Why Gardening Starts With Growing Good Soil

For two months now, we’ve been advising readers to “grow a garden” in response to the covid-19 pandemic.

We’re recommending that for a number of reasons.

Food security is the primary one. Domestically, several of the small number of concentrated players in our Big Ag food supply chain have been forced to shutter production facilities due to infected employees. Internationally, we’re seeing emerging evidence that countries are preparing for “national food hoarding”, as Chris wrote about last week.

Gardening is good for your physical health, offering exercise and getting you out into the sun and fresh air – all of which are correlated with lower risk of contracting the coronavirus. It’s also beneficial for your mental health, engaging you in a productive pursuit while offering time for reflection and for communion with nature.

Great, many of those inexperienced with gardening may be thinking, But how do I get started?

We’ve got some great resources here on the site. You can start by reading our DIY instructions for creating a raised bed garden, or by reading our Agriculture & Permaculture forum thread and asking questions of the many knowledgeable gardeners there.

But whether you’re new to gardening or not, your success is rooted (pardon the pun) in appreciating that to grow healthy plants you first need to grow healthy soil.

Perhaps the top soil experts in the world are Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, owners and operators of Singing Frogs Farm – world famous for their nature-based yet innovative approach to farming, in which no tilling of any kind is done to the soil. No pesticide/herbicide/fungicide sprays (organic or otherwise) are used. And the only fertilizer used is natural compost.

This results in a build-up of nutrient-dense, highly bio-rich topsoil. Where most farms have less than 12 inches of ‘alive’ topsoil in which they can grow things, Singing Frogs’ extends to a depth over 4 feet(!).

Singing Frogs Farm is able to produce 5-7 harvests per year on their land, vs the 1-2 harvest average of other farms. And since the annual crop yield is so much higher, so is the revenue. Most other comparable farms average $14,000 in gross revenue per acre. Singing Frogs grosses nearly $100,000 per acre — a stunning 7x more.

We at Peak Prosperity are huge fans of their model, and have repeatedly interviewed Paul and Elizabeth on our podcast (listen here and here) and have hosted them as featured speakers at several our annual seminars.

So, to help direct and inspire your efforts to get your coronavirus garden off to the right start, here’s an 8-minute clip from the Kaiser’s presentation at our last seminar, showing what’s possible when you focus on growing good soil:

The full seminar presentation is 1h 20min long and is packed with similar valuable insights, fascinating science, and best farming practices. Peak Prosperity's premium members can watch it in full here.

Inspired but not a premium member yet? Enroll now and start watching.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/why-gardening-starts-with-growing-good-soil/

In this video, they are absolutely correct that maintaining living plants in the soil every week of the year is critical for healthy soil. Living plants feed the soil biology. Every time you go several weeks with an empty garden bed, a lot of the soil biology dies (starves).
I do wonder about one thing, though. They say they are adding about 1/2" of compost every single time they harvest a crop - several times a year. First, that is a huge amount of compost each year. Over many years, that has a potential to create massive nutrient imbalances, such as an excess level of phosphorus. Excess levels of some nutrients can actually cause plants to experience nutrient deficiencies of other nutrients - even if there are adequate levels in the soil. Once some levels get too high, it can take many years to try to correct it. So, using soil tests to keep track of nutrient levels over time can be very helpful.

Good question Sundancer. I would like to know how they source that much compost and how they know that the raw ingredients are “clean”. We make ours in bulk with our horse manure, hay and organic chicken manure. I put at least 1” on new beds…but still use a tilling method. I agree that no till is better, and hope to get there some day.

