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Guess Why These Plants Are Bigger

See My Soil Fertility Experiment

I grew these plants out for a fun demonstration.  Take a look at the photo below.  There are two cucumber plants, and two tomato plants.   All were started from seed at the same time, given the same amount of sunlight, and all were watered the same.  But clearly, some of the plants did better than the others.

Mmm, mmm, good.  Isn’t summertime just wonderful with the fresh, delicious tomato and cucumber salads?

Want to take a guess as to why the plants on the left are bigger, healthier, and stronger than the plants on the right?

No, it is not the color of the pot…  LOL!

green-thumbe-example-500-x-248

Cucumber and tomato starts

It’s All About Soil Fertility

OK, ready for the answer?

In the darker colored pots I used a very rich, fertile soil that included fresh worm castings.  And in the lighter colored pots I used mostly sand – like beach sand, with only a little compost.

Actually, I tried this experiment first with only plain sand.  The seeds barely sprouted and then quickly died… So I had to start over and add a bit of compost in with the sand to get them to grow at all.

Read more: How to Fertilize Your Container Gardens

Don’t Underestimate Soil Fertility

The big lesson from this?  Yes, I’ve said it before, fertility is sooo important!  And the really good news?  When you grow in fertile soil, not only are your plants easier to grow and care for – but you get more nutrients when you eat those cucumbers or tomatoes.

I did a similar experiment using bean plants.  Can you guess what happened that time?  Stay tuned and I’ll share the story with you soon.  Or drop a comment down below if you want to take a guess…

Read more: How Much Nutrient is in Your Homemade Fertilizer?

My Favorite Potting Soil Amendment

If you haven’t already discovered this, let me share a secret with you… Worm compost rocks!  I’ve been evaluating different worm composting systems for a while now, and there are several good options out there for people with big acreage all the way down to people living in small apartments. Drop me a line if there’s a composting system you love that you think I should check out.

For the DIY crowd, check out the 5 gallon bucket worm bin that Brian sent in to the writing contest last year. You can find that entry here: Turn Your Trash into Black Gold with this Amazingly Simple Vermicompost System.

And also be sure to check out this video I did with Peter-Paul, who actually got an iPhone in return for his worm juice. Watch the video here: Simple and Effective Worm Composting. (And if you have any questions about leachate versus compost tea, you can get a good overview here: Leachate, Worm Tea, and Aerobic Compost Tea – A Clarification.)

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COMMENTS(39)

  • Molly says:

    i was listening to Coast to Coast the other night when you were on and I tried to download the 3 articles you had said would be there but your website had crashed and I could never get them.
    I don’t even recall wht they were now but i know you don’t send out worthless stuff, so if you would be so kind as to send them to me or let me know the site i can download them from?
    thanks

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Hi Molly,

      Yeah that was an experience. After doing the show – and exhausted as I am not normally up from 1 – 4 am … LOL. then I find that HostGator shut my site down for a reason they couldn’t explain. We eventually got it fixed. Who knows how much traffic was blocked. I was completely wiped by the end of it all way after the sun rose.

      Anyway the page you are looking for is at http://www.growyourowngroceries.com/coast

  • Glenn says:

    I really like my worm bin, system, I just use three totes I bought at Wal-Mart. Works great and is cheaper then the fancy ones. The one thing I really found to help the worms do great is having bedding, paper works, but i prefer dry leaves because they are all natural.

  • tee ryan says:

    i use my rabbit droppings to raise worms in. it,s very easy and i,m sure you have good access to folks who have rabbits if you don,t have any yourself. when i lived in far west texas a few years back my wife and i grew tomatoes and peppers and an assortment of other great garden veggies in that sandy soil. i was amazed at how well stuff grew there. when ever we go there to visit i go to the sand dunes and bring back several hundred pounds of sand for my garden and yard and to share with a few friends.

  • Jeff says:

    What a coincidence. I did a very similar side-by-side test this summer as well. Identical plants, identical planters, identical SOIL, identical sun, identical amounts of water — BUT, half of the plants (flowers, tomatoes, squash, beans, strawberries) were given plain water and half were given WORM TEA water (cut 10:1).

    This was my first summer with WORM TEA * * * WHAT A DIFFERENCE * * *

    Sorry, I have no comparison photos … you’ll have to take my word for it. I grow a couple thousand worms in my garage in a stack of (4) 20″x16″ storage tubs. The bottom tub collects the worm tea; each of the upper three tubs contain 30-40 days of compost (raw kitchen scraps, corrugated cardboard, and shredded junk mail). As my worm farm progresses (this is my first year), I’m having to borrow expired vegetables and cardboard boxes from grocery store dumpsters, and coffee grounds from local cafes. Sadly, there is no shortage of junk mail.

