Building Garden Soil with Free, Local, and Abundant Resources

One of the keys to continually improving soil fertility is to always give more to the soil than we take. With each harvest, we remove nutrients from the soil, and it’s important to give them back in order to ensure the success of the next crop. A great place to start is with the plant waste generated on site. We return all healthy plant waste back to the soil in the form of compost, vermicompost, or mulch. Thousands of earthworms help in this process, chewing through the mulch, working their way through compost piles after they’ve cooled down, and happily consuming food scraps in our worm bins. But even if when we return all healthy plant waste, the soil is still at a deficit. The nutrients in discarded, diseased plants are lost, as are the nutrients in the crops that we eat. In an ideal world, I suppose, all humanure would be safely composted and returned to the soil, but even then the soil would be at a slightly greater nutrient deficit with each harvest. To compensate for this deficit, we look to external inputs. And there are so many to choose from that it can boggle the mind. For organic gardeners, there are npk fertilizers, bat guano, alfalfa meal, fish fertilizers, kelp fertilizers, blood and bone meal, composted manure, Epsom salt, rock dust, greensand, and lime just to name a few. Looking at all the available options, one might come to the conclusion that growing your own fruit and veg costs an arm and a leg. Many years ago, when faced with this confusing array of products, I asked myself “what would happen if we didn’t use any of them, and instead relied only on resources that are free, local, and abundant? Might we be able to reduce our gardening expenses dramatically, continue to get great results, and also keep valuable resources out of landfills?” With these questions in mind, I started to consider what free external inputs were available. We were already composting all fruit and vegetable waste from store-bought groceries, but what else could we do? I remembered that my father always piled leaves on our garden in the fall, so we started collecting leaves from around the neighborhood and added them to our garden beds and compost piles. Around here, people pay to have their leaves hauled away, so it’s pretty easy to convince people to give them to you. Leaves not only provide nutrients and improve soil structure and water retention; they’re the very definition of free, local, and abundant. The next free resource we started using was used coffee grounds from a shop that’s only minutes away. I’ve estimated that with coffee grounds alone, we add 25.6 pounds of nitrogen and 3.84 pounds of both phosphorus and potassium to the garden each year. You’d have to buy 256 pounds of a 10-10-10 fertilizer to get that much nitrogen, and 38.4 pounds to get that much phosphorus and potassium. Again, at least around here, used coffee grounds are free, local, and abundant. Next, we discovered that our city has a municipal wood chip pile. At first we only used the wood chips to cover the walking paths. Later, I realized that if I dug deep enough into the pile, the wood chips were already fairly well decomposed and made a great addition to garden beds as well as compost piles. The wood chip pile was also full of red wigglers, which I collected along with the wood chips. Last year we expanded our search even further and found free, local, and abunda nt sources for spent brewery grains, and horse manure. These new materials further diversified the nutrients in our compost and enabled us to make enough compost to fill a number of new raised beds this spring. So, let’s get back to the question I posed earlier: “what would happen if we didn’t use any of the store-bought fertilizers and amendments, and instead relied only on resources that are free, local, and abundant?” Well, it turns out that our garden soil has only gotten better over time as have our yields. I’m convinced that, with the exception of a soil acidifier for our blueberries, no store-bought fertilizers or amendments are needed and that we’re giving more back to the soil than we’re taking. I’m further convinced of this by the results of our rock dust and biochar field trials so far. To learn more about the benefits of some of the free, local, and abundant resources we use in our garden, please see the links at the end of the video and in the description below. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for watching, and until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time.

99 thoughts on “Building Garden Soil with Free, Local, and Abundant Resources

  1. Excellent episode and you are diverting waste from the land fill as well!!!

    Fantastic Episode my friend!

  2. Great clip Patrick..
    We still buy some in here & think we will have to for quite a while.. On the upside though we are helping out some enterprising locals with some extra cash for the manure they collect.. Also got a few more bags of biochar from Bazz the biochar man & some EM to play with as well but that will be it besides the manure for a while now 😉 

  3. I wish I had a source for free wood chips.  I'm nagging my city to provide free compost.  I should nag them about free wood chips too.

  4. Great job as always! I also do more and more chop n' drop or weed n' drop, might have just invented the term LOL But it makes so much sens to give back to the soil, what ever that specific plant mined, dragged right back where it's needed. Mother Nature is no fool, she as done it for…well to long for me to remember 😉 But she puts pioneer plants first and I'm always looking at my garden and asking myself why…She's much wiser than me so I try to listen to her, accept feedback, not always easy!