First, I’m going to disqualify myself. I’m no where near the experts that Singing Frogs Farms are. In fact I’ve learned from them and modified my approach to no-till gardening. Second, I do not maintain a 100% organic garden. I strongly avoid pesticides but use some fertilizer.
Having said that, playing with growing medium can be fun.
For my first raised beds, a number of years ago I used sheet mulching to fill my beds. In the fall, I filled my new beds with a combination of approximately 60% chopped up leaves and 40% grass clippings and allowed it to sit over the winter. In the spring, I covered this with a couple of inches of compost, to plant in and had a high yield garden season. You can find videos on sheet mulching on youtube.
These days, I have access to free compost, so I don’t sheet mulch.
The other resource I’d like to mention is the Mittleider Gardening method. I came across this when my sister turned me on to the youtube channel of the “LDSPrepper.” LDS stands for Later Day Saints and the LDSPrepper is a rather unusual gentlemen who has fascinating videos on all sorts of advanced gardening methods. My favorite is probably his video on building a geothermal greenhouse. He has a greenhouse, I believe in Idaho, that he can keep above freezing all winter with only geothermal temperature control techniques.
Anyway the LDSPrepper teaches “The Mittleider Gardening Method” and, while it’s not organic, it has fascinating aspects. I think of it as, sort of, half way between soil gardening and hydroponics. A couple of years ago, I grew my tomatoes in a medium of sand and peat moss, using Mittleider fertilizer for plant nutrients. It worked like a charm. Like Singing Frogs methods, Mitleider methods can produce extravagant yields.
Speaking of hydroponics, I’m thinking of trying a hydroponic tower for growing additional lettuce this year.
I wouldn’t enjoy gardening so much if I didn’t have some fun with it.

I have been following these kind of practices for nearly 15 years now and I can tell you the tilth of my soil is like baby powder!! No need to till as you can just run a hoe through the soil. My practice has been to replace every crop I pull out of the soil with a scoop of compost, manure or other organic material back INTO the soil. I’m happy to say that the greatest compliment is when your neighbors start to emulate your behaviors. Great you tube as usual!!! Thank you Peak Prosperity!!

I’ve always loved raised beds for this reason, although I had no idea about all that neat soil biology going on as a result. Wish we had that much access to compost, but we have been able to get spoiled hay quite easily (that may have stopped now, hope not) and piled it on, tucking it around everything growing. It just keeps breaking down. You do have to watch out for reseeding grasses, but it’s not hard to manage, and the plants love it. Very interested in the value of keeping plants in there all the time. Maybe clover if the weather doesn’t allow for anything else? Our climate allows us to use the raised beds as essentially root cellars in the winter - I wonder how clover over the top of that would work? Potatoes survive under anything, in my experience, but carrots maybe not. Beets have lasted well, but keep growing more top, which may toughen the root. Ours don’t last long enough for me to find out. It’s promising to be an innovative time in the garden!

Not garden related but farm…
I learned a tragic truth today.
Roosters eat baby chicks. I had a baby chick massacre this morning. I had no idea.

Don’t give up. Stand up, dust off and consider it a lesson learned…the hard way. We have lost many skills that our grandparents knew.
Agriculture isn’t easy. However, to me, there is importance and meaning in the lessons.
Keep after it.

Sorry to hear that . I have never had a rooster or hen bother the chicks IF they were being raised by a broody hen, their momma hen. They have always been seen as with her and integration and acceptance is automatic. And, if anyone tries to mess with them, they just run under momma as they are never far from her.
Now, store bought or incubator hatched chicks cannot be introduced to the flock until older and even then, it must be gradual. In that case, I put a cage of the new ones inside the chicken yard, so they can be seen and heard for many days while having the protection of the cage they are in. It is not just roosters, the hens would attack also

