6 Steps For Boosting Garden Health And Better Food

I talk a lot about how to improve garden health because it’s obviously a vital step for growing nutrient-dense organic food.

That’s why the first 6 months of The Academy – my members-only online organic gardening course – are largely about how to optimize the health of your soil and plants.

The reason the following steps are so important is because we’re trying to grow plants that probably wouldn’t be growing in our gardens on their own, plants that often need quite a lot of nutrition, as is the case for a majority of our most common vegetables.

And also because we really want them to produce big yields, and to be healthy and nutritious.

Click for video transcription

Phil: Hey guys it’s Phil from Smilinggardener.com and I’ve written on big blog post for you today on organic fertilizing that I’m going to summarize for you here. I’ll just quickly mention something that I mentioned a couple of days ago which is that my Smiling Gardener Academy which is my online organic gardening course.

The fee for that course is going up on Tuesday night at 9:00pm so if you’ve ever looked at that and thought about getting in or if you just want to get into more detail about how to grow nutrient-dense food and get rid of pests organically and just improve your garden and improve your soil. All that kind of stuff – go to the link below and check it out, just see if it might be something that’s for you.

I would encourage you to do that before the price goes up because you could save a lot of money over the twelve month program by getting it now. So today, organic fertilizing! There a couple of reasons why I think fertilizing is really important for us. The first is that we really want to dictate what plants grow in our garden and if we were just happy to let the weeds grow then some weeds (we call them weeds but they’re just plants really), some plants would come up and they would be happy there.

But if we’re trying to grow very specific plants we need to make sure they have the right growing conditions and a lot of the plants that we’re trying to grow, especially vegetables, often really need a lot of nutrition that our soil isn’t ready to provide. So that’s the first reason. And the other reason is just that we’re trying to grow…like if we plant a tomato we want to get a lot of tomatoes from it and we want them to be really tasty and really nutritious.

So in that case we’re willing to put in a little more work to improve our soil and improve the nutrition in our tomatoes and so that’s why I think fertilizing is really important for us. So there’s six steps. I’m just going to summarize them here, there’s way more detail in the blog post below.

The first step is going to be soil testing and I know this is one that a lot of people skip and it’s okay if you skip it but just in the long run if you’re really, whenever you decide okay I really want to get into this nutrient-dense food growing and I really want to make my soil healthier, getting a soil test from a good organic soil lab is going to kind of help you because it’s going to tell you what to do. So that’s step one, more detail in the blog post below.

Step two is fertilizing and without having done a soil test there’s not a whole lot of specific nutrients we can apply because we can’t just guess that we need magnesium or potassium because we might cause a problem by applying say, dolomite lime or say green sand which supplies potassium. So that’s why we need a soil test. If you’re not going to soil test, glacial rock dust as I’ve mentioned before is a, glacial rock dust or volcanic rock dust or basalt rock dust, any of these rock dusts that have a bunch of different minerals in them but not too much of any one mineral you can put onto your soil without a soil test because it’s not going to imbalance the soil.

Again, more detail down below on how I would fertilize if I didn’t have a soil test. Three is organic matter and especially that’s going to be compost and if you make a really good compost or buy a really good compost that’s going to provide many benefits for the garden. So that’s my main source of organic matter along with a mulch such as leaves and cover crops.

So again, more detail down below I’m just trying to keep this video short. Getting organic matter into our soil brings many different benefits, many just like dozens of benefits. Four is plant fertilizing, so we’ve taken care of soil fertilizing but sometimes we want to fertilize our plants directly with liquids and there’s a few liquids I use for that but my favorites come from the ocean especially a seaweed you can turn into a liquid and you can make it yourself if you live by some seaweed by the ocean or you can buy it in a bottle and I sell it or you can buy it online or from your local fertilizer supplier.

Another one comes from ocean water which is a great product that’s concentrated ocean water. More detail down below again. Step five is bringing beneficial biology into our soil and this isn’t really called fertilizing, because fertilizing is more like chemistry and biology is different but it’s really an important part of fertilizing because its the biology in our soil, the micro-organisms that make nutrients available to plants.

