The Soil BioPack story – a behind the scene look at
long last Soil BioPacks are available. We now have a product
which looks really good, or as good as what looks at first
sight to be nothing more than a box of soil can look.
Now with the delays in getting the Soil BioPacks into
production many of you may have guessed developing these
Soil BioPacks has not been as straight forward as may have
appeared at first. It has certainly been a challenge, but an
educational one, so I thought for this newsletter I would
tell the story – warts and all.
But before I start a warning. Before you even think about
buying a Soil BioPack you need to think about whether
adopting a system of growing using soil biology is really
Most food in the world is produced by a system of
chemically based mono-culture. Let us face facts this is the
most efficient and economical way of producing food in bulk.
The negatives are that the food is often lacking in trace
mineral which are important for health and often the produce
is picked before it is ripe so the plants do not have a
chance to produce the phytochemicals which are important for
Organic farming recognised the dangers of excessive use
of chemicals but the emphasis has been on avoiding toxic
chemicals rather than the positive benefits of improving
Growing based on soil biology has the aim of increasing
the mineral content and the important phytochemicals need
for health by relying on the soil biology to release
minerals otherwise locked up in the soil and allowing plants
to ripen naturally and be eaten quickly after harvesting.
The principles are good but there are some serious practical
issues that need to be explained upfront.
First soil biology, particularly the critical mycorrhizal
fungi are delicate and easily damaged by working the soil,
they are living creatures that need looking after, it is not
a simple question of sprinkling a little powder on the soil
and hey presto all the problem are solved.
A certain area of land must be sacrificed to provide
a permanent refuge for the critical soil biology and the
working of the soil must be minimised.
Secondly soil biology is a working eco-system.
This means abandoning the nice neat clean soil and
organised vegetable beds that many growers take great pride
in. It means a system of interacting plants and biology,
this inevitably means the soil is no longer nice, neat and
tidy but can honestly look a bit of a mess.
Crops are often grown alongside plants which are host
for the soil biology. The right hosts should not compete
with the crops and often will assist in their growth. But if
you are a tidiness freak then growing using soil biology is
definitely not for you.
Thirdly a multi culture system with highly fertile soil
is a natural magnet for weeds. The customary herbicides used
to control weeds can quickly destroy the soil biology.
Growing using soil biology does not lend itself to
mechanisation so it means substituting the energy saved from
no-till growing with hand weeding.
If these have not put you of let’s get to the story of
the Soil BioPacks.
Once upon a time (in reality about forty years ago) I had
watched the red clouds of soil spreading across the sky -
millions of tonnes of top soil were lost in these dust
Realising that soil is the basis of all life on earth I
decided that I would take up the challenge of learning how
to regenerate soil. This is the story of that challenge.
Now all good stories should have a beautiful heroine and
some baddies or monsters. Unfortunately for this story
beautiful heroines are a bit light on, but we certainly have
lots of monsters, may be a little on the small side but
certainly not lacking in evil intents or ferocity.
Old time farmers
Now I said the story started forty years ago, that’s not
quite true, it really started 4,000 years ago when the
Chinese developed a system of agriculture (see Farmers of
Forty Centuries www.gutenberg.org) which sustainably fed a
population at least double the population of current USA.
Nature was partly on their side with massive
mountains which resulted in flooding which killed large
numbers of people but covered the land in mineral rich soil.
Drought also killed many people with no side
benefits. Nature is never totally benevolent.
Now contrast this with the USA where the pioneers found
some of the richest soils in the world which could grow
hungry crops like tobacco. This made some farmers very rich,
for a time at least, but within a couple of generations the
soil was so badly depleted it was barren - but no problems -
just abandon it and move a bit further West, chop down the
native forests and hey presto more beautiful farmland (at
least for a while).
If you want to see the modern version - take a
holiday to Brazil.
These early pioneers had little understanding of soil
chemistry but science did eventually come to the rescue
producing powerful chemical fertilisers to provide the
plants with the main nutrients they need.
