So My Soil Is Crap. Thank God.

By September 17, 2011 My Garden 6 Comments

Just went to a great little seminar on edible landscaping at Niche Gardens down the road, and was generally pleased. First of all, I have apparently absorbed more information from all that reading about permaculture and sustainable gardening than I realized.

Secondly, my soil is crap.

“But Ursula!” you say. “That is a BAD thing!”

Yes, it’s a terrible thing, very awful. But it’s a problem throughout the Piedmont, which has been under intense cultivation for over 300 years and is frankly exhausted, and then for a lot of us, whatever pathetic soil remained was scraped off when the lot was leveled. So basically what I’ve got is dreadful heavy clay subsoil (also badly abused), topped by the sad sifting of dirt the developer threw down to take the grass seed.

And this is terrible and requires a lot of help, but it is also wonderful because it means I’m not a terrible gardener.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m the rankest of rank amateurs, I never dig the hole deep enough or wide enough or amended enough and I forget to prune for six months and then go out in a fit of madness and leave the garden looking like a slasher flick. Dead-heading, so far as I am concerned, was something they did in the French Revolution.

Still, that I have managed to get things growing even as well as they are is pretty good. The prairie planting is depressingly straggly, the chokecherry a grim survivor of a nearly dead zone, but maybe next year.

I had known all along that my particular lot was dreadful, because of the scraping and all of that, but I hadn’t realized that even after the scraping, gardeners in the Piedmont are working uphill against centuries of abuse. Soil fertility takes a really long time to replenish on its own. Hundreds of years is not out of the question. And so while nobody would cheer for horrible soil, the fact that it’s not just ME, and professionals are using words like “heinous” and “really really bad” to describe the general state of dirt around here makes me feel a lot better.

It’s like going to a support group for anything—it sucks, but at least you realize that you’re not alone.

So what is the solution to this miserable wreckage of soil that we are left with?

Well, mulch. Mulch cures a whole lot of ills, particularly hardwood mulch and leaf mulch, which both break down into soil pretty quickly and turn into dirt and after a few seasons of relentless mulching, the wretched clay underneath is starting to get broken up by worms and turned into something a little more suited to gardening than pottery. And bone meal, since our soil is nearly denuded of phosphates. And organic matter, because that’s what the soil misses the most, so compost and manure, manure and compost, yea verily, world without end.

Except for the bone meal (which I am very glad to know about!) I have already been doing this for some time, so things are getting better in my garden. The bed I created out of manga and mulch and manure has been in place for just under a full year, and it’s amazing to dig down into it—while you can certainly tell where the bit I put in ends and the clay begins, the clay is much softer and damper and more easily dug than before. You can imagine roots sinking into this and getting purchase. And when the roots get in, they pull minerals up from the clay and everybody is much happier.

So I came away from the seminar feeling much happier, with recommendations for a few fruit trees that do well here and are not labor-intensive. Persimmon and pie cherry might be worth trying. (I’ve already got a fig and elderberries and raspberry and native plum and whatnot.) The plants that require major work, like apples and peaches, are sort of like cows, as far as I’m concerned—I’ll buy at the farmer’s market, but I’m not willing to put in anything like the labor involved, or give up the space.

It is times like this when I walk in and inform Kevin that we will be dying in this house, because I cannot bear the notion of laboring over dirt for years, putting in fruit trees and just getting them to the point of fruiting and then having to move. Kevin shrugs and says that this is pretty much what he planned to do, barring incident and our knees giving out to the point where we can’t climb stairs.

Still, no matter what happens, even if we moved in a year and somebody came in with no interest whatsoever in gardening and razed the whole place to the soil-line, I will have fixed some of this dirt, goddamnit. This will be good dirt. This will be dirt that makes earthworms compose tiny odes and sonnets and recite them to each other eyelessly under the earth. This dirt will rock.

And y’know, I’m starting to think that’s a pretty important thing.


  • At home (WV), I believe we put a pickup truck load of manure/compost in the garden every spring, then piled all the brush and weeds on top of it and built a bonfire in the fall. After several years, it happily grew corn, beans and nightshades, and produced extremely stunted carrots. You may not be in bonfire-legal country, of course.

    Mulberries seem to do okay in Appalachian clay soil.

  • Digger says:

    I read/heard that coffee grounds and fall leaves make The Best Compost (adding the other stuff is ok, but these are KEY). Do you have friends at the coffee shop that would save grounds for you for a week?

  • Indie says:

    I am right there with you with the bad dirt! I usually dig with a pickaxe in my compressed clay. I think there’s nothing to it but getting a load of compost delivered this fall and go to town with a borrowed tiller.
    ps. Your art is awesome!

  • FiP says:

    Coffee ground are reasonable mulch but make the soil more acidic than clay already is. On the plus side, you should be able to grow blueberries and azaleas (should you be bothered with pretties like the latter).

    We have clay AND rocks. When you put a mattock into the ground, it goes “BOINGggggggg” all through one’s arms and it hurteth yea verily.

    That’s why I got chooks (chickens for the non-Aussies). Chooks + straw = soil. Because they dig AND poo AND scratch and leave them in one place long enough – ie, years – and clay turns into something that can be dug, mostly because the chooks have been relentlessly digging it for years.

    Having fresh eggs is just a handy side-effect 🙂

    After four years, I have _earthworms_. And my glee at this cannot possibly be overstated.

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