working with nature to restore soil fertility

One of the best had it wrong! (N/NPK/Dr. Ingham) Do you?

One website that I check in on regularly lists headlines that often are all I need to know about the topic in the article or video.

The ones that give me information I can use in my life immediately or in the near future I read or listen to. 

The man who started this particular site (and now has others as well) I consider brilliant.  He’s well researched, has a lot of knowledge on many things, and tries to bring accurate information to the public that they may not otherwise have access to. 

But no matter how brilliant you might be you can’t know everything.

Knowing this I was rather surprised at myself for shouting at my computer screen when he mentioned one day that home gardeners should stock up on nitrogen fertilizer. 

He thought you couldn’t grow anything without it! A total falsehood as long time readers of TMG and its creator (me) know.

There’s More

Some time after that he mentioned that he had (or was going to) interview Dr. Elaine Ingham,  internationally recognized soil biologist. Someone suggested contacting her since he’d never heard of her!

There I was again— raising my voice at the computer screen. 

I thought it unfathomable that this well-versed-in-almost-everything man had never heard of Dr. Ingham who’s been in the public eye for at least 4 decades. 

Nonetheless I was delighted that someone he felt worthy of trusting had told him about her.

Dr. Ingham’s  Choice of What to Study when going for her PhD

When Dr. Ingham was going for her PhD at Colorado State University in 1981 the  topic she wanted to pursue was what’s going on in the soil. Professors who taught subjects having to do with soil  (mainly what chemicals or poisons to add) told her it would be a waste of time  “to study organisms in the soil and why plants would want to feed these organisms” .

Why did they feel that way you may ask? 

Because in their opinion, “microorganisms in the soil don’t do anything”!

And as most of us have come to learn, the approach of “big agriculture” today is that soil is useless and chemicals have to be added to grow things.  

It is because of this programming (a/k/a brain washing) over the last 150 years that much information about working with nature to grow food bountifully and without diseases and pests has been “lost” to the public. .

Fortunately Ingham Proceeded on Her Chosen Path

In spite of the disapproval of the professors at the college, Dr. Ingham still chose to explore how to work with nature and find out how bountiful harvests can be produced via the soil life.

She knew that would involve:

  • identifying and understanding the different organisms,
  • what each does,
  • how plants feed them,
  • and how they in turn feed the plants.

For clarification please note: Dr. Ingham can name all the various microorganisms and their purpose.  I refer to all of them as soil life, microbes, or microorganisms throughout TMG and in this post.  The only one I know by name is Mycorrhizal Fungi. I wrote about it here and you should get a laugh out of what I thought it was when I first encountered it!

Learning of Her Discoveries Decades Ago 

Watching this current interview confirmed for me once more that nature taught me well over 42  years even without a microscope.  (Dr. Ingham uses a microscope to make sure the soil life is alive and well in the first week or two of starting soil improvement in her experiments.)

Learning of her  findings decades ago showed me “why” the 3 keys that nature had taught me helped guarantee success in the garden.  

Fortunately, Nature is User Friendly.

Ingham discovered the complicated parts of what happens in the soil.  Fortunately for most of us nature is user friendly. The three simple keys that I explain throughout TMG and in my book can help us be successful long before knowing the details of what and how the soil works. 

All topics covered in the interview are pretty much summed up in those 3 Keys as taught to me by nature and elaborated on in many of the more than 800 posts and letters to subscribers of TMG. 

      • Soil improvement/preparation
      • Adding/recycling organic materials
      • Covering the Soil (with living plants or residues)

Dr. Ingham lets nature prepare the soil–

And  by using the principle of diversity in a massive way sees results quickly.

A note for your future reference: If you put “diversity” in the search box at the upper right corner of TMG more than 60 posts will come up that tell of the importance of diversity. At the very least it will be mentioned.

Ingham found that great improvement of soil is obtained within a year by using 50 to 60 low growing species to create an understory of plants one to three inches high.

If all the variety of soil life that is needed is present (via the diversity of the plants) she sometimes sees a change within 2 or 3 weeks.  A microscope is used to make sure the organisms are there and alive.

