Organic Growing is Easy! (but you need a plan!)
Growers often try to tell me that organic soil growing is more difficult or more work than growing with salt based bottled nutrients. I’ve grown with both methods and I can tell you this is a common misconception. The truth is, organic growing isn’t hard, it just takes a little bit of knowledge and planning. With the right setup, organic growing can even be easier and less labor intensive than the average bottled nutrient grow.
All it takes to grow great organic bud is a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of a plan.
And today I’m going to provide you with both! 🙂
Like any growing style, its best to start with a plan. You wouldn’t use a bottled nutrient without having at least a basic idea of what it does and how you should use it, and you should treat organic soil growing the same way.
While organic growing can be very flexible and forgiving, you can still run into problems if you don’t think things through. There are lots of different organic methods out there, and lots of “plans” you can follow to have a successful organic grow. The important thing is to start with a plan, and try to stick to it, at least until you’ve got a little bit of experience with the method you are using.
The Clackamas Coot/BuildASoil method
The method I use is based on the growing style developed by a grower named ClackamasCoot and popularized by Jeremy and the crew at BuildASoil.com. This style of growing is based around the concept of providing your plants with a healthy balanced soil. Building and maintaining a balanced soil provides your plants with everything they need to feed themselves. When your soil ecosystem is happy and in balance, your plants will have access to all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Once you have a balanced soil, the goal is to maintain that balance. As your plants grow, they will consume the nutrients in the soil, so these nutrients will need to be replenished. With organic soil growing, we typically rely on transplanting and topdressing as the main methods to replenish the supply of nutrients available to the plant.
I find it helpful to think of the soil like a battery charged up with nutrition. When you transplant into a fresh pot of soil, its sort of like you just plugged that plant into a fresh soil battery charged up with nutrients. As the plant grows, it will slowly drain the nutrient “charge” stored in the soil. As this “charge” starts to diminish, growth will start to slow, and if you let the battery charge get too low, you will start to see signs of nutrient deficiencies.
So how do we charge the battery back up? Transplanting and topdressing.
Transplanting Into a Bigger Battery
When your plants are in the vegetive stage, usually the best course of action is to transplant up into a larger pot with more fresh soil. The plant will send out new roots into the fresh soil, and the microbial life in the soil will help distribute the nutrients to the roots. This is sort of like you just plugged your plant into a big new battery!
It’s best to avoid transplanting once you’ve transitioned to flower. The added stress of transplanting can really slow a plant down, and that’s not what we want during the flowering stage. Usually the latest I would recommend transplanting is about a week BEFORE you flip to flower. Once you are past this stage, we can use topdressing as another method to add some “charge” to our soil battery.
Topdressing to Top Off Your Battery
Topdressing is basically what it sounds like… we take some dry organic amendments, mix them with compost and then add them to the top of the soil. Blending the amendments into some compost or worm castings creates a rich blend of nutrients and beneficial microbes. This also helps buffer the additional nutrients to reduce the risk of burning or over fertilizing. Applying this rich blend to the top of the pot allows the nutrients and microbes to slowly trickle down into the rest of the soil.
Microbes are an essential part of this process. They help break the nutrition down into a form your plants can use, and they help make that nutrition more mobile so it can find its way to your plant’s roots. Since microbes are so essential to this process, it’s really important to add beneficial microbes to your soil on a regular basis, and to maintain a soil environment where they can thrive.
It also helps to follow up your topdress with some mulch. Mulch helps protect your soil and also creates a habitat for soil microbes and other beneficial creatures. Mulch can be something simple like a layer of straw, or you can plant “a living mulch” like some clover or a cover crop blend. There are lots of different mulch options to consider, but the important thing is to keep the soil surface protected and slightly moist so your microbe population is happy and thriving.
If your soil gets a little bit too dry its not the end of the world, but it can discourage your soil microbes. Soil microbes prefer to live in moist healthy soil, not dry dusty stuff. Try to create an environment where microbes will be happy. A happy microbe population will reward you with happier plants, faster growth and better bud!
