The Dirt on Soil

I’ve been down for the count these past few days with some sort of epic plague. My brain is slow and foggy so now is the perfect time to republish a few of my Globe and Mail Kitchen Gardening articles.

This one on good soil for your vegetable garden is the perfect companion to my recent HGTV article on reusing container soil. Speaking of… I have a new article up on HGTV that answers the ever popular question, “Are there any edibles that I can grow in the shade?”

Happy Gardening!


Originally published in the Globe and Mail on May. 23, 2009.

The subject of garden soil is conversational codeine to most people. Yet refer to that brown stuff as “dirt” in the wrong company and be prepared to have some thrown in your face.

It’s soil, you moron, not dirt!” an obviously superior gardener recently informed me. “Only idiots like you call it dirt.

Soil, dirt or whatever you want to call it is the critical backbone of the garden, so there is some reason behind such semantic fanaticism. We may take it for granted, but that stuff underneath our feet is alive: a complex community of fungi, bacteria, minerals, organic matter, water and microscopic creatures that is worthy of our respect and awe.

When it comes to growing veggies, you don’t need to be a soil scientist to get the value of good dirt. The logic is simple: Healthy soil grows lush and bountiful food-producing plants. And lousy soil? Well, good luck with that. Plants get what they need from fertile earth – no need to apply fertilizer religiously. They’ll also have fewer problems with pests and disease down the road. That means more time for you to enjoy your garden and less work toiling in it.

Most gardens begin with soil that is somewhere between okay and horribly wrong. When it comes to growing food, gardeners strive for rich and crumbly loam. Chock full of nutrient-rich organic matter, loam retains moisture yet drains easily. When you dig into it, expect to find lots of worms and other creepy crawlies. On a pH scale, loamy soil tends to measure somewhere around neutral. This is important since most vegetables won’t grow in anything that is extremely acidic or alkaline.

Bad soil, on the other hand, tends to be compacted and hard to dig or dusty and dry. Water either drains too freely (as is the case with sand) or poorly (as with clay, which puddles for ages after a rain). Your ticket to brag-worthy loam is to add in compost, and lots of it. Better yet, build a supportive structure from old wood or cement blocks and pile it on top of dirt that seems beyond repair.

Compost is easy to make and a continuous source of free soil conditioner for your garden. Regardless of what’s in the ground now, add new compost yearly to keep the soil texture and fertility in good standing.

If you don’t already have a bin on the go, you’ll need to buy store-bought compost in the meantime, although what you’ll get from a bag is not exactly the same thing. Look for mushroom compost, manure (derived from organically farmed animals) or leafmould, but stay away from topsoil since this can come from literally anywhere and mean just about anything.

Container soil is an entirely different creature altogether. What’s good in the garden is a disaster in a pot, slowly turning into a hardened clump that will eventually suffocate your plant and rot the roots regardless of how fluffy it was in the ground. Opt for potting or container mix, a soil-like substitute designed to hold moisture well yet drain freely, all the while remaining light and airy in the pot.

The good news is that this comes from a bag; you won’t need to work to make it good.

The bad news is that commercial mixes vary widely in both quality and price. This is the one place where it really pays to spend a bit of money. A good potting mix will contain organic matter such as compost, rice hulls, wood chips and/or worm castings to provide nutrients, perlite, vermiculite and/or sand to prevent compaction and increase drainage and coir (a renewable resource and peat substitute derived from coconut husks) to absorb water.

Some mixes contain slow-release fertilizers. But if you are going organic, look for ingredients such as seaweed, manure or mushroom compost in place of chemicals.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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10 thoughts on “The Dirt on Soil

  1. I’ve got the compost down but was hoping to make a homemade organic fertilizer with rock phosphate, blood/bone meal, cottonseed meal and greensand but I can’t seem to find a good recipe. I’m also concerned about using too much. I got a soil test last year and it said to add nitrogen which I didn’t really do and I ended up with a 5 ft, tall romanesco broccoli that never made a head! Any advice??

  2. Also, do you know anything about incorporating bio char? Internet info seems pretty sparse on this topic too. Thanks!

  3. Always wondered why gardening books and mags always go in detail of dirt vs soil, it’s so you can correct people! Genius!
    @ Lee Brocolli heads are a flower so I’m surprised the phosphorus wasnt low. Perhaps the soil was lacking some micronutrients? Just a shot in the dark; I like to add kelp or liquid seaweed once in a while to my containers and the plants love it ^^

  4. Good article! Far too few writers talk about dirt/soil..or is that soil/dirt? It all begins the dirt.

  5. Hey,

    Love the blog, you def have a new follower.

    I was wondering if you knew what kind of plants are good for heavily shaded gardens? we have a tiny tiny city garden, but it is surrounded by big oak trees which i suspect are sucking the life out of everything, couple that with it not getting an ounce of sun and me being a complete novice, i’ve no idea what to plant in there, everything from last year died.

    thanks for your help!!

  6. Hi Gayla,
    I’ve found my container soil from previous years gets dense and has problems with drainage and aeration. I was thinking about adding a worm or two to my larger pots, but I’ve gotten mixed results when I searched for people trying this on the internet. What would you suggest?

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