Gardening and home cooking have a lot in common, creating sustenance and comfort by combining basic ingredients using simple techniques.
Fertilizers are like salt and pepper; a little bit goes a long way. And adding stuff to your soil is like crumbling crackers into soup or chili.
Pretty much everyone knows that plain dirt doesn’t work for potted plants and raised beds because it takes time for water to soak in and then stays too wet for roots to breathe. And when it finally dries out, it’s hard as a brick. So, most folks till or dig other stuff into it to help with drainage and aeration, and to help water soak in more easily and then not dry out too fast.
How much to add is always a big question, which is where my crackers and chili simile comes in. If you add less than a handful of crackers, you can’t tell you stirred in any at all, while more than two handfuls turns the chili into mush. Similarly, a 2-to-4-inch layer of organic matter such as bark, compost, cheap potting soil, or the like to a shovel’s depth of dirt is just about the same ratio as the one or two handfuls of crackers in chili.
Along those lines, this past week, while helping a community group with a new raised bed garden, and preparing several big pots for planting pepper plants and other veggies in my own garden, I have felt like an old-time alchemist turning raw ingredients into garden gold.
My potting soil recipe, honed over decades of both commercial plant production and home gardening, is simple. The best ones on the market are expensive, so I make my own. I take cheap potting soil and add either crunchy white perlite or chipped bark mulch to it to help water soak in quickly and allow air to get down to the bottom for deeper, stronger roots with less chance of root diseases.
Raised beds are a bit different. Incidentally, those constructed on top of the ground or on a drive or patio, or those that have weed barrier cloth put underneath, aren’t really raised beds. They are just big, relatively shallow containers. Because they can dry out very quickly, I always add some real topsoil to my planting mix, to firm it up and hold water and nutrients longer. I use about one part real dirt to three or four parts of potting mix, which seems about right to me.
My experience from decades of raised bed gardening has shown me that a partly-sunk, partly-raised approach is best. Helps them drain better in wet weather so plants can grow deeper roots into cool soil during the heat and drought of summer, without needing to be watered as often as above-ground beds.
So, for raised beds built over the lawn I dig the existing dirt underneath a shovel or so deep, turning the grass sod upside down (becomes organic matter later), then adding more topsoil to fill it up a bit more. Then I blend in bark, compost, manure or bark. Sometimes a bit of all those.
Once I am done mixing and lightly packing it down, I mulch with bark, which keeps the soil cool and moist in the summer, reduces weeds, and can be turned into the soil the next time I plant to add extra organic matter. I just pull back the mulch when planting.
All this is a lot of trouble, but, done right the first time, it’s pure magic from then on. Like tucking into a good bowl of chili and crackers.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of “The Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.