In recent years, the world has seen a boom in interest for self-sustainability and gardening, both for food and for a hobby. Regardless if it is from a desire to remove yourself from the grid or from a joy of playing in the dirt, gardening has experienced a resurgence with younger generations like no other. The process of starting a garden is not as simple as throwing some dirt down and tossing a handful of seeds over the surface, so we are putting together a bi-weekly guide with information to get started with gardening. If you’re not sure where to get started while you read through our tips and tricks, check out our Gardening in 2021 Guide for activities and tasks you can do each month to prepare for the warm season become the gardener you have always wanted to be!
Welcome to our first installment of Gardening for Beginners: All About Soil!
If you go to your local nursery or garden center, many of the bags of soil you find will be made up of loam. It's reliability and consistent results make it great for first-time gardeners. Loam is made up mostly of sand, silt, and a small amount of clay. It is ideal for a large variety of crops due to its great ability to hold onto the vital nutrients plants need to grow. Loam is also wonderful at retaining moisture while still letting excess water drain easily without taking any helpful organic matter or nutrients with it.
While we recommend this soil type for beginners because of its ease of use, we should warn you that there is upkeep required with loam each year. Organic matter like shredded leaves or compost are quickly depleted in loam, so it must be added it back in each season. A good rule of thumb with loam is to lay down a two to three-inch layer of your organic matter of choice before topping it with a few more inches of soil. This should last you and your plants of choice for the season!
Like the sand you are familiar with on beaches, this type of soil is very quick to drain and feels gritty to the touch. Certain types of plants and vegetables love growing in sand and believe it or not many root vegetables like carrots and potatoes can do well in this soil. Other crops such as corn, strawberries, and lettuce are grown in mostly sandy soil on commercial farms, so it is absolutely doable in a smaller setting.
Sand, while sometimes tricky to work with in your home garden, can work really well as an amendment instead! Because it releases moisture so quickly, it also loses its nutrients just as fast, making monthly fertilizing a necessity. Mix in some sandy soil to your loam for your root vegetables to give them better drainage and aeration to breathe.
Clay is the heaviest component in the loam mixture, and yes, it is what your favorite pottery is made of, too! This type of soil retains moisture the best, and because of this, it becomes the incredibly dense in garden beds. This attribute also causes clay-based soils to warm up slowly, as well as dry and crack in the Summer. A mixture made up mostly of clay should only be used by gardeners prepared to water often and fertilize just as frequently.
While many types of ornamental flowers do well in clay landscapes, the root structures of many other plants don't acclimate as positively. That being said, some plants like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cabbage can do their best work when their roots are anchored by soil mixtures high in clay. A strictly clay garden can be extremely difficult to work with, so consider adding clay to a ratio of 10-20% instead.
While it is not necessarily a type of soil, but a soil method, Soil Blocks are a way of creating dense, compressed rectangular blocks to start seeds. This practice has been around for centuries but regained popularity as a more sustainable and affordable alternative to plastic seed trays. Soil blocking allows the seedlings to root quicker and more easily after the transplanting process.
Soil Blocks are most commonly made with a nutrient-dense loam mixture, although it can include more of one component than another to suit the needs of the gardener or specific plants. Virtually any seed can be started in this way and it is especially wonderful for those seeds that usually exhibit shock in the transplanting process. This include flowers and fruit trees, too!
The first experience most gardeners have with soil additives is usually with Perlite, but while we're familiar with the small, soft white pebble-looking things, what actually is it? Actually, Perlite is a naturally occurring mineral formed as a type of Volcanic glass and is usually grey or black in color. Factories then take the glass, smash it, then heat it to extremely high temperatures until it pops like popcorn into the shape a texture commonly seen in garden centers today. Because it is a natural resource, keep in mind that it's a non-renewable resource that requires high amounts of resources to create. The heat treatment process also expels large amounts of energy and pollution, so we may eventually run out of it someday.
In the garden, it was discovered that this organic, non-toxic substance can help with optimizing the drainage of a soil when mixed in. It also has a completely neutral pH, so it won't interfere with the health of any plant it surrounds. Perlite is incredibly light in weight because of the tiny air pockets through its structure, so it increases the aeration of a soil, as well! Many people swear by adding perlite to every soil mixture that doesn't already contain it; some people even propagate plant cuttings in perlite instead of soil or water.
Peat Moss also can go by the name often called “Sphagnum Moss,” but as similar as these two names are, did you know these are two separate organisms? Here’s the thing: Sphagnum Moss is a moss that grows on the surface of the soil where it thrives on the dappled shade and high humidity. After a while, this moss dies and another layer of Sphagnum Moss grows on top of it; this happens repeatedly, the dead layers slowly compacting from the weight of the constant overgrowth; this can continue for hundreds or thousands of years eventually creating entire bogs. These layers develop high levels of tannins and acid, thus becoming Peat Moss!
Gardeners across the world mix Peat Moss into their usual soil mixtures to increase the acidity and moisture retention of their garden beds; this is wonderful for acid-loving plants like potatoes, watermelon, sweet potatoes, blackberries, and eggplants. This soil amendment can stick around in soil for several years, so it’s great to have a dedicated bed for this soil and acid-loving crops. It is worth nothing that while Peat Moss is technically a renewable resource, it can take thousands of years for the Earth to produce more. In addition to that, the harvesting of this moss can greatly disrupt the lives of the endangered species in its habitats.
As the name suggests, this soil matter is made from the husks of coconuts and is quickly becoming a preferred growing medium in commercial greenhouses for crops and decorative plants all around the globe! Coco Coir was discovered to be a wonderful planting medium actually by mistake while scientists were observing dust that came off coconut husks when the fibers were pulled from the fruit. After recognizing that this matter had similar properties to Peat Moss, research was done to see if Coco Coir could be a viable replacement for the controversial moss.
This organic, eco-friendly substance is a renewable resource, boasting dozens of fantastic benefits in a garden bed! Coco Coir is wonderful at retaining moisture, assisting in the composting process, and starts out inert and with a neutral pH balance – meaning you can easily tailor the nutrients in the soil through the addition of organic fertilizers. Because Coco Coir has become so popular, it is now produced in dedicated greenhouses and factories, making it easy to find at most plant shops and garden centers!
Vermiculite is a mineral is found in caves and the ground/in caves and is then mined, heated, and processed into tiny granules. The kind you can find in garden centers is small enough to be added to your favorite soil mixtures as increase aeration but not bulky enough to get in the way of healthy root growth. As a non-toxic mineral, Vermiculite is fantastic for starting seeds and neutralizing the pH of a garden bed.
This additive a wonderful alternative to many other chemical options for germination and soil conditioning because it will never mold, will never deteriorate or bring harmful substances into the soil, and is even light enough to use with indoor plants/gardens and container gardens. Fun fact: if you have root vegetables or flower bulbs you would like to save and overwinter, you can store them in vermiculite because it will soak up any excess moisture but won't allow whatever you are storing to accumulate mold or mildew!
Is there any gardening subject you have questions about or would like us to cover? Let us know in the comments or message us on our Contact Page. We post more articles every other week, so check back for more tips and tricks every month!