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Monday, January 9, 2012

KNOL: A Basic Garden Dirt or Soil Recipe

Transfered from my Goolge Knol to be stored here.

A perfect recipe for new gardeners to get you growing

Garden dirt or soil is one of those things that can be discussed and detailed to death. The dirt discussion can be so overwhelming, it turns off potential new gardeners. Do we call it dirt or soil? It doesn't matter. Plants want to grow. They will grow if you get them into the ground and surround them with pretty good earth. I mean soil or should I say loam.

A Basic Garden Dirt or Soil Recipe

by Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C
It is easy to get overwhelmed when building your first garden. This recipe is designed to simplify soil and remove a barrier that can prevent people from becoming gardeners. This is not a scientific recipe. It will not go into detail about all the aspects of perfect garden soil. This recipe should be adapted to fit the site you grow your vegetables on. The basic recipe is based on a 4 ft. X  8 ft. garden with 6 inch raised sides.

Understanding Dirt

Vegetables will grow in dirt, soil, earth or loam. Whatever it is called, vegetables will grow. The idea is to give them a good basic growing medium so the vegetables can grow to their fullest potential without being stressed. I call it soil.  I call it soil because it is simple. Take a look at the definition for loam from the website Free Dictionary. It uses the word soil to define loam. Why not just say soil? You could say loamy earth if you enjoy complexity. Dirt does not need to be complex.
loam  (lm)
1. Soil composed of a mixture of sand, clay, silt, and organic matter.
2. A mixture of moist clay and sand, and often straw, used especially in making bricks and foundry molds.
tr.v. loamed, loam·ing, loams
To fill, cover, or coat with loam.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

fertile soil consisting of sand, clay, and decaying organic material [Old English lām]
loamy adj

Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006

loam  (lm)
Soil composed of approximately equal quantities of sand, silt, and clay, often with variable amounts of decayed plant matter.
I can't imagine trying to create a soil with equal parts of sand, silt, clay and organic matter from the get go. Maybe that's why I don't have loam in my garden. I have dirt which I proudly call soil. It is not possible from the start nor is it practical to think perfection in the way of a vegetable garden's dirt. Great garden soil is created and improved over time. This recipe will give the basic ingredients and direction need to get started and growing. The only thing to understand about dirt is that once you start amending, you now need to proudly call it soil. Soil is what you are building for your garden.
Here is the evolution of events to turn dirt into soil. Before a garden is dug there is only dirt. It is untouched. It will vary in quality. As a gardener, you amend your dirt and this creates a basic soil. Over time gardeners further amend the soil and improve it. Amending is the act of improving the basic dirt in your local area. Perhaps one day you will create loam as defined above. Realistically, you will just create better soil that has tons of organic matter in it.

Building Garden Soil: The Basic Ingredients

Garden soil is built by turning the existing dirt and adding the following ingredients:

  • Premium Topsoil
  • Garden Soil
  • Peat Moss
  • Lime
  • 10-10-10 fertilizer
  • Organic matter &  more organic matter & more organic matter
Some thing to keep in mind is purchasing the right product. Basic topsoil is sold in 40 pound bags. Do not buy basic topsoil, it can be garbage. It is typically wet clay and sand. Purchase premium topsoil. The premium is the addition of some sort of organic matter. Premium topsoil bags are labeled with various weights or measurements depending on the brand that is purchased. However, it usually only comes in one bag size.
Garden soil is a better blend of materials and it is prepared specifically for the garden. It is typically balanced and anything planted in it will grow wonderfully. I suggest the use of  both premium topsoil and garden soil as a way to save some money. Premium topsoil is typically cheaper. Garden soil comes in 1 or 2 cubic ft. bags. It will say garden soil right on the bag.
The peat moss is added as the organic matter and moisture holding agent. Peat moss comes in large and small square bails. This is the initial organic matter for your garden. Organic matter is something that should be added forever to a garden as it is available. This typically comes in the way of grass clippings for many gardeners.
Lime is used to provide calcium and magnesium to the soil and it helps balance the PH of the soil. Many articles go into details about PH. The basic goal is to have a mid range/neutral PH level for garden soil. Peat moss is naturally acidic and lime is naturally alkaline. Mixing the two together will help them neutralize each other. A web search will provide all kinds of information about PH soil testing and PH levels vegetables prefer. I suggest doing that in the winter when there isn't much to do for a gardener.
The fertilizer is added to provide nutrients. I suggest buying the cheapest bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer available. If you want to go purely organic, you can fertilize to you standard. The goal is to prepare the garden soil with a growing season worth of nutrients.
A 4 ft. x 8 ft. area with 6 inch sides or mounded to 6 inches above ground level requires the following for amending purposes:
  • 8-12 bags of  premium topsoil (standard bag)
  • 8 bags of  Garden Soil (2 cubic ft. bag)
  • Peat Moss (large bail)
  • Lime (40 lb pulverized bag)
  • 10-10-10 fertilizer  (20 lb bag)


