Turning dirt into soil.

Looking back over 25 plus years of down-in-the-dirt gardening, there are a number of important lessons that have etched a place in my mind.  I hope you will find them worth sharing.

I learned that I could do everything right to introduce a plant into my garden but, if I failed to provide the proper soil, it struggled. Over the years I believe I have read thousands of plant descriptions in magazines, catalogs, and labels. I don’t have hard statistical data, but I am sure that well over 80 percent called for “moist, well-drained soil.” I have never had “moist, well- drained soil.” I don’t know anybody in my part of the world who does.

It took me awhile to realize soil’s importance to plant growth and somewhat longer to put in place a strategy to do it right. I took a course on garden design from Suzanne Edney, a marvelous designer and now good friend, from Apex, NC. During the course we visited various gardens in the NC triangle area, many of which had been developed by area plant professionals. I recognized that most of them were using raised beds heavily infused with soil conditioner. “Soil conditioner” in our area is another name for fine pine bark.

Garden bed featuring Heuchera ‘Caramel’

So I decided if I were going to have “moist, well-drained soil,” I would have to make it myself. Consequently, I made maximum use of raised beds and developed the following basic soil recipe (it also serves as my potting mix).

In a wheelbarrow mix well (I used a four-tined cultivator):

  • 1 (40 lb) bag of commercial top soil (or equivalent bulk top soil)
  • 1/3 (40lb) bag of cow manure/compost
  • cover with 2″ pine bark soil conditioner
  • 3 shovel-fulls of course builder’s sand
  • 3-4 cups Greensand
  • 2 (2lb) coffee cans of PermaTill® (or sharp gravel) (if you have voles)

Greensand is a slow-release, natural iron potassium silicate soil conditioner that contains a host of micronutrients.  Sand and PermaTill®/sharp gravel increase aeration and drainage. I never used a micorrrhizal fungi inoculant, but I now read extensive and consistent recommendations to do so. 

How I wish I had known about turning dirt into soil when I began to garden seriously.

About johnvic8

John Viccellio retired after 24 years in the U. S. Navy and began to dig into gardening when he could finally land in one place. He completed the Master Gardener course in 1992 and has since designed and constructed two of his own gardens. He wrote a monthly garden column for ten years and was a regular contributor to Carolina Gardener magazine. John published his first book, Guess What's in My Garden!, in 2014. He lives in Stallings, NC with his wife, in close proximity to six of his eight grandchildren.
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6 Responses to Turning dirt into soil.

  1. Barbara Speir says:

    Your great formula for good dirt must have been the secret to you beautiful garden. I hope that they are allowing you to add some beautiful gardens to your retirement home. Wouldn’t that make it look more inviting!
    Was the heuchera garden in the photograph one of yours? It is a beautiful mix of textures and colors?
    Thanks for your advice and the beautiful gardens you have given the world.

    Like

  2. Thanks John. I am glad to hear from you. I still use your recipe for daylilies containing chelated iron and fish emersion. Love it.

    Like

  3. bittster says:

    Haha, moist, well-drained soil is NOT what I have here either!
    I’ll have to keep this recipe in mind in case I ever get around to making those raised beds for the vegetable garden. I hope I can get away with just mixing the upper part and keeping the bottom as is, that would be much less work.
    Hope you’re starting to see plenty of signs of spring down there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnvic8 says:

      We are seeing a few signs of spring here in Charlotte area. There is one spot I see each year that has daffodils in bloom in early January and they were right on cue this year. Lots of cherry trees are in bloom, but the rest of the world here is still gray. Hope.

      Liked by 1 person

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