Hi Karen, I had this issue once a few years back. At the time I had a broody hen hatching her eggs in the main hen house. When the chicks emerged on the first morning the rooster pecked and killed two or three of the chicks. He did not recognize them as being part of his flock. I thought I would have to cull the rooster but he caused no more trouble - I put mum and the remaining chicks in a separate enclosure within the main chook run for a couple of days before reintegrating them.
Now I have separate broody ‘boxes’ where hens can sit quietly and then hatch their chicks. I’ll generally wait 2 or 3 days before integrating them back into the main flock. This also helps me get the chicks started on eating crumble which I feed for the first few weeks.
On gardening - Les, it sounds like you have a similar approach to me. Its called the biological approach - as opposed to strictly organic. This means building life into the soil and supporting it to be healthy and productive. For me this also includes using some fertilizer. I don’t use NPK but instead a broad spectrum mineralization. I use this in the orchard too. What really convinced me was the difference in performance of the fruit and nut trees.
This year I started using newspaper as sheet mulch for the first time. Modern inks are now non toxic as far as I can see and the paper inhibits weeds, helps retain water and eventually breaks down into the soil.

The work Singing Frog Farms does is amazing, but their scale is much larger than most suburban or city gardeners can match. Their information about soil biology and composting though is great.
I’m at the complete opposite scale than they are, with limited space. I add a 2 cuft bag of a premium compost I get from a local nursery, to my beds at the start of the year, working it into the top few inches of soil to not disturb the microbes. Given the ton of earthworms I see (and the neighborhood robins who forage in my beds when I do that can attest) I must be doing something right.
Something I do though, is incorporate containers into my raised beds too. Some plants need different soil compositions and PH levels. Trying to tailor the entire bed for one or two plants isn’t something I can do.
Here is one of my new beds. Its primarily for two types of onions with three tomato plants, and two 5 gallon containers with pole beans. I’m going to manage the pole beans along the fence this year and see what kind of yield I can get.

I’m spacing the containers with the beans out about 6-8 feet apart though the one on the left may get moved. The side yard of my duplex is South facing. This is late afternoon and you can see the left container seriously over shadows the tomato plant next to it. I’m removing the lillies and dirt behind it, to put in paving stones to put containers on, so I might wait before planting in that one til I get that done.
(Neither container has its dirt or plant in it yet. Been raining here that last few days. They will get soil up to 1-2 inches from the top.)
Those are onions sprouting if you can see them, in the bed. They are a bit closer than recommended (5-6" apart) but then I tend to harvest some when they get lemon size for steaming. That opens the spacing for the remainders to grow larger.
BTW looks like I need to reset the concrete blocks around the bed, they are starting to look a bit ragged, lol.

Speaking of hydroponics, I’m thinking of trying a hydroponic tower for growing additional lettuce this year. I wouldn’t enjoy gardening so much if I didn’t have some fun with it.
Les, you don't have to go the complete hydroponic route to have year round greens. Here's some of my containers planted last month. Those are 2 gallon buckets. I grow the plants until I get 2-3 months of harvest from them and if I see them start to bolt and sprout seed stalks, I get rid of them and replant. If you staggered the buckets time wise, and plant from seed say one bucket each 2 weeks, you could probably have a year round supply with just 6-8 buckets, with a mix of plants. You'd need the grow lamps either way. I move them to the basement when it starts to get warm, since I don't use air conditioning in my home.  

46 feet x 33 feet – which includes generous paths and has 700 sq feet of beds. In this you can grow, in my area and alot of the country. I should be getting 50 pounds of sweet potatoes; 50 pounds of winter squash; 300 pounds of potatoes; 25 pounds of dry corn; garlic, 104 yellow onions; Too many pounds of tomatoes ( canning 104 pint jars plus as much fresh as we can eat and more to give away) strawberries; carrots; green vegetables of alot of varieties; summer squash to eat and to dry for winter; 12 total italian pepper and bell pepper plants for fresh and dried for winter; cucumbers for fresh and pickles. Then carrots; lettuce; radish; beets; cabbage/bok choy; green beans in their various seasons.
Then you can put your fruit trees in the front yard for eating out of hand, canning and drying for off season.
 