And so that’s where that compost comes in again [machine noise] excuse the saw in the background! That’s where the compost comes in again because it provides beneficial organisms but there’s also these other things that maybe you’ve heard me talk about before that are microbial inoculants like effective micro-organisms and mycorrhizzal fungi and compost tea. So I’ve written a little bit about that below. And then step six actually step six I’m going to save for Facebook.

I’m going to post it up on Facebook for a couple of reasons, one is that this blog post is getting way too long as it is and two is that I want people to come and hang out with me on Facebook. So I’m going to post step six up there. And so if you read on down below towards the bottom of this article I talk to you about why all these steps are important and how they all play off each other and if we just do one then it’s not going to have as big of an impact as if we do all of them or at least several of them because they all help each other out.

And so that’s all for today I guess there are a couple of things one, go check out the academy if you think you might be interested in it before the price goes up and two if you have any questions about any of this because this is a big topic today about organic fertilizing really how to improve the nutrition in your garden and in your soil ask me down below and I will get back to you! So we’ll talk to you soon.

Phil: Hey guys it’s Phil from Smilinggardener.com and I’ve written on big blog post for you today on organic fertilizing that I’m going to summarize for you here. I’ll just quickly mention something that I mentioned a couple of days ago which is that my Smiling Gardener Academy which is my online organic gardening course.

The fee for that course is going up on Tuesday night at 9:00pm so if you’ve ever looked at that and thought about getting in or if you just want to get into more detail about how to grow nutrient-dense food and get rid of pests organically and just improve your garden and improve your soil. All that kind of stuff – go to the link below and check it out, just see if it might be something that’s for you.

I would encourage you to do that before the price goes up because you could save a lot of money over the twelve month program by getting it now. So today, organic fertilizing! There a couple of reasons why I think fertilizing is really important for us. The first is that we really want to dictate what plants grow in our garden and if we were just happy to let the weeds grow then some weeds (we call them weeds but they’re just plants really), some plants would come up and they would be happy there.

But if we’re trying to grow very specific plants we need to make sure they have the right growing conditions and a lot of the plants that we’re trying to grow, especially vegetables, often really need a lot of nutrition that our soil isn’t ready to provide. So that’s the first reason. And the other reason is just that we’re trying to grow…like if we plant a tomato we want to get a lot of tomatoes from it and we want them to be really tasty and really nutritious.

So in that case we’re willing to put in a little more work to improve our soil and improve the nutrition in our tomatoes and so that’s why I think fertilizing is really important for us. So there’s six steps. I’m just going to summarize them here, there’s way more detail in the blog post below.

The first step is going to be soil testing and I know this is one that a lot of people skip and it’s okay if you skip it but just in the long run if you’re really, whenever you decide okay I really want to get into this nutrient-dense food growing and I really want to make my soil healthier, getting a soil test from a good organic soil lab is going to kind of help you because it’s going to tell you what to do. So that’s step one, more detail in the blog post below.

Step two is fertilizing and without having done a soil test there’s not a whole lot of specific nutrients we can apply because we can’t just guess that we need magnesium or potassium because we might cause a problem by applying say, dolomite lime or say green sand which supplies potassium. So that’s why we need a soil test. If you’re not going to soil test, glacial rock dust as I’ve mentioned before is a, glacial rock dust or volcanic rock dust or basalt rock dust, any of these rock dusts that have a bunch of different minerals in them but not too much of any one mineral you can put onto your soil without a soil test because it’s not going to imbalance the soil.

Again, more detail down below on how I would fertilize if I didn’t have a soil test. Three is organic matter and especially that’s going to be compost and if you make a really good compost or buy a really good compost that’s going to provide many benefits for the garden. So that’s my main source of organic matter along with a mulch such as leaves and cover crops.

So again, more detail down below I’m just trying to keep this video short. Getting organic matter into our soil brings many different benefits, many just like dozens of benefits. Four is plant fertilizing, so we’ve taken care of soil fertilizing but sometimes we want to fertilize our plants directly with liquids and there’s a few liquids I use for that but my favorites come from the ocean especially a seaweed you can turn into a liquid and you can make it yourself if you live by some seaweed by the ocean or you can buy it in a bottle and I sell it or you can buy it online or from your local fertilizer supplier.

