hot pepper, hot pepper, cucumber, lettuce, carrot, and anything else you think we should give a try.


We are trying to do lots of variety this year besides our usual favorites.

Ms. Adventuress said...

Okay...unwrapped it!

Malay-Kadazan girl said...

Good Luck with your new potting mix recipe. Thank you so much for the seeds. We are in Melbourne may be it will be on our post when we come back to Adelaide.

Mr. H. said...

Fiona - Thanks, our potting soil differs a little every year but so far we have had lots of luck making our own and are especially happy with the self-reliant aspect of it.

Daphne - I have not really used the cinnamon too much...how thick do you spread it on your soil?

Cinders - I'm glad you are enjoying the blog.:)

Farmer - I appreciate that and am always happy to share my thoughts even if they are a bit weird at times.:)

Mike - Tomatoes are easy, most any variety that is under 80-85 days should do well. One of our earliest that has a nice flavor is Bloody Butcher...not the most productive though. Beefsteak and Roma do well too and we always seem to have the most luck with medium sized open pollinated varieties...check these ones out.

Peppers - King of the North, Banana, Purple Beauty, Paprika, and Sweet Italian always do well and as to hot peppers Cayenne is the only one that is super reliable for us but we will be trying an early jalapeno this year.

Cucumbers - Boothbys blonde, National Pickling, Lemon, Homemade Pickles, and we will be trying one called Tanja this year that sounds promising.

Lettuce - Black Seeded Simpson, red and green romaine, buttercrunch, oakleaf varieties all do well.

Carrot - Danver Half Long, Imperator, Nantes, and especially Chantenay.

Check out my seed saving list a couple posts back for a list of other veggies that do well for us.

Malay - Kadazan girl - Hope they make it there OK and that all goes well in Melbourne.

Jennifer said...

Wow what a wonderful idea! Thanks for the tip about the dampening off concoction. I never used my own soil mixture for that reason. I'll have to give this a try.

Rob said...

Thanks for the organic anti-fungal idea.

Unknown said...

What a brilliant idea using thyme as anti fungal, damping off can be a pain with new seedlings. We have masses of mole hills around here at the moment, and as the earth they bring up looks fine and friable I think I will try using some for seedlings this year.

Elizabeth said...

you are so ceative and resourceful.
Do you ever add in rock dust/Azomite? Really takes the plants to the next level.
Peace and Raw Health,

Mr. H. said...

Oxray Farm - You will definitely have to give the thyme water a try sometime, we have been using it for years and it really does work great. Hope your shoulder is feeling better.

Rob - It's amazing what remedies nature has provided for us isn't it.

The Cottage Garden Farmer - Mole hills, I like that. What a great way to get potting soil...let the moles do part of the work for you.:)

Elizabeth - I have never added azomite to our soil but we are adding some of our own powdered rock to the garden. I will have to read up on azomite and see what its all about.

Faith said...

I am always surprised by your wonderful blog posts. Home made potting soil sounds so exciting! Love the smell of dirt. Nice tip about the herb tea. Do you make some and let it ferment? Have a great weekend.

Mr. H. said...

Faith - No fermentation necessary, we just dilute the thyme water and water our plants straight away.:)

kitsapFG said...

I have all those ingredients at my disposal with the exception of the ant hills. Just don't see many of those in the maritime northwest (not sure why really?!). I have kelp and seashells in abundance on our nearby beaches, lots of forest duff from our big woodlot surrounding our house and the hen yard/house rakings that we compost. We also access to sandy areas. I need something with the texture of the ant hill debris though. The forest duff includes lots of needles and small twigs - but it would be more acidic and the texture is more course. Going to have to noodle on this one and try and stockpile the ingredients so I can do my own soil mix next year. I very much appreciate the approximate percentages used - as that will be a useful bit of info to hand on to.

Love the video of the chickens... their busy antics always make me smile.

Kumi said...

We're still missing little helpers here (a.k.a. chickens), but I learned something new again thanks to your post! We happen to have thyme growing, so I'm definitely going to try the thyme water!

Mr. H. said...