Battery SIZE (aka pot size) is important!
The bigger your soil volume, the bigger the battery your plant has to pull from. Since we are relying on that battery to feed our plants, it’s REALLY important to not undersize it!
For best results, you generally want to use at least 10-15 gal of soil per plant.
This might sound like a lot, but in nature plants grow STRAIGHT IN THE GROUND and the roots generally don’t face any limitations. This is how plants evolved to grow, so giving them 15 gal per plant really isnt that much to ask.
A 15 gal fabric pot actually fits really nicely into a 2×2 area and a healthy plant will easily fill that 2×2 area with canopy. 4x 15 gals fits nicely into a 4×4 or 5×5 area too.
If you undersize your pot, you are just going to make your life a lot more difficult. Smaller pots means smaller batteries. A plant without enough root zone is going to need constant topdressing and extra attention to keep it happy. A plant in a 15 gal can grow quite big and make it all the way though flower without a lot of extra work. Do yourself a favor and plant in a 15 gal or larger, it will make the grow a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Imagine if your phone had a teeny tiny little battery that only lasted a few minutes. Sure you could probably make due… but that would be really annoying having to recharge it all the time wouldn’t it? And wouldnt it be stressful always worrying about running out of charge?
You wouldn’t want a phone with a crappy battery, so don’t make your plant put up with one!
What About Beds?
Go for it! Do it! For a super easy grow, use a soil bed. There are several companies that make fabric beds in various sizes, or you can build your own out of other materials. This works great indoors or outdoors. You can even order custom fabric beds in any size. You can get one that will fit in your grow tent or wherever.
Beds are great because they give your plant a HUGE battery full of nutrition. It also provides a great habitat for beneficial microbes and other creatures. Large beds need very little topdressing and you can usually grow multiple crops before you need one at all. A large bed of healthy soil with mulch or a cover crop is very forgiving. Just keep it watered and your plants will pretty much grow themselves.
The only real drawback to beds is they limit your ability to move things around. Once you fill a bed up with soil, its not really movable without taking it apart. Once you transplant into a bed, you can’t move that plant around anymore, its pretty much stuck in that spot for the rest of the grow. This isn’t that big of a deal if you plan for it, but it does limit some of your options, so keep that in mind.
I grew in two 3×6 soil beds for a while and I had great results with this setup. Once they were all setup with homemade soil and an irrigation system the grow was SUPER EASY and produced great bud. This room had lights, environment, water and nutrition all dialed in without me even having to show up. I was just the caretaker who helped with pruning and cleaning. The ladies did all the hard work on their own.
What About Irrigation?
Setting up some automated irrigation can make things even easier. I highly recommend checking out “Blumat” watering systems. This is a drip system based around these little ceramic carrot thingies that you stick in your soil.
The Blumat carrots automatically turn the water flow on or off based on how moist your soil is. This means you can dial them in so they will keep your soil at a nice constant moisture all the time. Keeping the soil moist may seem a little bit different than other grow systems, but with living soil you really want to keep the soil moist and alive, but not soggy. This helps create an environment that is favorable to microbes and helps keep your plants happy. Its also nice because you can hand water in some Recharge (or some other once a week treat) and the blumats will automatically shut off for a while until the soil dries out again. This allows you to easily hand water in something special once a week without it screwing up your irrigation schedule.
A full Blumat system can be a little expensive compared to other irrigation systems, but they do a great job and will keep your moisture level dialed in very effectively. You also need to be careful when setting them up. They can be a little tricky to dial in, so make sure you follow the directions carefully and hand water your soil thoroughly BEFORE you set them up. If you don’t set them up properly they can get stuck open and will continually water your plants. This can cause over watering or even flooding! They aren’t that hard to set up once you get used to them, but make sure you follow the directions. Check on them often for the first few days after you set them up too, this way if there is a problem you can catch it before it becomes a big flood.