    Next Spring I’ll have BOTH the soil (WORM CASTINGS) and WORM TEA. I can’t wait to see the difference THAT makes.

    Presently, my estimate is that a single stack of medium sized tubs ( four 20×16) would fertilize at least 100 sf. I plan on starting a second worm-stack this winter in my garage (MN), so I can expand my garden another 100 sf next spring. Sadly, I don’t generate enough food scraps to satisfy these hungry buggers; but local businesses are constantly throwing away more than what I need.

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Jeff, I absolutely love your specific and useful post. Please do keep us informed on your experiments. This is what we need more of in community.

      Thanks again.

  • Jeff says:

    In the previous post, the worms were Red-Wigglers – veracious little buggers that will devour almost anything. And this works well with a “Kitchen Scraps in my Garage” solution. BUT –

    When I was a boy, my brothers and I raised rabbits; sufficient to feed our family of 11. After Mom’s freezer was full, my brother and I could sell the surplus rabbits for personal profit. (Thanks for so many “Life-Lessons” Mom & Dad.)

    BUT we also discovered that earthworms LOVE rabbit poop. Rabbit poop – by itself – is a WONDERFUL fertilizer. But it’s even better (safer) after it’s been broken down by worms. Plus – we produced MORE worms than the local bait shop could sell. (More profits for 3 enterprising teens.)

    If you’re like me and generate very little kitchen scraps, you might consider multiprocessing your Rabbit manure. At some point, you’ll have more Worm Tea and Worm Casting and Cell Phones than you can use. But these worms are amazingly rich in protein. Even if you’re not keen on eating this particular food source — most farm-raised fish would MUCH prefer worms to the aquaponic standard of corn and/or soy.

    If “we are what we eat”, would you rather eat fish raised on a diet of nutrient-void corn or nutrient-rich worms ? ? ?

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      I know of several commercial rabbitries that make most of their money from worm compost and not the rabbits.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Denise says:

    A friend gave me a Worm Factory but I haven’t bought any worms for it yet. I’d be interested in your experience with this one! Haven’t yet decided where to keep it. Thanks!

  • Lanny Reeves says:

    unclejimswormfarm.com

    I have his worm farm factory 360 inside composter. You would be amazed how well it works, easy to set up, absolutely no odor and great compost and “tea”.

    Lanny

  • Leslie Parsons says:

    This may seem like a lesson in fertility, but there are other factors at work. Something strange happens to what we call “soil” when we place it into a container. Most gardeners are unaware of this, but all good potting soil is all or mostly “organic material”, often with a manufactured lightweight product like vermiculite, to lighten the mix even further. In other words, there is no earth or rock dust or sand, such as would be found in the ground. When soil from the ground goes into a container it becomes a compacted and unfriendly environment for plants.

    So, another reason you got better results is the large proportion of non-soil, organic material. Nutrients are very important, but the seedlings, in the dark pots, could be much more vigorous. My baby food of choice would be liquid, such as worm tea, or fish emulsion, or “farmer’s” compost tea, while the seedlings are still in their starter pots. My favorite potting soil mixes include worm castings, and I like pine bark for lightening, because vermiculite would not be something we could make at home.

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Thank you Leslie, I really apprecaite your insights. Yes, the ‘sand’ was much heavier.
      I too avoid vermiculite ads it isn’t anywhere near local. But worm casting, that I can do. Actually almost everything grows better in worm castings.

  • Ann Rogers says:

    I got a “worm hotel”. That’s what it’s called. It’s small, clean, compact, and best of all it’s easy to collect the worm castings. They just are pulled out from the bottom of the hotel. I think it’s the best for small worm farms.

  • Kelley says:

    You said it Marjory! I live not too far from Lake Michigan – the soil is awfully sandy here. I didn’t stumble upon your worm composting video until late, and my garden was pretty sad. As soon as we put your advice in to action had some ‘juice’ to use, the difference in the garden was immediate and astonishing! Thank you for all your help! 🙂

  • Kelly Byrne says:

    Marjory,

    I loved the worm compost article. I am going to add one to my other composting. Can you tell me how often I should fertilize my garden if I am using manure tea. I have a constant supply of horse and cow manure and use it exclusively, except for the ground up eggshells I sprinkle around the base of my plants.

    Thanks,
    Kelly

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Hi Kelly,

      Hmm, how often to fertilize? An old organic farmer once told me, fertilize all the time – don’t wait for the plants to look stressed, keep them fully nurtured, even when you don’t think it is necessary. Most of the garden veggies we like to eat do require a very rich ‘diet’ – they’ve been specially bred in companionship with us and depend on us to care for them in order to produce.

