Garden Cinderella: Dirt Becomes Soil

Extension agents cringe when suburban garden greenhorns refer to the stuff in which veggies and flowers grow as “dirt.”  Plants grow best in “soil” which is chocked full of decomposing matter a/k/a compost–dead leaves, pebbles, twigs and bark–which feeds and aerates microbes, insects and worms which become part of the soil as they live, burrow, multiply, excrete, and die there.  The whole shebang feeds plants.

Technically speaking, soil consists of about a 1:1:1 ratio of sand, clay, and decomposing matter.  Is it possible to have too much compost?  The short answer is no.

Dirt, on the other hand consists of sand, clay or rock in non-nutritional proportions.  A sand/clay mix produces “hardpan” which is Extension Agent lingo for concrete, a common phenomenon in gardens with dirt instead of soil.

Water runs off hardpan’s surface that requires a proverbial pick to break up.  Eventually the only thing that grows on hardpan is algae or moss.  Sound familiar?

Part of the local hardpan problem is the sandy orange colored “topsoil” local big box garden stores sell budding gardeners on modest budgets.  Without the presence of compost, sandy topsoil (a) won’t hold water, and (b) won’t support the animal life necessary to feed plants.

The plants starve, predator insects move in for a kill, and frustrated gardeners turn to undiscriminating pesticides then to chemical fertilizers.

Exclusive commercial pesticide and fertilizer use is a quick fix that creates a nasty long-term garden situation.  Pesticides polish off the few beneficial critters left in the dirt so every succeeding year the gardener has to increase the volume of fertilizer.  If you’ve shopped for fertilizers you know that can get expensive.

January is the time to sit by the fire, and contemplate the ground in your garden (and under your grass if you’re inclined to be concerned about that because HOA landscape services do not).  You can buy composts of every imaginable variety, or you can head for the nearest woods with a leaf rake and a couple of big bags, and scoop up leaf mulch and woodland floor detritus.

The good news about the woods in January is that all the cold-blooded snakes are curled up underground taking a deep freeze snooze.  If they waken in January they can’t move.  Above ground there will be plenty of twigs, nuts, grass and pebbles for the raking.  Just pop them in the bags with the leaves then dump the mulch right in the garden, or run the mower over it then spread it over your grass.  This last practice, used by golf courses, is called top dressing a lawn. 

Give the stuff a drink when no rain is forecast, and in no time it will turn black.  Like a Fairy Godmother till it into your garden, and begin transforming your infertile dirt into to gorgeous soil.

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