I’ve also written on the method of allowing nature to prepare the soil for you.  But  I’ve used only one to three different cover crops.  I still had success.  But had 60 plants instead of 1 to 3 been used, my results would have been MUCH better.

Part of Soil Preparation or Improvement is Keeping It from Compacting.

Bare soil compacted by rain or walking on your beds can reduce crop production (or flowering) by 50%.

An understory of plants (or mulch) prevent compaction on top of the soil.

Dr. Ingham mentioned that during the first year the 3-feet-down-compaction layers disappear as well. The soil life makes open areas deep in the soil. Water will be stored there to half that height for use in drought.

With my recommendation of double digging – I’ve found that the soil will begin holding the water it receives once you finish digging.

Living Cover Crops in the Beds with Vegetable Plants?

The word “understory” implies to me that crop plants were planted with the living covers.  But she never came out and said that in the video. (At least I never heard it, and I listened twice.)

I’ve planted cover crops during the growing season with warm weather crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. But  I find it easier to plant a cover crop like oats or rye in those beds for the winter. Cut  the rye in the spring (oats will have already winter killed ), dig a hole for transplanting a tomato, etc, and let the roots and biomass around the warm weather plant decay. 

It’s obvious that crops like peas, onions, radishes, beets, lettuce, etc need the entire bed and don’t want to share. It’s best to plant covers in those beds when not occupied by your food crop.

I saw a video years ago of farmers that planted corn with an understory of low growing cover crops with great success. Lots of soil life to help with the growing and weed control as well.

Some Tasks of Soil Life

The plants feed the soil life and the soil life will search the soil for what plants need to feed them in return. The soil organisms also help prevent disease and pests.

Dr. Ingham goes on to say there are organisms that can decompose glyphosate or 2-4D. This is encouraging considering that many of us have neighbors or farmers close by who think nothing of spraying with these harmful chemicals. (Just keep in mind – the more diverse your understory plants  — the better  your chances of having the right organisms in your soil to devour these toxins.)

The soil life is also responsible for recycling nutrients. If there is no soil life present,  nutrients can’t be recycled for use by next season’s crops.

Before recycling nutrients are in a form that can’t be used by the plants.  Once the soil life finishes the cycle, nutrients are readily available to be taken up by your crops in the next growing season.

Soil life has to have food in order to stay alive and perform these tasks.

Many posts on TMG address this.  Written in April of 2013, here’s one I consider to be of the utmost importance. It works hand in hand with the information I’m giving you in this post.  And gives you a lot of detail on how to feed your soil life as does this other short post.

Are There Those Using Ingham’s  Method of Massive Diversity?

This concept of massive diversity has been used (surprisingly) by some conventional farmers in North Carolina who learned of this method from a conservationist who worked for a federal agency. (The year 2011 was shown on screen in part of the video.)

The NC farmers were invited to visit farmers in North Dakota (a state with half <or less> than the annual rain fall of that in NC). They saw fields of beautiful corn that had had no compost, no compost tea, and no commercial fertilizers.

It was ONLY the diversity of cover crops that had increased yield and worked to hold water in the soil for times of drought.

The farmers from NC were sold on the cover crop diversity, but didn’t have the “belief” system that would support their going organic.  But, as they experience better results year after year, they continually decrease their use of chemicals.

It is interesting to note that none of the farmers used 50 or more covers.  Some used 25 cover crops, some 20 and some a few less than that.  All were successful. That gives me great hope for my garden. I’ll add more diversity at every opportunity.

If I made the correct observation in the video, these farmers planted cover crops in the fall and cut or flattened them before planting the cash crop in the spring.

Wrote about it here in April of 2014. Lots of information is given that you can benefit from.

A 28 minute video (linked to in that post) shows you the NC farmers, what they saw in North Dakota, and the results of their using diversity.   Worth a watch even for small home gardeners like us. We can all pick up small bits of information we’ll be able to use in our home gardens.