  5. Interesting thought…. Have you tried growing berries with your high humus content soil and without a soil acidifier?
    Rodale Press in one or more of their books I believe has stated that high humus content acts as a buffer for so called imbalanced PH in the soil. You may try doing without soil acidifier, that would be interesting.

  6. I can't agree more. I "steal" 60+ bags of leaves to spread on my garden in the fall, and to add to my compost pile throughout the year. A great free source of fertilizer!

  7. Great video as always Patrick! Wish I had a wood chip source, not enough trees to go around in the desert! lol

  8. As you know Patrick I manure my beds every year but I also use a general fertiliser called grow more that was created by the British government after WWII to help "grow more" vegetables ! It's an NPK of 7-7-7 !

  9. I wonder, do the coffee grounds have to be composted before they can be used in the garden? It's amazing how much free goodness you get. I wonder if it's common or not. I mean I know it's awesome but do people generally give the stuff away?  Janice

  10. Your vids are such and inspiration! Over the past two weeks I have started three compost piles and am actively turning them every 4-6 days. I have discovers that I can cram over 20 lawn refuse bags into my Jeep Grand Cherokee, and estimate in just the past two weeks I have saved over 100 bags of refuse from going to the landfill. GROW IT UP!

  11. Dang you have some healthy huge worms!(-: Great tips Patrick…I never thought about digging deep into the wood chips pile to get more decomposed material! Be careful with the horse manure. Make sure you know that they aren't eating herbicide laced grass…I made that mistake once and nothing grew for three years where I put the manure, plus it killed about 10 of my fig trees. Great video. Thanks for sharing!!!!!

  12. great reminders.  I started getting coffee grounds last winter from the corner gas station.  And this summer we found were the town puts the leaves and wood chips they pick up though out the year and they are free for us to go and pick up.  We used the chips in the path ways and once the plants grew we used it to mulch with.  This fall, I have been removing the chips from the beds as the plants die and I've been feeding the worms with food scraps, in the beds.  Then when the leaves fall we plan on mulching them with the weed eater and we will cover the beds with the mulched leaves for the winter.  Coffee grounds are great for fruit plants too.  In the spring and again this fall I put a nice layer of the coffee grounds around the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, blackberries and the paw paw trees.  How are your paw paw trees doing?  

  13. In my heart I know this video is right on the money.  In theory, it is easy to grow great veg, first spend a fortune to buy create and maintain perfect soil, then buy the very best seed, apply all the fertilisers and wait, but by then it is easier and cheaper to go to the organic veg store or farm shop.  Your videos remind me I need to get smarter and more resourceful about growing and that is a really good thing for me to learn early, so I really appreciate your help and advice.

  14. Thanks so much for these great videos. I learn loads from them, but mostly, they really inspire me to live more harmoniously with our planet. Incidentally, I have found a source of free coffee grounds from a local shop, not 2 mins walk from me!

  15. Great thoughts Patrick. Whats the name of those stunning red leafed trees you show in the last few frames of the video please… Such a rich red colour…. Beautiful. Have a great weekend mate. David. 😄

  16. So as a result of your field trials of rock dust and bio-char, would you say that we do or don't need to be using rock dust because it hasn't led to a higher bricks level, and thus is a waste of money?

  17. Top clip mate.  Now I have the chickens, I am hoping I won't need to keep buying local horse poo.  I wish I had a lot more room to compost though.  I keep having to buy bags of soil to mix with the compost to fill beds.  It's very annoying. 

  18. After 4 growing seasons, I am still trying to convert my previously, conventionally gardened soil, to healthy organic soil.  I add mulched leaves, pine straw, decomposed wood chips, composted manure, and composted food scraps from my tumbler.  The people who had a garden in the same spot before I moved here used very conventional methods of gardening such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It takes a long time to get soil healthy but I can finally say, this year, the 4th  growing season, my soil looks really good! Too bad I rent this home after all these years of work.

  19. HELP!  I can't seem to get my compost pile to heat up.  I have a converted trash can compost bin with holes drilled in the sides, bottom and top.  I have tried multiple times with varying mixes of brown and green ingredients with no success.  I have also tried various watering and turning of the pile with no results.  I even added diluted molasses to the middle of the pile in an effort to get the pile kick started.  Nothing.  Can anybody offer advice on getting a trash can compost bin to heat up??  I was hoping to not have to inoculate the pile purchased items like bone meal etc and comments across the internet seem to indicate that it is quite simple to achieve without it, HELP!