How to Grow More Veg… has a family garden plan that is 1200 sq feet, including paths and that includes 5 dwarf fruit trees ( on almost 500 sq feet of it)

Sounds like a great garden. I have about the same amount of raised beds, but I never know how many of each plant to grow. Somehow I always wind up eating off the same couple of giant old growth kales all summer and somehow my tomato plants wind up completely exploding out of the greenhouse.

Sundancer: “I do wonder about one thing, though. They say they are adding about 1/2″ of compost every single time they harvest a crop – several times a year. First, that is a huge amount of compost each year…”
Yes it is. For a smallish 30’x40’ garden 1/2" cover is 50 cubic feet. And for most who don’t own their own chickens or have access to manure to compost, that equals about 34 bags of compost. For people who have access to good composting material it is a GREAT thing to do, but not everyone is in position to do so. I do composting as much as I can and don’t fertilize but 1/2" on the whole garden is out of my reach.
Not to complain, but I’d like to see a bit more ~ahem~ humility from some people. Not everyone has the money to set up 800 to 1000 square feet of raised beds. Nor has everyone got the resources to garner 50 cubic feet of compost a year for even a backyard garden. We should be encouraging newbies, not intimidating them with all of this grad school jargon. And if you aren’t getting your compost from your own resources or those in your local area? Please don’t preach to the rest of us about how your method is SO easy and we should all abandon what we have learned and emulate you.
And while we’re on the subject, I’m not selling my tiller, nor my cultivator, nor my chainsaw, and definitely not my four wheel drive. And it takes a hell of a lot of nerve to get on a forum with strangers and ridicule me for not doing so. Not singling out anyone but if I want to get preached at I’ll go into town on sunday and get all I want.
I hope I haven’t made too many people uncomfortable. But the tone of some posts is offsetting. I can’t imagine what someone new to this stuff must think.
Will

Garden porn is the best! This year we doubled our garden to about 2,500 sq feet. I built a 7’ fence around the whole thing and added Hardy kiwi around the perimeter. Planted a few over priced large walnuts and added ducks and geese to the pond. I raise meal worms in my office for the chickens (so easy!). Would love to have a couple of cows by next year, but fencing ain’t cheap and it’s a lot of work. Every step forward feels like too little in light of what we’re facing but it all adds up.

These are some friends of mine who for the last 29 years have been informing farmers about sustainable agriculture. They have a conference every year in January but because of the virus there won’t be one next January.
A couple of presenters have been Joel Salatin and Will Allen. The link is to the store where videos are available for purchase on a wide range of topics.
https://www.ssawg.org/shop

Melissa K. Norris is a blogger and YTer who produces high quality homesteading/prepping content. She’s hosting a free webinar tomorrow (4/29; 4 pm EST/1 pm PST) on waterbath and pressure canning.
Space is limited, register here: https://melissaknorris.lpages.co/canning-webinar-april-2020/
“This is a great opportunity to refresh your canning skills, learn how to can safely from the get-go, and get some tips on streamlining the process with an emphasis on creating meals for your family without spending hours on end every day canning during the busy harvest season of summer.”–MKN

“AI Takeover of Food Launched - Trumps’ Meat XO” (4/28/20)
https://youtu.be/2TffJSaVlME

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/495175-trump-uses-defense-production-act-to-order-meat-processing-plants-to
Not sure how this is supposed to work. If it means the processors will have to retool and make their plants more safe, then I’m for it but if workers don’t show up, what are they going to do? Order people back to work? Allow immigrant workers in, then kick them out when they get infected?
I should point out, you don’t have to eat as much meat as we do. You can get plenty of protein from vegetables, rice and beans. Plus those store much better.

Welcome, and I am okay with your opinion. Wanted to share with you though, a local brewery puts out their used hops/grain that they make beer with. I drive up and fill 4 buckets and add to my compost. The grandkids hate the smell (beer). Lol. Just in case you have a brewery close by. What the heck have a cold one while your at it.?
 
AKGrannyWGrit