If you want to see how effective these chemicals can
be come back from your Brazilian holiday via Israel where
they are growing fine looking fruit and vegetables in
nothing more that desert sand.
When my story started some forty years ago I was pretty
ignorant about what makes soils soil (like many people at
that time). But
I could see that there was more to soil than just its
chemistry, there is the soil structure, without structure
you can have a soil which is like concrete when dry and soup
when wet - not good for growing.
So I started to experiment with additives to improve
structure. I quickly
learned that just adding ‘magic powders’ is just a waste of
time. The only thing that worked was to keep the soil moist
and grow something - anything but I had no idea about the
mechanism of how it was working.
Now I know it is the soil biology, particularly fungi
that gives it the structure.
did learn about the benefits of adding mushroom compost and
much later saw the benefits of fungi from the fairy rings on
a bit of waste land on my block.
The growth inside the ring was far more luxuriant
It was only when I attended a lecture by John Crawford of
Sydney University that I began to understand how fungi
fundamentally change the soil by making myriad fine passages
throughout the soil all bound together by sticky exudates.
Exudates, probably the most valuable but underrated material
I learned about the synergistic relations between plants
and mycorrhizal fungi and became fungiphilic. As I studied
deeper I learned just how complex fungi and their
relationships with plants really are, with a bewildering
number of fungi and an even more complex coupling of types
of specific types of fungi and their chosen host plants.
A while later I began to learn about trace elements,
mineral and phytochemicals which play a profound effect on
human health. The nearest character in this story to a
beautiful heroine is my wife Xiulan who contracted diabetes,
which forced me to study the effect of diet on health.
Food food everywhere
The story of soil is not a happy story; we now have the
most efficient agricultural system the world has ever seen.
We have a world surplus of food - it is so cheap and
plentiful that we waste some 30%. I know that there are some
billion people that are undernourished but that is not
because there is no food, it is the results of an intrinsic
failure in human nature which prevents us reaching sensible
and practical political solutions.
(See tonight’s news, whether it is the USA Congress
holding the world to ransom or some terrorist group).
Now maybe I suffer a bit from delusions but I am
realistic enough to recognise that neither he USA Congress
nor Al-Shabaab are going to take any notice of an old fogey
from Gin Gin Queensland.
However I do have a lot of land, and live in a good
climate with an adequate supply of water from a system of
dams so at least I can attack the problem of how I can grow
quality food to help Xiulan with her diabetes.
Theory and practise
Now thanks to my good friend Mr Google and Mr Kindle of
Amazon fame, and my odd habit of waking up at 5 in the
morning and reading for a couple of hours I do have access
to a wealth of information.
I can read all about the theoretical information on
mycorrhizal fungi with their almost infinite number of
I can find an equally almost infinite number of
practical ‘how to books’ on gardening, composting,
permaculture etc., but I just cannot find that magic
practical book on ‘how to grow and care for mycorrhizal
I had access to a lot of good scientific information, but
it was not helping my specific problem of cultivation the
But sometimes in life it pays to go out and do things
even if you are not sure what you are doing - so I purchased
a variety of fungi, read the instruction manual which made
it all seem so easy, and tried inoculating the plants I
wanted to grow.
It was not a great success.
True it sometimes did work sometimes, and I could see
the fungi attaching to the roots of the plants but it was
not a reliable process, nothing like sprinkling a few radish
seed onto the soil and coming back a week later to see all
the shoots. Radish seeds cost me $2 and always worked,
fungal spores cost me $200 and sometimes worked and
I learned that plants actually have to invite the fungi
to bond by exuding chemical triggers into the soil which
attract the fungi.
If the soil is too rich, as in a heavily fertilised
vegetable patch, the plants will simply not bother to put
out the triggers so the fungi does not attach.
Again if there is not enough calcium in the soil they
Without the fungi it is easy enough to feed the plants
the primary chemicals (N,P,K) needed for their growth but
may they miss out on the critical trace elements and
minerals which really need the enzymes and intense pressure
of the fungal hyphae to release and make available to the
So here I was, paying $200 a kilograms for special fungi
imported from the US and most was just going to waste - I
needed a new approach.
