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.
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