Let’s talk dirt(y)

Published 9:59 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2019

By Biff and Susan Andrews

It’s that time again for us amateur gardeners to rev up — whether flowers, veggies or root crops. The plants won’t grow if the soil is not right. Thus it is that at this time of year, we worry about our topsoil, loam, loess, compost, manure and lime — as well as our K, P, Fe, Ca, N, Mg, and so on. There’s also the moisture retention factor. How much sphagnum moss — also known as “peat” (not “Pete”) — have you put in? Avoid too much cow manure! It’s a stressful time of year.

Mind you, there are some novices who just build a raised bed and load it with that Wonder Dirt with the time release fertilizer in the green and yellow bag, but where’s the challenge in that?

Email newsletter signup

The old pros know just what to do. They put in two-thirds of a bag of 10-10-10, a scoop of lime, whatever compost they’ve accumulated over the winter, and till it 8 inches deep, and they’re good for another year. My best buddy makes sure to add all of his cat litter to the garden (minus the poop). He gets Roma tomato plants 8 feet high. And I’ve been to a progressive demonstration farm where the compost included the hosts’ “output.” Sorry! Gotta draw the line somewhere.

Many feed and seed stores or garden shops will do simple soil tests for you or sell you a do-it-yourself kit. This may help with lime and phosphorus, but it’s woefully inadequate for us nervous nellies who require perfectly balanced soil.

We purists get the REAL kit, follow the instructions on gathering samples to the letter, then seal and send it to THE Virginia Polytechnic University and State University — the oracle for all matters agricultural in this state. In a week or two you will receive a detailed “Soil Test Report.”

They will tell you how much P, K, Ca, Mg, Zn, Mn, Cu, Fe, B, and S. Salts you have and whether the readings are sufficient, low, high or very high.

Then they will give you a table of results on your soil pH, your Buffer index (whatever that is), CEC (ditto), acidity, Base sat., Ca sat., Mg sat., K sat., and how much organic matter you’ve got.

They will then analyze your needs, depending on whether you’re growing flowers, vegetables, root crops, and so on. Most importantly, they will recommend how much lime and fertilizer to add — with precise amounts prescribed. They will then go on to recommend which crops might benefit from side dressings (not Italian or French or Ranch) in a month or two.

These people are very sincere, very earnest, very professional. They do not mention used cat litter or other “output” — feline or human — as a source of compost. Usually they recommend about two thirds of a bag of 10-10-10 and a scoop of lime, tilled in to a depth of 8 inches or so.

Of course, in our case, none of this makes any difference as we don’t get even three hours of sunshine a day under our huge trees. Hence our 3-foot Roma tomatoes rather than 8-footers. But think of how small they’d be with bad soil.

At any rate, gardeners, get busy soil testing, soil improving, fertilizing, composting — and starting your seedlings indoors — another entire column. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in “growing your own,” and there are always farmers’ markets for backup.

But no Wonder Dirt — that’s cheating!


Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.