Nfld. & Labrador

Soil good: Get digging on getting the best possible soil for your garden

This is the year of the garden. Sure, it's also the year of COVID-19, but as Andie Bulman writes, people are turning to their gardens like never before. Here's how to make the most of your soil.
Contributor Andie Bulman says seed companies are sold out, garden centres across the country are seeing an uptick in sales, and local horticulturists have been inundated with customers and questions. (Alex Wilke/Submitted by Andie Bulman)

This is the year of the garden.

Oh sure, 2020 will probably be dubbed 'the year of the global pandemic' — but mine is a positive nomenclature and people seem to be gardening in record numbers this spring.

Seed companies are sold out, garden centres across the country are seeing an uptick in sales, and local horticulturists have been inundated with customers and questions.

This makes perfect sense to me. After all, what's better than digging in the garden? You literally eat the fruits of your labour.

If you're new to gardening, this whole world can feel a little overwhelming — there's so much to know. A few weeks back, I wrote a piece about starting seedlings indoors. Today I want to talk about feeding and caring for soil in raised beds.

Although they're sometimes disparaged online, there are plenty of reasons to garden in raised beds.

For one, the soil in most of this province is littered with rocks. Moreover, the ground in many cities is contaminated with lead and yard pesticides and other nasty things that have leached beneath the surface. Raised beds combat this, and also deter pests. Stooping is minimized, and most important, you get to select and dictate the type of soil you use.

There are usually four types of soil you can buy from a garden centre.

To get the most out of any organic fertilizer, keep in mind how plants feed and how fertilizers act in the soil. (Lee Reich via Associated Press)

Garden soil: Think of this as enriched all-purpose flour. This soil will work well in most raised gardens and should also contain additives, like fertilizer or other plant foods, which will help things sprout nicely. Just be careful to read the label because some types contain synthetic fertilizers — good for flowers, but not carrots. Remember: anything in your dirt ends up in your food.

Topsoil: It's all in the name. Topsoil is literally soil that has been scraped from the top of the ground. Topsoil usually doesn't contain additives, so you have to feed it. I consider this to be a great base. I usually buy a few bags of topsoil, then mix in kelp and compost.

Potting soil: Lighter and looser than garden soil, it also contains little white balls throughout the bag. These are called "perlites" and they help aerate the soil. Sometimes potting mix has the word "vermiculite" printed in bold letters on the bag. This is an additive that helps the soil retain nutrients and holds in moisture. I like to grab a bag of potting soil for my containers and planters.

Triple mix: For a long time, this stuff was considered the gold star of vegetable gardens. Triple mix usually includes topsoil, peat moss, and compost or manure. The peat moss helps to lock in moisture, and the manure feeds the soil and increases plant growth. I used to use triple mix, but peat moss is not a sustainable resource, so I don't buy it anymore. A horticulturist friend suggested using coco coir soil instead of peat.

Bulman enriches the soil in her St. John's garden in preparation for snow peas, radishes, kale and spinach. (Alex Willke/Submitted by Andie Bulman)

Feeding and caring for your soil

When you garden in the same space and same soil each year, the plants suck up nutrients. Eventually, if you don't feed your soil, your vegetables will lack flavour and nutrition.

Soil isn't a dry, dead thing. It's teeming with life: worms, bugs, microbes, and even fungi. These helpers release nutrients into the soil when they decompose organic matter. They burrow, creating networks of tunnels, and when they move, their pathways aerate and loosen the soil. When you feed your soil, you're keeping all the biodiversity in your dirt alive and well.

One of the most essential ingredients for healthy soil is compost, which simply means decaying organic materials. Sometimes people confuse compost with fertilizer, but there is an important distinction: fertilizers feed plants while compost actually feeds and enriches the soil.

If you have a nice big yard, picking a corner to build a compost pile in is a great idea, but you can compost in a small space too. Composting has become trendy, and there are surprisingly stylish composters available for purchase that will look great in a small yard. Simply follow the instructions and you'll have compost in no time.

