The Real Dirt on Garden Soil

Gardens with the vegetables and fruits they provide are an integral part of our self-sufficiency plan. We derive a great deal of satisfaction in providing the majority of our fruits and vegetables. In order to get the best results, we put a lot of time and effort into making our soil the best that it can be. Let me give you the real dirt on garden soil.

July 19 2018 Garden

July 19 2018 Garden

Dirt versus Soil

I haven’t looked up the proper definitions of dirt versus topsoil since in my mind, they are two very different subjects. For this conversation, dirt can be any layer of earth that may or may not support minimal plant growth. Whereas soil is a prime medium teaming with life and nutrients just waiting to give a seed a new lease on life.

3 Hard Fought Garden Plots

At this point, I should tell you we’ve had 3 gardens now on our 3 homesteads over the course of 38 years and not one of those gardens was easy to establish. The first was an old field thick with young growth of alder and regenerating forest while the other 2 were forest. We simply were never lucky enough to plunk ourselves down at a ready made garden site.

As you can imagine, it took a great deal of work to get our gardens in proper shape. The first order of business was clearing the garden area of vegetation and trees. And that’s where I made my first big mistake on my first garden. The following excerpt is from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

The field the road led to was completely overgrown with alder and young saplings. The outline of the field was easily defined by the taller trees along the edges. I had the bulldozer clear the field up to the edge of the forest, and then piled all the debris into one humongous mound in the center of the field. In theory, it was to be burned. In reality, the pile contained so much embedded soil it would never burn completely. Over the course of many years, I picked away at cleaning up the pile by cutting the small trees into firewood. This was easy firewood to access, but because it was dirty from being pushed by the dozer, it had a tendency to quickly dull the chain on my saw. When cutting up the pile, if I noticed sparks flying, I knew I was hitting dirt or a hidden stone. But once I had the firewood salvaged, I burned the pile as best as I could and bulldozed the remainder into the surrounding woods.

In hindsight, it was an obvious mistake to bulldoze the field because a lot of the topsoil was removed in the process. My cleared field was destined to have a garden, orchard, grain, and hay fields, and I had shot myself in the foot by shaving the best soil off the top. It took years to improve the soil quality through the use of cover crops and manure. Cover crops are planted specifically for the purpose of being plowed back into the ground. They add lots of nutrients and organic matter back into the soil.” 

Maine Homestead Field

Maine Homestead Field

So whatever method you choose to clear the land, make sure to leave as much of the topsoil as possible. In Maine, the bulldozer cleared the land. In the wilderness of Saskatchewan, we didn’t have the luxury of having a machine available so it was by pure effort that garden areas were cleared. Pure effort as in winch every tree out including the roots – one at a time. Talk about work. However slowly but surely, I was able to winch the trees out and with the rototiller, I was able to turn the forest duff into productive garden soil.

Our Nova Scotia Garden

Here in Nova Scotia, we were faced with another forest to clear. It was a young forest with a bole diameter of 6 inches or less. With a chainsaw, I cut the trees and Johanna lugged the branches to various piles. Then we flagged out the garden areas and let the excavator rip the roots out. A bonus from this procedure is the excavator was able to dig around and get a lot of the boulders out as well. Sadly, there were still boulders that we needed to dig out by hand and wrestle off to the side.

First Nova Scotia Garden Tilling

First Nova Scotia Garden Tilling

So now we have a cleared garden spot with some semblance of soil. Soil structure and fertility will need to be evaluated and then decisions will need to be made on how best to enhance what we have so vegetables and fruits can flourish. It’s a balancing act to a degree since some plants like certain conditions which might not be favorable for other plants.

We buy a simple soil testing kit which gives us an idea of how acidic the soil is, the pH. It also tests for other nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. There are labs that you can send soil too for analysis. If the soil is lacking in nutrients or it is too alkaline or acidic, work will need to be done to bring up the levels so plants can not only grow, but thrive.

