top of page

Saute' It, Don't Spray It: Part 3 ~The Real Dirt About Organic Gardening

Updated: Jan 17

This morning as I peeked out my window in Northern Idaho, I can see all my raised garden beds are covered under a heavy layer of snow. This will be the outward view for another 3 months along with freezing temperatures. However,...I know there is a world of growth and activity still present and waiting underground. As we eventually move closer to Spring, with longer (and gradually), warmer days there starts a very vital process to growing healthy, organic and healing foods to support our well-being.

When the soil does start to gradually warm it triggers the roots, bacteria and fungi to wake up. Worms, spiders and other insects also get active. So exciting! Especially, if like me you are anticipating some gardening. It is always a challenge in the timing to plant that first seed at just the right moment. And with our short growing season here in the mountains, I find each year is full of obstacles for a productive gardening outcome. So, I plan carefully and start early.

Every living thing that went into hibernation for the Winter begins to respond to the longer hours of sunlight in Spring. The shift in temperature and UV rays make them squirm and get ready to stretch their legs, wings or tendrils. Perhaps even you or those around you will feel a bit restless. This rise in energy often prompts Spring Cleaning to rid your home of dust bunnies. However, this is the perfect time to get outside and do something else.

Check out your dirt!

Yes!...Dirt,...soil, growing matrix, earth, sod...Dirt.

Because, some dirt is better than others. In fact, as I continue to dig deeper into the topic of dirt, pun intended, ...I realize there is even more to this life-producing part of our Earth than I ever knew. Even with all my years of gardening and biologic studies, there is ever more to learn!

Whether you call it soil, earth, growing matrix or dirt,... if you plan to grow anything, your dirt had better be alive before you plant that first hopeful seed.  Sunlight provides not just radiant heat through the infrared rays penetrating the earth, there is also the process of photosynthesis, which provides an almost magical dance in it's balance of sunlight, roots, chemistry, fungi and multiple living organisms.

This reminds me of watching a Cirque du Soleil performance of intricate choreography. It is breathtaking to watch the dancers create moving art as they work simultaneously. It is a fragile balance where one missed move can collapse the entire show with potentially devastating results.

Thus is the Earth we stand on.

Here are some basics to check out:

Water: What about the quality of your water? If you are like me, I rely on the city's standard of clean water and whatever they can legally add to it, or not filter out. This most often includes chlorine and fluoride. However, most sewage and water treatment facilities are not equipped with methods to eliminate the now present human additives such as prescription medications, plastic by products, heavy metals from neighborhood industrial manufacturers, herbicides and pesticides. I covered these last two in my previous blog of 'Saute it Don't Spray it: Part 1'.

Within that blog I describe more details on how pervasive these 'gardening' chemicals are World wide. Get an eye-opening update on common fast food toxicity affecting our mental and physical in this link to Mom's Across America, a highly proactive organization trying to ensuring our children's health.

100% of Top Twenty Fast Food Brands Positive for Glyphosate Herbicide 76% Positive for Harmful Pesticides

 And here is a link to a particularly scary, informational listing of contaminates often found in tap water, and even private well water.

So What are some opitions?

1. Set up multiple buckets to fill with water in the morning 24 hours prior to applying to plants. This allows evaporation of chlorine and other contaminants that are volatile and gas-off as the Summer Sun warms the water. It then cools off at night to match the soil temperature of your plants prior to watering in the morning.

This of course, does not fully clear tap water of all contaminants, which are numerous. However, it did stop the yellowing of leaves related to our city added more chlorine to our water system three years back.

And yes, I know, the bucket is plastic. Always check the food safe rating code on the materials you plan to use for gardening, generally Codes 1,2 4 and 5.

2. Filters- I did find a number of garden hose purifiers for variable prices, all pretty much the same in use of a carbon based filtration. I purchased the Boogie Blue Plus to trial this Spring and will get water testing at a lab pre and post use. The Boogie Blue Plus filter had well over 1500 ratings and was rated 4.7 Stars. Once I have the comparison information from testing, I will post a Blog specifically on water any overall effects on my garden, of course.

Soil Type:

1. Dry/dusty/Dead soil or Clay/muddy/compacted?

Dry soil- Essentially , if you find your garden soil has become so dusty, desiccated and powdery that water runs off the top without penetrating, there is major repair and rebuilding needed. There are probably very few living organisms to promote growth of healthy food present. Promote water retention through addition of vermiculite, peat moss, cocofibers, fish fertilizer, compost, worm castings, or worm tea.

A fun resource in how to make a worm composting box and create your own worm castings and worm tea, is in this wonderful children's book, Reddy get Ready, by Anna and Ronald Goodwin. It's a great way to introduce your children to the importance of many organisms in our soil to improve our food production. You can order the Kindle version on Goodreads or click on the picture to go directly to the Amazon page.

Clay soil - If, however you have clumpy, slick soil that turns rock hard when dry, you still probably have good nutrients retained, but it does not let air in, or water drain. Soil does need good air circulation and drainage to prevent rot and allow photosynthesis to occur. To increase the porosity of this mineral rich soil, you need to add organic matter. This may be compost, mulches and other plant materials that are a real pain to till into the soil at first. The result is worth it to take advantage of the nutrition already present.

However, the best choice to start improving both dry and clay/wet soils is to actually plant something in it. Do what Nature does. It plants weeds, or whatever the wind or birds drop on bare ground. So, be proactive before the wind carries in it's own random choices.

