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Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants

(healthy soil microbe mix recipe)

by Linda Anderson

Drawing by Bri Fischella


If you only eat junk food, you will not be healthy.  What we eat and the medicines we take affect the microbes in our gut that help us process our food and aid our immune system.  Imagine eating only vitamin pills for nutrients and treating all illness with broad spectrum antibiotics, regardless of whether they are effective in fighting the ailment.  This is what we do when we routinely use chemical fertilizers to feed our soils and plants, and we apply general pesticides to deal with infestations.

A healthy soil is alive with fungi, bacteria, and insects.  Just as poor choices affect our personal health, poor soil affects plant health. Plants without appropriate resources cannot fight off infection or pest invasions.   Plant pest infestations are a symptom of more fundamental problems.  Plants are known to have fungal networks that provide critical nutrients, allow them to communicate with each other, and even to signal danger.  Pesticides and herbicides have been shown to change the composition of this dynamic living system.

Thinking like a plant

Typical healthy soil is classified as roughly 25% air, 25% water, 40% mineral, 7.5% organic matter (both active and inactive), and 2.5% living organism including the microbiological community in the root zone.

Digging deeper, the mineral component can vary from fine clays to sandy soils to rock outcrop cracks, so it is important to know what your plant wants.  Clays hold moisture, sand provides rapid drainage.  Some plants don’t care, but if a plant does, it will not flourish if it is in the wrong mixture.  Consideration of soil mixture can be as important in having a vibrant plant as the amount of sunlight it requires or the temperatures that it will tolerate.

 Organic matter comes in different forms, some can dissolve in water (organic acids) and some cannot (the soil roughage or humus).  Land use strategies, whether it be development, overgrazing, or loss of topsoil, have left many of our soils very compacted and lacking in basic nutrients and organic matter. 

Optimal methods for dealing with degraded soils fall into two camps:

  • Digging and turning the soil with added compost or green manure cover crops. Turning the soil with added organic matter readily provides nutrients for the plants, but it also disturbs the soil residents (the important microbial community) and soil structure. This strategy does not remove as much carbon from the atmosphere

  • Non-till strategies which can involve green manure planting then mowing (covering planted areas with deep-rooted, nitrogen fixing plants THAT are either not invasive or are mowed prior to setting seed), some aeration, and topical spreading manure or compost.  Non-till strategies protect the soil structure so you do not remove the structural cracks or mix deeper and shallower soil horizons.  These benefits improve water infiltration and provide a natural environment for plant root development and beneficial bacteria, fungi, and insects.  The combined effect is removal of atmospheric carbon into the soil via root development, a potent strategy for climate mitigation and landscape-scale water retention.  A healthy soil with a healthy plant community rarely has runoff.

If the nutrients are locked up in forms not accessible to plants (and this is often the case), the bacteria and fungi in the soil are critical step to providing the plant’s basic nutrients. Microbes are an extension of the plant’s roots.  They are the bridge between the soil and the plant.  They help the plant absorb and hold major and minor nutrients, increase tolerance to stress and drought, and inhibit disease organisms in the soil. 

Degraded soils can be inoculated by making a compost tea.  You can easily make one specific to your area by fermenting locally gathered soil from a healthy habitat (redwood forest, chaparral, grassland).  A recipe from Mother Earth News is in the side-bar.  Wendy Johnson (Gardening at the Devil’s Gate) also has several recipes that combine manure, compost, local soils or worm castings with non-chlorinated water, steeping for a few days only, and then applying the filtered mixture to soil and plant leaves as a spray.


Make Your Own Soil Microbe Mix!


Molasses - unsulphered – (Our tests of every brand we could get our hands on found that Plantation Blackstrap brand produced the most active cultures) For bulk orders contact Organic Fertilizers Inc

  • Water - filtered or distilled

  • Dirt from undisturbed pasture, bottom land, prairie, Harvested every six inches from a 3 foot deep hole.


  • When soil temperature reaches 60 degrees or more, using post a hole digger make a hole 3 feet deep, taking a dirt sample every six inches.

  • Clean Gallon Jug with Hot Water and Soap, Rinse well.

  • Add 2 cups hot to the touch water.

  • Add 2-1/2 oz molasses - = 2-1/2 shot glasses - this yields an approximate 2% solution.

  • Fill the bottle ½ full with cool non chlorinated water.

  • Mix the soil samples, add 1 cup dirt to the bottle, shake, then fill bottle with water 2 inch below neck.

  • Wait until foaming stops - about 2 weeks at 90 F, or pH = 3.5 - 4.0 (pH test papers widely available)

  • Use a 1 microbe mix to 20 parts unchlorinated water as a foliar spray

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Bri Fischella Monster.png
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