  • Laurene George says:

    Hi, I already purchased the Grow Your Own Groceries DVDs and would like to know how I can get the 10 Free books that are offered when a order is placed today? My income is very small. I have a veggie garden in my back yard and I love it and fell in love with the idea of farming.

    I also have an abundance of grapes this year and I am thinking of leaving them on the vine to dry into raisins. Is there a better way to do this. I can’t afford to run my oven for hours just to make raisins.

    Thank you, Laurene

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Laurene,

      The bonus books came on the third disc with your set – it is a CD with a whole library full of resources, much more than the 10 we advertised.

      One of those resources is an article on how to make a very simple food dryer out of a cardboard box and some aluminum foil. Use that to dry the grapes.

  • Jean says:

    I used to know a couple who lived at the Oregon beach and had a whole garden planted in sand. Their secret: everyday they would gather seaweed and surround their plants with it. Their cabbages were bigger than my head! (I’m sure they rinsed all the salt water off of the seaweed before it went to the garden.)

    1. Sandy says:

      Not necessary to rinse the seawater residue off. It has some sodium in it but it also has trace minerals that you soil will benefit from. The no-rinse advice came from my master composting instructor on Maui, where there was a lot of seaweed composting going on. There won’t be enough salt to do harm to your soil after decades of using seaweed.

  • Donna Fischer says:

    Don’t forget about using your urine to give your plants nitrogen!! They love it!

  • I did a similar experiment this summer with my aquaponics setup (using expanded clay) and pots of very fertile soil watered daily with water from the same fish tank (100’s of gallons) I use for my aquaponics. The soiless plants in the expanded clay with fertile fishwater flushing through several times each hour grew over 3x as fast and tall as my potted plants watered daily using the same water. Quite the opposite of what I was expecting…fun experiment.

  • Debbie says:

    I was peeling the last of my fresh peaches this morning and thought I’d share some tips from my peach producers wife. He is a third generation peach farmer and she, well while married into it remembers how thrifty her grandmother was. She shares this info with all her customers at the farmers market so I feel it will be ok to share it with you. NO waste peaches. First was the peaches well, peel in a clean bowl you will use them later. Remove the pit and save it also. Slice or chop peaches according to desired use. Cover the peach pits with water and sit in refirgerator overnight the juice will be used to make jelly the next day. The peels are then chopped fine (process in food processor) and use as you would the peaches for jam. She didn’t share this next bit but I found a recipe for peach ‘bread’ in which they cracked open the pit and removed the seed and toasted it like almonds and chopped them and used for a topping. The pits are then throwed to the hogs, they love them! I tried this and without using any peach flesh the jam turned out great! I got 14 half pints of jam from the peels. 3 half pints jelly from the pits. This was from a peck of peaches.

    1. Isis says:

      You may want to avoid using the Peach pits that way since they contain signifigant amounts of cyanide poison.

  • Robert says:

    google fungi.com a place called fungi perceti [ mushrooms lol ] have a great soil innoculant for the best healthy soil blends , very amazing

    1. Sandy says:

      fungi.com will lead you to Paul Stamets, a brilliant, world renowned fungi expert who funds his research via a company called FungiPerfecti. We had a lot of fun growing shiitake mushrooms from this company. I recommend whatever he offers!

  • Randy says:

    Thanks Debbie for the info on use of peaches. Shared with a co-worker who grows peaches and she was amazed.

  • Tom of WA says:

    I live in the Pacific NW and use a wooden worm bin about 2′ W, 4’L, and 2’H with 1/2″ holes around the top. For bedding I’ve been using leaves and coconut coir. I don’t have a lot of food scraps, but enough to keep them going. (If you don’t have enough scraps, it’s because you’re not eating your vegetables!!) 🙂 I alternate as follows: I’ll throw scraps only into the left half of the bin, cover w/ coir, let it build up, then throw scraps only to the right side, wait for the worms to migrate over, then I dig out the left side. I keep it outside, and during the winter it’s full of bedding material, which provides enough insulation I hope, although I worry about them on really cold mornings. I don’t gather “tea” from the bottom (maybe I should). Usually I just through the compost around the garden. From reading the helpful and interesting comments here, I might try putting a few good handfuls of the compost into water, stir, and then pour into the garden. Would this work better to feed the veggie plants?

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Hi Tom,

      Oh that water would be great to feed your veggie plants.

