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Small-Scale Nursery Start-Up Advice

Hey there!

I am a past ECHO intern who is heading to Senegal in about a month to complete a six-month international extension to my internship with Beer-Sheba Project, one of ECHO’s partnering organizations. Beer-Sheba Project is a fully-functioning farm, agro-forestry program, and agricultural resource center for young farmers across West Africa.

My main role will be helping Beer-Sheba get a nursery up and running–mostly of fruit trees, along with some native trees for reforestation and agroforestry.

I understand how important those first few weeks/months of life are for the long-term health of the tree, and how prominent of a role soil quality plays into that in particular.

Does anyone have helpful resources/tips/experiences related to nursery start-ups? Particularly advice for homemade seeding/potting soil mixes using locally available materials that provide high quality soil texture and fertility? (charred rice hulls, coconut coir, compost… etc)

We are already looking at using 50/50 compost and sand as a base, but are interested in what else could increase the quality of the mix. The soil most of these trees will be planted out into is sandy loam at best, and plain sandy for the most part.

I’d appreciate any input on this topic, as well as any other helpful tips dealing with all things nurseries (containers, seedling beds vs bags, etc)

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Hi Emily,

I’m a past ECHO intern, as well, and have some experience with homemade potting soil from my time with ECHO in Florida and Thailand. My ingredients were the same as what you are already looking at (soil, compost, biochar/charred rice hulls) but I do not recall the ratios. That being said, the ECHO seedbank in Thailand regularly made their own potting soil while I was there and would be worth reaching out to (their soil is heavy on the clay though). I believe Patrick Trail is a former intern who currently works there, and Rattakarn Arttawuttikun (Wah) is the seedbank manager. They could probably provide more specific info. Hopefully these arrows of vague direction are helpful.

Jonathan Ribich


I am a missionary in South Sudan doing agricultural development with tree nursery experience in the US and in Kenya and part of your success will be related to how easy you can make the soil with the highest organic matter content. You should incorporate as many business efficiency concepts into your work as possible. That said, compost is a laborious process and the more simple or quick with the least work is going to be best as far as labor efficiency. Often there are large quantities of organic matter under trees (don’t use Eucalyptus or Neem if you can help it) and sometimes it is in other places. I train people to be organic matter scouts and you can keep a tarp in a vehicle for that purpose. People burn their crop stover and you can collect that very quickly and people rake the leaves out of their compounds and then set them to fire. If that does not get you a high volume of organic material then slashing the material you need from nearby or if you have a truck it could be farther away. Do not spend a lot of time turning soil for composting since that will limit time in other important operations and you will find yourself overburdened with the cost of labor or very limited in nursery size. If you have a sprinkler and can water easily then organic matter is not quite as important because one of the main purposes of organic matter is moisture retention and it cuts back on watering frequency. It does however, also help with a lot of other things. Mild preemergent herbicides labeled for tree seedling nurseries if used correctly could save labor in weeding. A couple wonderful products will take grass directly out of your nursery without damaging the seedlings unless you spray them on bamboo (flazaflop and fusilade). Placing a fine leaf mulch one or two inches thick you have saved from the rest of your organic materials in the top of the containers right on top of new weeds as they are emerging will help quite a bit if you are not using preemergents or some escape. This will also help water penetrate very easily no matter how bad your soil is below. Charcoal dust from charcoal preparation is a wonderful addition or alternatively a very limited amount of wood ash will supply some nutrients but too much is not good, particularly if your soil has a relatively high pH. You don’t need manure and you don’t need fertilizer unless you have micronutrient deficiencies. The wood charcoal dust or ash and organic matter will supply the nutrients needed. Organic materials not fully broken down are generally OK since they will compost further in the pot (controlling termites with chemicals is easy) and ensure that your seedling does not have too much nitrogen. Your goal is not to have too much nitrogen so the seedling grows slowly and wider at the stem so it has more survivability in the harsh environment of irregular watering when planted out. Your customer can really push the tree in the rainy season or even in the dry season with mulching and fertilizing but warn them not to use too much right after planting or during the dry season if they contain salts. If your customer will give you advance notice you can put the seedlings into full sun to “harden off”. The real joy of such a project will come when you set up a business model others can emulate who have little start-up capital. You can reach out to street children, the disabled, the single mom, the elderly who not only can come and help and earn income or have their own mini-nursery in your nursery and/or take product and start somewhere else at their home or a busy road or intersection. I have found a way with a small stick and plastic thrown away to make the polypot and I can tell you more about that if interested. Used water bottles are great also with the top and bottom cut out but the side must be cut due to the ripples or you can heat them over fire to get the ripples out. Be sure to learn how to graft and get a good scion or stock plant repository built up so you can add value. Let me know if you want to learn some lesser known advanced grafting techniques. My email is and I can send you materials we have used in training here in East Africa and also give you some guidance for living fence systems and other agroforestry systems that are in common use.