You can also use a traditional drip system with living soil, but keeping it dialed in to provide constant moisture without over watering can be a real headache. This is why I highly recommend checking out the Blumats, or just stick with hand watering and try to water often enough to keep your soil spongy, moist, and alive.
So now that we know the basics, how do we put this knowledge into practice?
BuildASoil.com is a great place to start! They have everything you need if you just want to order everything. The BuildASoil team does a great job evaluating the quality and sourcing behind their products and everything they sell is top quality. They have great prices too, but when you factor in the cost of shipping, sometimes ordering everything there isn’t the most cost effective option.
You can usually find a lot of the same stuff at your local garden supply store, so its worth taking a trip to see what you can find in your area. The product pages on the Build-A-Soil website are a great reference and can help guide you about what to look for.
Just make sure you do your own research regarding quality and sourcing before you buy anything. The quality of your ingredients can make a BIG difference in the quality of your final soil, so take the time to track down the best stuff you can find. The quality of some ingredients like compost can really vary a lot, so it’s worth it to try to get the best stuff you can find.
For anything you can’t find locally, BuildASoil has got you covered. I also recommend using the BuildASoil website as a guide while you shop for local products. The BuildASoil Blog and product pages are stuffed full of helpful information, so use them as your guide when looking for ingredients locally.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to include links to a bunch of Build A Soil products, but don’t forget to check around locally for this stuff too!
There are TONS of awesome products on the BuildASoil website (and they are all worth exploring), but there are really only 4 essentials things you need to get started:
- Topdress supplies
Lets break those down a bit further shall we?
They have a few different soil mixes you can choose from but the options I would consider are the two “Living Organic Soil” blends and the BuildASoil 3.0 Mix
The Living Organic Soil mixes are based on the original ClackamasCoot soil recipe. These are well balanced soil mixes that have been used by lots of home and commercial growers over the years to great success. It’s a tried and true recipe that grows great bud.
There are two versions of the LOS mix, but the only difference between the two is the type of compost used. The Oly Mtn is a fish based compost, and the Malibu is a biodynamic compost based on cow manure. They are both great quality composts, so the decision between the two is more about your personal ethics and preferences.
(Some growers might want to avoid fish or cow poo based inputs in their garden, so BuildASoil lets you choose the compost option that is the best fit for you.)
I’ve used both composts in my garden and they are both great quality.
The other option you might want to consider is the Build-a-Soil 3.0 mix. This is a newer recipe developed by Jermey and the team at Build-a-Soil. Jermey and his team have years of experience working with soil ingredients and custom mixes, and they used all that knowledge they’ve gained over the years to formulate a new blend based on the lessons they’ve learned.
I haven’t used this mix yet myself, but from what I understand it is a little bit richer in nutrients and typically requires a little bit less topdressing than the LOS mix. It has a wide variety of high quality ingredients and it seems like a really solid recipe. Jeremy has learned a lot about soil since he first started the company, and with this new mix you get to enjoy the benefits of that experience.
HOT SOIL DEAL:
BuildASoil offers a great kit to help you get started. It comes with soil + a 15 gal pot to put it in, and shipping is included!
This might seem like a little more than you usually pay for soil, but remember, this is top quality stuff that you can reuse for several grows or even several years! This isn’t some crappy soil you are going to use once, this is quality stuff that will last for several crops. Add to that the fact that shipping is included… and this is a pretty dang good deal!
Mulch is really important because it helps protect your soil and your microbes. It helps keep your soil alive, which helps keep nutrition available to your plants. Don’t skip the mulch!
BuildASoil has several good options for mulch. You should also check out what you can find locally. The simplest option is probably straw. You can order barley straw straight from BuildASoil, or see what you can find locally.
For some added fun, check out the mushroom straw logs available from build a soil. These are bags of straw that were used as a grow medium for commercial mushrooms production. The straw is inoculated with mushroom producing fungi and mushrooms grow out the sides of the bags. The mushroom farm uses these bags for a while, but eventually they become less productive and need to be replaced. These older bags will still produce some mushrooms and the straw inside is full of beneficial fungi and works great as mulch for your plants.
