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You Can’t Buy a Perfect Soil

Published by Soilutions on

You Can’t Buy a Perfect Soil

CompostEach spring we receive a steady stream of customers asking the same thing, “Can you sell me something to plant in that’s ready to go for my raised vegetable garden?”

Well, yes we can sell you something.  Is it perfectly ready to go?  Not so much.  As with all things related to gardening, it’s going to require a bit of understanding and input from you.  Here are the points we find ourselves most often repeating.

  1. Manufactured soil does not have good soil structure.   Excellent soil structure comes with time and life – namely the buildup of metabolic goo (scientifically described as polysaccharides) secreted by the billions of microorganisms living in your soil and by plant root exudates.  That soil biology creates an organic glue that sticks soil particles together, and without it your soil is just dust.  There’s no shortcut to that goo.  It takes many growing seasons and some care to achieve good soil structure.  Part of that care is the continual addition of organics, namely, compost.  Compost feeds the microbial life that creates the goo, and compost physically reforms poor soil structure.  In sandy soils it acts like a sponge, helping to keep water in the root zone.  In clay soils it helps to break up the dense particles, setting up more porosity and better drainage.  Our Topsoil Blend is roughly a one to one mix by volume of compost with a native sandy loam, so you are getting a decent dose of compost in your soil.  However, it has been mechanically blended, and then was repeatedly disturbed in its journey from our piles to your garden bed.  It has not had the benefit of existing as a complete ecosystem with roots and microbes living in harmony.  That part is up to you to cultivate, and you’ll have a much better start with it if you heed the advice in the next point.
  2. Before you plant in a soil make sure it is well moistened!  When you buy our Topsoil Blend, or any of our potting soils for that matter, it has been sitting in the sun.  When that soil dries out, it becomes hydrophobic – it literally repels water.  This happens in soils with high organic content (which we want in soil), as the decomposition of organic matter produces waxy-like compounds with a hydrophobic and hydrophilic end.  During dehydration, the shape of the compound changes so that the hydrophobic surface is exposed to the air/water in soil pores.  That’s why if it’s dry and you try to water it, you will find that the water just sits on top.  As removing organic content from your soil is not a viable solution to water-repelling soil (because we need organics in our soil), just keep it simple and don’t start with dry soil and make sure you don’t let it dry out between waterings!
  3. Mulch!!!  Remember, you don’t want your soil to dry out, making it hydrophobic?  Mulching is your best tool to prevent moisture loss in your garden.   In our climate, and particularly in raised bed gardening, the high desert sun works extra hard to extract moisture from your soil.  As the water evaporates it leaves behind minerals on the soil surface creating a crusty layer that makes it difficult for water to penetrate, further exacerbating your dry soil problems.  Covering your soil with organic mulch (i.e., not rock and not rubber), not only slows down evaporative loss, it also keeps your soil cool and provides a slow release of food for your soil micro-organisms creating a flourishing soil ecosystem.
  4. Compost is not a fertilizer.  This topic warrants an entire blog to itself, but for the purposes of this post we’ll keep it simple.  Compost feeds the life beneath the surface, allowing soil organisms to reproduce, die and consume each other.  Each transformation cycles energy and nutrients through the system making resources available to plants in a form that is readily consumable.  The key words here are “readily consumable” – purchasing a synthetic fertilizer with a guaranteed NPK analysis does not guarantee that the labelled quantity of nutrients will actually be taken up by plants.  Much of it washes through the soil and pollutes waterways, which is why we have a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Moreover, many fertilizers kill soil microorganisms, creating a situation where you become perpetually dependent upon the addition of synthetic fertilizers to keep plants going. The soil we sell contains compost, and is rich with biologic activity that supports the soil food web.  We do not add extra fertilizers to our soil, and most of our customers report back to us that their gardens went gangbusters without having to add anything else at all.  That being said, if you are growing a specialty crop with specific needs, or growing on a commercial scale, you should consider supplementing your soil.
  5. No, our topsoil is not pH neutral.  And unless you’re growing blueberries or ginger, you shouldn’t worry too much about that.  We make our compost from a wide variety of local materials, and use local water, which results in a slightly alkaline product characteristic of our arid region.  Most vegetables you’ll grow in your garden will do just fine in those conditions, as plants care less about the pH number itself (extreme cases notwithstanding) than they do about the pH number remaining relatively stable.  That’s where compost comes in.  Compost, thanks to its high organic content, buffers pH, meaning that plants can grow in higher pH levels that would stunt growth in leaner soils.

Overall, what we most often find ourselves telling folks purchasing soil for the first time is, “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and don’t be afraid to fail!”  Learn from your mistakes.  Learn from the lessons Nature throws at you despite you doing everything just right.  Even our best local farmers have bad seasons.  But our best farmers also know that soil is the foundation – that’s why they say good farmers don’t grow crops, they grow soil.   We can get you to the starting point, but it’s up to you to stick your hands in your soil and let it teach you how to care for it so you can enjoy a fruitful harvest.


Categories: Topsoil