Soil: The Goddess of the Garden

If you grow anything at all you become a steward of the soil. Soil is a complex, living, breathing organism and can make or break anything cultivated from a single houseplant to a huge farm. Often an after thought or given no thought at all, soil is the Goddess of the garden. She is complicated, mystical, and often stubborn. And above all She succumbs to neglect. Beyond the overview presented here Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza and Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew provide top-notch methods. Secrets to Great Soil by Elizabeth Stell is a superb companion to them for further knowledge.

Soil is composed of three types of particles: mineral, organic matter, and organisms. The mineral particles determine the texture of soil. They are classified as clay, silt, and sand. Sandy soil is loose and open allowing molecules of oxygen to join the mix. Conversely, soil with a high clay content becomes compact and heavy. Plants, like all living creatures, must be able to breathe and can not do so if soil is compact. Perlite, a substitute for sand, creates good drainage and is lighter than sand. Vermiculite stores water and nutrients.

Organic matter determines the structure of soil. Leaves, manure, compost, and peatmoss are examples of organic matter. Organisms continually break down this organic matter adding to the soil’s structure. Macro-organisms are earthworms, insects, slugs and small animals. Micro-organisms are creatures such as protozoa and nematodes. Then there are plant organisms such as roots, bacteria, algae, and fungi. All of these particles work together to create healthy, living soil. So how might this work.

According to the University of Guelph soil types can be defined this way. Sandy Loam equals 7 parts topsoil, 3 parts organic matter, and 2 parts mineral or inorganic matter. Loam equals 1 part each of those three elements. Clay Loam equals 1 part topsoil, 2 parts organic matter, and 2 parts mineral or inorganic matter. For our all-purpose container choice we want Loam such as the following recipe:

2 gallons garden soil

2 gallons vermiculite

2 gallons peatmoss

2 Tablespoons lime

10 Tablespoons Bloodmeal

10 Tablespoons Bonemeal

5 Tablespoons wood ashes

Okay, mixing your own soil might not be your cup of tea and you would prefer to buy commercial potting soil. Commercial potting is “soiless” and is usually a blend of perlite, vermiculite and peatmoss. And, I might add, it contains chemical fertilizers, usually time-release, and an ingredient called a wetting agent that helps keep soil damp. Neither of these things is organic. Fortunately, manufacturers have answered consumer demand for organic potting soil but be warned that many of these soils still contain wetting agents. I am not sure how this slides on by with its organic label. Nevertheless organic potting soil remains the only available choice that comes close to being decent.

Before you fill up your containers with commercial or homemade potting soil add an inch or two of wood chips to enhance drainage. This layer of chips should be covered with window screen (I have used shade cloth in a pinch) to impede the finer particles of soil from clogging the bottom of the container. Dump in your soil and you are ready to plant. If planting seeds directly in that soil some growers recommend sowing the seed on the surface of the soil and covering that seed to the correct depth. When planting young plants take care not to plant them too deep. Soil surface should be at the point where leaves and roots intersect. Tomatoes and potatoes are an exception. Long vines or leggy stems should be buried, leaving just a nice cluster of leaves above the soil. Tomato roots and potatoes form along these buried stems.

Once seedlings are a few inches tall or young plants planted, mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch keeps garden soil and containers cool and moist. Mulch decomposes slowly and adds organic matter to your soil. It holds the soil in place so that when you water the soil doesn’t slosh all over the place. And it simply makes your garden or containers beautiful. I like cedar mulch the best. It tends to repel unwanted pests, looks gorgeous, and smells amazing.

What happens next is the key to crop rotation. Some plants are heavy feeders that need fed several times during the growing season. They include the cabbage family, all leafy vegetables, celery, leek, cucumber, squash and corn. Peas and beans are medium feeders. Root and bulb crops are light feeders. This is a two-part issue. When nutritional needs aren’t being met your vegetables will fail to produce and become weak and vulnerable. And understanding just how used up your soil is at the end of the season lets you know what measures must be taken to restore it.

