Feb 14


February 7: Dirt and soil, soil and dirt; often used interchangeably when describing outdoor gardening activities. Adults work the soil, children to go play in the dirt; gardeners prepare the soil for planting and get dirt on our hands while doing it. Just what is it?

The dictionary only slightly clarifies the difference: Dirt – Earth or soil, Soil – A particular kind of earth. So, all soil is dirt, but not all dirt is soil. Is this just semantics? Maybe it is, if you are not gardener; but it is a very important difference to those of us who are. Especially if we are starting plants from seed, and by the way now is the time to start.

Soil is finely ground up rock; a combination of sand, silt and clay. They contain earth metals, the elements that we refer to as nutrients needed to support healthy plant growth. Soil does not contain any organic matter like decomposed plants and alive/dead micro-organisms, bugs and insects.

Over millions of years organic matter accumulated on and became incorporated into the top layer of soil an area which is now commonly referred to as Top Soil. Good stuff out in the garden beds, but deadly for starting seeds indoors.

Seeds and seedlings started indoors in fresh topsoil or compost are susceptible to fungal illnesses that are collectively referred to as damping off disease. Damping off disease is not a concern when direct sowing into the garden or transplanting after hardening off. The higher indoor temperatures just give the fungi an advantage that the seedlings cannot overcome.

Prior to the industrial age, when most families farmed to sustain themselves, seedling loss was compensated for by over planting. As the population increased and farming became a business, farmers had to improve their germination rates. They had been sterilizing the top soil by cooking it, a practice still used today by organic gardeners; though I would caution that if you try this, you use an old lasagna pan and the outdoor grill. The problem became one of scale; you need a lot more sterilized soil to start 2,000 tomato plants than you need for 20.

At the beginning of the last century, farmers began experimenting with soil-less mixes; growing mediums that did not contain sand, silt or clay. They evaluated composted materials and peat; which were good for retaining moisture, but fell short in other areas. In addition to providing the micro nutrients, the irregular shape of the sand silt and clay create voids for air to move around. So a soil-less mix had to satisfy all requirements; moisture retention, nutrients and air.

The needs were addressed by incorporating pearlite or vermiculite (both nature provided organic materials) to create air pockets and absorb moisture, and water soluble fertilizer for nutrients. In today’s soil-less mixes, or Potting Soil, you might find peat, compost, coconut coir pith, white foam pellets, pearlite, vermiculite, water soluble and slow release fertilizer.

So, since a Potting Soil does not contain soil why don’t they just call it dirt? Well, would you pay $10 for a bag of dirt?

July 26, 2012, Compost What? It is becoming an annual ritual; time to discuss composting again. I know, I know; you don’t want to do it, you don’t know how to do it, you shouldn’t be doing it, your neighbor shouldn’t be doing it, the Town shouldn’t be doing it. My response is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and totally wrong.

During garden lectures I have experienced trowel totting organic gardeners who readily spoke up in class, offering all kinds of suggestions to save the planet and grow plants organically. When the subject turned to composting, they went silent.

I understand that there are gardening activities people just don’t want to do; heck if grass grew to an even four inches high and didn’t go to seed I would be one happy guy. Throwing yard waste onto a pile does not require a lot of effort, so why do people avoid having one.

I believe part of the problem is that composting proponents are always debating the subject from a defensive position; debunking urban myths head on rather then bending, weaving and bobbing them into submission. For example, instead of just saying:

You can compost cooked foods, how about; I compost all of my kitchen scraps; fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells (brown and white), paper napkins, coffee grounds and filter, teabags, even cooked food.

You can compost meat products, how about; meats and fats are excellent compostable material, if you choose to compost them spread them throughout the pile and work them in; that will minimize any adverse odors and reduce the possibility of receiving unwanted visitors.

You can compost diseased plant matter, how about; our yard contains microbial life forms, the ratio of good to bad is 30,000:1. The compost pile is a great equalizer, a place for the good guys to bring the bad guys back down to a controllable level.

Don’t compost weeds, how about; plants that have gone to seed, flowers, vegetables and weeds, can be composted. Some of the seed may survive the decomposition process but should not be a problem when incorporated into your planting beds.

Compost piles are not ugly, how about; compost bins can be a focal point in the landscape, surrounded by perennials or placed inconspicuously beside a row of raspberries it identifies the gardener as someone who cares about the environment.

When we decided to stop maintaining an artificial garden many years ago, we went through three years of serious pest and disease problems. All of that changed when the amount of organic matter; cow manure, peat moss, and COMPOST worked into the soil reached the point where the plants received enough water and nutrients to grow strong enough to take care of themselves.

Yes, eliminating pesticides increased the insect population, but it also brought back the birds that patrol the yard and eat the insects. None of that would have happened if we did not take advantage of the organic matter produced in the compost pile.

So before placing the barrel of yard waste on the curb for pick-up, consider starting a compost pile.


