9 Products That Help Gardeners Create Healthy, Organic Soil

credit: Green Sense

Pine straw mulch

As every good organic gardener knows, well-managed soil is literally alive with billions of microbes that help to recycle nutrients and keep plants healthy. Maintaining and nurturing that biodiversity is the key to success in sustainable gardening. The products and businesses featured in this slideshow offer a variety of tools to do just that. Maintaining soil cover The first rule of good soil maintenance is to do no harm. Tilling, digging, compacting or allowing soil to dry out are just some of the ways that gardeners can harm the web of life in their soils. That's why no dig gardening is such a powerful tool for would-be backyard farmers, and why maintaining a generous soil cover is so important. There are, of course, a variety of mulches available that keep moisture in the soil, provide much needed protection from the wind and the sun, while still allowing the soil to breathe. For vegetable gardeners, however, pine straw may just be your best bet. It allows soil to breathe. It decomposes slowly. It also doesn't involve chopping down trees, which is a nice touch for us TreeHuggers. Check out your local garden center for bales of pine straw, or visit Pine Straw Direct to get it delivered to your door.

Coir/coconut fiber soil amendments

It's tempting to think of nurturing soil activity in terms of what microbes you can add to the soil. Sometimes, however, it's simply a case of conditioning the soil in such a way that microbes take care of themselves. Like most life forms, fungi and bacteria require a few simple things to thrive—most notably they need both water and air. Oddly enough, improving drainage in soils by adding organic matter actually helps provide both, ensuring a porous soil structure that retains water but also contains air pockets and lets excessive moisture drain away. Peat has traditionally been the soil amendment of choice for improving drainage, but peat is a non-renewable resource and is also fairly acidic. Coco coir, the fibres from coconuts that are often considered a waste product, is considered by many organic gardeners to be a more sustainable and possibly superior peat substitute. Nature's Footprint is just one company offering coir bricks for use in gardening:

By adding one part coco coir to two parts soil or potting mix containing compost, you can make a perfect growing medium for container or potted plants. You can also mix one part coco coir to two parts top soil in an outdoor garden or raised bed to improve the water holding capacity and structure of the soil.
Speaking of healthy soil, another company, RoLanka, offers coir mats that are used to control soil erosion.

Worm castings

credit: Green Sense

I've posted before on research that suggests worm compost can keep plant diseases in check, preventing fungal and bacterial problems like damping off from getting out of hand. The reason for that is pretty simple - worm castings contain as much as ten to twenty times the microbial activity of regular garden soil. Visit your local garden center for bags of worm castings which are becoming increasingly easy to get hold of, or check out companies like Green Sense or Wiggly Worm on Amazon.

Worm composters

Buying worm castings is one thing, but you can also make your own. Take a look at purpose-built vermicomposters like the Worm Factory or the Hungry Bin. If you're more inclined toward the DIY end of things, you can always build your own vermicomposter too. Just be sure to start off your colony slowly—overfeeding seems to be the single most common cause of worm bin failure.

Compost bins

credit: Fiskars

I once described compost as being like yoghurt for the soil, acting as a probiotic that nurtures beneficial microfauna. There are many commercially available types of compost including mushroom compost and composted cow manure. Given that most gardeners have a ready supply of biodegradable materials, however, there is very little reason not to be making your own. You can, of course, simply pile up organic matter and let it rot. It helps to get a 20:1 ratio of dense, hard carbon-rich materials to softer, greener nitrogen-rich stuff like lawn clippings or veggie scraps—but there's no reason to be too scientific about it. For those who want to be a little neater, bins like the collapsable Fiskars compost bin above are a practical solution, and if you're limited on outdoor space, check out indoor composters like the Nature Mill. For a full picture of the bewildering array of composters available, check out companies like the Spanish Compostadores, which are dedicated to the art and science of home-based composting.

Composting toilets

Here's one that's probably not for everyone. Each of us deposits valuable material everyday that could be used to nurture soil biodiversity, and is instead simply flushed away into our sewer system. Composting toilets are one way to retain those nutrients and build soil. Available systems range from the poop-in-a-bucket simplicity of the Loveable Loo to the high-tech, hygenic and ultra-modern Biolet. Used properly, either system is a safe and effective way to both deal with human waste and add a little microbial activity back to the soil.

