When making the switch to living soil most people will have some questions. If you are switching from Hydro it's going to be wayyyy different than what you are use to. If you are accustom to using a soil like say, Fox Farm, or Roots Organics, it's still going to be different enough that you should educate yourself to ensure optimum results.
When using living soil we want to focus on building the soil, and nourishing the microbes, insects, worms, etc.. contained therein. You want to approach using living soil with the frame of mind that you are feeding the soil, not the plant. You won't be adding things like "Super Bloom 5000" or any other traditional bottled nutrients. You are going to instead focus on feeding the soil, and making sure that all nutrients are bio-available in the soil when your plant needs them.
Can't I Just Water Only In Living Soil?
Technically this is true, and totally possible. However, you will not get the best results doing this. You will also not be able to run your living soil as a no-till living soil by doing a water only method. If you are wanting to do a one and done grow, and toss your soil after you are done, then you can make it as easy as watering your soil and throwing it out.
To me, this is a complete waste of a quality living soil though. The entire point is to build up your soil over time so that the quality of your plants increases, the water holding capacity increases, and the addition of nutrients or amendments decreases. This can not be done in one cycle by watering only. This is all achieved after multiple cycles where you have spent the time and care creating an optimum soil. It's a lot easier than it sounds though. That's why water only living soil makes zero sense to me.
Where Do I Begin When Using Living Soil?
The most important thing to start with is a quality living soil. Obviously with our soil, we have taken all of the guess work out for you, and it's ready to go right out of the bag. Next, you will want to consider your containers. Are you wanting to use pots, or soil beds? With hydro you clearly wouldn't ever use a soil bed, and the pots you use will be so tiny, they wouldn't work well with living soil. You can read this blog post about what is the best size pot for living soil.
We recommend using fabric pots and grow beds when using our living soil. It is possible to use other containers, but for optimum performance, using living soil pots and grow beds is the best idea. Once you have our soil, and your pots or beds, you are going to want to fill them up with soil. Keep in mind that if you are going to run these containers for years, the level of the soil is going to go down year after year. I have some containers that have dropped 3 inches in as many years. So I would advise to fill up your pots or beds about one to two inches from the top. Make sure to pack it down pretty good, as once you get it fully setup it will settle.
Proper watering of your newly filled containers is important to get the best start for your garden. When watering our soil vs. say a commercial brand of regular soil, you will notice that you can not just dump water on it and it's going to soak it up. The base of our soil is made from peat, and peat is hydrophobic. Hydrophobic means that it wants to shed water. However, once it soaks up the water, it will retain it very well. Doing 2 or 3 really small waterings per day multiple days in a row, is the best way to start your containers. Adding a layer of mulch will help slow the water so it has time to soak in.
When using our living soil there is no need to ph your water. You also don't want to use an RO water filter. Regardless of if you are using city water, or well water, we recommend using a sediment and carbon filter on your water. Straight city water can slowly kill your soil through the chlorine, or chloromine. When using an RO water filter we have seen that when you completely strip the water of it's minerals, you will slowly begin to get yellowing plants. This is why we suggest a basic sediment filter, and carbon filter. If you have chloromine in your water you will want to make sure your carbon filter can filter chloromine.
After your first few small waterings, I would suggest spreading your cover crop seeds around the top layer of soil. This is the best time to also add a layer of mulch. Then continue with the small waterings. Once the soil has fully soaked up water, you should notice that it will retain way more water than you are use to. To speed this process up, you can always use a little yucca extract in your water. It is a plant based surfactant that can speed up the process of soaking your soil.
At this stage is when you want to add worms, and predator insects to your pots. The worms are an integral part of being able to use your living soil over and over. When you add more amendments, the worms will eat the amendments and poop out bio-available fertilizer. The worms are the back bone of the living soil system. Adding things like rove beetles, hypoaspis miles, rolly pollies, etc can help with the nutrient cycling, but also with fighting pest insects in your soil. Using an ample supply of predators insects is a best practice when trying to use a soil for many years in the same container.
