How To Make Soil – Faster

Good soils do vital work. They sequester carbon and nourish the plants. And therefore they nourish us. Here’s how to make soil faster.

There are five components of soil topsoil. Firstly the soil needs air. Secondly, it needs water. Water to get into it – not just to sit on it or run underneath. It needs nutrients. it needs organic matter or OM as some people call it. And it also needs organisms. The organisms allow the good soil to continue to grow – to continue to cycle and make the organic matter into nutrients. Poor soils can offer specialist niches so maybe there are some native plants or adapted food plants that prefer poor soils, particularly poor soils. So, before you set about creating the perfect soil, investigate the value of the existing unusual soils.

macadamia seedling
macadamia seedling

Ground-braking Threats

To make good soil we need to think about the threats or the barriers. Whatever effort we make we don’t want it to be undone. So, we need to consider erosion from flood, wind, and the damage caused by too much sun. T

he next step would be to identify your resources. Look at the vegetation that’s already there perhaps that’s valuable vegetation or perhaps you can take some of it to create better soils. Look for tools that you can repair or borrow. Or are there some tools that you can create? And then, use your waste the waste is a valuable resource. And find ways to build the organisms that are on the site.

The Guardians of Good Earth

Fungi and glomalin are critical to holding soil particles together reducing erosion and supporting the plants. So, if you have young plants. And they don’t have the beneficial fungi and glomalin from their parents, you might need to bring a little bit of that to the site.

Most people will notice the weeds on a site. Some people say a weed is simply a plant out of place. Because a permaculture system works to create a diverse collection of food plants, a weed would therefore be a plant that dominates the food forest and doesn’t support diversity.

And weeds can be indicators. For instance, flat weeds on the bare ground can indicate compaction whereas lush green weeds can indicate an abundance of nitrogen.

Weeds are generally willing workers. They’re pioneer species. They do three main things: They mine poor soils searching for minerals. And then they shelter the earth because nothing else will grow. They go in there first and they shelter the dirt from erosion. And thirdly they do create habitat for animals, especially insects.

a common weed - petty spurge, contains skin medicine worth $130 per script
a common weed – petty spurge, contains skin medicine worth $130 per script

The Good Weed

There are medicinal weeds for instance this common weed that I know is petty spurge. It contains a chemical that my family has been prescribed to reduce their skin cancers. Many weeds are the forefathers of ancient foods. The reason why we don’t eat them now is that humanity has modified many of these foods so that they’re easier to harvest, more palatable and they have less defensive chemicals in them. So, be careful some of them are highly toxic. But some of them are fine.

Sprouting seedpod of Illawarra Flame Tree
Sprouting seedpod of Illawarra Flame Tree

The 5 Components of Good Soil

To create soil we need to think about those five components. These are 1. air, 2. water, 3. nutrients, 4. organic matter, and 5. organisms. By creating those five components we will have good soil. So how do we aerate the ground to accelerate soil creation?

Giving air to your soil

Air needs air. Air lets the micro-organisms breathe and allow water to penetrate. There are loads of ways to add air to the soil. We could dig it – but don’t turn it. Because the minute you turn the soil (especially on thin soils or poor soils) what you’re doing is you’re killing the microorganisms. And their dead bodies become fertilizer. But we can’t afford to do that in thin soils like Australian soils.

Alternatively, we could rip the ground which is like slicing a cake. But not plow it. Because plows can turn it. You could use a keyline plow which just rips like a comb going through the hair. Another way to aerate the soil is to spike it like little stiletto marks all over the surface. But a quick and easy way to start the aeration process is to use earthworms. And you can build your earthworms with no-dig and mulching to hydrate the earth. That is, to put more water into it. We can use keyline irrigation, plan to contour the garden paths. Or use swales and wicking systems. Ultimately mulch reduces evaporation. This includes edible living mulches like sweet potato.

self replenishing living mulch
self replenishing living mulch

Nourish your soil

The easiest way to nourish the soil is to use compost. Compost will help acid soils become less acidic bring them to neutral and it will help acidic soils to become neutral. In some cases, you might want to apply rock dust or ash if the soil is particularly acidic. Adding organic matter creates the compost. And that creates the nutrients anyway. We can add organic matter by mulching the area with prunings or using pioneer plants and then harvesting them.

no dig gardens at Permaculture Visions after 2 years. using waste to create soil - Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW
using waste to create soil – Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW

Waste not

The easiest way to add organic matter is to use waste. Any biodegradable waste can be applied to the soil even if it’s just added to the top to feed the organisms. You have two choices you can try and build up what’s already there to support the existing organisms. Or you can add food and organisms from nearby forests. This is quite a typical traditional method by the French. The French farmers would go into a nearby forest and harvest worms and organic matter from mature trees and bring that into the fields.

