Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: Potting Soil - that Contains Soil!

I've been reading Gardening at the Dragon's Gate for a couple weeks now. It's a substantial read in many ways, and I'm not finished yet.  Author Wendy Johnson was for over 30 years head gardener at Green Gulch Farm, which is run by the San Francisco Zen Center (as is Tassajara, location of Ms Town Mouse's lovely last post). Ms Johnson's writing is rich, meditative and gritty with down to earth detail. I didn't expect to find so much good information about composting (with accompanying reflections on life, death, and decay) or soil chemistry or pest management, for example. Or such wonderful accounts of gardening with Harry Roberts, Alan Chadwick, and other well-known gardening characters. Or such wonderful metaphors - I'm a sucker for a juicy metaphor. It's a book about growing food, and other plants, but it also respects native plants and the garden's wilderness setting, at the edge of the ocean in Marin County.

However, the thing that's got me thinking right now is her potting soil mix, which is composed entirely of local ingredients (though btw, she does also provide many alternative mixes).  I would love to have a potting soil from local ingredients!

  • 1/3 sharp or silver sand
  • 1/3 leaf mold
  • 1/3 soil

Wendy Johnson
Wendy Johnson says:
The core ingredient of potting soil, the heart of the matter, is soil itself, the seat of culture and the source of life. In many ways good soil is analogous to yeast in the baking world because both ingredients contain local flora and fauna and both give life to their batter. Without a baseline of real soil in your potting mix, seedlings lose their tone and vigor and fall flat.
Country  Mouse says: "Soil? - in potting mix!?" I've always thought that soil was exactly what you should NOT include in potting mix! It doesn't drain, and isn't sterile, and so on.

Also we don't have a lot of leaf mold here - mostly we have redwood duff and scrub oak duff, which are acidic. Nor do we have sand. I also haven't been good at all so far at composting, to generate some usable material. But - I wonder if we do have what it takes right here, to propagate plants intended to - grow  right here.

I am curious indeed, and plan to investigate this topic further.


Timeless said…
I think the reasons most commercial Potting soils are merely a blean of organic matter is because you are supposed to mix this with and amend your own native soils. But potting soil means soil that goes into a pot, and with fine material like soil silts leaching out I can understand why many don't have it.

I used to take spagnum peat moss and put in the bottom of the pot before putting my own blended soil amendment mix with actual mineral soil. At least I never had the leaching problems.
Mary Pellerito said…
I have to get this book. Thank you so much for writing about it. I never gave much thought to potting soil, until now. It seems when we do things mindfully, we get such better results.
I actually hate potting soil. The whole notion of planting in a "sterile medium" seems counter intuitive to me. I'm a also a bit lazy, and we manage to generate a LOT of compost here, so I tend to use what we have. For sand though, which I do add periodically, you can get horticultural sand, although for me, most of our mudstone seems to weather to sand, so our native soils are naturally very sandy here.
Country Mouse said…
CVF - Yes, I agree about potting soil too - I tried native soil but it didn't work for me - I think this mixture is probably good. Also I had weeds in my soil. She says you give plants breakfast lunch and dinner - breakfast is for seeds and cuttings, very lean - then lunch is the mixture I describe above, and dinner is when they go into the earth - which in her case is amended quite a bit because she isn't growing local natives in native soil but garden plants.
Timeless, she does line her pots with something to stop the mixture dribbling out--and I'll have to look that up. Some leaves maybe or fern. The potting mix I'm talking about is more the 1/3 perlite, 1/3 vermiculite 1/3 peat mix that is recommended for getting young plants going in containers - where you can substitute commercial potting soil for the peat sometimes, I think - I've been all over the map since trying to eliminate (non-sustainable) peat from my mixes - though I still have a big bag o the stuff.
Mary - you'll definitely like this book. Mindful it is indeed. I like Buddhist writers in general, the ones I've read anyway - and appreciate their approach to life. She talks about laughing at herself too and acknowledging how ridiculous we humans are - I liked that.
Town Mouse said…
I always thought this idea of having something completely non-native as the started medium was odd. And I like the idea of using what you have and adding to it.

I'm also wondering whether different plants might not want a different growing medium? Maybe you can use some redwood duff with your ferns and with heuchera, but not with chaparral plants. So much to learn...

BTW, the soil under our (planted) redwoods is barely neutral after 30 years of duff accumulation. I wonder how acid that stuff really is.
ryan said…
Sounds like a good book. I like Green Gulch Farm. Personally I don't like the results I get with native soil in my potting soil. Among other things I think I like to undo rootballs more than the people who like native soil. But I don't doubt it works for her. I think it depends on what you're growing and how you treat the plants when they go in the ground and a whole bunch of other variables. At this point I have my own system but I don't question when other people have a different system that works for them. I also tend to think that a mindful green thumb gardener can probably grow plants in anything.

I've noticed that the commercial growers usually have a few different mixes for their plants, and that sometimes different growers will use a different mix for the same plant.
James said…
Somehow soil in potting soil seems to makes a lot of sense. At least some of the local native plant nurseries have proprietary mixes that include plain ol' dirt. I guess it's at least in part a philosophical point, but all the talk about micorrhyzza in soils and interrelationships between plant and soil organisms seems to argue for including at least some dirt in your dirt. The pots of this mix can weigh a ton, though...