      BTW, here is a video on just pretty much what you are talking about. And, funny enough, I happened to shoot this while spending time in the PNW.

      http://www.growyourowngroceries.org/simple-and-effective-worm-composting-with-marjory-wildcraft/

  • Dolores says:

    I have heard from a couple of people that worms do not like onions and that they – or their peelings – should not be put into a worm bed. I have never heard that on any of the internet sites that I have looked into on worms though so am pretty doubtful that it is true. Can you clarify it for me? I use a lot of onions and would hate to offend the worms – or have separate composting areas that are with or without onions.

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Hi Dolores,

      Hmm, I don’t have enough experience to specifically say about onions. My perception from my worm farming experiments is that they don’t mind onions.

  • Mitch says:

    first, I have had my “Grow your own Groceries” DVD for a while now, excellent even for the more experienced farmer. I added my rabbits for food and manure. last week I decided to grow some herbs in the house and used some old potting soil for starters, the plants looked lazy and malnourished at best after 2 days. after 4 days I was worried because I have 2 left feet and no green thumbs. I took some of the rabbit manure that I had set aside to air dry and then crushed it with a brick and piece of tin I had laying around. then I just sprinkled some around my herbs and lightly watered with the water running over the manure. 2 1/2 days later and I have tall sturdy plants with new growth. they are reaching for the window and stretching as hard as they can. thanks for all you are doing to help us Marjory .

    1. Marjory Wildcraft says:

      Mitch, what a wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing. Soon I want to get rankings on comments so one like this will be on the top of the list for people to read. I am looking for a good web developer right now… LOL

  • Sandy says:

    We caught vermi-fever this summer and have been avidly researching and experimenting. Marjorie and Leslie, do you have an assessment on on how effective the barrel garden is and how it compares to the production and quality of a raised garden bed? Heck, David, chime in here too. Our latest discovery is the worm tower concept. It takes the perforated pipe used to feed worms in the garden barrel and sets it into a garden bed, one tower or a five gallon perforated bucket dug into a 1.5 cu yard volume of garden bed. As is done with the garden barrel, a suitable volume and variety of food is placed in the worm tower and the worms are added to the soil around the tower. They have a fancy meal there, and then exit to wander around the rest of the garden bed, munching on other things and “casting ” their treasure throughout the bed, which also helps to aerate the soil. Love the idea, wonder how it compares with other methods of incorporating castings and tea?

  • Peace says:

    Worked in a sawmill for many years and grew mighty fond of wood chips, they make great soil, just being used as mulch on the ground. Add a little natural N to them and the break down real fast and don’t rob the soil to bad. The best thing is worms love living under them and they thrive. In my garden, usually fenced off from chickens on the run there were a lot of worms growing in the soil. That is until the girls discovered them, the wood chip mulch was every where and the girls went wild, you should have seen it. The gals were having a real feast digging and scratching and going to town feasting away. They could not believe their good luck. Rather upsetting for the old turtle to have the girls arrive in her garden as well as the worms, but the girls had not feasted so much in quite awhile. It was truly party time for the hens. Bottom line is when the chips break down they make a fluffy dark soil, it gets full of of life this mixes in with the soil underneath and makes all much richer. It also protects the bare soil and allows life in the soil that does not like to be exposed to thrive. While breaking down the wood chips rob N from the soil and this is why we make our own, save it and pour it over the chips. This also speeds up the chips breaking down.

  • Linda says:

    Hi, i don’t have rabbits but I do have chickens. Is the rabbit poop superior to the chicken poop? We have very sandy soil, and I do not have green thumbs for vegetable gardening…even though I keep trying.

  • Roy says:

    I have kept two tote worm bins for 3 years.
    I am terrible at caring for them.
    After the last casting harvest last fall I simply dumped them into my compost pile.
    They over wintered well and multiplied like mad.
    Needless to say when I spread my compost this spring it was mostly worm castings.
    Best way I have found to keep my worms happy and not have to worry about feeding and moisture.
    What do I do with two ventilated totes sitting in the green house?

  • Buddy Coover says:

    After looking quickly at the pictures, I was ready to buy dark colored pots to start all my seeds. “No, it is not the color of the pot… LOL!” You read my mind! Have you ever used worm towers within your garden.

  • Daryle in VT says:

    Yes, worms produce castings which add good fertility to the soil. The extra large leaves suggest something else is taking place. ‘They’ occupy the soil at around 10,000,000 of the critters per gram of soil. They are microbial bacteria that break down the soil particles to make nutrients available to the plants.
    Mycorrhizae is a fungus that binds the plant roots and the bacteria so the visible plant seems to grow out of control.
    I grow cucumbers in a tiny plot every year. The lower leaves are typically 10 inches across. I plant mid July and harvest over 40 full-sized cukes by the killing frosts of late September. By tiny I mean only 22 1/2 inches square.

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