Another one comes from ocean water which is a great product that’s concentrated ocean water. More detail down below again. Step five is bringing beneficial biology into our soil and this isn’t really called fertilizing, because fertilizing is more like chemistry and biology is different but it’s really an important part of fertilizing because its the biology in our soil, the micro-organisms that make nutrients available to plants.

And so that’s where that compost comes in again [machine noise] excuse the saw in the background! That’s where the compost comes in again because it provides beneficial organisms but there’s also these other things that maybe you’ve heard me talk about before that are microbial inoculants like effective micro-organisms and mycorrhizzal fungi and compost tea. So I’ve written a little bit about that below. And then step six actually step six I’m going to save for Facebook.

I’m going to post it up on Facebook for a couple of reasons, one is that this blog post is getting way too long as it is and two is that I want people to come and hang out with me on Facebook. So I’m going to post step six up there. And so if you read on down below towards the bottom of this article I talk to you about why all these steps are important and how they all play off each other and if we just do one then it’s not going to have as big of an impact as if we do all of them or at least several of them because they all help each other out.

And so that’s all for today I guess there are a couple of things one, go check out the academy if you think you might be interested in it before the price goes up and two if you have any questions about any of this because this is a big topic today about organic fertilizing really how to improve the nutrition in your garden and in your soil ask me down below and I will get back to you! So we’ll talk to you soon.

In nature, a plant will grow from the ground and if it’s not healthy, it will be eaten by insects or disease – no big deal.

But in our organic vegetable gardens, we don’t want that to happen, so we’re willing to put a little effort into moving our soil towards more of an ideal situation.

Today I thought it would be cool to give you an overview of the whole process of boosting garden health rather than focusing in detail on just one aspect of it.

If you’ve ever been faced with a challenge in your life, whether it’s an emotional challenge like I’ve been going through this past couple of months, or a physical challenge like getting over an injury, or whatever, you know it’s important to take a multi-faceted approach to facing that challenge.

That would include exercise, proper sleep, nutrition, mindfulness, etc. Garden HealthNeeded a picture of something 🙂

And it’s the same in the garden – there are a few steps we need to take in order to get the results we’re looking for.

I know most people won’t do all of the following steps, but that’s okay – let’s just say the more you do, the better.

Here’s an email I received from Academy member Jo:

“We have now done the foliar spray twice on the winter crops and the results are pretty spectacular on the whole. I had to go back and do a third hit on the curly kale, which was not doing much, but it is now jumping. My collards out in the garden came in spectacularly with little worm damage. We built a 5 by 4.5 compost heap that heated up to 160 right away and stayed there for several days. My excitement level is high.”

She’s hit on 2 of the steps right there: 1) foliar spraying of plants, and 2) making and using good compost.

But we’ll actually start back a bit further with today’s gardening advice…

1. Soil testing.

It starts with a soil test.

Not a soil test from your local agriculture soil lab, because they’re on a different wavelength than us, coming from a chemical fertilizer mindset.

And not the cheap home soil test kits that may seem like a bargain – they’re very unreliable, so I never use them myself.

You need to find a good organic lab and then mail a soil sample to them.

I use Crop Services International and International Ag Labs, or you can search for one in your state – or you may have to look in a nearby state.

If you’re in Canada I often suggest A&L Labs because I know how to interpret their conventional results – I wouldn’t rely on their fertilizing recommendations or those from most other regular labs, but I would for the more organically-minded labs above.

I know the soil test is a step that many people will skip, because it often costs $30-$60 or more including shipping, but it’s definitely something to do when you’re ready to grow more nutrient-dense food.

By the way, if you want to learn how to interpret your soil test results, plus learn a whole lot more about soil in general, there’s a good book called The Ideal Soil.

2. Soil fertilizing.

Then comes adding fertilizer to your soil.

How do you know what your soil needs if you haven’t done a soil test? Well, you don’t.

That’s why we can’t do much to balance our soil fertility if we haven’t done a soil test.

