A Primer on Creating Soil

Good agriculture depends on good soil. The problem over the past 10,000 years of our human attempt to live off the land (and especially during the last sixty years or so), is that crops take nutrients from the soil, and without proper husbandry, soil fertility will deplete. The “pseudo-solution” offered by the Green Revolution has been to import petroleum-based fertilizers to make up for our lack of stewardship of the soil´s fertility, though the negative effects and rampant unsustainability of that approach are well known.

Every agrarian culture around the world has developed their own systems for trying to maintain the balance between our human need for food and the soil´s need to be replenished. From “night soil” being applied to rice fields in China, to leaving large patches of land fallow to naturally recuperate, to actively incorporating animal manures, agrarian people have known that their livelihoods depend on the continued fertility of the land.

What follows are a few simple suggestions on how all of us can participate in the ongoing work of creating the fertile soil upon which all of our lives depend.

The Compost Pile

The compost pile is a necessary part of every homestead and every garden. It is by far the easiest way to recycle kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaf litter, and even your dog´s poop into rich, fertile soil that will add fertility and fecundity to every garden bed. Making compost is simply the process of providing the necessary conditions so that the millions of microscopic organisms can feast on your leftovers. Like lasagna gardening, it is basically the process of stacking up in layers a variety of different organic materials to allow them to decompose.

While there is no “recipe” for making compost, here are some general guidelines:

– The more variety you add to the materials you use for making compost, the better. Simply adding chicken manure and wheat straw (as some commercial composting operations do) will give you compost, but it won´t be nearly as rich in nutrients.

– 80:20 Carbon: Nitrogen is the ratio you´re aiming for. That means that more or less 80% of the materials you put in your compost pile need to be carbon based and only 20% need to be nitrogen-based. How do you know which is which? Carbon materials are any plant-based material that is dead and brown in color. This can include leaves, straw, hay, etc. Nitrogen materials come from any sort of manure, green organic material, or kitchen scraps. Thus, your fresh grass clippings would be considered a nitrogen material, while old, brown grass that you chopped last month would be a carbon material

– Look for nitrogen-fixing tree material. If you´re planning on adding leaves to your compost pile, look for leaves from nitrogen-fixing trees or bushes, including alder trees, black locust, and others. The leaves from these trees bring added nutrients.

– Keep it aerated. The most common problem that people confront with their compost piles is that they go anaerobic, meaning that oxygen can´t get into the pile. Anaerobic decomposition is known by its pungent smell. Here is a rule of thumb: Your compost pile shouldn´t smell bad. If you begin to smell something funny, turn your compost and let fresh air in.

– Water your compost occasionally, but not too much. Excess water can lead to anaerobic conditions.

– If you want it finished quicker, turn it more often. The more you turn your compost, the faster the microorganisms will work to break down the compost. If you´re content with letting it sit for several months, turning is optional.

– When is it ready? When your compost has turned the color of black earth and smells like the forest floor on a rainy day, your compost is ready to be applied to your garden beds.

– It´s a good idea to keep several compost piles going at the same time so that you can have a readily available “harvest” of compost year round.

Worm Farming

What does worm farming have to do with soil? Worms are nature´s soil maker professionals. Besides tunneling through the soil helping to break up the soil, worms eat any and all organic matter and defecate nature´s most fertile substance: worm castings.

California Red Worms are the easiest worms to use for a worm farm. They don´t grow excessively large and they reproduce like wildfire. You can start with a handful of worms and as long as you give them enough food/organic matter, you will have thousands of worms within a couple of months.
To build a simple worm farm, you can use any old, large container such as an old trash bin. Simply poke a few small holes in the bottom to allow for drainage and throw your worms into the bin along with as much organic material you can find. Your kitchen scraps will quickly be eaten by the worms and turned into a rich, dark humus.

To “harvest” the worm castings, start feeding the worms on only one side of the bin. The worms will slowly migrate over several days to where their food is leaving the castings free for taking.

