Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
  • Other formats: Ebook

Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”

Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.

 Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.

The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.

This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.

Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).

Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!

The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.

Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.

As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.

Diane Miessler

The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.

Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).

Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add  some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!

There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.

Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.

Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.

After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation,  mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!)  A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.

If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.

Book Review, The Bio-integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek

Publisher: Chelsea Green. ISBN: 9781603585880

This book, by Shawn and Stephanie Jadrnicek, was hidden in my “to read” pile for too long! The title doesn’t make it clear enough that this is an authoritative text on all kinds of water management on the farm: integrating ponds, swales, ditches, water catchment, heat storage in water, irrigation, water for light reflection in winter, fish and shrimp-farming. Chickens and black soldier flies, compost-making and vegetable production in hoophouses and outdoors are all part of the bigger picture.

This book speaks from Shawn Jadrnicek’s experience at the Clemson University Student Organic Farm in South Carolina, and at his own homestead. The author tells us honestly when things he tried didn’t work out, and why. It is a permaculture book written for non-believers as well as the converted. It does not mystify with strange jargon. It does not make unsubstantiated claims about how things ought to be. Full disclosure: I suffer from having read too much permaculture writing that was obscure, convoluted, not backed with direct experience and written for people with a lot of time and only a small piece of land. This book is a breath of fresh air! The ideas have been tested on a farm scale, with a close eye on efficiency. It’s written for market farmers, homesteaders and serious gardeners, showing how to make best use of natural resources to help feed the world. Each technique has to have at least seven functions to qualify for inclusion in the author’s farming practices and the book.

You may not want to follow all of the author’s methods. I, for one, am not going to grow hydroponically. (I doubt that fully nutritious food can be grown without soil, with just the nutrients we know to feed in.) You may not want a hoophouse that is almost all pond. But you may be very happy to find a book that describes how to build a hoophouse on sloping land; very happy to learn how to grade your land to move rainwater away from where you don’t want it to sit, to where you do want it to improve growth of your pastures. You may be very happy to learn how to use a pond to grow minnows (tadpoles in the non-minnow season) to feed chickens. You may like the idea of filling your hoophouse with sweet potatoes or cowpeas in summer to act as a “smother crop,” dealing with weeds while keeping the soil alive. Perhaps you’d like to try freshwater prawn (large shrimp) farming? The regulations are easier than for fish-farming. Giant river prawns can weigh as much as a pound, they are easy to process and cook, and they sell at a good price.

Water management fills over half of the book, complemented by 30 pages on chickens, 33 on compost, 13 on fly farming, 28 on field layout and drainage, and 56 pages of case studies. Most of the vegetable production mentioned takes place in hoophouses (high tunnels). The book includes various ideas for heating the indoor crops, using hydronics (indirect heating with water in pipes warmed in outdoor ponds or compost piles), indoor ponds with solar pool covers, and compost piles leaning on the sidewall of the hoophouse. The information on rainwater harvesting includes checking your roofing material for toxicity (there is a special coating you can put on if necessary), how to avoid leaves clogging gutters (cleverly designed downspout filters), regulations about harvested rainwater, how to make gravity flow toilets and gravity drip irrigation systems that really work, and how to find the data and do the calculations. The level of detail in this book inspires confidence!

The chicken-farming system in this book uses a permanent coop and alley (mulched corridor) along with temporary pens made with electric netting. This makes better use of resources than free-ranging, unless you have only mature trees and grass. The birds get 30% of their dietary needs from the landscape, if rotated every 6-12 days onto perennial clover and grass pasture that has regrown to 4-8″ in height. This system ensures the chickens can always reach shade, and you can reseed bare spots in the resting pens with rye, wheat, millet, sunflowers and buckwheat, and reduce their feed costs by 30%. I liked the careful thinking and observation behind this scheme.

