Farmer John: Building a garden starts with healthy, living soil

J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson


SIGMA — I call it the garden of eatin’. 

I love that fresh food, and I love working – really, playing – in the garden. 

It’s rewarding just to stand there observing the bees, butterflies and flowers. Or maybe slipping a saltshaker in your pocket and eating fresh ripe tomatoes.

There must be a connection to the Garden of Eden. I’m not sure how to make that link scientifically. I will meditate on it and let you know what I find. For now, I want to write the first in a series of columns about gardening.

I first learned about gardening from my grandfather who was big on the Victory Garden. My mother says, if it weren’t for her and her siblings, their garden would not have been victorious. Grandpa talked, and they worked. 

I do my own work in mine, and I want to pass on some tips about how to get started on your garden. Given the climate of the current public health emergency, I know many people have become interested in producing more of their own food.

There are many good books out there which go into much more detail. I recommend two today. 

John Jeavon’s How to grow More Vegetables on Less Land Than You Ever Thought Imaginable is my first love in garden books. 

Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower leans into market growing, but the methods can be scaled down to a backyard garden. 

I mention these resources because a column such as this will be incomplete. I plan to write two more in coming issues, however, and I will also take questions in one or two upcoming columns. Please email them to

First, let’s talk about soil.

You must improve it to have the best results. It won’t work just to leave out the chemicals and be organic. You must be proactive in how you prepare the soil and think of this in terms of giving more than you think you will receive. This is a good life lesson, too. 

I love soil science, but I will keep it simple here. 

Sand, silt and clay are the basis. Next comes biology, soil horizons and carbon. Some would call it the living soil. I differentiate that from simply a substrate to be manipulated with chemistry.

Achieving a living, fertile soil requires three things. One is biology. Soil biology is the soil food web, the microbes, bacteria and fungus and much more. All of these are contained in well-made compost, which is not easy to find. 

The second requirement is soil organic matter – carbon, humus, compost, etc. 

The third is biodiversity, which is also contained in well-made compost. The proper functioning of a garden is the intermingling or interconnectedness of all three. 

For a home garden, I really like the raised bed. It is well worth the effort and expense of making a raised bed. 

You can use wood, concrete blocks, stone, metal roofing and be creative. It can be a centerpiece of a landscape design or it can be functional using recycled materials.

I have built many versions over the years for customers, including 30 inches tall for a wheelchair bound senior. You can also find versions at garden shops or build one yourself.

They are neat and tidy for mowing and maintaining. They also help in the battle of the dread wire grass – crab grass – and other unprintable names.

I once carefully pulled a piece of that to see how long it was and where it travelled. I stopped 10 feet later. 

A raised bed also keeps you out of the flood plain. We get some pretty heavy rains around here. You can bury a piece of metal flashing or old vinyl siding on the inside of a bed down low enough to keep out the wire grass.

In a new raised bed I use a 50-50 mix of top soil and compost with some trace minerals thrown in for good health. Once it has been in place for a year or so, you can do a soil test. I don’t often do them, but I have a lot of experiential knowledge to draw upon.

You can also garden right in the ground, but you need to prepare that soil, too.

I recommend a minimum of one inch of compost with trace minerals. The depth of compost applied depends on the soil you are starting with. You can use much more than one inch, if need be. 

No harm or burning will occur with well-made compost. I sometimes use less compost and some non-synthetic fertilizer together with good results. And I can’t recommend highly enough using a charged or inoculated biochar product for long term benefits. I have to save a discussion of that till later, though I have written about the benefits of biochar here before.

The basics are to get organic matter, biology and trace minerals in there and dig them in, mix them in or – if necessary – till them in, and then you plant. The less soil disturbance the better, especially tilling, but you usually have to do this to get started. 

Also, become a composter yourself, if time and space allows. A worm bin is useful in a home setting. Getting the right size for your home is important. 

Become a gorilla leaf collector in your area, picking up bags of leaves in the fall and pile them up out of the bags for later use. Keep the soil covered with mulch or cover crops. 

It will slowly break down, if you keep your microbes alive, adding to your soil organic matter.

Promote the biology at all turns if you want a successful garden. You are now a microbe herder or gardener. Once you have added well-made compost, added minerals and kept the soil covered, you are well on the way. 

My next column will go deeper into some specifics and maybe answer questions. 

Happy gardening.

Wilson, a farmer and consultant, writes about sustainable farming and gardening for The Independent News. Reach him via

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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