Missing the obvious
sometimes I get a bit cross with myself when I am being
stupid and not seeing the obvious.
I live in an eco-village on a bush block.
On three sides there is bushland, on the forth there
is an abandoned house which has gone feral.
The picture shows the fungal rings which just appear,
as if by magic, on my block. Every time I dig in my garden I
see the evidence of fungi.
What had I
done to create the little fairy fungal rings that improved
growth on my block?
Absolutely nothing - nature had done it all.
Rather than stay in bed reading all those high
powered articles on mycorrhizal fungi what I really needed
to do was get out of bed and see how nature does it.
In the dry like now you could walk around my block and
sign of fungi - that is until you get to the areas I
irrigate where there is plenty to see.
But wait until the rainy season comes.
There is literally fungi everywhere - every
conceivable shape and colour, the bright red ones with the
spots look particularly ferocious but I have a rule - I
leave them alone and hope they leave me alone - and I can
run faster than a mushroom.
So far that rule seems to have worked even with the
snakes that visit us in the wet.
Obviously the fungal spores are being blown onto my block
(together with weed and other seeds) but any one spore
probably has a one in a million chance of mating up with a
suitable host to create a new mycorrhizal fungal colony. But
that is not really a true picture of what is happening.
Once a fungus has attached to a plant is stays there
living in this symbiotic relationship - every year it grows
and extends it web to other suitable plants nearby.
It does this year after year - fungi are very long
lived so it does not really matter if the majority or even
all of its spores are lost in any one year - there is always
So the answer seemed pretty clear - just get a living
plant which is already inoculated with fungi and this can
then be transplanted somewhere else to recreate a new
simple and it is - but this is when the problems start.
The first question is what plants to select as the host,
knowing that there are specific fungi for specific host
there was only one fungus for each specific type of plant
this would completely ruin this approach but this is not the
way nature works.
First any one type of plants may support a whole range of
different fungal species, it may have preferred fungi but it
will host many types, secondly plants in nature do not
generally grow in a mono-culture, they seem to benefit from
having a whole range of other species around.
I am not sure I understand how these symbiotic
relationships between plants work but neither is it
necessary to understand everything. It is really nice to
understand the scientific mechanism, but it you cannot just
observe how it works as a system.
If this argument seems a bit of a cop out, an excuse for
ignorance - think about sex, people have been having sex and
reproducing for hundreds of thousands of years probably with
very little understanding of how it works or what it is all
about - but we are here so it has worked fine.
Eco systems – natures war zone
So my aim became to create a balanced eco-system of
plants and soil biology with the plants providing the energy
and the biology providing the plants with nutrients and a
beneficial soil structure.
I live in an eco-village which is supposed to have a
natural balance, but there are very few spots left in the
world with a purely natural eco system.
In our village we have inevitably modified the
environment; the most obvious impact is the water in our
dams which has led to the mass breading of kangaroos, duck,
water hens etc.
Natural eco-systems are not all creatures and plants
living in a perfect natural harmony, its competition for
survival as were just shown to me.
A kookaburra was sitting on my veranda railing while
I was eating my lunch, I threw him a piece of my lunch but
he never got it, from nowhere a butcher bird flew in
catching the food in mid-flight.
If our cricketers could catch like that we would rule
the cricket world.
I spend a lot of my time fighting the effects of living
in an eco-system. There are the kangaroos. Many people think
kangaroos are so cute and cuddly, they may well be but they
are highly destructive, when they get into my block they
will simply tear down the plants and trees for no apparent
reason (I think with the males it is some form of sexual
have been building a fence around my place which gets higher
and higher as they learn to jump over it; you need at least
two metres to keep a kangaroo out.
I thought I was winning but now am plagued with rabbits
that go under or through my fence.
That’s my next challenge, but after that there is the
ducks and the swamp hens who just love my wicking beds.