The Engineer’s brain is clearly wired differently than those of normal humans. Our mouths open, the words come out, and people stare at us as if we were speaking a foreign language. Pick a subject, any subject, world peace; we will immediately identify a technical solution, crunch numbers, tell you how to achieve it and provide a roadmap to get there. That’s just us. As some of you have already pointed out about my other posts, that same logic appears to apply to gardening.

I screened one of my compost bins last spring and harvested about 170 gallons of the best soil amendment you can use on your planting beds.

Many years ago I made the decision to cold compost, just tossing organic matter on top of the pile in my homemade 4x4x3-foot high bin and letting nature take its course. I sift the compost through a ½-inch screen, also homemade, twice a year and I am good to go.

So as I was filling 5-gallon buckets with the sifted compost did my thoughts go to mulching the tomato plants, top dressing the containers, or turning it into the squash beds? Nope, I was already over how much time and effort I saved by cold composting versus the almost daily exercise of tossing and turning necessary for hot composting. Or how handy I was making my own bins and screen. What I wanted to know was how much money was I saving by not purchasing processed organic matter.

Here is the equivalency roadmap; 1 cubic foot equals 1,728 cubic inches. 1-gallon equals 231 cubic inches. 1 cubic foot (1,728) divided by 1 gallon (231) equals 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot. I harvested 170 gallons of compost.

Sphagnum peat moss is my first purchase choice soil amendment; it sells for about 40¢ a gallon, so I saved $68! Now sphagnum peat is a great amendment and it absorbs and retains ridiculous amounts of water. The down side is that it provides minimal nutrients, has zero biological activity, and the pH is in the happy blueberry range of 3.0 to 4.0; way too low for most plants. So I saved a couple more dollars by not purchasing fertilizer and lime to augment the peat.

Cow manure is closer to compost; it has a neutral pH, contains nutrients, and has good water retention. At an average price of 50¢ per gallon, I saved $85.

Then there is premium top soil; prepackaged with sphagnum peat, both granular and slow release fertilizer, and other stuff; selling at $1.87 per gallon (but consider the time you save not having to mix all these things yourself), my savings $318, Jackpot!!!

Forget the math for a second. Compost, peat and manures all have their advantages and should be incorporated into our garden beds. I store my dahlias over winter in peat and turn it into the soil before I plant the tender bulbs in the spring. I mix top soil with peat and compost for my container plantings. The compost is mostly reserved for the vegetable garden, and I still augment it with a general purpose fertilizer.

The thing I like about compost is that it is alive with the micro-organisms, fungus and bacteria needed to help plant roots multiply and absorb water, and nutrients needed to support plant growth; kind of like a plant pro-biotic. When I incorporate compost into the planting beds, I know that I do not have to be as diligent about checking soil condition and moisture as I would have to be if I used processed material.

The best part about using compost is that I know and control what organic matter gets tossed into the pile. Wait, that’s the second best part; the best part is that it is free.

Engineers, you’ve got to love us. Hey, did I mention that I have two compost bins? Now let’s see, 340 gallons of compost at…

Where can I purchase composting worms? This question got me thinking so I did some hands-on research. I dug several holes around the yard and in my compost piles, checking the qualifications of every worm I found. Not one of them could produce documentation that they were certified to work in my garden; very disappointing.

Now I am wondering; are the fishing worms sold at bait shops are certified? And what about bookworms, are they really reading?

Seriously, I did a web search and identified several businesses that raise and sell worms; you can purchase as few as 1,000 for $19.95 plus shipping. You can buy night crawlers, red and brown worms; brown, like the ones you already have in your yard. So then why do you need to buy more worms?

These worms are raised for the vermiculture industry. They are placed in a raised bed and covered with animal dung and/or vegetative waste. They eat 24/7, their castings drop out the bottom of the beds, are bagged and sold as vermicompost. High volume and big bucks!

What is important here is that the worms are captive and cannot leave the beds, even when the food supply slows down. Your compost operation is different; the bin probably sits on the ground. What do you think 1,000 worms are going to do when the food supply runs low, and during the winter? That’s right; they are going south and moving out, where you already have worms.

Save your money and cultivate the free worms in your yard now. To paraphrase a popular commercial; “Free worms are happy worms and happy worms have better castings.

Are coffee rounds good to compost? Yes, absolutely. Any plant material, including coffee, can be composted. Nationally we consume enough coffee to support a coffee ground aftermarket. It has been used or evaluated for animal feed, bio-fuels, additives to building materials, and for its’ health benefits as an antioxidant, and the ability to treat waste water.

Some research suggests coffee may be too acidic, and only recommend using it as a mulch around plants like rhododendrons and azalea. There is also discussion about coffee grounds disrupting the symbiotic relationship between micro-organisms and feeder roots.

Composting materials is like blending your own coffee, where you can add flavor or minimize bitterness according to your taste. In the compost pile, materials on opposite ends of the pH scale are neutralized. Likewise, high concentrations of any one type of material are diluted as you turn the pile.

So go ahead and compost the grounds.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject by request.


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