In fact, soil organisms are a vital part of the nitrogen cycle. In order to use and continue to generate nutrients, we need organisms. If we do nothing the soil that we are stewards of will most likely erode. Although, in some areas, doing nothing might be the right thing to do! It could allow the earth to heal.

If we follow traditional advice, the soil will grow at about a centimeter every five years. And that’s too slow!

enhanced growth and soil creation in just 2 years - Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW Australia
enhanced growth and soil creation in just 2 years – Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW Australia

Ways to make soil grow faster

The easiest way to build soil is to use our own biodegradable waste either as mulch or in the compost or worm farm. Also, use the weeds. If the weeds are particularly tough you can turn them into liquid manure also known as compost tea. Next time you have a fire make biochar. Biochar is an amazing way to support the microorganisms, After this consider using animals to provide fertilizer weeding and waste conversion. And finally, start a forest with pioneer plants and use them to build your supply of organic matter.

Learn more by enrolling with us PermacultureVisions.

Overwhelmed? – How to Rejuvenate Flooded Soil

Permaculture design reduces risk. Risk causes heartache, resources and effort loss. And one of the greatest risks comes from flood. So, soil scientist, Ian Thomas shows us how to work with nature to heal the soil. And build abundance again.

Perhaps you heard about Australia’s the biggest flood event on record. The flood was heralded as a one-in-hundred year event. But then, a month later, it flooded again. The people in Lismore are famous as creative, resilient and lively. But the latest flood event has shaken the community and destroyed a vital food growing region of the nation.

Ian Thomas, soil scientist, advising flood victims for free

Some of the risks from floods may surprise you. These include contaminated water with sewerage, heavy metals, pesticides washed down from farms and people’s basements. Other chemicals include pollutants from industrial sites such as hydrocarbons from Petrol stations.

The problem with chemical contaminants is that we just don’t know which ones are lurking in there. We can’t smell or taste them. So let’s not assume that’s ok. Contaminant testing gives us peace of mind.

Ian Thomas

Meet Ian Thomas, Foodscaper

Soil is a complex topic. So, Ian offers guiding principles to help people revitalise their gardens. In response to the great flood, he offers a free short course to help flood victims or anyone who feels overwhelmed by deluges.

“When food is grown to be as nutritious as possible, not only does it taste better, last longer, is more nutritious and better for us,
but it’s also easier to grow and has less pest problems”

Ian Thomas, soil scientist and foodscaper

The Danger Period

4-8 weeks after a flood is the period where plants are picking up contaminants. Assume flooded plants are contaminated, use gloves. Remove food plants or give them a heavy prune to stimulate regrowth. Any plant tissue that grows later, will be ok. Compost the contaminated plant material but don’t use this compost on your food gardens. Use it on ornamental plants.

leafy greens catch and store contaminates

Do plants eat contaminates?

Leaf crops are the worst crops for absorbing contamination because they have a large surface area. And the leaf is transpiring moisture and the moisture after the flood leaf crops absorb toxins and biohazards.

On the other hand, fruits don’t transpire. Fruits that didn’t get flooded, are the least likely part of a plant to gather toxins. This is because the plant doesn’t want to pollute it’s offspring. For root crops, more toxins are held in the skin than in the centre.

Key Flood Recovery Steps

First up, get your soil tested. Then, dispose of any plant tissue that were flooded. Compost the material for ornamental gardens. Let them go and start afresh. Don’t risk your health. Prune hard to stimulate new growth.

Next step, rejuvenate your soil to fast track the natural decontamination ability of soil micro-organisms. Soil microbes can eat toxic compounds and harmful bacteria.