Cover Crops

One of the easiest ways to start improving soil is through the use of cover crops or green manure. There are many great articles on the internet but I think this is one of the best. Green Manures Over the years, we have planted vetch, rye. clover and buckwheat as soil amendments. Cover crops serve multiple purposes. They help prevent erosion, they facilitate microorganisms that break down the organic matter, and once broken down, they are a source of nutrients for garden plants. Another benefit is that they will out compete the weeds to a degree.

Experiment with some of these cover crops. See what grows best in your climate. It won’t hurt to mix and match. Clover will help with nitrogen levels. Our three gardens have all been in northern areas and have always been fairly acidic soils. We have used lime sometimes but since we’ve heated with wood all these years, the ash from the stoves has always been dusted on the gardens which acts to neutralize the acid and sweeten the soil.

For fertilizer, if you have animals, the manure will be a wonderful addition to your gardens. It will make a world of difference in growth. Best to let it compost properly before using it though. We made a big mistake in Saskatchewan. Our soil was poor and we opted to fly in bags of “composted” manure. In reality, I think the bags were attached to the rumps of the animals and as soon as the bag was filled, it was loaded onto the truck headed for the local garden store.

Then people like us purchased the stuff, spread it on our gardens and the hard fought battle for weed control was underway. Through the manure we introduced a number of weed species that were not natural for our area and they thrived. As fast as we weeded, a new batch would sprout. All we could do was keep them at bay.

Other soil conditioners we use are bone meal and blood meal. Blood Meal is a source of nitrogen and Bone Meal is a source of calcium and phosphorus. Additionally, we keep all our eggshells and crush them up and add them to the garden. There is debate on how useful crushed eggshells are for the garden but we do it. It doesn’t hurt.

One of the things Johanna does during the summer is take the wheelbarrow for a spin. She has lugged countless wheelbarrow loads of decaying forest duff that is easily dug up. Old decaying trees in the forest are a great source of material. That was a big secret to success in our Saskatchewan garden. Initially the soil was almost pure sand covered with a thin layer of soil. Over the years, Johanna built the soil up with whatever natural materials she could find so that we had about 8” of rich topsoil.

Our Saskatchewan Garden

Our Saskatchewan Garden

Composting Works!

Of course, we always have a two chamber compost pile going. All the garden debris such as corn husks and stalks, plant stems, potato tops etc are gathered through the summer and composted for use the following year. We layer the chopped up garden scraps with a sprinkle of garden soil. The microbes in the soil will help with decomposition. Then I pack and chop with a shovel another layer of garden scraps. And repeat the process. Depending on the stage of decomposition, I might sprinkle it on the garden the following spring and till in or in the fall when I do tilling. Regardless, all that organic matter ends up back in the garden as a soil amendment.

Let’s sum it all up by baking a couple loaves of bread together. Stick with me. I haven’t lost all my marbles. Our batter is soil. If we want our bread to rise, we need to add some yeast. If we want our vegetables to rise, they need nitrogen among other chemicals. In order for yeast to work, the PH of the bread batter needs to be in a range that is favorable for the yeast. Mostly neutral to slightly acidic. Our vegetable plants mostly favor the same PH range. (There are always exceptions to the rule)

If you make the bread batter too runny, you will make pancakes. Add too much flour and you will bake bricks. Our soil needs to have the proper consistency as well. Too dense and heavy is not good while something like sand is a poor growing medium also.

A good friable soil is able to stay together when hand squeezed but crumbly when broken apart. Decomposing organic matter will help with that. The soil will hold moisture and allow roots to spread easily. As well, a good soil will allow root crops such as beets, carrots and potatoes to grow down and outward. Happy baking! Gardening!

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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8 Responses to The Real Dirt on Garden Soil

  1. Margaret Booth, Isaac's Harbour says:

    We thoroughly this blog. Look forward to receiving it. Could you email me or Ester with information on the seeds you use.

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Hello Margaret,

      Thank you for your kind comments and your interest. Regarding our seeds, as much as possible we grow open pollinated varieties so we can save our own seeds but there are some things such as corn that are grown from hybrid seeds.

      For the most part, any seeds we buy are ordered from Lindenberg Seeds. They have a good selection of varieties and are the most reasonable in price. The same variety purchased from another seeds catalog may be 2 or even 3 times the price as Lindenberg.

