Soil, not dirt

Dirt is the stuff under your fingernails; soil is where plants grow

Got sandy soil? Add compost. Got clayey soil? Add compost. Got soil…with some other problem? In all circumstances, add organic matter in the form of compost. (Photo by Seth Cottle on Unsplash)

ANGELINA CO., Texas — As sure as the foundation is crucial for a solid home, the foundation for a successful garden is good soil.

Dirt is the stuff under your fingernails and that which you sweep up after cleaning your floors. But soil is a rich, diverse, and living medium from which vegetation grows profusely and produces is abundantly.

Soil can also be built, developed, enhanced, and conserved.

Soil can be wasted, lost, deteriorated, and eroded.

Good soil can take a few simple seeds and feed a family.

How does one go about obtaining this soil? Doesn’t it just come with whatever plot of ground your house also resides upon? Not at all. Gardeners, specifically, can take whatever meager ground they currently have and build it up with the addition of organic matter.

Added organic matter for a gardener can be most any composted material. Go to any gardening center and you’ll find several products that have composted manures in them. Got to any bulk supplier of mulch and soil and you find blended products that may have sand, compost, and bark. These blends can be just right for some getting started with a brand-new bed, but after year one, just build the soil by adding more organic matter.

I’m asked from time to time if one should buy some good “topsoil.” I typically say no. Truly good topsoil is only the top few inches off any site. And chances are slim that you’d actually be getting the top few inches from another site.

And buying soil from somewhere else may also bring new weeds or pests to your landscape. Your site has enough weeds and pests of its own and doesn’t need to be comingled with more. Only if you need to fill a major depression or low-lying area in your landscape would I suggest the addition of someone else’s soil.

Instead, take whatever soil your site has and simply make it better. We make it better by purchasing composted products an adding it to the site. Compost such as mushroom manure can be bought in dump truck loads or by the bag.

Got sandy soil? Add compost. Got clayey soil? Add compost. Got soil…with some other problem? In all circumstances, add organic matter in the form of compost.

If you garden are large piece of ground and your budget simply doesn’t allow for the addition of compost or it is simply too much bulk to spread out, consider cover crops. Cover crops are the intentional planting of a crop that may will be incorporated into the ground after it has grown to certain stage to increase the amount of organic matter.

In the summer after all your spring garden is completed, consider planting a variety of southern peas. Southern peas, such as purple hull peas, can certainly provide you with more to eat, but will also put nitrogen into the soil as a legume and can be turned under after the crop is done.

In the cool season, plant a cover crop such as radishes, one of the many varieties of greens or Elbon rye. Radishes and greens (mustard, turnip, or others) can be broadcast over an area, and lightly covered with soil to create a lush vegetative cover. Later after harvesting what you need, the remnants can be incorporated into the soil, thus increasing organic matter.

Elbon rye (a grain much like wheat or oats) is an excellent trap crop for nematode infested sites. Only the Elbon variety of cereal rye lets the harmful root-knot nematodes in to infect its roots but traps them and not allow them back out to damage other crops.

Going a step further, if you still have oak leaves in some parts of your landscape (as I do), put them to use between rows as a pathway that will slowly decompose as the season progresses, allowing for nutrients and organic matter to work their way into the garden soil.

Let us look at our garden soil as more than just dirt. Your soil is something that can be improved and is being built over time. The use of cover crops at different points in the year, or the addition of compost, where feasible on smaller areas, will help you see a dramatic improvement in your garden’s health and productivity.

This Monday, January 17, the Angelina County Extension office will host an evening seminar Building Your Soil’s Health. The free seminar will start at 6:30 pm at the Extension office at 2201 S. Medford Dr, Lufkin, Texas. Attendees will learn how soil health affects productivity of your pastures, garden, hay meadows and landscape. Participants will learn about fundamental principles and applicable solutions for common soil problems will be given.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is

Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, national origin, genetic information or veteran status. The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating.

–Cary Sims, Extension Agent
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Angelina County

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