A Garden in Spite of Itself, Part 1: Dirt

Our dirt

Tomorrow I’m going to buy dirt. I’m trying to make a garden. Dirt seems to be a prerequisite. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t I have enough dirt already? The ground is kind of, you know, made of dirt and all. You’d think that would do.

But our garden is still a baby, and I’m learning as I go along. Last year, I decided to double the size of the garden which extended it into a valley in the yard. When it rains, the valley becomes a mini-river running from the driveway across the yard to the ditch that marks the western boundary of our property. So I was going to have to buy dirt to raise the bed and reroute the river. That’s when my education began.

Buying dirt wasn’t as simple as I imagined. After some examination of the relevant products at Home Depot, I made these determinations: There were at least three major types of dirt and many brands of each ranging in price from 98 cents for 40 pounds of “topsoil” (looks like orange dust with rocks in it) to almost $14 for 2.5 cubic feet of Miracle Gro “potting mix” (apparently the super food of the botanical world). I settled on one of the cheapest “gardening soils” and loaded up my cart.

When I was done adding dirt, the garden bed was high and safe from flooding. But at some point in the last year, it sank like a grave. A really big grave. So we need more dirt. And peat moss. Last year, after some reading, I learned that adding peat to soil that had a lot of clay made it hold water in a way that made it more available to plant roots. That seemed like a pretty slick trick for a humble moss, but who am I to doubt accepted gardening wisdom? I bought the peat and tilled it into the garden with the new dirt.

My tiller

I should mention here that our tiller is kind of a basic model. It is not gas-powered. It has no motor. It is basically a big fork with twisty tines and a handle on the end. It is operated by plunging it with some force into the ground, grasping the handle, and twisting. This process can be viewed as an invigorating workout or as an exercise in pain, depending on your perspective. So I used the big fork to mix the peat and new dirt into the garden. The old dirt is very sticky and clumpy so it was sort of like mixing up a really big batch of cookie dough. Add the butter. Stir. Add the flour. Getting really hard to stir now. Add the manure. (Sorry. I dropped the metaphor a little abruptly there.)

I didn’t actually add the manure. Apparently, proper usage of animal poo is also more complicated than it might seem. There are issues to consider involving the source of the poo, its age and how it was stored. Who knew? Bottom line is, when you add poo to the soil, it’s best to let it “age” before planting. This has something to do with nitrogen in the poo and nitrogen-loving microbes in the soil that sometimes get over-excited by fresh poo and use it up so quickly the plants can’t get at it. Or something like that. Since it was already mid-spring, I didn’t have time to wait for the manure to mature properly. So I skipped the poo.

I went through all this prep work because I needed the garden bed to be a particularly friendly place for plants, resistant to floods and full of rich yummy freshly-turned soil. I needed the plants to have every advantage I could give them at the start, because after that, they were going to have to rely on me. And after a lifetime record of killing all green, leafy things in my care, that didn’t bode well for the garden’s future inhabitants.

Stay tuned. Part 2 coming soon.

Leave a comment


  1. Have to work and nuture the dirt in order to get the bounty in the garden – Good Luck!!!

  2. I’m equally dirt-dumb, I’m afraid. I’m so dirt-dumb it’s embarrassing. Here I thought all dirt was the same. Damn dirt variants make me feel like I have a garden fork in my eye.
    Your garden variety dirt-dumby,

    • I love it when you play with words, Kathy! The dirt made me feel pretty dumb at first too, but I think I’m starting to get a handle on it.

  3. I didn’t know dirt could be so confusing till last year. Too many different kinds. Still not too experienced in that area, but I’m learning. We’ve used manure from the chicken/goat house when we would clean it out each spring. Just been careful not to put it fresh around plants as too much nitrogen can burn them up, but have never had a problem using it to fertilize our fruit trees though and will also put the fall cleaning out in the garden(no plants) to sit till it gets tilled up in the spring.

    • Wow. Chickens, goats, fruit trees. Any other animals? What kind of fruit trees? It also sounds like you have a great place. And like you know your dirt (and poo) better than I do. I’m going to try to remember to spread manure on the vegetable garden bed this fall so it can “age” over the winter.

      • Only other animals are 1 guinea and our little indoor dog, a jack russell named Savanna. We have apple, peach, pear(hard cooking ones and soft ones), and crabapple trees. Thanks, we enjoy it, but it’s been a work in progress for about 15 years. 🙂

  4. Fork in My Eye. Gardens make good company. It is all worth it buying the dirt and nurturing it. Can’t wait to see the full product with flowers blossoming and bees hunting for nectar. Good luck with it!

  5. Isn’t learning a whole new skill set exciting? I, too, kill everything green and leafy. So, I watch my friends tend their gardens and admire from afar. Like I’ll do with your handiwork. Much luck.

    • It is fun trying to learn new things. It’s a shame I don’t do that very often anymore. We had some success last year so I’m hopeful for this year. Going to be trying to grow some new vegetables too. That should be interesting.


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