The Dirty World of Compost and Soil Amendments

You can't have a great garden without great soil—which is why you need someone like Mike McKain.
Cal Blend's leaf-based compost. (Photo: Taylor Orci)
Sep 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Orci is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on NPR and and in New York Magazine and The Atlantic.

It's easy to have a love/hate relationship with "green" buzzwords. Take "reclaimed" and "upcycled," for example. Is it a great idea to reuse things to make cool stuff? Absolutely. Should that stuff cost hundreds of dollars? That's contentious. Not like this is the first time marketing befouled an ideal ($375 'Vintage 90's Punk Leather Jacket' anyone?), so when people incidentally hold up so-called green ideals for practical reasons, it's refreshing.

Take Mike McKain and his Los Angeles-based company Cal Blend Soils. Cal Blend's whole deal is about reuse, and McKain's passion for all things dirt is as compelling as the story of how his business came to be. It started when he was a kid, helping his grandfather, who had crippling arthritis, out in the garden. "I hated it," he recalls. And just like turning trash into treasure, his hate turned into, well—

"I stopped hating gardening when I grew my first marijuana plant," he remembers. "My parents didn't know what it was. My Dad pruned it. It grew even better!" Although McKain says he didn't smoke the stuff, he did give it away to friends. "That's when I realized, 'Hey, I can do something with this!' " It's good McKain saw use in his gardening skills, because when his parents kicked him out of the house at age 17, he didn't have much else. "I literally went knocking on doors, asking folks if I could do some gardening for them."

Fast forward to his early twenties: McKain procured a few accounts, and was looking to expand. "I had an account that had a lot of waste wood. I asked them, 'Where you take that?' they said, 'The dump.' I asked if I could take it off their hands, they said, 'Sure.' " From there, McKain borrowed enough money to buy his first upcycling tool, a hand-fed grinder the size of a task chair. He used it to turn waste wood into a usable product: mulch. Soon after, he was making organic soil amendments out of other materials his clients were throwing away.

"My first company name was California Blend Compost," McKain says. "My first logo was a cartoon horse wearing a hat taking a dump." The 'dump' part being an homage to the horse waste he was hauling away for another client. McKain then used his own compost to start a nursery.

Now, the "soil" in Cal Blend Soils is the tip of a curiously fascinating iceberg. They're the behind the scenes dirt providers for stuff we love but take for granted, like the gravel for hiking paths, the dirt for baseball diamonds and pitcher's mounds (these things are different). During my tour, Mike walked past a large pile of discarded logs. "Production companies rent these out for movies commercials, but I get them cause they're someone else's trash."

Considering McKain's practical approach to an integrated business and product development, his sudden interjection of words like "cationic exchange" can be surprising. But it's a reminder that this guy knows his stuff, but he keeps perspective. "People try to make brain surgery out of this. It's not," he says. Although Cal Blend's list of over 45 soil blends and amendments might make you think otherwise.

Everything McKain has developed has grown out of his own personal need. For example, his leaf post, a compost blend heavy on tree leaves, was developed after noticing grass clippings didn't make for good compost. "Grass is full of pesticides, and it lays flat in the green waste bins. Not much air can circulate, and then anaerobic bacteria come in and the smell is awful."

A company like Cal Blend is also the place to call when you need soil for a larger project such as a garden plot in a community garden. "All our receptionists are trained to walk people through the process of what they really need," says McKain. "If they call asking for 'topsoil'—chances are, they don't know what they want." And clearly there's more to dirt than just dirt.