The Fukuoka No-Till Method

Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer who was one of the first to develop a no-till agricultural system. Trained as a plant scientist, Fukuoka quickly grew disillusioned with the scientific desire to control nature and food ecosystems and turned to Nature to learn how to grow food. He found that Nature never tills the soil but produces abundant yields while never depleting the fertility of the soil.

Fukuoka was staunchly against any sort of tillage of the soil. On his farm in Japan, he grew barley and rice in rotations while never using a hoe or tractor to move the soil. His no-till method involved using clay balls to hold the seeds of the rice or barley. When the rice was close to harvest, he would encase the barley seed in mud pellets and sow directly into the rice field. After the rice was harvested, he returned the rice straw to the field which formed a thick mulch that the barley grew through. When it was time for the barley to be harvested, the same procedure happened.

Fukuoka was able to develop a system based on what he witnessed in Nature. He produced an abundant crop of rice and barley (with some of the highest yields during his time) while adding fertility year after year and never tilling the soil. The decomposition of the rice and barley straw was the only added fertility he needed as the healthy soil itself provided the nutrients needed for his crops. No compost or chemical fertilizers were ever needed.

The Fukuoka method has inspired thousands of other farmers around the world to develop their own no-till systems based on the traditional crops of each region. In rural El Salvador, small farmers in the mountains have begun to experiment with a no-till rotation involving wheat, corn and red beans. Drought tolerant wheat is grown during the dry season. Before the rains come, the wheat is harvested and the straw windrowed to one side of the field. The corn is planted simply using a stick to make holes in the ground (a traditional no-till planting method) and then the wheat straw is placed over the corn. The straw keeps the weeds at bay while the corn can easily poke through the layer of mulch.

When the corn is a month old, beans are planted at the base of the corn and both are ready for harvest at around the same time. Once harvested, the wheat is again sown amongst the cornstalks which are then cut down as a mulch for the wheat. This system, like Fukuoka´s, allows for a continued increase in fertility of the soil while never causing damage through tillage.

The Soil Food Web of Elaine Ingham

Elaine Ingham is a biologist who is most renowned for her work discovering the importance of a healthy, alive soil. Ingham discovered that most agricultural soils; soils that have been tilled year after year are basically dead. The millions of organisms that make up a healthy soil are annihilated by the tillage that in essence upsets their miniature universe.

The solution to growing good crops, Ingham says, isn´t in adding nutrients to the soil whether that be through chemical fertilizers or organic compost and mulches. Rather, it is essential to get the soil biology back in line with what it should be. A healthy, holistic soil will produce its own fertility.

Soil, according to Ingham, is a living eco-system just like a forest or savannah. There are millions of different creatures that form the soil biota. But current agricultural practices have wiped out that ecosystem and turned soil into nothing more than a sterile medium to receive chemical nutrients. Ingham also believes that tilling is damaging to the soil. Tilling tends to fracture the soil ecosystems and leads to problems including bacterial and fungal pathogens, viral diseases, desertification, compaction, and erosion.

So how do you help soil recover its natural, biological state? Proper composting techniques, as well as compost tea and extract formulas, can help to create the conditions for the soil to come back alive in order to halt soil degradation and re‐establish soil fertility. Ingham advocates for the use of aerated compost full of beneficial bacteria, fungi and other members of the soil food web that can be tailored to specific farming requirements.

Though her method is quite scientific and involves the use of microscopes, the principle behind using extracts and aerated compost to improve the number of beneficial organisms for a healthy soil ecosystem can be replicated by anyone. Ingham has said that “nutrients are available in all soils worldwide, and with the correct biology these nutrients are replenished every second of every day.”

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. mulch, mulch and more mulch, left on the garden all year round and added to each time it gets a little thin. That’s the best recipe I’ve found for creating good soil. It’s just copying nature. Look at a forest floor – it’s mulched!

  2. Tobias thanks for your great articles. I would also add growing plants to specifically feed your soil organisms by increasing organic matter levels and root exudates.
    This is how we can naturally give our soil organisms a good quality diet. They can get on with the job of recycling plant nutrients and creating good soil structure. It’s the way Nature repairs soil – growing legumes, biomass accumulators and other ecological support plants right where she needs them!

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