Get a copy of Roland Bunch’s 2nd Edition Restoring the Soil as it has some of the most practical information on agroforestry that is in existence. He has put together the “cream” of what is working and the farmers are using and the way forward for agriculture for small holders in Africa without being burdened with overwhelming task of creating enough mulch or compost for the whole farm (a very exhausting and almost impossible task for the larger small-holder).

Hey Emily,
My name is Marcie Dallmann (writing from my husband Luke’s account), mk from DR Congo and former ECHO intern. I started and ran a small nursery in an isolated area of south-eastern Ethiopia after working in the ECHO nursery awhile. The native soil there was a heavy clay, and it was very difficult to find coarse sand or any other amendment to use in a potting mix. Coconut coir and charred rice hulls were unavailable. When I arrived, I built a compost pile right away, layering greens (mowed grass, weeds, chopped banana stalks), browns (dry leaves) and cow manure and turning the pile when it got hot. Once the compost was ready (about a month), we sifted it and added about 25% of the native clay. I also scraped up organic matter from under some larger trees - mangos, fig, tamarind - to inoculate with some of the native soil bacteria. That mix seemed to work fairly well for the fruit trees and acacias I was growing, providing them with nutrition, water holding capacity and drainage, three big components for a good potting mix.
The soil bags I had access to came as a long tube of plastic. I couldn’t find any of the nice pre-made ones in the capital, but somehow they were available in Congo. To make them usable, we cut the size we needed, melted the ends closed with a candle and punched holes for drainage. At another nursery I visited, they didn’t close the ends of the tubes, just left them open, but that obviously makes the bags difficult to move until they are well rooted out. I had two sizes - tubes about 2-2.5 inches in diameter, and larger ones about 4 inches in diameter. Slow growing, leguminous trees with a tendency to get overwatered did better in the smaller size, while fruit trees preferred the larger size and more organic matter. I like Dan Janzen’s water bottle pots - plastic bottles are everywhere!
Other materials that I’ve seen used in compost mixes across Africa include peanut shells and coffee hulls. Most tropical cities I’ve been to seem to have thriving urban nursery trades (Arusha, Kinshasa, Yaounde), so making friends and visiting nurseries in the cities where you will not be in direct competition might be helpful and fun.
Over the years, ECHO has been connected with several other nurseries in Africa that may be able to tell you what has worked for them. Sowing Seeds in Niger may have similar conditions to what you’ll find in Senegal, but there’s Roy Danforth’s nursery in Central African Republic and the Five F’s project in Injibara, Ethiopia are just a few examples of many. I can try to connect you with them if you’d like, or you may find them on ECHO Community.
If you have other questions, feel free to write to me at I wish you well as you head to Senegal and begin your work!


Hi Emily! Good question, I’m sure many other folks will enjoy seeing these responses come in too. Here is some of the material from ECHO Asia that @Jonathan_Ribich was referring to. Creating an Optimum Potting Mixture for Resource-Constrained Growers in Thailand. I know West Africa will be pretty different, but maybe you can still glean some ideas from this.


This collection might prompt some additional thoughts from the network. Do you have some other ideas that would be helpful to Emily in West Africa?

Wow, thanks everybody for your relevant advice! You’ve given me a lot to think about. I really appreciate hearing directly from y’all and your personal experiences. Articles and resources are awesome and widely available, but hearing you how things have actually gone in the field for you is invaluable. I’ll let y’all know what questions come up after I myself arrive in Senegal and get my hands dirty!