Dr. Ingham is not mentioned in the video BUT —

Here’s what is mentioned:

  • “—a recent paradigm shift in soil science”.
  • “—nature does not disrupt herself — have live roots growing all the time”
  •  “—understand how the soil system functions
  • “There’s this movement through the country where people are realizing: You Know what? If we farm nature’s way, we start saving on inputs.”

Considering that Ingham is the one given the credit world wide for discovering Nature’s Soil Operating System (Soil Food Web) over 4 decades ago —what’s shown in the video in my opinion had to originate from her research —even if those in the video are not aware of it.

An understory of 50 to 60 Plants is the ideal — But is it doable for Most Home Gardeners?

As I’ve talked about many times on TMG,  Diversity is one of nature’s most important keys to making your garden great.”

But 60 varieties is just not doable for me.

And as I mentioned in the previous section those NC farmers also found it not doable for one reason or the other. (Most likely it was cost.) You’ll recall they use 25, 20, or a few less.

“Weeds” Are Part of My Cover Crops

In May of 2019 I sent a letter to “subscribers only” entitled Don’t Waste Your Weeds”.  It explained how weeds are used to add nutrients to the garden.

Only about a dozen plants (including my 4 “official” cover crops) are used to help fertility in my garden. (Plans have been made to get more.)

This spring I could tell a difference in beds that did not have live plants growing there prior to the growing season. (I just never got to them last fall.)

A note for your future reference: If you put “weeds” in the search box at the upper right corner of TMG more posts will come up that you might find helpful.



What Dr. Ingham says: “Please don’t ever till!”

Then she explained that 50% of the beneficial organisms that help your plants resist disease are gonna be destroyed in that first time you till your field. If you turn around and do it again – that’s another 50% of the microorganisms gone. So now you’re down to 25% of the microorganisms you had a few minutes ago.

What I say/and have said about tilling:

“Every time we do this ‘severe manipulation’ (whether hand digging or tilling) to the soil — it kills a lot of the microorganism (soil life) in the soil. Our goal is to strive for more and more soil life — not less. The more active soil life there is — the better our plants will perform.”

Why then do I give double digging or tilling as an option for soil preparation? 

When I first started gardening I knew nothing of Dr. Ingham’s method.  (She was not yet on the scene.)

I did learn about permanent beds being double dug. That method had already been proven to work AND as long as you continue to work with nature, need only be done one time. Here’s some proof.)

Note that the statistics in the post I link to above (those of John.Jeavons) are more conservative than Ingham’s, but still excellent. 

What does Dr. Ingham say about Compost?

The way compost is made according to recommendations she has seen is not the proper way.  She offers a course on how to make “bio complete compost” on her website (  Also she spoke of  liquid “extracts”.

If I’m reading correctly the course on how to make “bio complete compost” is $1,540.00.

Following are a few suggestions for those who can’t take her course.

Is the Information Really Lost to Everyone?

As was mentioned in the interview Dr. Ingham read books by the fathers of soil science.  They understood how important the organisms in the soil were.  She went on to say that the understanding was lost.

If you study the history  (touched on in numerous posts)  the understanding was “lost” to the masses because of the story created by the chemical companies.  And they had the money to promote that lie as truth to the public.

Fortunately, many of those considered the fathers of soil science or their close associates wrote books detailing their findings and the ways of nature in successfully restoring even severely damaged lands.

Thus, much information has not been “lost” but is just not known about or looked for by many.

My first suggestion if you can’t take her course:

One of the books that is a compilation of much of the information I feel sure Dr. Ingham studied is Secrets of the Soil.  I wrote about it in a post entitled  3 Books That Can Change Your Garden, Your Health, and the Way You Look at Life.

Much of the work of Rudolf Steiner (founder of the biodynamic approach to agriculture) was discussed along with many others that may be included in her list of those she considers the fathers of soil science.

There is much in the book about extracts made to assist crops.  That I remember specifically. And much is said about compost.

I don’t know for sure (since it was not mentioned in the interview) but I think it a good guess that much of the information in Secrets of the Soil was most likely incorporated into Ingham’s research and methods.