Once you have your pots watered in, and soaked with water, you can plant in them. We have customers plant seeds directly in our soil with no issues. If you are planting seeds, it is always the safest to wait until you have done the water regime above for a few days just to be careful. If planting clones, you can plant right away. If you are repotting some plants from another soil into our living soil, you will want to remove all of the old soil from around the plants roots. You want it to have as close to bare roots as possible. This way the plants roots are actually touching our soil when it is planted. If you just remove the plant from the old pot, and put it in our soil, the plant is essentially still in the old soil until the roots have time to grow out. If your old soil lacks the proper nutrition, this can show up in signs of deficiencies which you will want to try to equate to our soil, when it is actually still in the other soil.
During vegetative growth in living soil, there's not a lot you need to do. You should notice you only need to water roughly 3 times a week. Sometimes in humid environments, it can be only twice per week. The older your soil gets, the less water it needs. Also when watering you should not get runoff. Unlike commercial soils, our living soil should have zero runoff. Other than water, an application of Lactic Acid Bacteria Serum AKA labs, liquid, kelp, aloe, or some fermented fruit juice once a week is about all you need to do.
As your cover crop grows in, if you have small plants, the small plants may get choked out a bit by the aggressive cover crop. The best thing to do in this situation is just trim back the cover crop in a small circle around the plant. This will give the plant time to grow larger without the oppressiveness of the cover crop plants. Any training you would like to do at this stage is fine. Whether it be some LST, or weaving your plants through a scrog, now is the time to shape your plants into their final positions.
When transitioning into flower with living soil, there's not a lot to change. You should keep the same watering schedule, and amounts, but maybe adjust the additives you use. For a more robust harvest, using consistent applications of aloe, labs, fermented fruit juices, liquid kelp, and liquid fish is a good idea.
My personal schedule is something like the following:
Monday: Water in powered aloe
Tuesday: Nothing(no water)
Wednesday: Water Only, no additives
Thursday: Nothing(no water)
Friday: A combination of liquid kelp, liquid fish, labs, and fermented fruit juices(I tend to change up which of these I mix together)
Saturday: Nothing(no water)
Sunday: Nothing(no water)
My Friday schedule tends to start in flower with labs, fish, and kelp, and as flower progresses, I will add in fermented fruit juices every other week starting in week 4. I then ride that out until the end of flower. With living soil there is no need to flush, because we are using natural processes. When you go into the forest does mother nature flush those plants before harvest? Flushing is an invention of the hydroponic industry. It's not how plants are meant to be harvested.
If you're doing any trimming or defoliating in the flowering process, you want to just throw all of the leaves and stems that are trimmed on top of the soil. The worms and bugs will eat them up, and turn them into food for your plants. Even as flower progresses, and you remove dying leaves, those leaves can be added to the top of the soil to be used as food for future crops. Think of it like fall, the leaves fall to the ground to feed the plants for next season. Except our next season is indoors and right after the first season. :)
Once you finish flowering your plants you will want to harvest your plant right at the top level of the soil. You want to leave the entire root ball in the soil, and plant your next plant into the soil next to the old plant. The worms, and bugs will use the old root ball as food, and turn it into fertilizer for the next plant. This is when you can replenish the lost nutrients in your soil with a top dress of new amendments. We make a top dress blend that you will simply spread around the top of the soil, and begin your next cycle. Harvesting, planting, and top dressing can all be done at the same. There is no need to wait between any of these processes.
You should now be on your second cycle with your living soil, and you will continue to do the same thing as before. The only thing to really watch is that as the soil ages you will be using less and less water. I notice at about 9 to 12 months the water holding capacity of our living soil starts to increase dramatically.
Making the switch to living soil doesn't have to be full of stress, even for the ex-hydro grower. If you follow along with this basic guide, you will be way ahead of the curve, and to be honest, it's a really forgiving and rewarding way of growing. When I see new growers, growing in our soil, that are growing plants as good as what took me 10 years to achieve, it proves why so many growers today are making the switch to living soil.