And then we come to the black soldier flies. The mesh flooring of the chicken pen lets the manure fall through into a fly digester below. The fly larvae digest the manure and grow, later becoming chicken food themselves. I wasn’t initially attracted to the idea of deliberately breeding flies, but the system has a lot going for it. Black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are not a pest. In fact they out-compete houseflies and thus reduce their numbers 95%! The adult soldier flies live only 5-15 days – they have no functioning mouthparts, and they don’t vector diseases. They are native in zone 7 and warmer, especially in the Southeast, so consult your Extension Service to find out if you’ll need to mail order them or just set out a nice digester once it’s warm enough. This sounds better than worm-bin farming! The flies tolerate a wider range of conditions and consume waste faster than earthworms. The large segmented larvae will “self-harvest” into buckets, if you have a well-designed digester. Two commercial models are available, the larger ProtaPod (4 ft diameter) and the smaller BioPod. They have internal ramps that the pre-pupae will climb, and a curled rim that prevents escape. The creatures launch themselves down a tube into a lidded bucket. All the details are in the book! Add fresh waste daily, and empty the bucket at least weekly (to prevent adult flies hatching out and setting up residence where you don’t want them).

The section on compost-making includes how to extract heat from your compost pile to warm your hoophouse, and how not to extract so much heat that the compost stops working. My beef with some other books about methods of heating greenhouses is that they fail to address the unintended side-effects, such as having very humid air go into your living space, or having little space left to grow plants because the greenhouse is full of heat-storing devices. Make good compost, and warm your hoophouse a bit.

The section on field application of these ideas is not about growing vegetables, but about field layout and drainage. It includes useful calculations on using drip irrigation. It also discusses keyline plowing, which had previously been just a bit of permaculture theory to me. Shawn says, “keyline pattern cultivating intrigued me for years, but I first had to implement the technique before becoming a convert.” There is no need to buy the special equipment some advocates suggest, if you have a box scraper with ripping tines. Keyline plowing (ripping 4″ deep in lines through pasture or grassways to direct water from a valley to a bit of a ridge) helps build soil and increase grass growth. Reading Shawn’s results, I now understand why others said it was a good idea.

I recommend this book to any small-scale farmers who are interested in learning efficient techniques to increase productivity while reducing use of resources.

Stephanie and Shawn Jadrnicek
Photo Chelsea Green

Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening by McCrate and Halm


Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening: Grow More of What You Want in the Space You Have by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm, Storey Publishing, December 2015

This book is intended for home gardeners who value efficiency and productivity. The authors, founders of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, explain techniques used by biointensive farmers and how to adapt these techniques for any size of garden. This professional help will assist gardeners to extend the season, increase yields, maintain healthy soils and deal with pests and other problems. This is not a beginner book telling you how to grow carrots (or any other crop). It will give you the information to choose the variety of carrot best suited to your goals, figure out how much land to put into carrots for the harvest you want, when to plant them, how to get maximum yields and how to have a continuous supply. It is not a book on marketing either. I want to set that out clearly, so no-one buys the book wanting something that it’s not. It’s a very good book if you want to “up your game” and get full potential from the land you have and the time you have available to spend working it.

This 7″ x 9″ spiral bound lay-flat book has 320 pages, including the index and resources section. The cover price is $18.95. It is illustrated with black and white drawings rather than photos, and has green spot color for headings and special sections. This gives an old-fashioned air to the book, until you come upon a drawing of a smart phone. There is nothing old-fashioned about the planning charts and spreadsheets.

After a poor start, on page 222 the gender ratio of the gardeners pictured starts to even up, and ends up close to the national average of 30% of farmers being female.

The book opens with three examples of high-yield gardens: A typical city lot of 5000 sq ft (including the space occupied by the house); a quarter-acre in the suburbs; and a rural one-acre plot. The authors discuss how to make a garden map and determine which factors influence how you use the site (shade for instance), and what your priorities are. They advocate for standard size raised beds in order to simplify planning and to reuse materials like row cover, netting or drip tape.

There are tables of crop spacing and scheduling for 60 annual vegetables and herbs, about 20 perennial vegetables and fruits and 20 perennial herbs. There is a worksheet to help you calculate how much of each crop to aim for, based on the average serving size, depending on your tastes, whether that’s non-stop arugula, tomatoes for canning or a large amount of carrots for a farmer wedding. Some of the charts can be downloaded from the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s website. There is a table of yields and one of planting dates, working from your own frost dates. There is a Planting Calendar Worksheet blank you can copy and use for each crop you plan to grow.