Then there are the weeds, so many seeds just blown in on
the wind waiting for a bit of water so they can take over.
But it is not all bad news, the wind and the animals and
birds are the very carriers of the soil biology onto my
block. It is a question of learning to manage an eco-system
for mutual benefit.
Save the bush
It would be theoretically possible to go out to the
virgin bush and simply collect BioPacks already loaded with
a balanced eco-system.
It would also be illegal and totally destructive,
that is exactly what the early Americans did.
They would also be so full of pests and weeds that there
would be a lot of very angry customers.
We need a controlled eco-system.
Grandmothers, mothers and daughters
The way I see it is that we must dedicate a certain area
of land to soil regeneration. The native bush is like a
grandmother providing the basic life for soil regeneration.
We need to take the benefits of this natural bush to create
a controlled daughter eco system, this is the BioPacks.
When these BioPacks mature in customers gardens they
become mothers providing the benefits of soil biology to a
wider area which continuously expands.
However we should not dig or work this biology reservoir,
working the soil kills the fungi.
The reservoir or refuge has in turn has to be left
undisturbed so the biology can go about its business of
mothering the next generation of soil biology.
It may seem wasteful to set aside a certain area
simply for soil regeneration but this is currently the only
way I can see a sustainable system working.
My soil is naturally full of biology but I want to allow
easy access to biology from the surrounding environment.
This sounds good but has one major snag, weeds and
pests also want to join the party.
I do not want to use herbicides or pesticides to
control these; the result is an awful lot of hand weeding to
keep them in control.
In fact hand weeding is the biggest single expense in
producing the BioPacks and cannot be guaranteed 100%.
Plants provide the energy and carbon
So to summarise with my Soil BioPacks I aiming for a
controlled eco system in which the plants and biology work
together but competition from the baddies is minimised.
Plants are critical, their energy from photosynthesis
provide the energy and carbon, in the form of sugars which
powers the entire eco system.
You cannot have an eco-system without plants - they
provide the energy from sunlight and the carbon from the
At one time I thought all I needed to do was to select
just one plant as a host. I wanted a plant that would act as
a host for the fungi (and other soil biology) and grow
alongside crops without being too invasive but would spread
in a manageable way.
I thought I had hit the jack pot with Gota Kola which
seemed to fit all these requirements. This was my Mark 1
This is a medicinal herb but what I really like about
Gota is that is makes a really good ground cover around
vegetables. I know many people like to have a nice clean
soil around their plants but I just don’t like to see bare
soil, even if covered with mulch, I just like green mulch
which is making use of all the sunshine that would otherwise
go to waste on bare soil. Soil biology needs feeding and the
energy come from the photosynthesis of the plants.
The great thing about Gota is it is not too aggressive so
can give a green mulch without outcompeting other plants.
Sounds fine in theory but what about practise? I had real
problems growing Gota in isolation (as was my original plans
for the BioPacks). I
don’t quite understand the mechanism but is just seems to
need other plants nearby to grow well. This picture shows a
tomato plant growing quite happily in a clump of Gota Kola.
I was lucky because I failed.
Gota Kola may be very difficult to grow in isolation,
but in the natural state it grows exceptionally well but in
combination with other plants like grasses and weeds. I went
to all the trouble of carefully preparing ‘pure’ plants and
tried to propagate them - I may have failed but in a
perverse way this was a major success - a learning
Combination of plants
My ‘lucky’ failure with Gota Kola in isolation has made
me realise the benefits of having a combination of plants.
It made me realise that I should not be looking for that
one magic plant which is a perfect mother for the biology -
that is just not the way nature works. I have always been an
advocate for the synergistic benefits of companion planting
without really knowing why.
I should be looking of a combination of plants which work
The challenge is to select the right combination of
Tap roots and fibrous roots
Now this may be such a simplification that it may not
meet the approval of horticulturists but I think of plants
as either having tap roots, or mat roots (often called
If there are any other root enthusiasts out there that
think roots are more exciting than what grows above ground
then ‘Roots Denystified’ by Robert Kourik is a good read (as
usual available from Amazon).
