To grow the very best food, you must build the very best soil. This doesn’t mean
adding copious amounts of NPK, but rather helping establish a soil climate teaming with helpful microbes and mycelium to facilitate the continued recycling of nutrients through the system.
To accomplish this task, we build soil, much as the forest does, one layer at a time, alternating nitrogen and carbon-rich sources.
Generally speaking, carbon-rich sources are brown or gold, while sources of nitrogen are typically green (though coffee grounds and fresh manure is considered a “green”).
See a general recipe below to get started building beds to support your long-term food-growing goals.
Start with digging up or tilling under the bed (this is not essential, but will help spur bacterial involvement – the bed is no-till following)
Pile 4-6 inches of chipped wood/mulch (preferably stems and trunks less than 2in in diameter)
Soak the wood with water
Overtop, layer 2-4 inches of grass-fed horse-manure (I stay away from cow manure unless I know the cows have been pasture raised)
As a weed barrier, lay down non-bleached cardboard or newsprint (most local papers use soy-based black and white ink) – pre-soak these materials
Next, layer flakes of green hay, soak
Then a layer of coffee grounds, compost, or other green rotters (coffee grounds are free and in abundance at local coffee houses!)
Add another layer of wet, heavy paper, then flakes of straw to cover the entire bed (should be appx 2-3 feet tall – will shrink down to 8-12 inches in three weeks time)
Over top the beds, add a thin layer of composted coffee grounds and plant peas that have been inoculated with Rhizobia bacteria (available at most garden centers) and leave to bake for the season
This recipe will generate a great, rich soil, but requires patience for best results. It may be used safely after one year, and will produce best after two. To maintain this no-till bed design, plant 25% N2 fixing plants and dynamic accumulators (like comfrey) that may be mulched in place.
You may see them on your ritual run for coffee in the morning, the HTF Compost buckets collecting used grounds to create rich, delicious compost for next growing season. We’ve started with coffee houses using Higher Grounds beans as we know these beans were grown sustainably and farmers were paid a fair price.
Our grounds began as beans grown from the earth in Ethiopia and will end up renewing the earth on a small plot of land in northern Michigan.
Coffee grounds contain a high ratio of nitrogen to carbon (20:1), higher than manure (15:1). Combine or layer compost coffee grounds with wood ash (25:1) in an even ratio and you’ll have one of the best fertilizers on the planet.
Worms are also particularly attracted to grounds – nematode caffeine addiction – so use grounds to attract some of those hungry beneficials to help expedite the soil-building process.
We have easy access to cardboard, so I like to compost my grounds with smaller amounts of cardboard (350:1), apart from the regular compost pile, to maintain some control over the quality of the finished product. I’ll add wood ash when available, and in the spring, utilize the overwintered material. It’s a fun and easy way to build beds, and a great way to introduce the topic of permaculture to all the new people you’ll meet in your collection and drop-offs.
This makes that first cup of coffee in the morning all the more satisfying.
To build a guild think soil, roots, and results. A mature ecosystem has a rich layer of biomass that has accumulated over many, many years. In order to replicate, create your own layer of rich topsoil using a good combination of nitrogen and carbon rich materials. Hay, fresh manure, and grass clippings work well for the nitrogen layers and straw, newspaper or carboard, and compost work well for the carbon layer.
Start by cutting the grass. Leave the clippings to mulch in place and cover these with a thin layer of newsprint. Atop the newsprint, pile four inches of fresh(ish) manure. I pile the hay (not straw) directly over the manure in another thick eight-inch to a foot layer and then cover these with a thicker-than-before layer of newsprint. Straw works well over the top to seal in moisture. The creates a weed barrier and holds in moisture and allows time for your grass-suppressing bulbs to get rooted before the paper biodegrades.