There are clear instructions on designing a crop rotation, including a chart of crop height, life span and fertility needs. They discuss practical limitations that might lead you towards either two rotations within your garden, or a separate rotation for the greenhouse. They urge you to keep good clear records. (Oh so important! Who has time to make the same mistake twice in farming?).

There is a Seed Order Worksheet, and a clear description of the word “hybrid” which has sometimes become a bad word among some gardeners who misunderstand the plant breeding work of the past century or so, and how it has brought us high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties, which are a boon to gardeners wanting high yields. Sure, you can’t save your own seed from hybrids and have it grow true, but who realistically grows all their own seed? So many crops cross with each other; sometimes seed-saving conflicts with getting food from that planting; seed-growing and selecting is a skilled job. Seed companies can do that work for us. I do grow a few seed crops, so I know what is involved. But I also grow many hybrids, and am grateful for them.

In a couple of places the drawing isn’t as good as a photo would be. The Jericho and Winter Density lettuces don’t look so different, and you couldn’t tell the size difference. The high tunnel (hoophouse) inflation blower tubing drawing on p 263 looks very strange to me, like maybe the artist has never seen a real one, and worked from a description.

There is a chart of seed longevity, a subject not always covered in gardening books. There is an excellent chapter on soil tests and interpreting them, which is very down-to-earth. (“We determined this to be about 75 and 50 pounds per 1000 sq ft.”) Nice and user-friendly, it won’t blind you with science. There is another good chapter on irrigation systems, a subject often ignored in backyard gardening books. “Because we strongly believe that hand watering a large, diversified garden site is an inefficient use of time and resources, we won’t even include it as a viable option for garden irrigation.” “Spending valuable hours trailing a hose through the garden is, at best, a poor use of your time.” Absolutely!

Setting up spaces to start seedlings and keeping them well-lit and watered is clearly explained. So is the subject of small greenhouses. The drawing includes the 1970’s craze of lining the back wall with black barrels of water, although the authors do point out that such devices can help, but will not be enough to warm the air to seed germination temperatures. In my opinion, the space given over to big barrels of water would be better given to more plants and the need for heat addressed in other ways!

There is a chapter on starting seedlings and planning for that on a large scale. It includes tips not found everywhere, such as when to sow rootstock and scion varieties for grafting tomatoes, starting cuttings, growing microgreens and hand pollinating. Planting depth is covered, including laying tall tomato plants in a small trench and planting brassicas up to the lowest leaves, rather than the same height as in the seed flat. There are recipes for mixing your own organic fertilizers, and which plants will respond most to extra nutrients. There are tables of organic management strategies for pests and diseases.

Compost-making is discussed, along with a table of Carbon:Nitrogen ratios of various compost ingredients. There is a table of cold-hardy salad crops and information about building low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels and basic types of small hoophouses for cold-weather growing. If you are planning a big hoophouse, I’d recommend getting more information than in this book. There is a chapter on harvesting, washing and storage.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is a book full of valuable gardening charts. If you are a grower who doesn’t want to work with spreadsheets, you can easily print off the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s worksheets and use those. Or take the spreadsheets and run. Either way, this is a valuable book for serious backyard growers.

March Events

I have two events in March, where I am making presentations. The first is an online conference (no travel costs!)


CSA Expert Exchange:
An Online Conference
Presented in partnership with Small Farm Central
March 6 – Want to Start a CSA?
Beginning Farmers Session
7:00pm-9:30pm EST
March 7 – CSA Expert Exchange Main Event
11:00am-3:30pm EST

Register for one or both days. Sessions will be recorded.
I am speaking on Crop Planning on Friday at 1.40pm.
Then on Sunday March 16, is the rescheduled day at Lynchburg College (postponed from February 15 because of all the snow). I am speaking on Feeding the Soil.
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations. Photo Betsy Trice