You can also pick up some cover crop seeds and plant a living mulch layer. The build a soil cover crop seed blend contains clover, grasses and other plants that will benefit your soil and create a habitat for beneficial microbes and other creatures. You can find cover crop blends from local gardening suppliers and other places, but you should do some research first because not all blends work well as a living mulch.
Top Dress Supplies
When planning a top dress it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed trying to figure out what amendments you should be adding and how much you should add. In reality, things are pretty forgiving though. You really don’t need to get it exact, you just need to be in the ballpark. If you started with a balanced soil, your topdress should be composed of fairly similar nutrients in fairly similar ratios as the soil you started with. We aren’t trying to change the soil, we’re just trying to refill the batteries.
I recommend checking out the Build A Flower kit from BuildASoil. The kit contains compost mixed with all the amendments you need to replenish your soil as you head into flower.
The product page also lists the ingredients and the amounts used, so you can copy the recipe or use it as a guideline to make something similar at home.
Keep in mind your topdress wont take effect immediately, the effects are more gradual, so plan accordingly and try to think a week or two ahead and anticipate what your plant might need in the weeks to come. You aren’t trying to force food into your plant, you are feeding your soil and charging up your soil battery.
Don’t forget to apply a new layer of mulch after you topdress. Keeping that new topdress layer moist and protected will help maximize the effectiveness.
As I said earlier… microbes are essential to this style of growing. Microbes break down the ingredients in your soil, mobilize nutrients and convert them to a form that is available to your plants. Without microbes, your soil would be just a pile of ingredients your plant can’t really use.
There are lots of different types of soil microbes out there and lots of different ways to apply them to your garden. The important thing is to apply them regularly and to get a good healthy mix of different species. Since different microbes can bring different benefits, its important to have a diverse microbial population.
In my garden, I always try to apply microbes from AT LEAST one “natural” source, and one “lab grown” source. Good natural sources include things like worm castings, KNF inputs and compost teas. Good lab grown microbial inputs include products like Recharge and Mammoth P.
It’s a good idea to apply some sort of microbes regularly (once or twice a week is good) and try to rotate between a few different products and sources to maximize diversity.
What About Pests?
Preventive pest control is important with ANY style of growing. Pests, pathogens and other potential problems for your garden are EVERYWHERE. Don’t wait around for something to happen, GET PROACTIVE and start practicing PREVENTIVE PEST CONTROL ASAP!
I wrote a FREE GUIDE to Integrated Pest Management that covers all kinds of preventive techniques for defending your grow. You can find the FREE Guide on the homepage at GrowersLove.com.
I wrote this guide to help my fellow growers prevent and manage pest issues and it will always be available for FREE through my website. I also plan to update and expand it over time as new information becomes available.
Please check it out! The knowledge inside can really help you avoid problems in your garden!
And it will also help keep me from looking like this when I answer your grow talk question about about bugs in your grow:
BuildASoil has a great selection of IPM products. It’s important to remember though, IPM is about more than products, its a full system for thinking about your grow and avoiding pests. So don’t just spray stuff and think you are done! Read the guide and learn about other techniques and practices that you should be using too!
What about “No-Till”?
Up until this point, we’ve been talking about a “Living Organic Soil” grow. It doesn’t become a “no-till” grow until you reuse your soil for a second run without tilling it.
So how the heck do we do that? Well it turns out it’s not actually that complicated.
After your first run is finished, chop the plants down a few inches above the soil and leave the stems sitting in the pot. Leave this alone for a few days to allow the wood stem to dry out a little bit. Once it’s dried out a little, you can grab that stem like a handle and give it a strong pull and twist. It might take a little effort, but the stem should rip right out of the soil and leave most of the roots behind. Most of the time it leaves a nice hole behind that’s just about the right size to plant your next plant into.