Gota Kola is a tap root plant and my hunch is that it
needs a fibrous or mat root plant as a companion.
It is well known that plants transfer water between
themselves, particularly when mycorrhizal fungi is present,
so may be this is the mechanism.
I decided to choose two types of plants, those that form
a deep tap root and those that form a mat root.
Tap roots are highly beneficial for extracting nutrients
from deep in the soil, fibrous roots are better able to
extract moisture from the soil and readily link to fungi.
Together they work better in combination.
Tap rooted plants
For the tap rooted plants after much experimenting I am
sticking with Gota Kola but have gone to my old friend Senna
Senna is the best soil regeneration plant I know, (Arrow
Root is the second) it is a legume with a strong root system
which is extremely effective at extracting minerals,
particular phosphorous from deep in the soil. The leaves are
rich and luxuriant and make an excellent mulch or compost.
It is a desert plant with very deep roots which compliments
the Gota which is a swamp plant with shallower roots.
I had almost decided against Senna as I thought it may be
just too aggressive for a small wicking bed but I changed my
it is coppices so well. You can cut it right down to
ground level and it will simply spring back up again with
what appears to be a new tree.
The roots may be a bit aggressive but I am finding I
can grow vegetables right alongside and as far as I can see
they grew as well if not better than vegetables growing in
isolation. This is understandable as they will bring up
water and nutrients from deep in the soil and through the
mycorrhizal fungi share with other plants that are part of
the fungal web.These pictures show Kang Kong and lettuce
growing quite happily in combination with Gota Kola and
The only snag I can see with Senna is that is sensitive
to frost, however frost may kill all the above ground
foliage but they just pop back up again when the warmer
Another snag is that it does tend to attract cabbage
whites which lay their eggs in the seeds pods.
That does not seem to damage the plant much but I
like to grow Chinese vegetables like BokChoi etc. which the
cabbage whites just love.
Mat or fibrous rooted plants
I have experimented with a range of the mat root plants.
Some grasses, like Couch, formed an excellent mat, they
are great for the soil biology and are so dense that the
help supress the weeds so in many ways they are the ideal
fibrous rooted plants for BioPack.
The negative is that they are very aggressive for the
don’t want customers complaining the BioPacks had taken over
their garden. For the time being I am just going to let the
customers decide whether they want the benefits of the of
using grasses and will put up with the extra work of
controlled the spread of the grass.
Clover seems a natural second choice, particularly as the
rhizobium bacteria are readily available, but the last thing
I want is a monoculture so I have been evaluating a range of
Mint and Lemon Balm looked a little aggressive while
Oregano and Dill seemed a little delicate however the
parsleys, Italian and Curled seemed a good balance and so
have been selected as the primary herb but I am making up a
herbal mix to add to the BioPacks.
The primary criterion is the ability of the root
structure to support the soil biology but obviously it is
nice to have useful plants which have health benefits.
It has also been suggested that plants like the marigolds
may be useful for controlling nematodes. Experimentation
never seems to stop.
Adding the biology
I may be fortunate in having a biologically active soil
to start with but that is not enough so I am buying in the
critical components like mycorrhizal fungi, rhizobium
bacteria, compost activators and worms from the specialist
suppliers and using these to help build up a working
Mycorrhizal fungi are the most likely to be deficient in
worked soils as they are easily damaged and the most
difficult component of the soil biology to build up yet they
play one of the most crucial roles in the soil.
They therefore form a key plank of the BioPacks.
While I have worked to improve the natural mycorrhizal
fungi in my soil I am combining these with commercially
These I add to the beds, initially by dosing the
roots with the fungal spores, then reinforcing by pouring
water containing spores into holes leading to the root zone.
I keep on doing this until the fungi have clearly
Individual BioPacks are then cut from the bed ensuring
that only a small proportion of the bed is disturbed and the
plants and fungi can readily regenerate to make the next
batch of BioPacks.
