Harmony in the Garden Blog

Conditioning your Soil vs. Feeding your Plants

My overall feeling about fertilizing is that we need to start training ourselves to think of ‘Conditioning our Soil’  instead of ‘Feeding our Plants’.

Healthy soil serves several functions: 1) it should consist of loose particles that are good for water, nutrient and airflow 2) it should be a home to a gazillion beneficial micro-organisms that  3) help fight disease and other pests, and 4) help to further break organic products down into micro-nutrients the plants can use.

I’m wary of certain man-made chemical based fertilizers  as they’re often just quick fixes for greening up leaves and creating super fast new growth.

While they may make your garden greener, faster, they’re actually not very good for your soil.  In fact, in the long run these types of ‘insta-green’ fertilizers can cause more harm than good as they’re often very high in salts which build up over time and damage the natural living micro-organisms in your existing soil.  And once you start killing off your soil’s existing beneficial micro-organisms, you’re asking for a whole world of problems for your plants, becoming more and more dependent on chemical fertilizers.

Adding compost, whether home-made or purchased, is a fantastic way to naturally condition your soil.  Don’t worry if you don’t have your own composter since you can always buy bags of really great quality organic compost.  If you don’t buy organic compost, just remember to check the ingredients to make sure there are no weird fillers that you may not want in your garden.   The organic compost you can buy at the nursery is already aged and ready to spread.  Just sprinkle it around the root zone of your plants, taking care not to pile it up so its touching your plant’s base.   I do this in the late fall when I know the rains are about to come – that way I can let Mother Nature dilute it into the soil for me.

Besides adding your own compost, here’s a product I highly recommend:

John and Bob's Soil OptimizerSeveral years ago, a garden magazine was flying out here to photograph my client’s garden, as well as my own. I only had about 6 months notice to whip things into shape, and was not going to be caught with my own garden looking sub-par.  So I asked around at my local nursery and was told about a product that’s been showing amazing results in conditioning the soil.  It’s not cheap, but I figured I’d give it a try.


Because I’m the farthest thing from a scientist, I’ll just quote the back of the package to tell you how it works:

…this true humus is mined from a unique deposit of leonardite in New Mexico.  This deposit has been composting for thousands of years, making it far more concentrated and richer than surface-decomposed humus…While partially decomposed humus products still have to continue composting after application, John & Bob’s Soil Optimizer begins to recondition at the molecular level as soon as it is watered into your soil.  After treatment, your soil will store and release nutrients and water to plant life much more efficiently.

I used it once in January and three months later noticed a huge jump in the growth of my garden, superceeding the typical spring flush of years past.

Nine months later and my garden was still going strong – with plants that are typically pale and tired, still looking vibrant.  In the future, I’ll use this product twice a year (their recommendations), versus other man-made products which recommend applications every few weeks.

Another bonus?  It couldn’t be easier to use – just fill a rotary spreader, set it to the recommended setting, and you’re done in just minutes.

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  • Has anyone tried the John and Bob’s Liquid BioTiller?
    With all the clay soil around the Bay area, I would think that someone has. I would love to hear if it works…

    • Hmmm….I haven’t tried it, but will most definitely buy some next time I’m at the nursery. I’ll let you know what my results are!

  • That’s awesome, Rebecca. I have heard great things about John and Bob’s but have only tried it on one garden so far. It seemed to work well there, but it coincided with a compost application, so hard to say which helped more. I’m going to prioritize this in January and test it in some of my troubled spots in gardens. (off to tweet about it now)

    • Great! Let me know how it works for you – I’m sure you’ll love it….

  • Rebecca yours has been by far the most convincing endorsement for this product so I’ve taken the plunge and picked up a bag. The soil here is horrible clay, so this will be a pretty good test. It’s going to go on just as soon as I finish my fall leaf clean up.

    • While it’s best to move away the bark, sprinkle it around & water it in – honestly, who has the time for that? I just sprinkled mine around on top of it and still got great results…though it may have taken a bit longer. Either that or wait for your gardener to blow away your bark for you….

  • Hi Kat – that was the only thing I did, besides my annual application of chicken manure. My garden was so much better than it normally is (even with the chicken manure) and I can’t wait to see what it looks like this Spring after my second application…

  • Good to hear that you have had good results. I’ve heard customers raving about the product, but they gave very little details other than their garden was somehow “better.” That just didn’t seem like enough for me to pony up the amount needed to purchase a bag. But, your time line of how long it made an impact in your garden is impressive.

    I have a question though, did you amend the soil in any other way? Compost, manure, etc?

    • Please make sure you let me know if you had great results, too. But remember – it takes a few months to start showing – especially if you apply it in the Fall – it should start looking better than ever in April…

  • Okay, I just quickly skimmed some of the science on this stuff, and it looks like there is some evidence it works — but not really as a soil conditioner. Rather, it seems to have a hormone-like effect on plants, and also promote plant uptake of other nutrients from the soil. Sounds cool! I might have to try playing with it.

    • I’m a skeptical person, too, so I totally agree with you being a little leery. John and Bob are both wonderful Landscape Designers (maybe even Architects?) and I’ve seen lots of their work in magazines and around locally and I guess I tend to trust fellow gardeners – especially when I’ve seen such great results myself! Thanks, Joseph, for also taking the time to include more detail…I appreciate your depth of knowledge and sense of humor!

  • I totally agree with the distinction between fertilization and soil conditioning — I think it is an important difference most gardening books do really emphasize.
    I have to admit, I’m instinctively skeptical about the Soil Optimizer… Just because I am an instinctively skeptical person 🙂 But your glowing review will certainly get me to read more about it.

    • I’m sure you’ll love it, too – remember, though, it takes a few months to see the results. You’ll just be going about your business, then all of a sudden one day you’ll say “Jeez…why is my garden looking so awesome?”…then it’ll hit you “oh yeah – it was that optimizer stuff…” Watch – you’ll see!

  • Wow! That’s a pretty strong endorsement there Rebecca. Humates & products like this are definitely good stuff and it sounds like you’ve gotten a pretty good return on your investment with just one application. Might have to give this one a go myself.

    • Yep – you’d think I was an investor, huh? Seriously – this stuff is the BEST! Definitely worth the money (though don’t expect instant results – it takes a few months…)


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