It’s not a book most will get through quickly.  I found it somewhat of a struggle to read, but the information gleaned is well worth it.  When pulling it out before writing this I was amazed at how many pages were all marked with notes. But I remember skipping at lot as well.

Bottom line: Consider owning the book.

Second Suggestion

Before you decide that you can’t live without making compost please consider/read the following things:

The example of Robert Quinn

Here’s a post about Robert Quinn, a very successful large scale organic farmer in Big Sandy, Montana. He uses neither compost or manure!! And yes, I tell you in the post what he does use.  I’ll bet if you’ve read this far you can already guess.

I’ve told more about his methods in this post as well.

What I Do

This tells briefly how to make a compost pile and why I only have a cold compost pile now.

Here’s another entitled Compost, What it is and Methods used to Get it. I feel sure that Dr. Ingham would not agree with the composting methods that have worked for me for 42 years. But it’s what I “could” do – so it’s what I did.

Mike (the interviewer) asked Dr. Ingham what can be done to turn things around?

Her reply, “We have to teach people not to listen to people who want to sell them something they don’t need.

How many times have you heard that phrased in various ways on TMG?

Encouragement to not listen to people who want to sell you something you don’t need is throughout TendingMyGarden. Here’s a post to encourage you to get through the onslaught of advertising this season.

One More Thing

Close to the end of the interview Mike asked, “are you saying that we could feed the world without applying any outside NPK to the farms just by protecting the soils?”

Dr. Ingham said “yep! by having the proper life in that soil -“

Here I address the question of adding fertilizers and recount a letter from a reader in SirLanka who had just received my book.  It also addresses this idea of thinking nitrogen has to be added to the soil.

It was not covered in the interview, thus, a brief recap of how the idea that “NPK is needed” came about is below.

How the idea of plants needing NPK came about.

The idea of plants needing just NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash) that could be chemically supplied was a mistake by a German chemist.  

Chemical companies immediately found this profitable. Off and running and couldn’t be stopped even after the scientist acknowledged his mistake.

They convinced the public the idea was true. And thus the great deception was underway and continues today more than a hundred years later.

I wrote about it here. The links at the end of that post may be of interest as well.

A Few Final Thoughts

Soils that are left bare and that have no organic material on or in them, and thus no soil life, are the soils that can’t produce crops at all unless they have chemicals to force the soil.

Most of the food grown at the big box stores are grown with chemicals and poisons (pesticides and herbicides).  

How can anyone expect to be their best and be in good health when they’re not getting the energy that nature provides when eating food grown working hand in hand with her ways.

Diversity is an important concept to use in your garden to get maximum results. And one that is easy to use.

And as I’ve point out throughout TMG, some of the most beneficial and nutrient dense plants you can use to help your garden are considered weeds by most folks. They’ll cost you nothing.

Programming is powerful!  If Mike can be programmed into thinking that “purchased” nitrogen has to be added to his soil each year —— that should let us know we are ALL subject to programming. 

But being aware they want to program us and with the good sound knowledge of what nature can do under our belts — we can know, use, and benefit from the real truth.

As Dr. Elaine Ingham says – once all this beneficial soil life is in your soil — all you need do to keep it there forever is to continue to provide food for it through a diversity of plants.

I hope you found the comments I added to the topics discussed in the interview helpful.

If you’d like to watch the interview, here’s the link.

I’m always thinking of ways I can help you more when I’m in my garden.Wishing each of you a bountiful harvest,



All content including photos is copyright by All Rights Reserved.


  • Great post Theresa!
    I have followed Dr. Ingham along here and there. I find her talks and studies fascinating.
    You have left me with even more to digest – thank you so much.

  • Amazing post! Since reading your blog and book, I have kept my soil covered with straw mulch 100% of the time. I know this alone has made a huge difference. We’ve gone from dead, dry, sandy soil to dark brown soil teaming with earthworms. It’s much, much better than it ever has been, and this is 100% due to straw mulch.