2. Cover Crops- Encourage regrowth of soil biome through a mix of composting, and breaking up soil by planting root crops, like carrots, dandelions and turnips. Essentially, you grow a soil recovery crop to enhance needed nutrients, bacteria and fungi. Peas, beans and clover add nitrogen through their root systems and by composting their leaves.

 "Cover crops are harvested, then worked back into the soil (or left as a mulch on top of the soil). As the plants’ decay, they leave behind organic matter that improves soil structure and aeration, as well as water and nutrient holding capacity, while also replenishing nutrients in the soil for subsequent crops. The type of cover crop and the length of time it grows determines how much organic matter and nutrients return to the soil."

3. Soil Testing-Maybe your soil is not a total loss. Perhaps, it is just poorly producing or your plants look a little sad. This is why it is good to get your soil tested. Check with your local state university’s extension office for inexpensive soil tests, plus look at garden supply centers for DIY soil test kits. Cover crop choices for best impact depend on what is missing from your dirt,...or the alkaline/acid balance may be off. Nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium are some minerals that people try to add from a bag, but they mostly wash away. The real problem,...structure, is still missing. Leave the plant root systems and decaying fibrous materials in place to over-winter adding the support system within the soil, holding all those nutritious goodies in place. Then the magic of other life can move in to create healthy food.

4.Permaculture- This is an approach to gardening that involves working with a garden's life and death cycles, to make more soil. That was simplistic in definition. However, if taking a look at a forest floor, or field of wild flowers, take note of what made that soil. Without a humans interference, we note that the Earth, and the Creator, have been at this much longer than we have. What are some of the lessons they demonstrate?

Recreate nature and let time do all the heavy lifting. 

Decaying plants, animals, bugs, fungus and animal poop layers end up on the forest floor mixing all their yummy nutrients together for the necessary basics in the continuous cycle of growing more plants. Which in turn support living bacteria, insect, worms, birds, mammals and...Us! The life-death cycle is at work here,...this is how dirt is made. Not in a factory, not sterilized and definitely not with man made additives to make it "better". The more we try to control Nature, the more trouble we get into.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are some carefully formulated soil additions that you can make a phenomenal difference, but not fully substitute this cycle.

In the Spring, I lightly till the top layer of compost from last Fall to mix with the soil. I will amend with a natural and organic all purpose fertilizer to get my seeds and seedlings a boost. Then, I place a nutritious mulch for moisture retention of the soil surface as we move into the scorching heat of Summer. I companion plant (see below) so they shade, support and protect each other, plus attract beneficial insects for pollination and to eat the bad bugs. In the Fall, I use my chicken compost, chopped up vegetable and herb cuttings and non-seeded weeds to layer on top of my garden beds, around trees and perennial plants. No need to till it in. Regular watering by rain and snow assist natural absorption and does the work for you.

5.(Companion Planting) -This is an area I started to explore and utilize more in my gardening, which is mostly in containers due to our rocky ground. My husband calls it 'messy' and wants to pull all the 'weeds' I let grow among my veggies. However, most of those 'weeds' are edible, medicinal or both.

Some basics:

1.Watch your plant growth carefully and observe what promotes aeration, nutrition and detoxification of the soil.

2. Take note of the good, bad and ugly results.

3. Monitor the weather and destructive insects that turn up. As upsetting as it is to be invaded by flea beetles or aphids, they point out areas of weakness to address in your garden. It may be the soil, or plant placement. Or, like this past Summer, multiple solar flares with high doses of UV light bombarded us, so our shaded plants did better than direct Sun.

4. Write it all down,...preferably on a gardening calendar, so you can remember what worked and what didn't.

5. (And this is the hardest one) Accept each year will be different. Gardeners need to be flexible, like Nature!

Overall, by planting several (yes, 3 or 4) different plants in one container, it can allow an even better crop growth. Even though it may appear over-crowded, they should compliment each other in some way.

My companion mix includes regular volunteer growth of my favorite herb and vegetable, dandelion, which is an amazing tap root to loosen up hard-packed soil, and let water get in deeper. Plus, what dandelion plants I do decide to pull out, I can eat! Check out some of my recipes on the home page for dandelions,...delicious!

Dandelions also can be used in soil that has had pesticides and herbicides used on it, with natural detoxification qualities. Don't eat these for a couple years, just throw in the trash, not your compost pile. Fully eliminate those toxins from your yard!

Besides dandelion, I have multiple medicinal herbs and plants I grow as added shade, nutrient support and bug protection to my veggies.

So, yes, you must monitor and decide who likes what to be their companion plant.

Neither companion planting, nor permaculture, is a new concept. A good reference includes The Farmer's Almanac, . There are choices in veggies and herbs to grow side by side, plus their benefits. They also have gardening calendar's, what to plant when for your grow zone and just fun tips and hints.

Well, this was long post and thank you for sticking to the end. There is so much more to explore and share about growing, harvesting and preserving your own food. More for future Saute it, Don't Spray it Blogs. By protecting your soil from unneeded contaminants, you protect your family and yourself from exposure to the ever growing poisons around us right now.

Make a difference! One garden at a time.

Best Wishes in Health!

Karen Angela Shupp

Modern Day Medicine Woman

50 views4 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Jan 21
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you Karen. Great information. I particularly appreciate the mention of the worm book. Worms create such an amazing fertilizer and all organic.


Jan 21

Delight to read!


Jan 18
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I’m starting my garden this spring here in North Idaho and your blog is just what I needed to get inspired. Very useful information, thank you!

Jan 21
Replying to

Yes. She has a lot of good gardening tips!

bottom of page