  20. On watching this video again Patrick I noticed the part where you mention having to buy a soil acidifier for your Blueberries. I use Pine tree needles and place them around my Blueberries. They are an amazing source of the acid that the soil needs to grow a fantastic crop. I believe that many soil acidifiers are actually made from pine needles. I have Pine woodlands near me so I just go along and collect a small bag full of them. If you have any access to any pine needles then that might mean you not having to buy any acidifier

  21. Do you have pine needles in your area? That's what I'd try for the blueberry bushes, some old timers around here use them to mulch around rose bushes to acidify the soil. 

  22. This might be interesting to you and others. I spread wood ash in small piles in the garden during the winter. the soil is hard clay (I recently acquired it and i am restoring its health). In the spring, Wherever there were clumps of ash on the surface the soil was like quicksand underneath. watch the video.

  23. To me, making compost is just as enjoyable as gardening.  In fact, the compost pile gives me something to do in the off season (collect leaves, shovel manure, turn the pile, etc.).    My wife thinks I'm crazy, so I must be doing something right 🙂

  24. Hi from India……try these on internet…….subash palekar, zero budget natural farming…….cow based agriculture farming…….

  25. Biochar is something that I have started using. We have stables near us but I do worry that they worm the horses and I don't know if the chemicals in the manure will kill my worms.

  26. You shouldn't need to purchase a soil acidifier.  As long as you don't disturb the soil where the blueberries are going to be, mulch with wood chips and possibly inoculate the area with fungi, the pH should drop on it's own.

  27. Have you experimented with urine in your garden? That's a real question. I figure that I'm flushing all sorts of nitrogen and other plant foods for no good reason. And it doesn't get much cheaper than urine.

  28. Hi, Kahna here–you suggested gathering leaves from the neighbors but our trees have a fungus, and I couldn't give my away so make sure the trees and leaves are healthy.

  29. i live by the woods. I'm sure the soil has not been touched in years and the leaves fall every fall. would that be good soil for starting a vegetable garden? I'm growing spinach

  30. Morning Patrick, I'm going to a lunch club at a local church later today for the first time and I'm hoping there will be some posh, older women there for me to chat with and that they will save me the scraps from their food preparation and waste from uneaten food for the compost heap. I got another big bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks last night and found that there are two breweries (one medium sized and a micro brewery) near here. I need to approach the juice bars in the mall when I feel more confident and assertive as, mall retailers are busy people and will easily feel able to refuse my request if I don't have that stoney faced, confident, menacing look about me. I need to improve my spiritual connections with others ,and find more of them, which will help me to spend more time in the garden too.

  31. My friend!,I believe you have the worlds craziest, stubburn worms…they are like the body builders of the worm family…..ive never seen them so frisky.

  32. I love your channel dude, I am following you from Barcelona, Catalonia and I want to say thank you so much for all information you share!
    I would appreciate a lot that some day you make a special video to explain the carbon:nitrogen ratio for composting and sources of each, I am really confused with this issue. I don't know where to get carbon to my compost pile beside paper and leaves, and I know it has to be 30 times bigger in quantity than nitrogen.
    Again, thank you so much!

  33. Would it be a good idea to grow a WHOLE bunch of sprouts/microgreens and cut them for the compost piles? I see can it being beneficial as some grass and weeds may still have seeds whereas sprouts wouldn't. They would still be considered a "green" Nitrogen source, correct? Also they grow quick, and on a bigger scale would make for some good compost material! would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  34. This comment only applies to a very specific subset of people, if you don't belong, please ignore. The people I have in mind are those who, like me, mostly live in their heads, aren't very practical, and thought that gardening/permaculture is going to be something for them, cause it's so natural and simple and everything seems affordable, and you're finally going to get something done. Do you have a car? A bicycle  trailer at least? No? YOU ARE GOING TO NEED ONE! My apologies for butting in with my personal frustrations to all for whom this was obvious.

  35. Do you have any concerns with decaffeinated coffee? Some methods of removing the caffeine use solvents like methylene chloride which is something I'd like to avoid adding to my garden. The closest coffee shop near me is a Dunkin Donuts but I don't know how they process their decaf, nor would I expect the employees to neither….

  36. America is rich. They waste a lot in to landfill plus they pay transport it to landfill. In other poor countries everything is sold. Manure, beer waste, newsprint has some resale value. Thanks for using waste for useful purpose.

  37. One thing I've been using lately is aged goat manure, and that stuff, providing you don't use the stuff that feels like sticky mud, does fairly well. That being said, I'm going to have to expand my soil material to include horse/cow manure mixed with other store-bought potting soil, at some point in the future.