Fox Farms organic soils and fertilizers

credit: NC Hydro Gardens

So far, we've looked at pretty traditional techniques to nurture soil life. Compost, mulch, worm castings—these all increase microbial activity in a fairly general sense—adding a broad host of microorganisms, many of which will have beneficial properties. There are, however, companies that aim to take a more precise, targeted approach. Fox Farm Fertilizers is one of the better known of these. By crafting organic fertilizers, soils and soil amendments from a wide variety of ingredients that include worm castings, bat guano, kelp meal, fish and bone meal, and by adding select microbial and fungal inoculants, Fox Farms claim to create mixes that can kickstart soil activity, promoting "ecological balance and the environmental restoration" while also meeting the specific needs of various plants. You can buy their products online, or at select garden centers and hydroponic specialists like Northern California Hydrogardens. (Keep a look out for their eye-catching packaging!) They tend to be considerably more expensive than your average bag of mushroom compost or potting soil, and I can't speak from experience as to whether the expense is worthwhile. I am experimenting this year with the company's Light Warrior seed starter, and their Happy Frog tomato and vegetable fertilizer. I'll be sure to post a follow up on how my plants perform.

Mycogrow mychorrhizal innoculants

credit: Fungi Perfecti

Mushroom guru Paul Stamets has long been known for his claims that mushrooms can help heal the world. Besides feeding people, cleaning up toxic waste, and even acting as a zombie ant-creating biological pesticide, one of the most promising applications for fungi is as mycorrhizal inoculants. It's well known that most plants form symbiotic relationships with fungi in the soil, feeding the fungi in exchange for protection from pathogens and an increased uptake of micronutrients. In many ways, these mycorrhizal fungi act as an extension of a plant's root system. Michael P. Amaranthus has a fascinating article on mycorrhizal management for landscaping applications, claiming that deliberate inoculation of seedlings can greatly improve root growth, survival and overall plant health. Much of the research into mycorrhizae has so far focused on trees, most of which couldn't survive without such relationships, but Stamets' company Fungi Perfecti has also developed inoculant products of select mycorrhizal fungi both for vegetable gardening and healthy lawns. Much like Fox Farms products', such products are not exactly cheap. The internet is rife with discussion and debate between gardeners and tomato growers (not to mention cultivators of other, more illicit plants) about the relative merits of mycorrhizal inoculants. I'd be fascinated to hear from our readers about their experiences.

Actinovate microbial fungicide

credit: Natural Industries

Much like mycorrhizal fungi, there are plenty of bacteria that also develop a very specific symbiotic relationship with host plants. Again, these relationships usually involve an exchange of nutrients and disease protection between the host plant and the bacteria. A company called Natural Industries claims to have isolated and patented a very specific microbe that it sells under the brand name Actinovate. Here's more from their website:

Our first patented microorganism, Streptomyces lydicus strain WYEC 108, is the key to a balanced, productive and natural environment for plant life. Whether settling into the plant’s foliage or the root’s rhizosphere, the S. lydicus microorganism colonizes and grows around the structure of the plant forming a symbiotic relationship. This unique relationship includes the microbe feeding of the plant’s waste materials while secreting beneficial and protective by-products back into the plant system. This process of colonization and protective secretions forms a defensive barrier around the plant which in turn suppresses and controls soil pathogens. Our S. lydicus microbe, sold under the Actinovate brand, has also been shown to prey on certain pathogens, disrupting their cell walls and disabling them in the process.
Again, the internet is not short of anecdotes and debate about the relative merits of such products. At least one tomato grower has conducted what look like extensive trials comparing Actinovate to MycoGrow to a control group inoculated with nothing, claiming that Actinovate performed best of all, with MycoGrow also out performing the control group by a considerable margin. Again, I'd love to hear from readers who have tested such products. Their utility will most likely vary from plant-to-plant and situation-to-situation. The building blocks of an organic garden should most likely always be a basic, diverse, well maintained and healthy soil. Whether that can then be improved upon by some more targeted amendments and inoculants, and whether such inoculants can kickstart a poor or degraded soil, will most likely remain a matter of much debate among the growers of this world.