    This year, I have tried to be more intentional about adding “diversity” into the mulch layer. For example, when I pick weeds, I just lay them on top of the mulch to decompose. When I’ve grown plants, I’ve cut stems at the base of the plant to leave the roots in and then I lay the cut part on top of the straw mulch to decompose.

    I do not grow cover crops. Why? Because it seems my beds always have something in them. So, I rely heavily on straw mulch and plant residue as much.

    Whether what I’m doing is “enough,” I don’t know. But, what I am doing is producing soil that is nicer than I’ve ever had before, and I’m so thankful for that.

  • Read your great post, Theresa, but need to follow up and read all the links you also provided.

    What an amazing amount of important and critical information for gardeners and gardeners-to-be. Your wealth of knowledge is an absolutely unique treasure, and a generous gift to your readers. God has turned your hardships and struggles into blessings for so many people through you. My admiration is boundless!

  • Thank you for the encouragement of how to build up the soil naturally. I have composted all my life as even when I was a child my parents put all the plant scraps outside we never had a garbage disposal. My compost is usually laid in a hole but is used in any form when I need it. This year I was trying alfalfa for mulch, but am still getting the hang of this as I find it difficult for some plants to come up through it. It also is very difficulty to get to the soil through it, but I have to say I am finally getting earthworms to return!

  • Theresa, thank you for the time and care you took to write this great post, it’s a real well of information! It’s like a ‘best of’ collection of the science behind natural organic methods, amazing!

  • Hiya Theresa!!
    I have read your post four times. There is a LOT to absorb there.

    I read it the first time without following any links. The next day read again and watched the interview. The third time followed and read all the links. And just lately read thru it again without following the links.

    One thing I might mention is how glad I am to have found you first and learned about Dr Ingham later instead of the other way around. No disrespect meant to her, however $1,500 for a composting course compared to sending you a voluntary donation each month for a world of information….. there’s no comparison. God bless you for sharing so much knowledge with all of us in the spirit of helping.

    About a month or more ago, on the same fellows show who hosted Dr Ingham, he interviewed another “Gardening Expert”. She was interesting and brought you to mind as a portion of her approach was similar to yours. I went to her website out of curiosity. There wasn’t a lot of information there, you needed to sign up for her courses to access it, with no cost disclosed up front, just a message stating the first 72 hours were free. For some reason it made me irrationally angry!

    Food is free. You have taught me that over the time I’ve been following you. Nature provides us everything we need, all we have to do is put in a little bit of work most days and tend to things over the course of the seasons. It’s not hard.

    You’ve simplified gardening and made me more successful than I have ever been at it. And it doesn’t cost me one thin dime, unless I voluntarily choose to contribute to you for the wealth of information you provide.

    I cannot thank you enough for that, and I love you for it. Thanks to you, I’m secure in the knowledge that I’ll be able to feed myself and Susan, whatever the future that’s fast approaching has in store for us. If only there was a cheeseburger tree…….

    As far as a diversity of plants feeding the soil. I’ve been cover cropping with Buckwheat, Winter Rye and White Clover. My garden to most of my neighbors eyes is a patch of weeds. There’s no bare dirt anywhere to be seen. I’ve planted clover in all my paths. I let Wild Violets and Creeping Charlie go wherever they want to go and pull them out where I have to. So I guess that and all the clover everywhere fits in with an understory of low growing plants. I’m also starting to let Plantain grow in the paths this year. Will see how it works out.

    I’m not sure if having clover, wild violets, creeping charlie and plantain covering my paths and the edges of beds will successfully feed the soil food web, but it’s 1,000 times better than bare soil everywhere and combined with using weeds as mulch, (which I would never in a million years have done if not for you), my soil has improved immensely in a fairly short time. Some beds are doing better than others, but compared to 2021… well, there is no comparison.

    Susan is amazed at the change in the garden, thanks to you. She is amazed at what I harvest, bring in and set on the kitchen table, thanks to you. You are the one stop shop for me. I don’t have to pay anyone ridiculous amounts of money for information. Everything I need is here.

    Take care and God Bless,

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