  38. Hi One Yard Revolution,
    One place I got free mulch is from a tree trimming service company. A lot of these companies need to get rid of the large amount of wood chips they produce and would be more than happy to dump it on your drive way. Best time to ask is when the trees they are trimming have green leaves on them.
    I got 10 cubic yards last Saturday. This will be my first garden at my new home.
    The only danger here is that they may have trimmed a diseased tree, so composting it is important before spreading around the garden.

    Also, please use your legs and not your back when shoveling and moving compost/mulch. Keep your back straight and vertical, and thank you for the videos!

  39. If one follows the way of nature for gardening, it's compost, compost and more compost. But you are feeding the soil. To use compost made all of one thing is like having a diet of only one ingredient for your body.

    Just as your body needs a variety of foods to be healthy, your soil needs organic inputs from a variety of sources. To accomplish this, your compost should be made with as many different materials as you can.

  40. Thank you for your videos, Patrick. I've gardened a long time, gathering materials to use as mulch and compost. Recently I've been made aware of what has come to be called 'killer compost'. It has nothing to do with applying too much but rather it contains herbicides that are VERY long lasting. Currently these are most commonly found in straw and horse manure but may also be in grass clippings – things I've gathered for years to compost. People need to be aware as such substances have ruined garden veggies. It is hard to know what is safe to gather anymore.

  41. Hey Patrick, where did you get your free horse manure? have any suggestions? and how do you hall it away? what car do y have? thanks

  42. I find it odd people throw out yard clean up like grass or leaves or plants or roots ? chop it up and back into the mix  lol

  43. I was told that Penguin poops is best,loaded with minerals rich seafoods,Bats,pigeons,Rabbits and zoos poops are good addictive,in the jungles animal poops and urine litters the floors and occasionally dead animals,once I was told that in the plains of Northern China,the flowers bloom vigorously after wars had taken place because of blood and bones.

  44. Basically what I do already although coffee grounds are hard to come by where I am 🙂
    I brew my own beer so spent barley is very easy to find.
    I collect leaves for added browns for my compost and to add minerals to the garden.
    Nice video.

  45. Thanks for this great video! I am planning to start growing my own food this spring/now, as a beginner. But I live in Europe and I have a tiny backyard lawn and it is shady; few rays of light on sunny days but no direct sunlight on this spot, yet it’s not completely dark or covered by trees etc. Could anyone with gardening knowledge and experience, please advise 1) what vegetables can grow here successfully? 2) If I can literally just use this method of placing only 2 items, coffee/compost and cardboard, no additional manure, grass, wood, leaves, top soil etc which other videos suggest? Thanks in advance for a quick and comprehensive response and any useful information and tips!

  46. Love it. I know all this stuff but I like watching your videos. I'm doing raised beds this year and sheet mulching and I'm excited, especially after watching your video. Thanks.

  47. i was informed that leaves are acidic. Is this accurate from your perspective and is there a drawback to making the soil more acidic?

  48. Patrick, Great idea about getting free compost and mulching material locally. Weve loaded up 18 garbage bags of sawdust from our next door neighbor when he had a huge tree taken down and cut up in small pieces to be carted away. Well also be getting our neighbors grass clipping this year as well to use as mulch. Mulching reduces the need for watering, adds nutrients to the soil, keeps the soil temperature down during hot weather, etc…

  49. For the coffee grounds doesnt it have to. E organic? Because its heavily sprayed.sprayedperhaps other fruit and vegetables have to be organic.

  50. Also I have no land I live In a. Apartment complex it would take a year and half I think for bananas too compost how would I compost throughout the year in NJ?

  51. Horse manure from stables in the uk is free ring around they have to pay to get rid of it but be careful and ask if they have sprayed herbicides as it will contaminate your compost for years

  52. So my understanding is that the nutrients are always in abundance, what is not in abundance is the ecosystem required in the rhizosphere in order to actually handle the exchange of nutrient with the plants roots themselves.

  53. Thanks for all the great ideas. This is my first time working in a community garden, and we are making our own compost, and always on the lookout for free readily available ingredients to add to it. One word of warning concerning the wood chip piles. I got sick digging deeply into ours and breathing the 'smoke' which turns out to be a dangerous mix of spores and bacteria that can lodge in the lungs and cause serious damage. Check out 'Farmers Lung' for a more exact explanation. We're all wearing masks now when we turn the compost or move the mulch from one place to another.

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