Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Got Dirt?

Of course you have dirt! You probably own real estate. Some days when the wind or feet deposits soil inside the house, you probably think there is an excess of it everywhere. Dirt or soil is at once one of our most valuable resources, a nuisance and even a carrier of disease. Without soil, plant life doesn’t have a chance and neither do animals or humans.

Scientists describe three basic components of soil, clay, very fine particles, sand, coarser particles and humus, decayed materials. Generally in water, the decayed materials float. The sand and clay particles can be distinguished by feel with the sand being gritty and the clay smoother. A mixture of clay and sand provides ideal drainage as clay alone holds ample water while sand alone drains water too quickly. These mineral components of soil are the results of erosion from rock. The organic component of humus is from all sorts of decayed materials, grass, leaves, dead animals, manure and so on. Because soil has an organic component that contain about anything including possible disease organisms, we tell our children, don’t eat dirt! Without the organic component though, soil would lack much fertility.

My garden spot is sandy and initially was not particularly fertile. Over the years it has received all kinds of organic materials, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves and other things. My rule is if there isn’t a reason to not put it on the garden that is where it is going. Last week, the additions included charcoal from our wiener roast and decayed material from cleaning the decorative ponds. This week, I hauled leaves off the lawn to put on it. Does this work? I haven’t had a soil test in some time but if earthworms are a test,
then my soil has increased in fertility. 

This kind of effort takes longer than buying a bag of fertilizer and spreading it but it builds the soil and cuts down on things that
otherwise go to a landfill.  Whenever feasible, I take grass clippings and leaves from friends and relatives as well. A friend of mine plowed some old rotting hay into the soil for quick enrichment. Another friend has used old newspapers to enrich soil. This requires wetting or other strategies to keep them in place but can help build soil. A compost pile is useful for some of the messier materials.

My compost pile is presently deep in tomato vines, corn stalks, rhubarb leaves and the like. Due to the dry climate, I will try hard to
water it over the winter to ensure that it is rotted before spring. If spring comes and these materials are still recognizable, I will need to rake them out into the garden area for plowing under, really a way to accelerate the rotting.

Of course extremely sandy or extremely clay-y soil may need some help besides composting. If drainage is a problem, you may need to find clay or sand to mix in with the existing soil. When adding soil, plan on a strategy to spread the soil around on the surface and then plow deeply to mix it well.  Buying “top soil” can be rather expensive although much of what is sold as top soil is stripped from building sites and may or may not be better than what you are starting with. At the other extreme, free fill dirt, may contain many rocks and have very low fertility. Shop carefully. When used for growing things, soil is truly a valuable resource.

nebraska dave
11/3/2012 6:58:11 PM

Minnie, great read about soil. The best gardens start with the soil. My Terra Nova Gardens has great top soil but not much for tilth. I am in the process of putting piles of grass/leaf mixture on the ground. It's a fairly large garden and I'm hoping to get about eight to twelve inches of mulch on the ground before the fall yard season cleanup is finished. It's a lot of work right now but the benefit will be in next year's garden. I believe, like you, gardening starts with the dirt. Have a great soil improvement day.