Building the Garden Soil: Amending the Garden Plot

The true first step is to remove the grass or spray the grass with a standard salt grass killer. I have done both depending on the type of plot I am designing. Once the grass has been managed, the following steps should be followed.

Step One

Turn the existing dirt or earth to at least 12 inches. I have suggested going as far as 18 to 24 inches in a Knol about creating raised beds gardens. The idea is to create loose soil, at a good depth, for the roots of the vegetables to easily grow through to find nutrients and moisture. Any clumps should be broken up by hand. I define a clump as larger than a basic meatball. You can use your judgment.

Step Two

Now there really isn't a wrong way to amend your turned plot. I have describe different methods for preparing the soil if you are using containers, creating raised beds or making a layered "lasagna" garden in other Knols. The principle is essentially the same. You are adding better amendments to the garden. The variations in the different preparation depends more on the needs of the vegetables and the amount of work desired by the gardener. 

Peat moss is very light and it is your organic matter. I suggest mixing it into the turned earth. The bail should be open and spread evenly across the garden plot. Add anywhere from four to six  8 oz. cups of pulverized lime evenly across the top of the peat moss. Mix the lime a peat moss together by hand or with a rake. Once mixed, spread three or four 8 oz cups of fertilizer evenly across the garden. Turn the garden one more time and mix the layer old dirt (the earth you turned) with the peat moss. The peat moss gets mixed into the bottom layer. You could save some and mix it into the top layer where your seeds and plant will go. However, you are using premium bags of top soil and garden soil and they will have a good mix of organic matter in them for the first year.

Step Three

Evenly mix and spread the bags of premium top soil and garden soil over your plot. This should raise the garden to the top of the wood box if you are using a raised bed. You should give it one more turn to about 12 inches. You want to blend the top layer with the bottom layer by at least a few inches. You want to mix the layers enough so you don't have problems with water. Though rare, depending on your layers you could have a bottom layer that doesn't quickly absorb water (clay) and this creates a pooling effect. You get a pool of water that makes the top layer a soggy mess. Blending the layers takes care of this rare problem.

Step Four

Spread two 8 oz cups of 10-10-10 fertilizer across the top of your garden area and rake it in to a few inches. If you have grass clippings, you can begin using them as a mulch over the gardening season. The clippings will become your future organic matter and will get turned into the garden the following year.

Soil Summary

Don't letter preparing a garden keep you from starting a garden. This Knol is to help you get the dirt out of the way and get you into planting and growing vegetables. There is nothing exact about this recipe. The key of importance is that you created about 2 feet of garden grade soil to grow your plants in. That is exactly what they need. Great job.

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  1. This garden is really awesome. Topsoil is important factor for the growth of plants.

  2. You will want to test your soil, and you can use a simple soil-test kit from the garden center to do this. Just follow the instructions on the kit and you will get your soil pH close enough to successfully grow healthy vegetables.


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