Laura - I think you will like using your own potting soil and am glad to hear that you have so many of the ingredients available to you. So far this years mix seems to be a good choice for us as none of the soil has hardened and everything is germinating and growing as it should...and hardly any weeds. As to the red ant nests, almost all of the ones I have ever come across are in large open areas like fields and meadows.

Kumi - If you ever get a chance to read up on the benefits of thyme I think you will be amazed at what an extraordinary plant it is. We not only use it for our plants but add it to our own tea as well.

6512 and growing said...

I love your eclectic, alchemical soil mix. Viva Spring!

Mr. H. said...

6512 and growing - I hope it is indeed and elixir for this years plants, and yes, three cheers for the month of spring.:)

Ms. Adventuress said...

Absolutely...so lovely...food is the direct connection to the earth. (I think I'm going to take my readers on a week-long Plum Village retreat! :o)

WeekendFarmer said...

Love it!! You should not have given out the secret. Could be the next Miracle Mr H grow mix : )

I never thought about bringing extra soil to the chickens...what a great idea!

Anonymous said...


Seeing that you’re a green advocate (and blogger) I wanted to reach out and see if you were interested in an article that I recently have written. It's on the Olympics and the steps they're taking to go green and decrease the environmental impact that it has. While sports is something far from the topic of your blog, I think that you will find it interesting and informative, and not overwhelming on the sports content, besides a few facts on the last Olympics, it is primarily about the Olympics going Green.

I'm looking to spread awareness of the fact that even though the Olympic Games are fantastic and unifying, they are it's quite a carbon-rich event and are not that environmentally sound. n

Nerissa Barry

Susan (aka Sunny) said...

Thanks for sharing the great tips....I'm so ready for sunshine in N Idaho! : )

Elizabeth said...

You have been nominated again for the "One Lovely Blog Award" at
Peace and Raw Health,
I know you were already nominated but I want to put you on my list of 15 too b/c I enjoy your blog so much!!

Mark Willis said...

Your blog is a truly awesome resource for gardeners! However, it takes AGES to open up because of its presumably huge size. At first I though Blogger was malfunctioning and nearly gave up. I'm glad I didn't.

Ms. Adventuress said...

I'm just sure you two have been outside, in full force with the new season. (I can't wait until we get to learn from it!)

Yes - there was a birthday yesterday! It wasn't mine, but you made me realize mine's coming up in a few months...life is so precious, passing by.

Yesterday's birthday was a sweet little one's, whose mama I helped raise. I know you and your wife will relate. They might not be "ours", but they are such a gift.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

Hey Brother - I figured you'd be psyching yourself up to watch Dancing tonite...figured I'd just lend some support. Go get 'em! (And yes Mrs H will just love that you are sitting with her. No eye rolling).

Mr. H. said...

OFG - The anticipation is killing me.:)

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind Mr H, but I've pointed a couple of gardening forums to your site as they all want to know about the magical Mr H's potting prowess. :-)

Mr. H. said...

Contadina - I don't mind a bit, that's great.:) So far this year's soil mixture is working out really well for us.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

hey did you make it all the way thru DWTStars last nite? did you need any liquid courage? i thought kirstie was great. and hee hee hee i'll probably get in trouble for what i said about Nibbles. i know gals like that - its tough to watch. my grandma had 7 children and over 25 grandkids and she never needed "me time."

Mr. H. said...

We did watch the whole thing and I must say that a few of the dancers really surprised me...especially Kirstie who did so, so good...:)

Glenda said...

Gathering information for our own mini-farm is ongoing. Chicken dirt is amazing.
How about keeping chicken eggs, fish bones and other bones over the winter, drying then out and use them for calcium?
The indians used to put dead fish next to their gardens.
Great post, I love your blog.

Mr. H. said...

Glenda - Great idea, using dried eggshells and fish bones would no doubt prove to be an excellent addition to the gardens soil.

Anonymous said...

I found this post just surfing and checking if anyone else has figured out the anthill dirt in potting soil thing but what got me was the fact that you too have found piles of clam and oyster shells in seemingly random piles way out in the middle of the woods far from sea. I believe these to be of Native American origin but I'm not sure of their purpose another possibility is that they are "stashes" used by clandestine cannabis cultivators. I loved this post,bookmarked and I think I'm going to use your potting soil recipe! Hope I shed a little light of your shell piles!

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