At the moment, while the system matures, I am also adding
extra spores to individual BioPacks as they are prepared for
distribution - a bit of a belt and braces approach.
There is a basic law in plant nutrition called the law of
minimum, which basically says that the plant growth is
restricted by the component in shortest supply regardless of
how much other nutrients are in excess.
In the time of the American farmers destruction of the
Eastern farmland nitrogen was the limiting nutrient, there
was simply not enough manure available, the only readily
available source of external nitrogen.
The development of the Haber Bosch process in the
Second World War removed that limitation and replaced it
with the limitation of the size of the wallet.
Our increasing understanding of the technology of
fertilisers has meant that now plants are rarely restricted
by a lack of the N,P,K nutrients.
This has led to a greater focus on the secondary
nutrients. However the reality is that we humans need a much
wider range of nutrients, particularly the trace elements,
than plants. The commercial reality is that it is perfectly
possible to produce great looking produce which sell well in
the stores but which fail to provide us with the minerals
and the complex chemicals, like the vitamins and the
phytochemicals needed for human health.
I am therefore adding these trace elements and minerals
to the BioPacks.
Two choices were open for the supply of minerals, rock
dust from a quarry or custom blended minerals packs.
The mineral packs were selected despite the much
higher price as they had a much better structure and a
Customers may be happy adding additional minerals in the
form of the very cheap quarry dust or the higher prices
trace element packs into the body of their beds.
Properly prepared compost is the most practical method of
increasing the microbial action of the soil. I am purchasing
compost from Wide Bay Composts with the excellent advice of
Mike Harrison. They take great care in managing the biology
and make use of seaweeds products which are excellent for
encouraging biological action.
I have experimented with commercial compost accelerators
which are source of concentrated bacteria.
My current view is that as I am using high quality
commercial compost in which the bacteria is very carefully
controlled that additional accelerators are not needed.
Worms play a critical role both improving soil texture
but particularly distributing the soil biology.
Bacteria may breed very fast but don’t have legs so
without the larger, mobile components of soil biology will
stay in one spot.
Fungi grow at a much slower rate but will slowly expand
into adjacent soil.
The worm eggs are supplied by Kookaburra Worm Farms where
George Mingin has been extensively involved in the wicking
bed development. He is producing a special blend of worms,
the traditional composting worms which tend to remain in one
area and the much large Amynthus worms which are highly
mobile so make excellent carriers of soil biology.
Eggs are much more reliable during transport than live
worms although it takes a few months before they are mature
enough to start breeding.
Packaging and distribution
One of the issues in developing the BioPack is postage.
My original plan was to use relatively small packs
which would be cheap to post.
Obviously I wanted to keep the cost of the BioPacks
and postage as low as possible, after all they are just an
inoculant. However there was a learning experience here too,
there is simply a minimum size for a viable
ecosystem. I have now upgraded the size of the pack to a
152mm cube which using some vermiculite can be kept within
the 3 Kg limit.
have tried posting grown plants with foliage but it is
really not all that practical. The soil and foliage were
mixed together. I sometimes wonder if Australia Post has a
special vibrating machine to mix up the contents of the
I have therefore adopted the practise of trimming all
plants to the top of the box and packing the remaining
foliage in vermiculite so the box is packed tightly.
After looking at pictures of the Soil BioPacks in full
foliage this may lead to a bit of disappointment in opening
the box to find no visible plants - but with a bit of water
and sun the plants soon refoliate.
At the moment I am shipping the Soil BioPacks directly to
customers. The cost of a Soil BioPack is $28 each and $15
for postage plus an extra $3 for each additional Biopack.
You can pay by direct transfer (A/c details with
confirmation of order) or PayPal.
If I can persuade he coaches to distribute the Soil
BioPacks then the final customers can see the ecosystem at
work. Obviously the ideal solution would be for coaches to
incorporate the Soil BioPack into their completed wicking
beds offered for sale.
I am attaching a flier for the Soil BioPacks and have
stocked up on supplies so let us hope they take off.