If your stem doesn’t come out or pulling it just lifts the whole root ball, try being a little rougher with it and giving the stem a good vigorous twist. Usually this breaks the main stem way from the rest of the root ball so you can pull it out. You can also just leave the old stem in the ground and plant your next plant along side it. It might get in the way a little bit, but theres no harm in leaving it break down into the soil.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ROOTS?!?!”
Leave them in! The leftover roots will stay in the soil and slowly break down. If you think about it, roots are really just little tubes full of nutrients that are covered in beneficial microbes. So leave them in the soil and let them break down naturally.
Don’t Forget to Recharge the Battery!
Your plant consumed some of the nutrition in the soil as it grew (draining the battery), so now we need to replace that nutrition with another topdress (charging up the battery) before we can plant a second round of plants.
This is pretty much the same as the topdress we did earlier, but this time you might want to adjust the formula a little bit. You might want to add a few more things just to make sure you charge the battery up completely before you replant. Usually this means adding more of the same ingredients that were in our soil to start with.
BuildASoil even made a kit just for this situation. You can order a kit from them, or you can use the recipe on the product page to make one yourself.
So Just to Sum it All Up…
Here’s the essential stuff you need to get started:
- Soil- BuildASoil soil + 15 gal pot bundle
- Mulch- BuildASoil Cover crop or Straw (or both)
- Topdress- BuildASoil BuildAFlower Kit
- Microbes- RealGrowers Recharge
For pest prevention: Read Soup’s FREE IPM GUIDE
For no till re-amending: BuildASoil Re-Amend Kit
Fun Bonus Stuff
All you really need are the essentials (soil, mulch, topdressing and microbes), but there are also a lot of great additives and bonus products available from BuildASoil that you should check out. A lot of these organic additives are somewhat similar or serve a similar purpose to bottled additives you might be familiar with.
Think of the stuff we talked about above as your essentials, and the stuff on the list below as optional additives you can use to enhance your soil and plant health. (and better soil and plant health is the path that leads to higher yields and better bud!)
There’s a ton of great stuff to check out at BuildASoil.com, here’s a few of my favorites:
Aloe– Works well as a surfactant/wetting agent and also stimulates root growth. The powdered horticultural aloe from BuildASoil is great for watering in, including in a foliar spray, or using as part of your cloning regimen. A lot of bottled nutrient companies utilize aloe in their products, but you can also use FRESH aloe you grow yourself, or buy some high quality freeze dried aloe from BuildASoil. The BuildASoil stuff is top quality and is processed in a way to preserve as much active ingredients as possible.
Coconut water– Seeds are magical! They somehow contain all the nutrition a plant needs for its first week or two of life all inside of that tiny little seed. A coconut is basically a BIG ASS SEED. This means the liquid inside is rich in nutrients, hormones and other growth stimulants that can help your plant grow bigger and stronger. Check out the powdered coconut water from BAS or pick up some unflavored coconut water from your local grocery store.
Malted barley– Malted barley contains a lot of enzymes. In basic terms, enzymes help facilitate chemical reactions, including a lot of the reactions needed for your plant to grow and thrive. Plants and organisms create their own enzymes, but adding some supplemental enzymes from an outside source can also help make life easier for your plants. Barley topdressing can be used to encourage microbial growth on the surface of the soil, and barley sprouted seed tea is a great source of enzymes to water in.
Build-A-Bloom– This is kinda like a “Bloom Boosta”. Its an organic water soluble powder that you mix into water and give to your plants. Its full of a bunch of amendments to help fuel flowering plants. It’s got a NPK of 2-10-5 with 10% calcium too. It’s really nice to have a product that provides all those benefits in a quick release organic form. It’s a cool product and a useful tool to have on hand.
And many many more… Check out all the great additives and other products at BuildASoil.com!
And that just about wraps things up! You should now have all the knowledge you need to plan and start your first living organic soil grow! But remember… this knowledge is only valuable if you USE IT! So get out there and get gardening!
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