We can use 10 pounds of calcium carbonate per 1000 square feet, which is just a small amount, because 90% of soils are deficient in calcium and it’s just so important. But that’s the only mineral I recommend without a soil test.

There are, however, a number of organic fertilizers that provide just tiny amounts of many different minerals.

These you can use without a soil test because it’s not going to add too much of any one mineral. It’s not going to help with your imbalanced soil fertility, but it will at least give some nutrition.

My main suggestion here is rock dust, especially of glacial, basalt or volcanic origin.

Alfalfa meal is also decent – as long as it’s organic because non-organic alfalfa is now being genetically modified.

In fact, a lot of fertilizers that used to be used in organic gardening – such as cottonseed meal, soybean meal and corn gluten meal – are now largely from genetically modified plants. I tend to take the precautionary principle and stay away from all GMOs, but that’s just me.

(I cover fertilizing in months 2 and 5 of the Academy.)

3. Organic Matter

Compost is one of the most common methods of increasing soil organic matter and supplying nutrients.

You don’t want to use smelly, rotten compost, but the good stuff can be very helpful.

And you also don’t want to use too much of it because you can actually cause fertility imbalances, but up to about 1/3 cubic yard per 1000 square feet each year is useful, rarely more.

Many organic gardeners use too much compost, resulting in huge calcium deficiencies and ultimately, more pests and poor quality food. But compost is great as long as we keep it in balance.

There are other methods of building organic matter, too. Using cover crops is one of my favorites, as is using mulch, especially leaves. Basically, I like to keep my soil covered most of the time, either by mulch or living plants.

Biochar and humates are two additional sources of organic matter that I haven’t gotten into very much. They have some uses, but need to be used carefully, like anything else I guess.

(I cover organic matter and composting in months 1 and 4 of the Academy.)

4. Plant foliar fertilizing.

While improving soil fertility is an important long term goal, we can also help our plants in the short term by feeding them directly with specific plant foods that we call liquid foliar fertilizers.

And when we spray them, we can actually hit both the plants and soil, so we’re doing double duty.

My favorites are liquid seaweed, ocean water and liquid fish fertilizer.

They all bring different benefits, but what’s similar is that they’re all supplying 70+ minerals directly to plants for foliar uptake, and to the soil as well. I spray them at least monthly.

In addition to these broad spectrum liquid fertilizers, there are specific trace minerals we can use, but again, this gets back to having a soil test to go by.

Products like zinc sulfate and even household borax can be incredibly useful, but only if you need, in this case, zinc and boron. We only need these minerals in parts per million, so don’t want to go spraying much of them unless we know we’re deficient.

(I cover plant fertilizing mainly in month 5 of the Academy.)

5. Biology.

So far we’ve been talking about minerals, or chemistry, but an important part of fertilizing is also ensuring we have appropriate biology in the soil and on plants.

That means beneficial microorganisms, insects and other animals.

This isn’t technically called fertilizing, but since it’s these organisms that help make our fertilizers available to plants, it really is an important part of the fertilizing process.

The compost up above will go a long way to supplying these beneficial organisms, if it’s good compost, but I also use a few probiotic products just to make sure my biology is as abundant and diverse as possible.

I mainly use effective microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi, plus the occasional shot of aerated compost tea.

I don’t bring in beneficial insects, but I do my best to attract them by planting a diverse array of insect-attracting plants, especially herbs.

And I supply adequate water to the garden – not just to the plants, but to the whole garden soil – because I want to make sure those insects and those microorganisms have the water they need.

(I cover biology in months 3 and 6 of the Academy.)

6.

This post is getting way too long, so I’m going to just stick point number 6 up on facebook.

Some organic farming experts consider this step to be the most important of all.

Personally, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done with this, but it’s something I plan to pursue more and more.

Check it out on facebook – and it would be great if you would ‘Like’ me up there, too, if you’re into that kind of thing 🙂

Why We Need To Take This Holistic Approach

We can’t apply only soil fertilizers and be done with it…

…because we need the biology in the soil in order to make those fertilizers available to plants, and that biology needs some organic matter to work with, too.

We can’t apply only compost and be done with it…

…because compost doesn’t supply all of the nutrients we need, and definitely not in the right proportions for our soil.

