Today you’ll learn how to make homemade potting soil using only three simple ingredients. I’ll also give you alternate recipes for potting soil in case you don’t have those three readily available.
My Homemade Potting Soil Recipe
If you’d like to see me make my homemade potting soil, here’s a video I created illustrating the process:
First, you’ll need a place to work.
I like to spread a tarp on the grass and use that as my mixing area, but you can work on any solid surface. A tarp is easy to roll back and forth to help you mix, but making potting soil isn’t rocket science and you can really do it anywhere.
Second, gather your materials. My potting soil recipe has three main ingredients:
1. Rotten Wood
Fresh wood chips will eat up a lot of the nitrogen in your potting soil mix and can cause your plants to struggle. Rotten wood doesn’t cause that issue, plus it holds moisture and provides a loose and airy texture to the mix.
Leaving a pile of brush and logs in a corner of your property to rot over time will give you a ready source of rotten wood.
If you haven’t started doing that yet, just go for a walk in the woods and get a nice sack of fluffy, crumbly wood and drag it home.
2. Aged Cow Manure
I gather manure from my neighbor’s cows and leave it on a piece of metal in the sun to age for a few months.
Fresh cow manure is too “hot.”
If my home-baked manure sounds too weird, just pile it up in a compost heap somewhere and let it go for a few months. That will leave you with a nutritious, organic-matter-rich pile of good stuff for your homemade potting soil.
I let my chickens do a lot of composting for me, like this:
I go into the coop or chicken run, sift out the grit, soil and compost, then use it in my homemade potting soil.
You don’t need to do that, though. No chickens? No problem.
I sift grit from the local creek bed and add that sometimes. I’ve also just added good garden soil, old potting soil mix from expired plants and even regular old sand.
Mix It All Up
Now all you need to do is get mixing.
Smash the rotten wood into smaller chunks, break up the cow patties, and pour in the grit. I use one part rotten wood, one part aged manure and one part grit/soil in my potting soil recipe, but don’t overthink it. If it looks loose and feels good, the plants will be happy.
As you’ll notice in my video, I often leave pretty big chunks of wood in my homemade potting soil. The potted plants seem to like them and they act as moisture reservoirs and soil looseners.
If you need a finer homemade potting soil for starting seeds, just crush the mix finer or run a coarser mix through some hardware cloth to sift it.
Alternate Ingredients for Homemade Potting Soil
If you don’t have cow manure, try goat or rabbit manure. Both work quite well. Homemade compost is also excellent, though I never seem to have enough for everything I want to do.
Don’t have grit/sand available? Vermiculite or perlite both work nicely, though you have to buy them.
Rotten wood can be replaced with peat moss or coconut coir. I prefer the coir. It seems to repel water less. You can also use leaf mould. Sift it out in the local forest – it’s wonderful.
Along with these ingredients, I’ve also added some ashes, crushed charcoal, coffee grounds, old potting soil, peanut shells and even moldy cocoa nibs.
When I ran my nursery business I often stretched my potting soil budget by mixing purchased soil with rotten wood chips I got from a local tree company and set aside for years to break down.
Just keep your homemade potting soil loose and fluffy with a good mix of ingredients and your plants will do great.
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Steve Solomon recommends you add clay to compost piles, especially if you have sandy soils.
Putting Clay in Compost
Since I pretty much do everything Steve Solomon tells me to do, I started putting clay in compost piles some time back… but now I’m really getting serious. You can see me adding clay to the compost layers in the video I posted yesterday:
“The heaps made with clay, so long as they contain a reasonable amount of coarse material to enable some air movement, do not need to be turned. The ingredients all get to soak and mix in a thick clay soup before stacking (putting a pile of food and drinks in every pantry) and the heaps seem to stay moist for a very long time. I recently opened up a heap I hadn’t touched for three months and it was still moist and generating warmth. A reasonable compost can be made by simply wetting the materials with clay slurry as the heap is built but remember that only the material which decomposes in association with clay particles is going to become durable humus/clay complex. A heap built this way will probably need to be turned and re-watered too. Think of the difference between a dish that’s been marinated compared to one that’s only been sprinkled with a dressing. Clay is made up of very fine particles so the combined surface area of all the particles in a peanut sized clod might be equal to a tennis court or three Clive Palmer skins or some such mind boggling factoid. No wonder, then, that it can hold so much water. Also these particles carry a negative charge so each one is capable of forming bonds with positively charged particles (ions) like many of the essential plant nutrients. They gradually fill up with waste, sticking fast and firm to walls, floors and ceilings as the food in the pantries is consumed. The resultant compost is packed with nutrients which are more or less available depending on how complex the chemical bonding with the clay is. What we have here is humus in close association with clay, a long lasting, water retentive material in which plant roots and soil organisms can find all the nutrition they are looking for. A material which will keep carbon, not only locked up, but also doing a great job for years to come.”