If you don't want to try composting just yet, you can buy from farms, plant nurseries, garden centres and grocery stores.  (Craig Chivers/CBC)

For those building a compost pile, here's what goes in the mix.

Ashes: Firepit or woodstove ashes contain lime. This helps balance the pH of your compost.

Eggshells: There is so much calcium in eggshells. Crunch them up and let them decay, but don't worry if you can still see them.

Coffee grounds: Old grounds add acidity to the compost.

Leaves: Unlike most people, I get frustrated when neighbours rake their leaves and then bag them up. That's free organic decay! Leaves are great for your soil, so if you can't stand them in your yard, dump them on your compost pile.

Food scraps: Apple peels and cores, carrot peels — basically anything fruit or veggie-based — add nutrients to your compost. Corn cobs aren't something that will break down, though.

Hair: OK, admittedly this seems pretty gross, but hair (both human and pet) is rich in nitrogen. Lots of folks put hair into their compost piles and see excellent results.

Manure: Manure contains so many nutrients for plants. There's a lot to dig into here — whole books have been written on manure, so I'm just going to cover some basics. I like to buy bagged manure from a garden centre because it's often sterilized. E. coli poisoning is not a good look.

Compost, kelp, some good bagged soil from one of the local garden centres, and a little fertilizer will help maintain good soil health in your raised beds.

There's nothing wrong with using raw manure, though. In time, it will enrich the soil and help it teem with life. You can buy manure from farmers. Pro tip: look to the back of the pile; that's where the oldest manure lives. If you do buy raw manure, make sure it sits in your compost pile for at least a year before you use it. Sometimes folks will put dog or cat waste into manure piles, but that's a hard no for compost you plan to grow vegetables with (it's swarming with pathogens), but you could put it into compost for flower beds.

Worms: If you'd rather not dig them up, head to a fishing supply store. These little animals are crucial to a healthy compost pile.

If you're planning to make your own compost heap, remember to turn it over now and then with a shovel. Also, keep your dog away from the heap. My hound has rolled around in compost and it's a special kind of nightmare I wouldn't wish on anyone.

When it comes to mixing compost into your soil, you don't need to get too scientific. Make sure the pile contains all the right ingredients, let it age, and then mix the compost into your bed as you see fit. You really can't use too much compost! Toss it around with your topsoil.

Fertilizer and kelp

Now you can follow these next steps.

Kelp: I recently added kelp to my gardening bed after a neighbour picked some up for me. I spread it on my plot and now I'm letting all the goodness leak into the topsoil. I've been advised to let it sit on top of my soil for a week or two, and then stir and distribute it throughout. Some folks dry it out over the summer and then use it the following spring. Kelp adds selenium, which doesn't occur naturally in Newfoundland dirt, to the soil. If you trek out to a beach to grab kelp for your beds, make sure the beach is clean, you're allowed to remove kelp, and try not to disturb the local ecosystem any more than you have to. Best not to trek into the water and pull it out.

Fertilizer: Before you buy fertilizer, invest in a soil testing kit, or send a sample of your soil to the Provincial Soil, Plant and Feed Lab on Brookfield Road. Soil testing is important because different areas lack different nutrients, and fertilizer that works for one garden might not suit others. You don't want to add too much nitrogen, for example, and you won't know how much you need before testing your soil. If you're unsure about how to read or understand your soil test results, take them into one of the local garden centres. There, they'll interpret the results and let you know what kind of fertilizer you'll need.

Compost, kelp, some good bagged soil from one of the local garden centres, and a little fertilizer will help maintain good soil health in your raised beds. If you're looking for more information about soil, I found a free online local web seminar hosted by Tom Loader and the C.B.S. Community Gardens to be invaluable! There is a lot of helpful and useful information out there. 

Happy digging.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andie Bulman

Freelance contributor

Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's. She is the author of the book Salt Beef Buckets: A Love Story and writes frequently for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.