Getting the Dirt on Dirt

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I have been up to my armpits in dirt. 8 yards of it to be exact. You might think that ordering a truck full of “Garden Soil” would be pretty straight forward, but you’d be wrong. So was I.

Here is what I learned:

First off, ORGANIC soil is not ‘organic’ in the way that organic carrots are ‘organic’ so don’t pay high prices for the label–it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Organic, when talking about dirt, simply means that 20% of it is made up of plant/animal residues (compost). And “good” garden soil, depending on who you talk to, is actually closer to 50% plant/animal compost.  If the compost added to the soil isn’t all ‘organic’ in the certifiable food sort of organic way, your dirt won’t be either. Since soil companies that are buying up municipal waste (with things like glass, chemicals, and plastics mixed in) to turn into compost to sell back to you, this means that you don’t know what that compost started out as. While the composting process generates heat and microbes that break down MOST nasties,  it is possible that some of the particularly resilient pesticides could survive the composting process. However, there is no testing and no regulation of what is in compost – even compost that is used on “certified organic” crops you pay so much extra for in the grocery store. This troubles me, and honestly, I think it should trouble you too.

Know what you are getting. Viewing the sample a soil company brings to a flower show isn’t enough to know what is in the dirt you order. What I saw at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in February of this year  IN NO WAY represented what was dumped in my driveway while I was up skiing. Reading between the lines of the description of the soil I bought was a bit more enlightening. On their website their “garden soil”  was described as a mix of “compost+sand+sandy loam” and that it was “light and fast-draining”. I should have guessed.

Let’s break down these words:

    1. Compost – compost, as explained above is plant and/or animal material that has been broken down by heat. Good composting process will break down seeds, branches and other natural and some man-made materials and it won’t smell.  This last part is important – smells are produced by bacteria and if compost smells like anything other than dirt, it isn’t done composting.
    2. Sand – pretty basic about what it is – finely ground rock. It isn’t good growing material because it has no nutrients in it and because it contains largish particles, any water or fertilizer you dump into it drains right back out.
    3. Sandy loam – this is defined by Webster’s as comprised of less than 7 percent clay, less than 50 percent silt, and between 43 and 50 percent sand. Sandy loam is the ideal soil, however it should be fairly obvious that if you already have sandy soil, DON’T ADD MORE SAND!

As I ready this NOW, I see that this could mean that up to 75% of my “soil” could be sand. And it is:

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I should have been able to tell something was wrong from the get go, but with 8 yards of dirt in front of my garage, I was honestly more concerned with shoveling it out of the way so I could get to my car. And with it being cold and damp, the problems weren’t glaringly apparent until the dirt dried out. But then I knew. First off, it smelled. Not super strong, but enough that my yard smelled like a cross between a barnyard and a bark manufacturer for weeks. Second, the “sand” granules were big enough that my chickens kept picking at the little white stones thinking they were food. Third, as the “soil” dried, and it did dry FAST, it formed a crust on the top. Even in my damp early March Seattle weather, I lost new plants to thirst. Bad news.

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Pretty much, no matter what, if you buy new dirt, you are going to need to AMEND, AMEND, AMEND.  Even old dirt needs help for various reasons. I will admit I was trying to save money. I did shop around, but when the other guys said their garden soil required amending, I thought, Well, it can’t be that good then! In truth, they were just being honest. With the exception of designer soils sold by the bag full (and I am sure by the truck-load for exorbitant prices), most soil is going to need some help to get its microbial and mineral counts, Ph, drainability and fertility to optimum levels. And it is an on-going process.

I don’t know enough about  to discuss soil composition  in any more depth (or I wouldn’t have bought the soil I have in the first place), but I am learning by the seat of my pants. Now that I have 8 yards of fairly inert, rapid draining sand in my raised beds, I have some work to do and some fast learning to absorb. I can tell you that any $$  I saved on dirt is costing me far more in labor and additives. To start to fix the problem, I am amending the soil immediately by adding high-quality compost into each row I plant and top dressing with a thick (3”) layer of compost mulch. This will serve the dual purpose of adding nutrients as it breaks down, holding in moisture and keeping down weeds.But it is going to take a long time and a lot of work and attention. And it isn’t cheap.

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In the end, maybe this purchasing mistake isn’t such a bad thing. We tend to take dirt for granted, assuming if it is “garden soil” then it will be just fine. In our overly manipulated world, this is just not the case. If we want to grow more healthy, it begins with the dirt around us in every imaginable way.

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