From Dirt to Soil

20150509_180820Three weeks have now passed since we took ownership of our new house. Three weeks of lugging heavy furniture from room to room until it looks “right”—or ends up in the “to sell” pile. Three weeks of unpacking boxes only to find we need to add shelving to closets before the contents have a place to land. Three weeks of making decisions—picking out new bar stools for the counter in the great room, choosing a table and chairs for the deck, researching what kind of window coverings we might want. Three weeks of spending every spare moment indoors, settling in.

I’m so thankful that the weather outside has been cold and rainy. Doing all this moving-in with the sun shining and the flowers blooming would have undone me. But now summer has finally arrived. Our deck thermometer reads 77 degrees, the breeze is mild, and I long to get some serious soil under my fingernails.

Do you know what the difference is between dirt and soil? At least to a gardener, soil is this amazing concoction of mineral particles, humus, microorganisms, earthworms, air, and water. Soil supports life. Soil smells like growing plants. Soil is what we want in our yards.

Dirt is a bunch of rocks ground into coarse sand or fine powder, sterile, dead. Unfortunately, we don’t have soil in our yard yet, serious or otherwise. We have dirt.

When our basement was dug, the builder encountered expansive clay subsoil (aka sticky, nasty stuff you could make pots from). They removed a bunch of it and replaced it with non-expansive-clay subsoil, which was used to backfill around the foundation. Then they added more random dirt, drove trucks and heavy machinery over it for five months, and finally smoothed it all out into a “yard ready to be landscaped.”

2015-01-13 13.35.18Yeah, right.

Realizing that we’re past the point where we can do all the heavy landscaping work ourselves, we turned to the pros. The first landscaper wanted to amend just the planting holes, not the entire planted area, and wasn’t willing to change. The next didn’t want to add any amendments at all, specifying instead a slurry of organic goop that would be sprayed around the yard. That was new to me, and I’m curious, but at this point, I prefer to stick with the more traditional approach I was taught in my master gardener classes. They weren’t willing to compromise either.

The third landscaper wanted to remove all the dirt and replace it with topsoil mixed with composted organic matter and dairy manure. That seemed a bit extreme to me. First of all, there is no legal definition of “topsoil.” For all I know they could sell me back the expansive clay that was removed from our property last winter! Rather, the quality of the topsoil you buy is totally contingent on the reputation of the garden center or rockery selling it to you. (Thankfully, we have some good companies here, but still….)

Besides, our yard is full of dirt. Why not improve what we already have?

Happily, this third company was willing to make the customer happy. They agreed to bring in tons of compost instead of topsoil, and incorporate it into our existing sand and clay mix. Needless to say, we hired them.

It feels a bit odd that we’ll be basing our choice of landscaper on the way they prepare the soil. But, as every good gardener knows, soil is the foundation upon which everything else rests. Build the soil and your plants will thrive. Skimp on soil prep and your plants will be stressed and susceptible to every pest and disease that comes along. You can learn more about amending soil in my previous posts on that topic, here, here, and here.

I expect to post progress reports, once the landscape process really gets going. How often does a gardener get a chance to literally start from the ground up? In all our other houses, we spent years removing plants, renovating lawns, and laboriously creating paths and patios, doing all the work ourselves. Here, our HOA gives us a 90 day deadline to be done! Hopefully, we’ll have our granddaughters running around on our new backyard lawn by August.

Next on the agenda… rocks! Stay tuned….

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