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How to Go From Worm-Less Clay to a Microbe-Rich Rainforest

by Erik
(Colorado, US)

I am a newbie gardener that just moved to Colorado only to discover that what they call “soil” out here is actually worm-less clay. I will be starting from scratch in 4’x8′ raised beds in the Spring. Any suggestions on how to create the right all purpose (veg/flower) soil mix?

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Eric my dear friend,

I would be honored to help you build up your garden soils. Before you completely write off your soil as being dead and unproductive, please know this…Clay can be one of the most beneficial substances we can have in our garden soils. I’ve seen many gardeners import the stuff, it’s THAT important.


It all has to do with a term known as Cation Exchange Capacity. Using your clay as an example, cation exchange capacity (CEC) describes the ability of each clay particle to hold and release cations – positively-charged particles. For instance, calcium (Ca++) and magnesium (Mg++) are considered cations. The higher the CEC of your clay the better able your soil can retain nutrients. So don’t write off your clay just yet. Depending on the type of clay in your garden, it may prove to be one of your biggest gardening assets.

If I were in your shoes, I would take the following steps:

1. Take a soil sample and send it to one of our favorite soil labs – International Ag Labs. Another lab that we’ve been following and recommend is Logan Labs, located in Ohio. These labs focus on growing nutrient-dense food and tend to offer recommendations in line with achieving that outcome.

 2. Locate a compost supplier near you. Order enough compost to apply a at 4-5″ layer to each bed (that’s roughly half a cubic yard per 4’x8′ bed). I would also order the same amount of screened top soil. Mix the compost and top soil together and apply to your gardens (a total of 8-10″ compost/topsoil mixture). I do not recommend tilling your compost/topsoil into your existing soils, instead, build up your microbial populations and they’ll till for you.

3. This step is optional but very useful. Purchase one pound of European Nightcrawlers per bed and add them accordingly. Once you start re-establishing the microbes in your garden, worms will naturally show up. However, buying worms right off the bat will increase your soil fertility that much faster.

4. When you receive the results and recommendations of your soil test, add the recommended amendments. You’ll want to add these to your garden a couple weeks prior to planting/seeding.

5. Apply compost tea on a weekly basis to encourage your microbial populations and feed your worms.

6. Plan to mulch your beds after your seedlings are established and growing. Contact a local farmer and ask if they’ll sell you a few bales of hay. I prefer hay over straw, although straw also works well. Either way, don’t leave your soil exposed!


8. Re-test your soils in the Fall and apply recommended amendments prior to Winter.

This is an idealized plan, however, it will really get your soils bursting with life and fertility. Please let us know how things go for you…pictures of before and after are always welcome.

Compost Junkie Dave

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Feb 03, 2012
Square Foot Gardening
by: Brian


before you establish your above ground gardens, please look into square foot gardening if you haven’t already.

As well, still take Dave’s advice regarding the use of compost and screened topsoil for your bad soil. One day you might find a need to plant something in the ground like a citrus tree…or another food tree.

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