      If you have specific questions regarding what vareties we grow of certain vegetables please let us know and we can answer for you. Most items, we grow more that one variety. For example, we grow 4 different varieties of tomatoes.

      Enjoy your day,
      Ron and Johanna

  2. Drew says:

    Hi Ron,

    Thank you for your latest post,as alsways it contained great information to inspire the rest of us. I’m really glad things are coming along so well in Nova Scotia. Thank you for also sharing the experiences that you have learned the hard way too, again these are of great value as I think we often learn more from what hasn’t worked than the things that work first time!

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of a chap in the UK called Charles Dowding? He’s another hero of mine (along with your good self!) and is a great advocate of No Dig gardening and has turned barren fields into productive market gardens. His website and videos are a great source of useful information. I was struck by the similarity of your experiences with your bought “compost” leading to the proliferation of weeds. Charles takes making compost to almost an art form, which he then mulches on once a year – and that’s it – he just leaves it and builds up soil that way.

    Anyway, you might find some interesting information at http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk and his videos are always worth a watch, he’s very mellow.

    Very best wishes from Bonny Scotland

    Drew in Dunoon.

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Good Morning Drew,
      It’s good to hear from you again. I’m glad you are getting value out of the posts. I wish I had more time to write more but we are maxed out right now. But I have lots of idea for more posts so stay tuned.

      I have never heard of Charles and I’ll dig around for info one of these days and watch a youtube. I know nothing about the no dig gardens. It always made more sense at least in our locations to turn the soil over. And our gardens have always been productive. So we stick with what works for us. But there are always multiple right ways of doing things and we find what works for each of our situations.

      Thanks for writing Drew. Take good care over there.
      Ron

  3. Patti McCurdy says:

    Ron – once again a very entertaining read!! Sounds like things are coming along very nicely! Can’t wait for the next installment We’re in the midst of a stalled rainy pattern here in NE Pennsylvania with the added attraction of steamy humidity….the weeds that have been kept at bay are having a field day!! Take care and stay safe.
    Patti McCurdy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Good Morning Patti,
      We are aware of the heavy rains and flooding on the east. It’s either feast or famine. We were quite dry for awhile and lately we’ve had a couple inches of rain to help the garden. But now we seem to be in a fog bank which is really odd. I don’t like it! I look out and see fog and my immediate thought is it’s smoke from a forest fire. The humidity is stifling even if it is only in the low 80’s. Early summer it was all we could do to be comfortably warm in the house and now all the windows are wide open even at night. You be safe too! Have a great day,
      Ron

  4. Margy says:

    I went to a wonderful gardening class at the garden club this year. In addition to losing our shed, we lost our stairs to the cliff where I had a potato patch and my compost pile. Without a place to compost I was worried I would have to take all of my garden clippings and vegetable scraps to the dump in town. That would be a loss for me, and a negative gain for the dump. I learned how to do a method called chop and drop. Now I cut all of my garden clippings into small chunks and then use them as mulch under the plants. When the plants are harvested and removed, they are added to the mulch layer to compost over the winter in place. And it’s even easier than hauling things up and down the four flights of stairs. I’ll let you know next spring how it all turns out. – Margy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      That’s just what we are doing now. Since I wrote that post, we have been getting lots of plant material ( spent pea vines, brocolli plants etc) and I just don’t have time to get a compost bin set up. So Johanna just puts the plants in the paths in a single layer and depending on the toughness, I either use a spade shovel to chop or I have a straight bladed ice chopper to cut the vines into pieces. We’ve also been getting the occasional bucket of seaweed that we put in the garden pathways. It will start to break down and then this fall, I’ll till it all in. Not only does the plant material in the walkways keep the weeds down but this summer has been so dry, it helps retain the precious moisture that is in the soil. This is the first year we have done this method. Next year we will go back to the compost bin though after I build it. The negative to chopping in place is it may harbor disease and insects. With our chipper and endless branches and small trees, we will mulch the garden with chips like previous gardens. But there are no set rules and we all adapt to what we have to work with. Thanks for all the good comments and feedback!Ron

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