Decontaminant with Plants

Rather than use harsh chemicals which kill vital soil organisms. Plants are effective decontaminants. Phyto-remediation uses plants to immobilise, degrade and remove contaminants. The star helpers for Phyto-remediation are Sunflowers, brown mustard, corn and maize, brassicas, broad beans, radishes, lettuce, sorghum, barley and oats.

Phyto-remediation plants mop up a wide range of contaminants. Image by Ian Thomas

Clever little soil microbes

Soil microbes enhance phytoextraction. But in the short term they have the potential to increase contaminant solubility, improve mobility of contaminants. But they work to modify soil conditions such as the pH, redox and mineral balance. Using plants to address the issues of contamination gives the best long term results.

worms and microbes are willing workers

Rejuvenate your soil with plants. Buy bulk cheap seed to mop up contaminants. Soak and inoculate the seeds with compost. Loosen the soil surface (wear a mask in case of contaminated dust). Cover the area with mulch thinly. Thin the plant for maximum photsynthesis. Then remove the plants before flowering or fruiting. Compost them on ornamental garden beds.

Ian addresses the next steps in upcoming videos. He goes on to demonstrate how to assess and improve the soil structure (part 2/5). Boost soil microbial activity (part 3/5). Grow as many plants as possible to help boost community food security part 4/5). Check out Ian’s channel and find him on FB and Instagram.

Thank you Ian Thomas for another great example of how to work with nature to heal the environment.

Difference between a Swale, a Trench and Channel

If only everything about Permaculture was exciting as trenches and swales. Knowing the different surface water management tools such as a swale, trench or channel improves every permaculture plan. It prepares us for drought as much as flooding rains.

Channels know where they are going, and get on with it. Whereas, a trench needs to get full before it looks for an exit. But the humble swale hugs the land, and lets it all sink in.


Let’s start with the humble trench a trench is a long hole in the ground it can capture the water and it can hold it whereas a ditch can capture and hold water but it usually gets the water to run away. To move away, for example, from a road or paddocks. In permaculture design we want to use the water at least three times before filtering it and sending it away.


Hugelkultur uses berms made out of wood and leaf litter. These berms run slightly off the contour so that the water, frost and snow can keep moving down the hill.

Interception Berm made of leaves and prunings


Berms (mounds) when positioned well can trap or guide water. In this instance, the water originally ran straight down towards the house. So, ta berm worked to trap the water and made the garden more productive. In another example a berm became a swale instend of digging. On our property is very difficult to dig. It takes hours to dig a trench or swale. The soil is solid clay which is good for making pottery. So mounds are easier to construct.


In the 1970s Emile Hazeslip coined the term synergistic gardens. She created diverse microclimates and different levels of moisture for the different plants. These gardens were productive and almost doubled the surface area for growing.


A swale is a combination of a trench and a berm and it sits on the contour line. The water in swale doesn’t travel downhill. It just sits there and seeps into the berm below.

Often a swale is shaped as a wide shallow trench (like a pan) with a berm below. Conveniently, the soil dug out of the trench creates the berm. When the trench is shallow and wide it forms a gentle pathway.

swale temporarily holding rainwater at Permaculture Sydney Institute

Making the pathways inside a shallow trench is handy for compacting that soil and to keep the garden accessible. That’s because we tend to clear the pathways as we work. We actively reduce any trip hazards. also, we rarely go in the garden when it’s raining heavily. So, when the pathway fills with water but move off quickly. Meanwhile we relax indoors as the flow of water works to clear away debris.

At this farm called Conscious Ground in Mullumbimby, the berm looks really tall. But in fact it’s on a steep slope. This food forest has a wide level trenches and berms on contours across the slope. [If you want help understanding contours, see our student tutorial on mapping and elevation].

The trench is wide enough for several people to walk along together and is accessible by machinery.


Ditches are common water management devices for flatlands with little runoff but they can also be the start of erosion channels. When there’s nothing holding the soil together, the ditch is destructive. Drip by drip, the life in the soil washes away. In this patch of sparsely covered lawn a gully has started. In fact, erosion commonly starts with just a little ditch between a road and a fence

What makes the best swale?

A swale needs three things: a trench, a downhill berm and plants. It needs plants uphill to stop the swale from silting up. And the swale needs plants downhill to prevent erosion by wind, water or animals.