Putting Clay in Compost is Good For Sandy Soils
In sandy soils organic matter burns up a lot quicker than it does in clay soils. Clay is capable of hanging on to the good stuff for longer, binding with organic material and increasing its persistence.
If you make compost in an area where clay is not part of the soil, it’s easy to put clay in compost via buying bentonite. Just sprinkle it in as you layer materials – you don’t need as much clay as I dumped in my pile.
“The application of clay technology by farmers in northeast Thailand, using bentonite clay, has dramatically reversed soil degradation and resulted in greater economic returns, with higher yields and higher output prices. Studies carried out by The International Water Management Institute and partners in 2002–2003 focused on the application of locally sourced bentonite clays to degraded soils in the region. These applications were carried out in structured field trials. Applying bentonite clays effectively improved yields of forage sorghum grown under rain-fed conditions.
Bentonite application also influenced the prices that farmers received for their crops. Production costs are higher, but due to more production and the quality of the food, clay farmers could afford to invest and grow more and better food, compared to nonclay-using farmers.”
Lots to think about. Make that compost stick around!
If you like this post – please pin it! Look, I made a nice graphic.
I’ve got two questions from a reader I’ll answer today today: gardening in shells and mango propagation. Let’s jump in!
“Hope you and your family feel much better since the car accident. It has finally rained today after weeks of drought, I hope it rains in the tropics soon too. I had questions about starting my own mango trees. What do you things is the easiest method to start from seed and can mangoes also be grown from cuttings? I am also planning on making a food forest with mango as the main large tree, the only problem is that that soil was infilled with shells to about a depth of two feet, what would be a easier method to grow trees in this substrate then digging it all up and replacing? The sediment that it produces is white and does not retain water and contain any organic matter. In the summer weeds grow all of the garden except for this area, and this area is the only area large enough to make a food forest as I have a small yard.”
Let’s attack mango propagation first:
Growing Mangoes from Seed
Mangoes are very easy to grow from seed.
Take seeds right from fresh fruit and don’t allow them to dry out. Plant them an inch or two deep in potting soil or compost and keep them watered. It usually takes about a month from them to germinate. Years ago when I started my first mango from seed, I read that if the pit sends up multiple sprouts, it will produce “true to type.” If it sends up a single shoot, it’s a wildcard.
Some sites recommend cutting open the husk of a mango seed and just planting the embryo. This may increase your germination rates but I haven’t found it necessary. If you do open it up, you can see whether it’s polyembryonic or monoembyronic, i.e. a multiple or single-shoot type. The polyembryonic seeds have multiple sections inside them.
If it’s a single-shoot seedling you get, don’t worry. It will likely give you fruit, but if you want a specific type of fruit, you’ll have to graft to make sure you get that.
“On our type of lime rock fill soils, with high pH, minor elements will become insoluble in water. This is of concern since unless something is dissolved in water, it cannot be absorbed by plant roots, even though it may be present in the soil in high levels. With the addition of organic matter such as composted plant materials, mulch or leaf litter, the soil pH can be lowered. Over time, the area with added organic matter can be fertilized with minor elements. The elements will stay soluble and plants will produce healthy vigorous growth and happiness for you.”
“I’m not familiar with mango trees, but I don’t think I would go to all the trouble of digging out substrate, unless you have access to heavy equipment and lots of good fill to replace it with. You would essentially be making a pot in the ground.”
“Early studies of tree roots from the 1930s, often working in easy-to-dig loess soils, presented an image of trees with deep roots and root architecture that mimicked the structure of the top of the tree. The idea of a deeply-rooted tree became embedded as the typical root system for all trees. Later work on urban trees that were planted in more compacted soils more often found very shallow, horizontal root systems. Urban foresters have successfully spent a lot of energy trying to make people understand that tree roots have a basically horizontal orientation, to the point that even many tree professionals now believe that deep roots in trees are a myth. The truth lies somewhere in between deep roots and shallow roots.”
I have read that gardeners in the Keys will hack holes right into the compacted lime rock and shell mix, fill with some soil, then plant. The trees survive and thrive.
