Goldilocks Soil

Sweet sweet Goldilocks, you dirty little thief. If you were some kind of monster mobile mutant plant you’d be testing bowls of soil to see which you’d like to dip your dirty thieving roots into.

Some soils would be too clumpy. Some soils would be too loose. And some soils would be juuuuuuuust right. And that’s what we’re going for – Goldilocks Soil.

I love soil. If you want a quick and dirty [hah, pun!] overview of soil classification, click here.

My Soil:
Let’s look at the requirements of the plant – good aeration and drainage, and good water retention. So we need some combination of stuff that has this and doesn’t compact when we water it.

Unfortunately in container gardening, compaction becomes a huge issue, so we have to mix it up a bit.

So now we’re into all the different soil amendments and designer potting mixes and all that good stuff. This is getting fun. What different things can we mix and match to make good soil for our plants? I’m going to take a counter-intuitive leap here and say “Stop, don’t worry about it”. Really, don’t overcomplicate it, we’re farmers! We’re gonna use whatever is cheap, and close by or just right at hand. The plants will grow just fine as long as you remember the basic requirements – drainage to allow oxygen, some water retention to keep roots moist, and organic matter to help prevent compaction. And in that vein, I found some stuff around here that will do the trick, I hope.

My first ingredient is coco coir(coco peat). Coconuts grow in the tropics, who’d have thought. Coir is the fibrous husk part broken down into finer particles. It absorbs water like a sponge and doesn’t compact easily. Next ingredient – carbonized rice hull. Needless to say, rice is a faaaaaairly abundant crop here in the Philippines. “Carbonized” here just means “blackened using heat but not burnt all the way to ash”. CRH has great drainage, doesn’t compact much at all, and is an awesome medium for microbes. Next ingredient, soil. It’ll help with the structure but more importantly it’s free and close by(the gardeners in my apartment complex generously donated 2 sacks, sweet). Last ingredient, compost from Gil’s farm. This also was free and a much needed nitrogen/microbe source.

Of course you don’t want water sitting in the bottom of the pot, especially when your pots are made of flimsy 1/2in plywood. So I have gravel to layer the bottom for drainage.

Check out all the ingredients together:

Garden Soil - Step 1

Ingredients for my homemade garden soil

I’ve mixed these ingredients up 2:2:1:1. 2 parts coco:2 parts CRH:1 part soil: 1 part compost. I think this is a good ratio – balance the drainage and water retention evenly, then compost for organic nutrient and soil for structure. Since coco, crh, and most of the compost are organic matter, overall it’s around 5:1 organic matter to soil. So in the end there isn’t much “soil” in my mix after all, hah. I hope this mix works out, just a little worried about drainage but we’ll see.

Garden Soil - Step 2

Mix up the ingredients for a good balance of water retention, drainage, and aeration.

I’ve mixed the first batch of soil (on the tarp to avoid making too big a mess on the balcony). But before putting it in the planters, I have to line them with gravel. The gravel aids drainage which keeps roots healthy and will also help the planters last longer:

Garden Soil - Step 3

Add gravel so soil drains well, doesn’t get anaerobic and nasty in the root zone

Not quite as much gravel fill as I would have liked, but I ran out. Oh well. Now to put the first batch in the planter…

Garden Soil - Step 4

First batch of soil in the planter. Looks great!

…over an hour later, 3 planters are filled with soil. Now the plants are still weeks away from going in. They will be started in seed trays before being transplanted out here. The first thing I’ll do here is apply a compost tea to get the microbes started. I’ll talk about “The Best Compost Tea in the World” in a later post and article on the site.

Garden Soil - Step 5

Inoculate soil with The Best Compost Tea in the World

Look at those beautiful planters inoculated with The Best Compost Tea Ever:

Garden Soil - Step 6

Planters full of soil and soaked with microbes

Last thing to do? Cover the planters with tarp. Keeps sunlight from reaching soil surface, keeps humidity up, soil moist. All to maximize growth of microbes in the beds. I’ll leave the tarp on for 5-7 days. In that time, fungi and bacteria will grow and thrive in the planters. The Carbonized Rice Hull, or biochar as we can call it, provides awesome habitat for these microbes. It is most effective when we have a good population going.