Water distribution channels

Channels work well on large properties (housing developments or broadacre farms). Keyline designs channels to move water from wet areas to dry ridges. Unlike a swale, trench or berm, Keyline channels slowly distribute water. Keyline planning works closely with the contours, the rainfall and soil type.


Plant growth is dependent on access to water. Creating a plans to manage the water naturally builds abundance. And your food forest journey begins.

Zone 5 Feeds Our Unique Ecosystem

Wildlife is a vital part of the whole ecology of a permaculture site. Dick Copeman campaigns for sustainability for humanity and the forgotten wildlife creatures in our delicate ecosystem.

Dr Dick Copeman is a humble leader full of inspiring ideas. He is one of the founders of Northey Street City Farm in 1994, and still involved in the Farm. Originally a medical doctor, Dick has also worked as a campaigner on food policy, fair trade and sustainability issues. He has a Diploma in Permaculture. And has co-authored the book ‘Inviting Nature to Dinner’ available at earthling enterprises . Here shows us how to integrate more wildlife in our permaculture designs.

Wildlife is a vital part of the whole ecology of a permaculture site.

No place on the planet is complete without
its full range of species.

Dick Copeman
Native Rosella Hibiscus with tiny insects at Shoalhaven Heads Native Botanic Garden
beautiful and tasty food for us as well as wildlife
Native Rosella Hibiscus with tiny insects at Shoalhaven Heads Native Botanic Garden

Wildlife Builds Diverse Ecologies

Each site has specific species who have, over millennia, shaped their own ecology. Each site has an unique ecosystem. The site needs this full and complex ecology to function effectively.

Dick says “If we diminish that wildlife by clearing habitat [and by ‘wildlife’ I include plants as well], excess degradation and too much disturbance well… the site is poorer. Many ‘permies’ realize this and they try their best to incorporate wildlife. I could see that that invertebrates are a very important part of wildlife that are often not acknowledged or overlooked in this whole scheme.

Common brown butterfly Seven mile beach 
National Park
beautiful wildlife
Common brown butterfly at Seven Mile Beach National Park

Tiny Beings, Big Mass of Wildlife

Invertebrates are by far the biggest number of species and the biggest amount of living biomass on any site. They fly around, burrow in the soil and swim in the water. So, in the food web, invertebrates are important mediators. They translate food into energy.

Predatory wasp nymph eating spider that mum stored in nest. Valuable wildlife
Predatory wasp nymph eating spider that mum stored in nest

Many permaculture designers had this idea of you have your intensive veggies in zone one and your fruit trees in zone two. And it’s not till zone four or five that you really have native plants to provide the habitat for your your native insects and other invertebrates. Sure, they provide habitat for native slaters, worms and millipedes and all those provide recycling and decomposing. But what we’re experimenting with at northeast street and in the book is mixing and matching native plants with exotic food plants. And also highlighting the role of native foods, or bush foods. And encouraging people to to grow more of them.

Book 'Inviting Nature to Dinner' promotes incorporation of wildlife

Bush Foods Feed Us Too

“I don’t think 25 million Australians… will ever be able to feed themselves totally on bush food plants. Because we’re no longer hunter-gatherers, like the original people were, with a much lower population rate. But there are many bush foods that we could be eating more. And the thing we highlight in the book is that those bush foods support or provide food for many more native insects and other invertebrates than our exotic food plants.

Bush lollies - walking stick palm Linospadix monostachyos 
very edible wildlife and people food
Linospadix monostachyos- Bush Lollies

Some exotic plants food plants support native insects but nowhere near the rate that the native plants will. And even with the exotic food plants we can still incorporate a lot of native plants in amongst our orchards and food forests. Native plants assist in enriching the soil. And they attract pollinators and herbivores to help with cycling of nutrients.

Rediscover Indigenous ‘Good Bug’ Mixes

“So what we’re experimenting with, (and finding good results) is incorporating native plants instead of exotics. A lot of permaculture people will plant good bug mix to bring in predatory wasps that will predate on caterpillars that might be eating our tomatoes or our corn”. But the good bug mix usually uses exotic plants like Queen Anne’s lace. “We know you can provide a much better effect through planting native plants. And get more support for your whole ecosystem. We’re hoping to be able to demonstrate that it really does work!” says a very happy Dick Copeman.