I would make a hole a few times the size of the root ball, put in some local earth, then plant. Mulch, keep it watered, and see what happens. Trees are very resilient. If you don’t have rock beneath, the roots should find what they need. Watch for pH issues, though. If the leaves yellow, I recommend adding some sulfur as well.
You can also foliar feed with compost tea and/or a balanced fertilizer containing micronutrients. Steve Solomon recommended Dyna-Gro to me but I haven’t had the chance to try it yet.
Good luck and send me updates! I would love to hear how your mangoes grow.
I used rotted wood chips to make potting soil in my old nursery and found that it worked wonderfully. Watching this video really made me nostalgic. I miss growing and selling plants.
You can often get free mulch from tree companies. Pile it up and let it rot. A year or two later, it’s rich and filled with earthworms. He’s using it quicker than that, but for a potting mix I might wait until it breaks down well. I also added rabbit manure to my mixes when I had it. That was like a slow-release fertilizer.
Thanks to PermieFlix for drawing my attention this video. If you’re not reading his site, I recommend you check it out. He finds a lot of very good permaculture videos.
Bruce at RED Gardens makes some interesting observations:
I like the way this guy thinks. Worms love rotting organic material. At first, I would be quite frustrated by losing all those potatoes to slugs… but, as you can see, that loss wasn’t really a complete loss.
It makes me wonder if if would be worth reclaiming sub-par starchy vegetables and smashing them up to add to the soil in some beds. A lot of potatoes get thrown into the dumpsters behind grocery stores.
You can find food for your garden in the strangest places.
Fallen leaves, manure, rotten wood, ashes, fish guts, urine, grass clippings… even seaweed and sea urchin shells will work:
I don’t have a standard mix of materials I add to my garden. Instead, I add whatever is currently available, from Epsom salts to rabbit manure, coffee grounds to moringa leaves.
I like a broad mix as I’m not only interested in making the plants look green, I’m also interested in maximizing their nutritional content, as Steve Solomon writes in his excellent book The Intelligent Gardener.
Start thinking about the many garden inputs available to you. Chances are you’re missing some great fertilizer opportunities.
Have a wonderful Lord’s Day – see you Monday.
* * *
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.
Be angry,[b] and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
“At a time of climate chaos and ever-growing global greenhouse gas emissions, anything that helps vast swaths of farmland sponge up carbon would be a stabilizing force. Moreover, carbon-rich soils store nutrients and have the potential to remain fertile over time–a boon for future generations.
The case for synthetic N as a climate stabilizer goes like this. Dousing farm fields with synthetic nitrogen makes plants grow bigger and faster. As plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the plant is harvested as crop, but the rest–the residue–stays in the field and ultimately becomes soil. In this way, some of the carbon gobbled up by those N-enhanced plants stays in the ground and out of the atmosphere.
Well, that logic has come under fierce challenge from a team of University of Illinois researchers led by professors Richard Mulvaney, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth. In two recent papers (see here and here) the trio argues that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues.
And their analysis gets more alarming. Synthetic nitrogen use, they argue, creates a kind of treadmill effect. As organic matter dissipates, soil’s ability to store organic nitrogen declines. A large amount of nitrogen then leaches away, fouling ground water in the form of nitrates, and entering the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas with some 300 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. In turn, with its ability to store organic nitrogen compromised, only one thing can help heavily fertilized farmland keep cranking out monster yields: more additions of synthetic N.
The loss of organic matter has other ill effects, the researchers say. Injured soil becomes prone to compaction, which makes it vulnerable to runoff and erosion and limits the growth of stabilizing plant roots. Worse yet, soil has a harder time holding water, making it ever more reliant on irrigation. As water becomes scarcer, this consequence of widespread synthetic N use will become more and more challenging.
In short, “the soil is bleeding,” Mulvaney told me in an interview.”
I don’t worry at all over the spectre of man-made climate change, but the loss of soil potentially caused by synthetic nitrogen directly impacts farmers and gardeners.
We have a rough patch of ground right now that I plan to improve via chopping and dropping biomass-creating species such as Tithonia diversifolia and nitrogen-fixers such as pigeon pea and Leucaena leucocephala.
If I tilled that ground and chemically fertilized it instead, I would get yields at the beginning but would likely burn up what’s left of the topsoil. For whatever reason you decide to do so, getting carbon in the soil is a good idea. I’ve seen soil transformed from sand to rich loam in less than a year thanks to an abundance of organic matter.
I want a rich soil filled with microbial life – not dead dirt shocked to a semblance of life by chemical fertilization.