Now if you have a garden as opposed to a container collection I have a slightly different set of rules. Unless your soil is positively wretched please don’t dig. Digging destroys whatever colonies of organisms might live there and destroys the established structure of that soil. It’s relatively simple, think about how nature builds soil. She builds soil with new layers of organic matter laid down every year. She doesn’t dig. And that’s how you build good soil too. Digging and tilling also creates what is called hardpan, the layer at the depth of your shovel or the tines of your tiller. This layer turns to cement and roots can not penetrate it; nor does water. Shallow soil creates shallow roots that become water dependent.

Perhaps what you have for soil is the worthless stuff that remains after a building lot has been bulldozed. I have been there and the solution isn’t an easy one. Raised beds are certainly an option where good soil can be built on top of the bad soil. Otherwise seriously digging can not be avoided. This is a rough job and when I did it my mantra became simply, this is for my Earth. The method was once called French Intensive but I don’t know what they call it today. French Intensive requires that you remove soil at a depth of two feet minimum. In the resulting pit or trench you create layers at a ratio of 2 inches of leaves, 2 inches of manure and 4 inches of soil. Let it cook for at least six weeks before going back and mixing it all together. You will notice that at least half the soil you removed remains and finding someplace for it is a real chore. My soil is 85% clay and silt. I “terra-formed” my entire yard with the excess soil, making higher levels with retaining walls. Without a doubt it was beautiful and I would now say it was a job for the young and fearless. Nevertheless once your new beds are planted that incredible soil you have made never needs to be disturbed again only top dressed with new layers of organic matter. In the 1800’s the iconic Gertrude Jekyll would have soil amended at an unbelievable depth of 16 feet!!! More than a century later her gardens are still thriving.

For me, now that I am older, containers offer the best of both worlds. They can be dumped out on a tarp, “re-fluffed” with new organic matter, perlite, and vermiculite if needed, re-nourished with organic fertilizer and returned to the container. Organic products from John and Bob’s ( and Gardens Alive ( restore nutrients, minerals, organisms, and all that yummy stuff. Comfrey makes good fertilizer too.

In closing I have a confession to make. I am a compost-direct gal. Whenever I prune anything I cut up the discards and drop them right into the garden. I do the same thing with kitchen vegetable refuse, just sprinkle it around. Sometimes I pull back the mulch and hide the discards under it, but not always. When I tour my garden I just mix it in as I go. There are plants that enhance compost making, whether mixed in a compost pile or sprinkled around the garden. They include yarrow, valerian, chamomile and borage.

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Responses to “Soil: The Goddess of the Garden”

  1. A wonderful post – and yes soil is the Goddess of the garden. I have struggled here with very heavy clay soil, and little of it sitting on bedrock. A mountain garden is challenging trying to just find the sunlight to grown one in, but grow I must! I have always used the wood chips in the bottom of my planters, but somehow missed the idea of screening to keep the soil from escaping, thank you for that tidbit that slipped past me. As for your cocktail of a mixture for container planting – you nailed it perfectly, again thank you. We are working slowly but steadily in building up beds so that we can stop the use of a tiller which we know is incorrect, but without raised beds it has been necessary. It was an interesting year last year as we did half and half of container and in ground gardening. With appropriate soil in containers our yield was much higher than our in ground was even with companion planting in both areas. We found that with container planting we were able to maximize on the much cherished sunlight by using our entire deck as a planting area. Thank you so much for these posts – even for us old time gardeners, I still learn so much from them. Please keep them coming.

    • I can well imagine how challenging your garden has been but I have absolutely no doubt that its gorgeous. Like the post implies, I love containers for all the reasons mentioned, most significantly the short- comings of age. Thank you, Janet.

  2. I’m really impressed together with your writing skills as smartly as with the structure to your blog. Is that this a paid topic or did you customize it yourself? Either way stay up the excellent quality writing, it’s uncommon to see
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  3. French Intensive is also commonly known as “Double Digging”.