We can’t apply only foliar fertilizers and be done with it…

…because they need at least a certain threshold of soil fertility balance in order to work effectively, and they’re very much helped by having proper biology around as well.

We can’t apply only biology and be done with it…

…because even though they do a lot for garden health, they need nutrients and organic matter to work with.

So that’s why we need to take a multi-faceted approach.

Conclusion

So:

  • A soil test tells you which nutrients you need.
  • Soil fertilizers are used to balance soil fertility so plants/microbes/insects have what they need.
  • Organic matter has at least a dozen important functions, from holding nutrients and water to providing homes for soil life.
  • Liquid fertilizers are used to feed plants directly, as well as soil.
  • Biology takes all of those inputs and makes them available to plants.

(For more detail on all of the fertilizers and inoculants mentioned today, go here.)

Questions?

Phew! Lots covered today in this post. Feel free to ask me questions down below about improving garden health.

22 Comments

  1. Sam on May 17, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    I have often wondered about sea products. Widely accepted by organic growers for good reason because of the great results from it’s use. OK that said, every known and unknown poison/toxin is found in the oceans.

    • Rosalind Simmons on May 18, 2014 at 2:48 am

      Hi Sam,I use Neutrog’s Seamungus here in Australia which I find very good.

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 11:30 am

      True, definitely something to think about. The product I use is certified organic by 2 different organizations, but I’m not sure what their criteria are.

  2. Rosalind Simmons on May 17, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    The Academy sounds interesting and I live in Australia. Many of the products you recommend eg rock dust, I find are unavailble. What would you recommend for international people. The course seems to be more suited to U.S. people. Best wishes from dowmunder.

    • Carol J on May 18, 2014 at 1:43 am

      Hi Rosalind, I did a one-minute internet search and found these sources for rock dust in Australia: Munash Natural Fertilizers in Victoria; Men of the Trees, Inc. in Guildford Western Australia; Mini Plus in Queensland; and Sustainable Agriculture & Food Enterprises Pty Ltd in Queensland.

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

      Here’s a little list for Australia and other countries too: https://remineralize.org/mineral-products/

      • Rosalind Simmons on May 18, 2014 at 11:58 am

        So many thanks Phil. I appreciate it very much.

  3. Susan Kulis on May 18, 2014 at 12:09 am

    Hi Phil, once again, thanks for all the great info. I’m one of those who isn’t getting a soil test as I will be moving next year. Guess that isn’t much of an excuse! Two questions: do you need to do a soil test every year? (guess if your answer is yes I will have it done) also, what do you think of worm castings, and is it the same as compost? Thanks, Phil, and glad to hear things are looking up in your life. I think all of your “followers” feel we know you and want the very best for you, as we feel you give us your very best.

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Thanks Susan 🙂 I test soil usually every 2 years. If you’re moving, I say don’t worry about it. Worm castings are similar to compost – depending on the quality they could be ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but they are often considered one of the highest quality forms of compost.

  4. Rosalind Simmons on May 18, 2014 at 2:45 am

    Hi Carol,How very kind. I live in Victoria, so will chase the Munah option. Are you sure you don’t mean Monash which is the area in which I live?Thank youso much for your kind help.

  5. Geoff on May 18, 2014 at 3:48 am

    Hi Phil, you said 1/3 cubic yard per 1000 sq feet of compost – if my math is correct, that’s approx. 15.5″/sq.ft – did you mean 1/3 cubic foot instead? That works out to 0.5″approx., which sounds more reasonable. Thx.

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 11:37 am

      If you take 1/3 cubic yard (9 cubic feet) and spread it out over 1000 square feet, that’s only a very, very light dusting of compost overall – hardly noticeable actually.