Garden Soil - Step 7

Planters are covered with tarp to ensure good microbial growth

Can’t wait for planting!

Everyone who gardens has some opinion on “Goldilocks Soil”. I love hearing about all the different mixes people use – some are super extravagant and others dirt simple. If you have a soil recipe, please share it, and let us know why you make it that way.

  • Henry

    Very,very,impressed Patrick!!! Can’t wait for “The Best Compost Tea Ever” recipe.

    • Patrick

      Thanks Henry! Yeah, it is going to be awesome. It is the best compost tea ever. Use that plus biochar and you have an incredible tool for soil health and fertility.

      • dexter tamayo

        Sir how about using chicken manure

  • Big Ray

    I promise I will not beat this dead horse into equine pate’. But, do you have the planters draining externally at all?

    Your soil looks good enough to eat! You could probably sprout rebar in that stuff. I’d love to have access to something like that carbonized rice hull.

    Are you doing anything to try and reflect more of your limited sunlight into your patio?(Foil, white paint…?) Do y’all have a “cool season” at all? What kind of temps are you dealing with?

    • Patrick

      Haha no worries Big Ray! I understand your concern being from a hot humid place and knowing how it goes.. The planters do drain around all the sides of the bottom, the gravel ensures that. But I didn’t drill holes in them, no drill. But they seem to be draining ok so far! Let’s see, I just want them to last a season.

      Yeah the soil turned out awesome! After it dried its kinda like a sponge. Aggregates very well, but when you water, the water soaks right in, it doesn’t sit on the top. Hey you can make your own version of carbonized rice hull really easily. Just get wood chips and turn them into biochar. I’m just finishing up an article on biochar I’ll post it soon. You can check out youtube though, lots of videos on it.

      I haven’t done anything on the balcony to reflect light. Just as I started this project the sun moved so now it gets only indirect light, sad. I’m just going to carry on this season though and see what I can get with what I’ve got. HAHA – no cool season. Sun is 12/12 all year, temp is around 80s-90s all year, high humidity also. It’s amazing for growing stuff, just not all the cold weather plants I got. It’s fun though, I’d love to get some lettuce off the balcony..

      Cheers Big Ray!
      Patrick

  • Carolyn

    Hi,
    Can you suggest ingredients that would be more available in the B.C./Wash. state area? The coconut and rice are more on the exotic side here. But, heavy soil we have in abundance!

    Thanks!

    • Patrick

      Hi Carolyn,

      Join our mailing list! You’ll get all the updates in email, it’s just once a week and you can follow along and get some great tips.

      Haha yeah heavy soil, I know what you mean. In southern oregon where I grew up, it’s pretty much red clay earth, that stuff is heavy. So the coco coir equivalent there would be peat moss. I think in the states that is the more common of these two soil amendments. They fill roughly the same roll – absorb water, lighten soil. For the carbonized rice hull, you can use any biochar substitute. You can make biochar or buy charcoal from the store and smash it up. JUST MAKE SURE if you are buying charcoal, it is pure clean wood charcoal, not briquettes or the like with the binders and chemicals in them. Another amendment that would work as substitute for the CRH would be perlite. It’s a little different but has similar characteristics – drains well, doesn’t compact. In terms of lightening your soil it would work even better than CRH, but nutrient retention/microbe habitat would be less than CRH.

      Hope that helps, let me know if any more questions.

      Cheers,
      Patrick

  • the northeast “gentleman-farmer’s” easy, no-fuss formula for making soil(potting- for only a few as i direct seed) mix:

    1) dress for gardening;
    2) bike to the local business center;
    3) buy the cheapest compost (dollar stores beat the big-boxes anyday);
    4) mix with equal parts of brigantine beach soil and wood chips from last year’s pile;

    and, voila!

    • Patrick

      Hahaha I especially like the first step. :)

      Thanks for sharing your recipe! I like it because it’s cheap and convenient. No need to complicate things, we’re farmers! (albeit unconventional farmers…)

  • Barry Hocking

    Hi,
    I’m very much looking forward to your compost tea formula.

    Take Care, Barry.

  • Barry Hocking

    Hi Patrick,

    Are we getting any closer to your secret anaerobic compost tea formular? Please.

    Best Wishes,

    Barry and Family.

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