Gardening 101: The Dirt on Dirt (The Super Simple Version)

several books on soil displayed
This is one of a series of posts for new gardeners. Click here for the complete list of related posts.

Before we begin, allow me to confess.

If a particularly aggressive soil scientist were to read the title of this blog, and should said scientist happen to be anywhere within a three foot radius of me at the moment, (s)he would probably punch me in the face.

Dirt and soil are not the same thing. Calling soil “dirt” in front of the wrong person is rather like dropping the f-bomb in front of a group of nuns. Who are trying to pray. And these sweet, innocent, praying nuns are interrupted by you using a filthy word like dirt.

Trouble is, “The Dirt on Soil,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as a blog post title. And “The Soil on Soil” doesn’t even make sense. Since this is a Gardening 101 post and  most folks reading it would probably just like to know enough to get something to grow in the whatever earthy medium they have available, I figure I’m safe. But please don’t tell on me.

That being said, soil science is a big deal. A really big deal. The photo at the top of this post is the number of books on soil that we have floating around the house.

Ha! Who am I kidding? That’s just the the number of books on soil I found in five minutes of poking around Mike’s office.

People dedicate entire careers to studying soil and how to make good soil, so I when I say that this post covers the basics understand that this post is the equivalent of telling you I’m giving you a cooking class by teaching you how to make a bowl of cereal.

That disclaimer aside, here’s what a newbie needs to know about soil:

  1. There are different kinds of soil.
  2. Different things grow (or don’t grow) in different kinds of soil.
  3. If you want to grow vegetables, chances are very good that you’ll need to do something to amend your soil.

Soil can be sandy, loamy, or made from rock solid clay. It can have high amounts of salt, low amounts of organic matter, or be the garden equivalent of a gold mine and have perfect balance of everything. But this is the key point: just because you throw some seeds in the ground, doesn’t mean that ground is capable of growing them.

As a rule, vegetables need soil with plenty of organic matter and they needs soil with plenty of 3 key nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. (There are also important things called “trace minerals” to consider, but in a 101 post, we’re not going to mess with those.)

How do you know if your soil has these things and/or adjust it to make sure it does?

Option 1:

Become a soil scientist and/or farmer soil geek (aka Mike)

Option 2:

Throw a few things likely to help most soils into your garden without worrying too much about it. (And risk getting punched in the face by a soil scientist.)

When you think of good soil, you should be imagining dark, soft, fluffy-looking stuff that crumbles in your fingers but isn’t really dusty.

If you’re using raised beds, getting this soil is easy. Look up a local landscaping supplier and order a load of their garden mix. Don’t do what I did in mistake #785 of learning to garden, and attempt to fill raised beds with the pre-filled bags sold in home improvement stores. You’ll break the bank and your back. Most landscaping companies will deliver truckloads of soil or compost for the price of the soil plus a delivery fee. They’ll dump it wherever you point, and all you have to do is move it into the beds.

Also, just so you don’t sound like the same dummy I did when I finally realized this was a possibility and called without any idea of how to order the stuff, know that compost and soil are sold in “cubic yards.” To me, that means nothing. I just picture a yardstick, which is not super helpful when I’m trying to calculate the number of wheelbarrows I have to move. The lady I talked to on the phone wasn’t super helpful either as she attempted to explain a cubic yard to someone with zero visual/spatial ability. So as a point of reference, a full size pickup bed holds about 2 cubic yards of compost. If you want to make a reasonably accurate guess at what you need to fill your beds, here’s a neat-o cubic yard calculator. Thank god for the interwebs.

One point of clarification, if you’re filling raised beds make sure you order a garden SOIL mix, not a garden COMPOST mix. Compost is a rich amendment intended to beef up sub-par soil, but if you fill an entire bed with it you’ll likely end up killing your plants. Think of it this way: instead of adding sugar to your coffee, you just filled your whole coffee cup with sugar. It’s too much of a good thing.

If you’re building in-ground beds, you already have soil to work with. You probably just need to beef it up. This is where you want to add some compost to your soil. Your metaphorical coffee needs a little sugar. For the purpose of this post (remember, this is a cooking class telling you how to make a bowl of cereal) there are two ways to go about doing this.

Approach #1:  Buy a standard garden compost and throw it in your beds.

This is, obviously, not the scientific way to go about things. It also worked beautifully for me for years, and has worked for most of the average-Joe home gardeners I know. I didn’t test the soil, I didn’t over think it. I just bought some compost, spread it in the garden, and planted stuff. And for once – hallelujah – it grew. Depending on if your soil seems like it’s sort of crappy or really crappy (standard scientific measurements that those are) start with 1-2 inches of compost per square foot of space (see that calculator above.) You’ll probably be fine.

Approach #2: get your soil tested and begin the process of being a nerd.

Mostly likely a university in your area has what’s called an Extension Office, where they offer all sorts of agriculture-related services. One of the most common of these services is soil testing. In our area, Colorado State University offers soil testing for about $35 a pop. You order a kit, send them a sample of what’s in your yard, and they get back to you with a breakdown of what they find, plus recommendations on how to adjust it. This might involve adding fertilizer (they give organic and non-organic options) minerals, organic matter, or more. Anything they recommend will be easy to find in garden stores or often even home improvement stores. This is, essentially, like taking a sip of your coffee before you just start adding sugar, then adjusting the sugar, maybe adding a little cream with each sip. It’s more precise, but takes a little more research and learning on your end.

And…that’s it. For the 101 version. You’ll learn more as you get into it. Or decide you hate it and get out of it.  But the best news is that now that you have your garden beds built and the soil amended (or purchased) you get to the most exciting part of garden planning.

SELECTING SEEDS!!! (Insert rainbows and unicorns here.) Oh, wait…

(How we feel when we get to read the seed catalogs)

Seed catalogs are magical, amazing things (much like unicorns) and reading them can both provide entertainment for hours and empty your pocketbook. But before going hog…er…seed-wild and ordering willy-nilly, there are a number of considerations to take into account when deciding what you want, so stay tuned for the next post in this series, coming up just as soon as I can peel myself away from this Seed Savers 2018 catalog…

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