  6. Chris on May 18, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    I just got some compost from our city recycling, and I’m questioning it’s quality, can compost be tested for chemicals or does the composting process help eliminate or dilute them. I’m thinking that the material used in the process may contain chemically treated grass clipping/yard waste from many of the residence of my community, the people who operate it can’t tell me for sure. This is my very first year at growing a garden.i have lots of questions! 🙂

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 8:57 pm

      It definitely contains chemically-treated yard waste, some of which gets broken down during the composting process and some of which doesn’t. The question as to whether it’s still beneficial to use in the garden is a tricky one. The answer is probably sometimes yes and sometimes no. Testing it for pesticides, heavy metals, etc. through a soil lab would be the way to find that out, but that could get expensive. I actually don’t know what a home gardener should do about this. If I were a landscaper, I would pay to do some testing, but maybe not worth it as a home gardener, although some people would disagree with me and go spend the money to test it – I’m just thinking that could get expensive if you test for everything. Personally, I would probably bring in some city compost if it looked and smelled good, but I would also learn how to make my own.

    • MAK on May 18, 2014 at 11:47 pm

      Use it, it will be very beneficial. Grass is a very efficient filter. Grass treated on Monday will have residue free clippings by Friday.

  7. Dave C on May 18, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Can I reuse the compost that I used grew my potaotes in the this year for potatoes next year cheers

    • Phil on May 18, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      If the potatoes last year were healthy without pest problems, and if the compost was good, it’s possible to use it again, but the usual idea is that it’s best to rotate crops. It would be interesting to do half with that compost and half with new compost and see what happens.

  8. Africanaussie on May 19, 2014 at 3:42 am

    I am so glad that you are doing well, it takes time, and being out in the garden is the best therapy. I just have a tiny garden – not worth paying for testing, but I find that natural amendments, like digging prawn shells into the ground and letting them decompose, adding seaweed and crusher dust and my home made compost all seems to improve the soil. thank you for all you do – you are a fount of information.

  9. Bear on May 19, 2014 at 6:03 am

    I understand it would be better to have a healthy soil web throughout my yard, but we’re under strict watering restrictions here in South Texas. So our St. Augustine grass is history, replaced by decayed granite expanses under which is weed-block cloth. Small planting beds without ground cloth are situated within the granite areas. (You can see some planting beds and a little of the granite in the photo below.) These planting beds are mulched, and I’m doing foliar spraying once a week (over the entire yard, including the planting areas and the surrounding granite) and adding rock dust and other dry amendments recommended by a soil test (but only to the dedicated planting areas–not to the granite area). We have micro-spray heads that water the planting beds only and for specific hours one day a week. The granite expanses get no water unless it rains. My questions are: Is there a hope we will have a healthy soil web beneath the granite with water? Will the ground cloth block the soil additives I’m spraying on the granite or will they seep to the soil below along with the application water? Should I be adding the dry materials to the granite areas, too? We have two trees in this area, and I’d like to feed their roots which are beneath the granite. While I do want to feed all of the soil, I don’t want to waste materials on the granite if you think the cloth will block the nutrients. Thanks for any answers you may offer.

    • Phil on May 19, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      You could have a healthy soil food web beneath the granite if water/air gets through the weed cloth you’re using and if the soil was in okay shape to begin with with regards to organic matter. The liquid fertilizer applications may make it through the cloth or maybe not – depends on the cloth. Personally, I would spray a small amount on the granite when walking by, but not too much. I wouldn’t add the dry materials to the granite, though.

  10. Martha on May 23, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Phil – I’m curious if you’ve tried the fermented plant juice used by Korean Natural Farmers, Specifically I’d like to know what you think of the Water Soluble Calcium (WCA). It is made from egg, clam, oyster, crab or shrimp shells. A grill is used to slowly char the shells, turning them occasionally among the coals over low heat. A pungent smell will be released, which will be gone when done. After 45 minutes they should be evenly gray. Let cool, then break apart with your fingers and drop into brown rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a mother culture. The proportions are by weight, 1 part shell to 10 parts vinegar. They will bubble as they hit the vinegar. After one week, strain and store in a cool, dark place. WCA will improve root growth, fruit ripening and low sugar content, and nutrient uptake. Dilute with 1:1000 with water and spray on leaves.Ever try it to give plants a dose of calcium/ magnesium?

    • Phil on May 24, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing. I’ve made something similar and I think it’s a useful thing. Doesn’t supply all that much calcium (unless you have a small garden), but sometimes just a little can help a lot.

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