To care for a piece of land, to watch it evolve, endure growing pains, and improve over the years is a remarkable human experience. In 2013 when we purchased our home, our backyard was full of promise because it was large by San Diego standards, but it was made of hard packed decomposed granite- far from the idealized backyard garden. The previous owners ran a street sweeping business and parked their street sweepers in the backyard. Can you imagine all the soil compaction?
We set out to do the impossible- to turn the hard packed granite into a thriving garden. That first year we applied as much organic matter to our backyard as we could find- animal manures, free wood chips, and compost. We piled it on ‘lasagne style’ in the fall and let it rest until spring when we were ready to plant.
Seven years and seven gardens later, our backyard garden soil is alive and fertile. And so are our other urban gardens- each in a different stage but all on the journey to good soil. Over the years we’ve formed some guiding principles to caring for our soil and they’re listed below. We’re grateful to naturalists like Masanobu Fukuoka, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Jeff Lowelfels, Wayne Lewis, and other no-till farmers who have been a guiding light.
Our Philosophy of Soil
- No piece of land is beyond the redemption of a garden.
- The most important thing we do as gardeners is help facilitate the creation of good soil in the garden.
- By avoiding harmful things like tilling, compacting the soil, and toxic chemicals that destroy the soil biology, we can let go and allow the synergy of the soil to do the work for us.
- The soil is teeming with life- billions of microbes, fungi, and bacteria- so we disrupt the integrity of our soil as little as possible.
- Tillage wreaks havoc on our soil. It destroys worms and worm burrows, cuts fungi hyphae into little bits, stirs up weed seeds, and releases carbon into the atmosphere, so we choose not to till and utilize no-till methods of gardening like occularization instead.
- Compost is full of beneficial microbes and the building block of good soil, so we add compost to our gardens at least twice a year with our warm climate and long growing season. Our compost is usually made of kitchen scraps and garden waste that have passed through our chicken coop, and we also utilize compost from the Miramar Landfill- a product of greenwaste from San Diego homes and businesses. Trash into flowers- yes please!
- Mulch feeds our soil food web, conserves water, smothers weeds, and helps build healthy soil, so we mulch our plants and pathways (usually with straw) as much as possible.
- Instead of adding organic fertilizers, we want to build up a strong soil food web and invite the biology of the soil to make the necessary nutrients available for us. We use vermicompost and compost teas to do this.
- Using the above principles, garden soil improves gradually with time. And so we persist; each year we plant our garden, and we wait patiently for good soil.