If you want to learn how to build great soil organically, you're in the right place.

In this guide we'll talk about building the healthiest possible soil for your garden or farm and do it with zero chemicals.

If you're tired of wasting money, time, and effort hauling bag after bag of dirt from the local nursery or big box store, this guide is for you.

If you are spending more money on soil than you are on seeds and water, this guide is for you.

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soil rich black held in hand above sandy background
Fluffy chocolate cake dirt is a stark contrast against the native desert sand in the background

If you want to grow some tomatoes without them costing you more than grocery store tomatoes (iykyk), this is the guide for you.

What is Soil, Anyway?

Let's jump into some of the basics here to set the stage for the concepts that I'll cover later.

What even is soil anyway?

Soil is comprised mostly of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, water, trace minerals, and a thriving microbiome of zillions of different micro-&-macroscopic critters.

Check out Soil Components to keep learning about what soil actually is.

Mindset For Soil-Building

Your perspective on soil matters, and there are multiple vantage points to look at dirt from.

For the chemical farmer, soil is an inert sponge. A largely dead medium whose sole purpose is to soak up chemicals and allow plants to draw from them.

For the organic farmer, soil is a holism. An interconnected and complex ecosystem. A harmonious balance equilibrium carefully maintained to allow plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, protists, arthropods, birds, mammals, humans all to thrive.

To the chemical farmer, soil needs to pay the bills this year. There must be good yields now.

To the organic farmer, building healthy soil is a long-term project which requires a vision for the future. Dirt is an investment which will grow in the quality and abundance over time. The land should be left better than one found it, with eyes focused on future generations who must live with our stewardship choices of today.

soil dug out hole in garden plot hay sand desert
The soil from the previous photo was dug out of this desert garden plot, where great soil was painstakingly built over time using regenerative methods

10 Steps For Building Soil Organically

The very first thing I'd suggest is throwing out the idea that your soil will produce exceptional yields in your first year on a plot. Soil-building is a long-term game, there's no substitute for time.

That said, I do understand the need to get up and running quick in certain situations - especially commercial ones. I'll cover some tips and tricks here for speeding up the process, especially in the first year on the land.

1) Start A Compost System

The very first step I would take towards building soil on a new property is starting a compost system.

This could be cold compost, hot compost, a worm farm, a black soldier fly farm, utilize a Bokashi pre-fermentor, etc.

A compost system will likely have much more effect on smaller properties and Gardens than on large farms. Compost can scale, but it's difficult to manage a system large enough to power a farm. It's also difficult to find enough nutrients for the compost.

In small home garden situations, however, compost can be a vital piece of your system.

Check out my article here to learn more about sitting up your own compost system.

2) Assess Existing Soil Condition

Every property in each parcel of land has its own unique soil.

Assessing your existing soil condition before you begin building soil allows you a benchmark against which you can gauge your progress over time.

Check out your existing soil before you start to improve it, so you know what you're working with and what it might need.

Dry sandy soil might need more organic matter in order to hold moisture and increase rainwater infiltration rate. This is common here in the desert.

Clay soils might hang on to too much moisture and have a difficult time draining.

Heavily compacted soils may be difficult for rainwater to permeate through, and give your plant roots a tough time.

I'd also recommend checking out my article here on the soil texture triangle to learn more about the texture and composition of your native soil.

desert sand native soil cracked dry barren dead gardening soil building
Native desert soil is notoriously awful...
but it's the perfect backdrop against which you can gauge if your soil-building is working

3) Assess Environmental Factors, Resources, Climate, And Challenges

Every piece of land has its own climate, with microclimates within it.

Each piece of land comes with its own resources, topography, needs, water access, and challenges.

Understanding your land, it's strengths, and its weaknesses will allow you to plan around available resources and work with the land to utilize it in the best way possible.

Here in the drylands it's paramount that we understand our land topography and how water flows across it, catches, infiltrates, and dissipates.

This allows us to make strategic plans for soil building and moisture retention which are informed by the land.

4) Make A Cover Crop Rotation Plan

Come up with a plan for which cover crops you will utilize on your land to improve your soil.

Understand which seasons you'll be able to grow each unique cover crop in.

Begin with heartier cover crops first if your soil quality is poor.

Here in Tucson, our native soil has less than 1% organic matter content. It is extremely alkaline, with a pH often above a 9.0. it's moisture retention is exceptionally low. It's rainwater infiltration is poor. When it rains, it pours, and our native desert soil does not do a good job of capturing or holding moisture when it does.

As the soil quality improves, so too will its moisture retention, it's drainage, it's pH, nutrient availability, rainwater infiltration rate, etc.

If you started with poor quality soil, it will take a few seasons of heartier cover crops chopped and then dropped in place to begin to improve soil.

Later, you will be able to plan for an expanded array of cover crops as your soil begins to allow for more delicate species to grow.

5) Irrigate

Assuming you are in a dryer climate you will need to irrigate. If you are in a wet region you might not have to and maybe able to ignore this step.

For those of us in the dry lands, we rely heavily on irrigation.

When starting with low quality native soil like we have here in the desert, irrigation needs will be highest in the first year. As soil quality builds and organic matter increases, so too does soil moisture retention.

Each year you improve your soil, it's moisture retention and moisture infiltration rate will both increase.

Where I am in the desert, good dirt is worth more than gold. Once you build great soil, you'll need far less irrigation than most people.

If you do it right, you'll need less water for a given area each year.

6) Seed Cover Crops

You'll want some cover crops as a quick source of carbon.

You'll want other cover crops for their nitrogen fixation.

Carbon-heavy crops that you can chop alongside nitrogen rich crops that you can chop will allow you to create compost in place.

N + C + Water + Biology + Trace Minerals = Compost.

Grabbing a mixed cover crop seed is a great idea here if you're not sure which cover crops to use. You can try a whole bunch at once and observe which ones work best for you and under what conditions.

7) Chop And Drop

Chopping and dropping your cover crops to the ground as they grow allows the clippings to compost in place.

This 'in situ' compost will actively build the next layer of soil right where it's needed.

8) Expand To More Cover Crops As Soil Quality Improves

After the heartier cover crops have started to transform your soil, it will be able to support more fragile cover crop species.

You should expand to a greater diversity of cover crops here, to support more pollinators and build better soil quicker.

9) Begin Planting Main Crops Amongst Cover Crops

Now that your soil quality has improved, you'll be able to support some main crops as you continue to improve with covers.

10) Gradually Move Towards Few Covers And More Main Crops

As the soil quality improves you'll be able to move towards a ratio of more main crops and fewer cover crops.